The Story of Coal

The story of coal begins a very long time ago with plants. Forests of pine and fir trees and beautiful lacy ferns and moss grew thickly over parts of our world soaking up the sunshine. Some would die and others would grow in their place, and the cycle would repeat, building up layers of dead plants. At some point they were covered by water and sand and dirt were laid down on top of them by the water. Water is heavy and it pressed everything down. The water also kept air from getting to the plants so they didn’t turn back into soil the way plants usually do when they die. Instead the dirt above and the soil beneath were squeezed down until they turned into rock leaving pictures of fern leaves, and tree trunks in the rock above, and fossil roots in the soil below. This is why coal is called a fossil fuel. We all know that rocks don’t burn. Sometimes we put them around a fire outside for that very reason. But you know that plants like trees do burn. And all those plants pressed down by the weight of rock above, and baked by the heat that comes from the centre of the earth, during many, many years turned into something that looks like black hard rock, yet it burns very well and gives off all the heat those plants stored up as sunshine all those many years ago.

There are four stages of coal and they are different depending on the amount of time, pressure and heat they have been subjected to. Peat is the first stage of coal. It only takes a few hundred years to form. It is layers of dead moss and bog plants, and contains a lot of moisture. It must be dried out before it will burn and then it gives off a lot of smoke and leaves a lot of ash. Lignite has a brown, woody texture. It is crumbly and very soft. It gives off little smoke, and is good for making briquettes. Bitumous is the kind of coal that is most often found in Nova Scotia. It is black, streaky and breaks easily. It still contains some of the plant oils and therefore gives off smoke when it is burned. It is the most commonly used coal as it burns well and produces a lot of heat. Anthracite is the most valuable form of coal. It is very hard and black and is an excellent fuel which is smokeless and leaves very little residue. However, it is found deep under the ground and is expensive to mine. Coke is made by taking bitumous coal and baking it until all the oil is removed leaving pure carbon which burns well.

There is coal in other places in Canada: the western plains and the foothills of the Rocky mountains. The coal in Nova Scotia is mostly under the ocean and is reached by underground tunnels. However, most of the coal mines in Canada are surface mines. Surface mines reach the coal by stripping off the top layers of soil and rock until they reach the coal underneath. In Canada, when the coal has been removed, the mining companies are required to make the land look the same as it did before it was mined.

PROJECT: Remembering that coal comes from dead plants including ferns, find some samples of ferns or moss that grow near you. Notice what the soil was like where you found them. What else was growing nearby?



Come and Visit Nova Scotia

Halifax SkylineThis small and beautiful province is my family’s home at the moment. It is almost an island — connected to the mainland of Canada by a small, low piece of land called the Chignecto Ithsmus.

The biggest city is Halifax, built along one side of a natural harbour with the city of Dartmouth sprawling along the other side. The harbour stays ice-free right through the winter for all those big ocean-going vessels.

The north part of the province is the island of Cape Breton, connected to the rest of Nova Scotia by a man-made causeway. It is called “the highlands” for good reason as it is part of the Apalachian Mountain range — worn down and covered with forest. The highest point is Barren Mountain at 532 metres. It is a breathtaking place to visit in the fall.

Travelling along the coastline of the mainland brings you close to many fishing villages, colourful and haphazard, some big like Lunenberg and some small like Peggy’s Cove. The coastline changes randomly from steep cliffs to rocky beaches, pebbly beaches, sandy beaches, muddy beaches, etc.

The western coast which faces New Brunswick is unique in that it is home to the highest tides in the world — the Bay of Fundy. Depending on the tide, the boats may be floating alongside the dock, or resting on the bottom of the ocean far below the dock. A recent innovation to celebrate this is the “Not Since Moses” Run, where the running takes place on the muddy bottom of the sea.

White sand beaches of Nova Scotia

beachThe Maritimes are pretty much the only place you can swim in the ocean in the summer without a wetsuit. Today the ocean was 17 degrees Celsius — a little cool, but warm enough to stay in for a while on a hot day. It gets into the twenties as summer goes on. And then there is all that white sand to play in, and waves to splash in. Perfect!

Atlantic Puffins

Atlantic Puffin by Andreas Trepte

There’s not too many birds that are cuter than a puffin.

During breeding season, which starts sometime around late April, puffins return to their nesting sites after a winter spent out at sea. Their nesting sites are all on the grassy slopes or near the clifftops of islands. This provides them with a reliable food supply for feeding their young, as small fish are usually abundant in coastal waters. It also provides them with safety as an island or cliff is often inaccessible to mammal predators.

Puffins are monogamous which means they only breed with one another during the breeding season and sometimes stay with the same mate for life. The male makes a burrow in sod or beneath rocks three feet deep ending in a small chamber which they line with grass and feathers. They only lay one egg and then take turns incubating it for several weeks. Once it hatches, they take turns feeding it for another few weeks until it is able to take care of itself. Then they abandon it and head out to sea.

Puffins eat small fish, squid, marine worms and crustaceans. They dive from the surface into schools of fish sometimes going as deep as 200 feet and stay under for up to 30 seconds. Their wings become flippers and their feet are the rudders. They may swallow their catch underwater, or bring it up crosswise in their beaks to take home to the baby chick, called a “puffling”.

The best place to see puffins is Witless Bay where the largest colony in North America comes to nest — around 500,000 birds.

BOOKS: Atlantic puffin : little brother of the North by Kristin Bieber Domm (picture book).

Photo credit: This photo was taken by Andreas Trepte