You hear many things in a land where coal is king. Not all of them are true, and many of them collide.

Some fact finders love the mountains, others love the coal in the mountains, but West Virginia University researchers love the real truth about what happens when coal is mined from the mountains.

So they’re taking to the Mountain State skies to gather and share critical data about coal mining so that lawmakers, government regulators, private industry and industry associations all have the unbiased scientific information they need to make informed and responsible decisions about the future of the energy business in West Virginia.

To the researchers at WVU’s Natural Resource Analysis Center in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, the ongoing discussion about the environmental impacts associated with the extraction of America’s most abundant natural resource is all about facts.

Using global positioning, a twin-engine aircraft, and a laser-oriented data collection and analysis system known as LiDAR that is so sensitive it can detect the height of a basketball sitting in a vacant parking lot from thousands of feet, WVU experts are flying over West Virginia’s coal fields to gather facts about topography, hydrology, geology and other factors affected by mountaintop, surface and underground mining.

“This is important information for the coal industry to have and it is critical information for environmental regulators to have,” Paul Kinder, a research scientist with the Analysis Center explained.


“With these data sets, regulators can make sure companies are complying with their restoration obligations and private industry can demonstrate whether they are indeed doing their part.”

Kinder said WVU’s LiDAR data can help decision makers on both sides of the issues consider current and future affects of mining on watersheds and implications for possible flooding and erosion.

“The equipment is so sensitive, it can help predict with accuracy what might result from even the smallest changes in a stream’s water course or watershed.” Kinder said. “And water courses are changed when streams are filled in as part of mountaintop mining. This is risk assessment work with implications for the debate over water quality and reclamation accountability.”

LiDAR – short for light detection and ranging – is used for collecting extremely accurate elevation data. The process uses light pulses from an airborne platform that are released downward at a rate of more than 70,000 pulses per second over a collection area. When the pulses bounce back up to the airplane and its recording devices as “returns,” high resolution three-dimensional representations of the Earth’s surface and its features result that provide data accurate to within inches.

LiDAR is like radar only it measures the return time of light pulses instead of radio waves. The process can be executed day or night and millions of elevation points can be collected per hour. Skilled scientists and operators use the resulting images to examine subtle and not so subtle changes in the landscape.

Kinder said the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection awarded WVU $1 million over two years in two phases to conduct LiDAR acquisitions that produce mining data for future planning, assessment, and monitoring. But understanding the impact of mining and planning for its future isn’t the only role Kinder sees for WVU’s LiDAR activity.

“There’s a long list of applications like topographic contour mapping, wetland identification and classification, airport obstruction surveys, water and wastewater planning, habitat studies, utility corridor mapping, detection of power line sag rates and vegetation encroachment, flood mapping and forest analysis just to name a few,” he said. “But most importantly, we have an aspiration to develop a curriculum for WVU students in LiDAR data acquisition, processing and analysis.”

Successful implementation of a LiDAR curriculum within the Davis College would put WVU in a unique position. Kinder said he believes the University will be one of only a few higher education institutions in the US to offer training and education in LiDAR applications to its students.

LiDAR work and future WVU students can continue to help provide the basic facts lawmakers, regulators and industry need to responsibly advance activity from bridge building and coal mining to flood control and even Marcellus Shale natural gas recovery improvements.

“LiDAR will be a great tool to help ensure that the state’s abundant energy resources will be developed in compliance with state law,” said Joseph Kozuch, director of the Advanced Energy Initiative at WVU. “The whole thrust of the Advanced Energy Initiative at WVU is to bring research and technology to the table that will encourage energy production in West Virginia that is efficient, economical, and environmentally sound.”

AEI coordinates and promotes University-wide energy research in science, technology and public policy.

The airplane used in the WVU LiDAR work is owned by a private company and based in Upshur County. WVU controls the LiDAR equipment and charters the research flights. The WVU Natural Resource Analysis Center is led by Jerald Fletcher. The LiDAR flights are operated by Kinder, Adam Riley, a geographic information systems analyst and Michael Metz, a GIS technician.

The Natural Resource Analysis Center was formed in the early 1990s as a multi-disciplinary research and teaching facility. Areas of expertise at NRAC include economic development and environmental sustainability, remote sensing, land cover mapping, landscape analyses, watershed-based analysis and applications, and GIS-based planning and decision-making. Recent projects have included development of water resource GIS datasets for West Virginia and parcel prioritization methodology development for land conservation.



CONTACT: Paul Kinder; WVU Natural Resource Analysis Center

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.