Eye-catching abstract photos reveal mining’s scars on our planet

From a helicopter above mined land in Germany, a photographer documents the results of extracting coal to fuel power plants.

By Daniel Stone
photographs by Tom Hegen
Published 22 Apr 2021, 10:26 BST

At this coal mine near Dresden, Germany— as at others around the world—excavators move thousands of tons of soil, gravel, and clay to reach fossil fuel deposits.

Photograph by Tom Hegen

Tom Hegen makes portraits of the Anthropocene, this current age in which the dominant influence on Earth is human activity. His work often requires observing from above: leaning out of helicopters, operating drones. Taken from these heights, Hegen’s series of images show the broad effects of receding glaciers, exploited farmland, polluted quarries—and coal mines in Germany, Hegen’s homeland.

Coal bed in a lignite mine, western Germany. 2020. From the open door of a helicopter, photographer Tom Hegen took this series. They show opencast mining areas in western and eastern Germany. Lignite is mined there, from which power plants generate electricity for more than five million households and district heating. Because the coal lies at depths of up to 500 meters, excavators first remove all the earth above it. For every ton of lignite, around six tons of soil, gravel, sand and clay are excavated. Because lignite combustion releases a lot of climate-damaging CO2 gas, the German government has decided to end it. By 2038 at the latest, the last German coal-fired power plant is to be closed and lignite will no longer be mined.
Photograph by Tom Hegen
During and after mining, water runoff can carry toxic concentrations of minerals into drainage ponds. The minerals have been shown to contaminate groundwater.
Photograph by Tom Hegen
Angular and symmetrical, excavation and storage sites can suggest artistry, even beauty. Hegen says his images are intended to command attention, not airbrush destruction
Photograph by Tom Hegen
A coal storage site in northern Germany.
Photograph by Tom Hegen
View to the bottom of an open-pit lignite mine in eastern Germany
Photograph by Tom Hegen

Some mines are still operating; others, spent and shut down. The lignite coal here is almost always buried, requiring industrial excavation that can foul ecosystems and waterways. The coal yields cheap electricity, but at a high cost in scarred land. Though the scars are upsetting, Hegen says, he gives the portraits an abstract beauty in the hope that people will look at them—and consider the ecological issues they present.

These photographs are of Germany; extraction mining of fossil fuels and minerals creates similar scenes elsewhere. There are signs of change, however. The German government says it will end coal mining and close coal-fuelled power plants by 2038.

This story appears in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.


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