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Today, Landsat shows us the evolution of the coal industry near North America & North Dakota’s Center...

USGS Image of the Week is a continuing series in which we repost an image from the USGS Earth Resources and Observation Science Center. From the artistry of Earth imagery to natural and human-caused land change over time, check back every Saturday to finish your week with a visual flourish!

Image shows a satellite view of farms and coal development near Central, North Dakota
In this Landsat 5 view of Center, North Dakota, coal mining operations can be seen southeast of town. Credit: USGS/NASA Landsat Program.(Public domain.)

The Image: Landsat Monitors Mining at Center of North America, Near Town of Center


Landsat satellites help verify a central tenet of industrial growth across the planet—the changing use of land to increase its economic output—and Center, North Dakota, is no exception.

In January 2017, a geographer at the University of Buffalo in New York calculated that the town of Center is the geographic center of North America. The connection between the town’s name and its location is coincidental; Center was named for its central position in North Dakota’s Oliver County. What Landsat sensors confirm is another name the area goes by—Coal Country.

Image shows a satellite view of farms and coal development near Central, North Dakota
In this Landsat 8 follow-up 32 years later, mining has shifted to the southwest and another operation opened up nearby. Credit: USGS/NASA Landsat Program.(Public domain.)

Mining has been part of Center’s history for more than a century. In August 1984, the Landsat 5 image shows significant surface mining of lignite coal just to the southeast of town, during a summer when drought had browned the countryside. Thirty-two years later, the mining activity moved to the southwest of Center. An additional mining operation also began near the Milton R. Young Power Plant just southwest of Nelson Lake. At the power plant, lignite is used to heat water and create steam to drive electricity-producing turbines.

The North Dakota Geological Survey estimates that western North Dakota contains about 1.3 trillion tons of lignite, and that 25 billion tons are recoverable—enough to last more than 800 years at the current production rate of 30 million tons per year.

Once surface mines like those near Center end operations, coal mining companies are required by North Dakota law to reclaim the land, a requirement that Landsat and other science satellites can help verify in the decades to come.

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