Monday, September 04, 2006

Five Sisters Found

Madcap Mum posted a picture of an odd-looking hill, and it drew a lot of questions. Some thought it was a modified image, with a fanciful landform plopped into it, but to me the hill looked quite believable as an industrial feature.

Some Googling revealed that the "Five Sisters" hill is a real place in Scotland, also known as the Westwood Bing. Here's the pdf document where I found out about it. The document as a whole is a fascinating discussion of the way old industrial sites are often important habitat, with much higher biodiversity than agricultural land. Attempts to manage this habitat throw some stark, disturbing light on the question of "what is nature?"

But in case you just wanted to know about the hill, here's an excerpt.
Five Sisters

The most spectacular remains of the great West Lothian oil industry have received national recognition and protection. The conical mounds of waste shale, called bings, once dominated this landscape. Many had disappeared by the end of the 20th century but the best-known, the Five Sisters and Greendykes bings, have been designated as scheduled ancient monuments by Historic Scotland.

The industry used local shale to extract crude oil, which was then turned into paraffin. At its peak in the 1860s, there were 120 works, producing 25 million gallons of oil a year.

Miners came to the area from Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, the north of England and all over Scotland. When the industry collapsed in the early 1960s, the bings contained 200 million tons of waste shale. Many were mined for building material. But the rest became important local landmarks. The Five Sisters, the only bing with more than one peak, is valued so highly that it is now included in the county crest.
The document has a picture of the bing from the opposite angle, showing the steep fall slopes of the peaks. (Jump to Page 16.)

We have a similar (if less visually striking) situation close to home here, around Bienfait (east of Estevan), where old ridges of overburden from the coal mines were left in place long enough to become overgrown with shrubs. The steep narrow troughs between them held water, and wetland communities developed, complete with trees along their margins, in a landscape that previously had almost no deep ponds or trees at all. When the mining company and the government's environmental officials were talking about reclaiming this highly-disturbed landscape, the local people protested that it was some of the most important habitat for wildlife in the entire region. As far as I know, a decision was made to leave the ridges and wetlands as they are.

One thing that fascinates me in the Five-Sisters story is the fact that there was a large oil shale industry in Scotland, but it collapsed, due to competition from what we now call conventional oil production. Now there is talk of huge oil shale reserves in the U.S. becoming economically viable for production as conventional petroleum reserves are depleted. I wonder how they compare to these that were mined in Scotland. It's funny how we hear about things like extraction of oil from shale as if it were a new advance, when in fact it has been done in the past, and (I just learned) is an active industry in some other parts of the world. It brings to mind my post about small stoves that burn wood at much higher efficiency through a gasification process, and my Dad's response. He said that gasification is nothing new. It had some significant use in the past, for automotive fuel and for municipal gas supplies, during periods when petroleum was in short supply.

I wonder what proportion of the so-called promising areas of energy research are actually just re-examinations of old ideas that were bypassed for one reason or another in the past. Those recycled ideas are not great places to look for a breakthrough, I'd say.


Granny said...

Thanks Laura I was over at Madcap's place about to go hill hunting when I saw your comment.

Madcap said...

I guess I wasn't thorough enough. I did a cursory search, but only came up with a list of hotels!

Thanks for finding out. Very interesting stuff.

arcolaura said...

It took some wading, mum. That and some persistent guessing at what extra search words might help. I think it was "landfill" that finally got it, even though it's not a landfill. You were sensible to leave off where you did. My stubborn curiosity gets me into trouble, but it's nice when people appreciate it!