Faculty Seed Grant Projects

How does environmental landscape change shape community and ecological health in the Central Appalachian Coalfields?: A pilot study


This pilot study was funded jointly by the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech and the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE).

The Central Appalachian region of the United States has been identified as one of the world’s most diverse ecoregions. It is also a region where the races, traditions, and cultures brought together by colonization, slavery, and resource extraction industries merged and melded into something altogether new. As the region is particularly rich in high energy dense coal, mining has comprised a major part of the political economy of the region for well over a century.

Although the detrimental effects of coal mining on local aquatic ecology have been extensively studied over the past several decades and are well-established, the potential for impacts on human health remain somewhat controversial. In both cases, the mechanisms of biological impairment and timing of critical exposures remain unclear. Understanding the interplay between landscape changes related to resources extraction and human/ecological health is particularly timely given anticipated widespread changes in the energy industry’s impacts in this region. While coal production is declining significantly, the construction of natural gas wells and pipelines is increasing rapidly to take advantage of underlying Marcellus Shale deposits. Identifying the likely triggers for adverse environmental and human impacts related to historical stressors will provide the knowledge and perspective necessary to inform decision-making regarding future land use in the Appalachians to preserve critical habitat and communities.

The broad goal of this proposed project is to use a suite of geographic, epidemiological, and humanistic tools to identify critical times and locations of changes in land use that impact ecological and public health. The proposed pilot study will be centered in Tazewell County, Virginia. Tazewell provides an ideal location for initial methods testing and community engagement as its landscape provides an excellent example of anticipated changes in primary industries and energy extraction in Central Appalachia.

Dr. David Cline, Professor of History, conducts a

Dr. David Cline, Professor of History, conducts a field interview

We will collect preliminary data for future proposals focused on more specifically identifying the underlying mechanisms linking changes in land use and environmental health. This project will also serve as evidence demonstrating the synergistic value of collecting local and experiential knowledge via oral histories in conjunction with remote sensing data analysis to assist in more fully interpreting environmental monitoring and health records. Given the prevalence of coal mining in this region, it is anticipated the primary historical land cover changes will be related to mining; however, it is also likely that the identification of critical times and changes related to mining activity and environmental stress will identify key necessary points for future data collection and exploration as natural gas fracking expands in this region.