A Blazing Hot Coal Seam Shows How Microbes Can Spring to Life

Just past the intersection of Centre and Locust in Centralia, Pennsylvania, the microbiologist Tammy Tobin turned the wheel of her aging Prius sharply to the right. As the windshield wipers whipped furiously back and forth to fend off the driving sleet—a reminder that winter had yet to bid farewell—Tobin announced, “We’re here.” We were at the base of a grassy slope nestled behind the SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery. It looked like any of the other countless knolls tucked in the anthracite hills of eastern Pennsylvania. But almost 50 meters beneath our feet lurked a hidden menace. Centralia was burning. Or rather, the coal seam under what used to be the town of Centralia was burning. The coal has burned …