Centralia's extremes' researched Susquehanna University scientific team BY TOM COOMBE Staff Writer email@example.com CENTRALIA -- "Extreme environments" is a whole area of scientific study. Teams are researching the environmental effects of Antarctica's extreme cold and of the damp heat produced by Yellowstone Park's geysers. The National Science Foundation has a separate "Life in Extreme Environments" program to underwrite this kind of work, which includes research to determine if there's life in outer space. Enter Centralia. "A lot of the extreme environments that are being studied have been that way for a very long time," said Dr. Tamara C. Tobin-Janzen, a biologist at Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove. "... Centralia is a very new environment. And it's changing - the fire is still expanding." Tobin-Janzen is a member of a team of six Susquehanna University scientists, headed by Dr. Benjamin R. Hayes from its geological and environmental sciences department, who have become fascinated by that unique aspect of Centralia's situation. Since the fire is expanding, the biologist explained, this allows the scientists to establish "time zero" - what's in place before the extreme conditions arrive - then to track in detail how heat changes the flora and fauna. The findings, the team hopes, will cast light on evolution from the time life first appeared on this planet when conditions were, well, hot and damp - not unlike Centralia today. Human hand evident On site the other day, however, humankind's hand was clear. "This was someone's house," said Hayes, as he took soil samples on the site of one of the 545 buildings that once populated the Borough of Centralia, located in Columbia County about a mile north of Ashland on Route 61. The underground blaze, started when a dump fire inadvertently set a coal vein alight in 1962, led to an exodus of the people who lived here, many of whom took advantage of a federal buyout to relocate. Fewer than 30 live here now, according to Mayor Lamar Mervine, although he added, "We get quite a few visitors." The mayor, a retired coal miner, said most of them come to look at, not study, the mine fire. For the scientists, the borough has become a second home in the year since they began the research. "I hope that this project goes to the end of my career," said Tobin-Janzen, a biology professor. "I'd be happy to keep studying Centralia." The research so far has been funded with a $95,000 grant from Merck, the pharmaceutical company that has offices in Danville. However, the team is seeking a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue the work for another five years. There are many things to document: soil temperature, ground-water levels, how smaller life forms adapt to the heat, and the path of the fire itself. "We're just tapping the tip of the iceberg," said Hayes. The fact that the borough once played home to 1,100 people never leaves his mind. "It's a sad thing to think about," the professor said, staring at what looks like a wooden grave marker planted in the ground. "You look at these pictures of parades they had here, all the people in the street." Once while the team was at work, a woman who had owned a nearby home came to give her relatives a tour. "She could point out where her flower bed was," he said. "It was pretty emotional for her." The thrill of discovery In addition to Hayes, Susquehanna University's geology department contributed Dr. Daniel E. Ressler. In addition to Tobin-Janzen, the biology department contributed Dr. Jack R. Holt II. From chemistry came Dr. Katherine Miller and Dr. Christopher P. Janzen, Tobin-Janzen's husband. So far, the group has found a wealth of interesting phenomena. Walking towards the hottest point, where steam hangs in the air, Hayes pointed to a patch on the ground of what looks like yellow moss: It's actually sulfur, carried up to the surface by steam. When it reaches the cooler air, it turns to crystal. Asked to cite the most exciting findings to date, Tobin-Janzen, noting that microbiology is her area of interest, picked the identification of a very common bacteria, genus bacillus. The very fact that it is common will allow any changes to be tracked, she said. Extreme environments, the biologist continued, "are thought to mimic very early earth environments; by looking at the types of adaptations these bacteria have, we can get an idea of basic structures of bacteria in primordial earth." The chemistry of the area is also "really fascinating," she continued, citing how the fire has caused heavy ammonia concentrations, particularly near the vents, those iron pipes that stick out of the earth, placed there by the state Department of Environmental Protection to help prevent subsidence. While ammonia will wipe out some microorganisms, Tobin-Janzen continued, others "can actually use things like ammonium as energy sources." Paradise, it isn't Despite the excitement of scientific exploration, Centralia is less than a garden spot. "We can never work over here for too long," Hayes said, citing the heat and overpowering smell that hangs over the former population center. Stand too long in several spots - near the pipes, in particular - and the soles of your shoes will melt. Broken beer bottles have twisted into strange shapes. "It really burns off everything," said Hayes. Brush against the pipe accident, "you'll get a third-degree burn," he warned. "We wear respirators and mountain climbing gear," he said, in case anyone falls into the nearby stripping pit, where the fire heats the ground to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground temperature changes depending on where the fire burns. At one spot the other day, Ressler recorded a temperature of 90 degrees Celsius; 8 feet away, the temperature is 140 degrees. "This fire just moves," said sophomore environmental science major Michelle Fuller, one of several Susquehanna students who can learn from participating in their professors' research. "You can watch it through the temperature." And where the fire moves, the ground suffers. Heat has cleared the area the group studies of much of its vegetation. "This is not a happy plant," said Ressler, pointing to a wood sorrell flower, withering a few feet from where a fresh crack has opened in the ground. Still, some of Sorrell has managed to stay green, while many trees and flowers have died. Another weed, called hen and chicks, grows wildly around the cracks. "One of the very interesting questions would be to see how more complex forms of life deal with (the fire)," said Tobin-Janzen. The smaller the life-form, the better equipped they are to cope with the fire, Ressler said. Bacteria can live for a long time in the soil, and some plants continue to grow. But raccoons and deer must move quickly through the area. Studying Antarctica is one thing, but the fact that Centralia is a man-made disaster adds relevance to the team's effort, said Hayes, who notes, in the end, the whole idea of scientific research is to solve problems. "We're interested in recovery," he said, in "what it takes to make things better."