This image is from the BBC Culture article Striking photos of human scars on Earth. It is accompanied by the text and captions below.

But I still don't understand what I'm looking at at all. Can someone recognize what's happening here? What are the phenomenon (artificial and natural) in play?

Burtynsky categorises himself as an environmentalist, and has dedicated his life to bearing witness to “the indelible marks left by humankind on the geological face of our planet”. In other words, the increasingly ambitious scars and blemishes created by industry and large-scale human habitation, such as the vividly coloured layers from an ancient sea floor exposed by tunnelling machines 350m beneath Berezniki in Russia.

Caption: "Uralkali Potash Mine #4, Berezniki, Russia, 2017 (Credit: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/Metivier Gallery, Toronto)" [Source][1].

Click for full size.

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Update: I found another view of this in the BBC's video The photographer capturing mankind's impact on planet Earth

Edward Burtynsky travels the world trying to capture striking images of humanity's impact on the planet, from the fossil-like shapes left behind by drills in a Potash mine to the luminescent colours of lithium ponds.

The Canadian photographic artist has spent 40 years focusing on large-scale human activities such as mining, quarrying, agriculture and deforestation - but he says he doesn't see himself as an environmentalist.

His latest project, Anthropocene, is a collaboration with film-makers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, exploring the idea proposed by some scientists that a geological epoch shaped by human activity has begun.

It includes a travelling exhibition, a book and feature-length documentary, which was premiered last year in Canada and goes on theatrical release in the US next week.

Images: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. Video by Heather Sharp and Laura Foster

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1 Answer 1


As stated in the caption for the picture this is an inside view of a potash mine.

Mining professionals regard potash, like most coal, to be a soft rock; unlike hard rock such as most metal sulfides.

With hard rock mining, the rock is mined by drilling holes and using explosives to break up the rock. The rock is then loaded and transported out of the mine.

Most soft rock mines, and particularly potash mines, do not use drilling and blasting as the main means of removing rock. Instead they use specialized cutting machines to cut the rock. The shapes left in the rock, in the picture are marks created by the cutting heads of such machines. Usage of such a machine can be seen at the 3:30 mark in this You Tube video.

I answered the question What would you call this mining vehicle? (Ural-20R, used in mining) on SE Engineering two years ago, when someone asked about the purpose of an unusual mining machine.

Such machines are typically called continuous miners.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! Okay I'm almost there now, but the ridges in the "donut" shapes are radial, which makes me thing there is scraping in the radial direction, rather than the tangential (circular) motion l might expect at the end of one of these $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 11:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The thing about continuous mining machines is the cutting head, or heads, can vary. More than 20 years ago it was possible to have one which had a head that looked liked a pineapple (or the old IBM golf ball printing head from typewriters of the 1970s). Given this potash mine is in Russia, some Russian equipment can look strange when compared to Western equipment. I wouldn't be surprised if the cutting machine used in this mine was custom made & had several heads. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ I understand what you mean. These donuts look to me like they are pushed out of the wall, toward us, which makes it even harder to understand. Maybe it's just an illusion. That specific thing would be better for Engineering SE than here. Your answer is great, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ just fyi I added a second image and link to the question $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ The second picture is interesting; it indicates how the potash was mined & that the potash is thick. The lumpy foreground seems at least 4 to 5 m above the floor in the rear the picture. There are two people wearing white hard hats in the lower central part of the picture - one is wearing orange overalls & the other blue. The curved hole in the wall, left of center is reproduced at the back of the picture. The track of circular scoring on the wall in the left of the picture is reproduced at the back $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 16:57

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