Scientists discuss federal role in hydraulic fracturing research

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst   The issue of hydraulic fracturing, a fairly new energy production method, has spurred intense debate, in part due unfamiliarity with the overall process. Recently on Capitol Hill, a group of federal scientists discussed their research in an attempt to inform the ongoing policy debate by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On June 9, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) sponsored a briefing entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing: the State of Science.” During the briefing, federal scientists highlighted recent research  findings on  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and also touched on  potential ecological impacts of the process. The speakers noted that while information to date suggests that the overall process is safe with proper monitoring efforts, additional research is needed to quantify its long-term effects. Speakers noted that groundwater contamination from imperfect cementing, existing wells, cracks in rock and levels of seismic activity are all variables that present some potential environmental risk factors of fracking. Brenda Pierce, Coordinator for the Energy Resources Program at USGS, discussed the program’s lead role in assessing energy resources for the onshore United States.  She  noted that assessments of recoverable energy resources change over time due to technological advancements and improved geologic understanding, among other factors. Rick Hammack, Natural Systems Monitoring Coordinator for the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory discussed the multifaceted role his agency and others, including the USGS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, play in monitoring the environmental impacts of shale gas development. Hammack stressed that the overall process takes five years, including one year of scientific study before fracking begins, several years of monitoring and assessment during energy production and a period of assessment after production is completed. Consequently, Hammack noted, it may be some time before we have a full picture of the environmental impacts from fracking and continued investment in research is important. Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Hazards at USGS, touched on the research USGS, other federal agencies and universities are conducting to better understand human-induced seismic activity from oil and gas production. Noting that mid-continent earthquakes have increased significantly in recent years, Leith clarified that the risk is manageable and that the fracking process itself has not triggered an earthquake large enough to raise safety concerns. Leith’s presentation, however, noted that the subsequent wastewater injection, which transmits wastewater from fracking into deep disposal wells, can cause earthquakes large enough to be felt and cause damage, though only a small fraction have caused earthquakes large enough to be of public concern. Leith believes that further research...

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Renewal after catastrophe

By Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Extreme events such as the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the severe fires in Yellowstone National Park initially seemed to have left behind wastelands.  Yet ecologists and other researchers discovered that in both cases, plants and other life rebounded much more quickly than anticipated.  Now a new study of sandy beaches finds surprising resilience following the 8.8 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that rocked coastal Chile in February of 2010. The Maule earthquake was the 6th largest event recorded by modern seismology and unleashed a tsunami, killing nearly 500 people.  Communities in coastal areas around the world have been erecting seawalls for centuries in an effort to stem beach erosion and protect themselves against storms and tsunamis.  Researchers from Southern University of Chile and the University of California, Santa Barbara had been researching the effects of such structures on plant and animal life on nine coastal beaches in Chile just prior to the earthquake.  After it struck, they resurveyed the now dramatically altered areas. As they had predicted, their pre-earthquake surveys found that species that live in the upper and mid-intertidal areas of sandy beaches are more affected by seawalls than those living in the lower shore areas.  The upper intertidal zone is mostly terrestrial except during high tides and the mid intertidal zone is regularly exposed and submerged by tides.  The low intertidal areas are only exposed during very low tides.  Seawalls physically cover up part of the beach and cause sand in front of the walls to be lost until the beach eventually “drowns.” The earthquake and tsunami brought about tremendous physical changes, drowning some beaches while creating sandy beach habitat in other areas. According to a press release by the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the study, the research team found that intertidal species were destroyed in the drowned beaches while newly widened beaches saw the return of life that had previously “vanished due to the effects of coastal armouring.” From previous studies in California and Chile, said lead author Eduardo Jaramillo of the Universidad Austral de Chile, “…we knew that building coastal defense structures, such as seawalls, decreases beach area, and that a seawall results in the decline of intertidal diversity.  But after the earthquake, where significant continental uplift occurred, the beach area that had been lost due to coastal armoring has now been restored,” said Jaramillo.  “And the re-colonization of the mobile fauna [such as crabs] was underway just weeks afterward.” Jaramillo E, Dugan JE, Hubbard DM, Melnick D, Manzano M, Duarte C, Campos C, & Sanchez R (2012). Ecological Implications of Extreme Events: Footprints...

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Balancing human well-being with environmental sustainability: an ecologist’s story of Haiti

“Parc National La Visite is one of the few remaining refuges for Haiti’s once-remarkable biodiversity. It is also the only refuge for over 1,000 desperately poor families, the poorest people I have encountered anywhere on this planet. Naked children with bloated stomachs stood next to pine-bark lean-tos and waved shyly to me as I walked through the forest. Their parents eke out the meanest existence from small gardens and, if they are fortunate, a few chickens.” This is how ecologist Norm Christensen from Duke University began the story of his journey in Haiti. Christensen’s article, featured in the “Trails and Tribulations” column from the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, touches on a sensitive but vital subject: What does “sustainable development” mean to those who are barely making it day-by-day? “In the context of places like Haiti and the other desperately poor areas, sustainable development—to think of it or define it—is in terms of improving the prosperity of some of the world’s very poorest people in ways that are not going to compromise opportunities for future generations and indeed are going to enhance those opportunities,” Christensen explained in a recent Beyond the Frontier podcast. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti caused severe widespread damage to the country’s already fragile infrastructure. A subsequent cholera outbreak added to the devastation. In times of such palpable human suffering, it can be difficult to imagine the role of the environment; however, Haiti’s history of deforestation is a strong example of the link between people and ecosystems—that is, the connection between infectious disease and a decline in biodiversity. As Ethan Budiansky explained in a Huffington Post article: “Over 98 percent of [Haiti] has been deforested by logging and improper environmental management. The resulting lack of biodiversity leads to impoverished soil, which is more susceptible to erosion. The eroded hillsides cause deadly mudslides during heavy rains and pollute drinking water. Farmers find it harder to grow nutritious food, and Haitians become malnourished, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera. The chain of events moves forward with a cold logic; an unhealthy ecosystem results in unhealthy people. Fortunately, it can be reversed by planting trees through sustainable agro-forestry and following basic plant and soil management techniques.” While committing to sustainable development is certainly dependent upon those who choose to practice it, Christensen explained in the podcast and article, it is not solely their responsibility.  Everyone—whether they live in a developed or underdeveloped nation—is a steward of the planet. And our actions affect more than just our immediate environment. Read more in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article “The...

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Wildlife damage from Japan’s tsunami

Most people have heard about the damage caused by last week’s massive magnitude 9 earthquake that sent a tsunami—at times reaching 33 feet—onto the island nation of Japan. The situation in Japan is dire. According to CBS News, “An estimated 452,000 people are living in shelters following the earthquake and tsunami. Japan’s police agency currently puts the death toll at 6,900 with 10,700 more people still missing.” Meanwhile, the threat of a nuclear meltdown is looming. The effects of the tsunami are devastating and far-reaching. From around the world, search teams, medics and volunteers work tirelessly to locate and help victims of the quake and floods. While the world’s attention is rightly focused on aiding the people of Japan, other nearby island countries are trying to recover from severe damage to their infrastructure as well. One example is the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and Research Station on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. As described in a recent Southern Fried Science post, “The tsunami hit the island at high tide on March 11, and the resulting 1.7 meter flood destroyed essential equipment and shut the research station down for the foreseeable future.” Despite extensive flooding in the Marine Laboratory, the animals at the Research Station were relocated in time to be saved. “Lonesome George, the iconic last Giant Tortoise from Pinta island, had been moved to high ground prior to the tsunami as a precautionary measure,” reported the World Heritage Convention. According to the Galapagos Conservancy, the island’s animal and plant life  may have suffered significant damage: “With regard to the flora and fauna, the impacts are being assessed. According to Galapagos National Park reports, some marine turtle nests at Garrapatero Beach on Santa Cruz were destroyed. We had significant damage to the vegetation along the shore of the Research Station. The marine iguana nests that we have been monitoring within the area…seem fine.” In Japan, the wildlife casualties are more severe than in the Galapagos. As described in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, “A tsunami generated by a powerful earthquake off the coast of Japan struck Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge at 11:36 PM on Thursday, March 10th and continued for the next few hours…Fortunately, no one was injured and no major damage occurred to the island’s infrastructure…” “The short-tailed albatross nest was washed over again, but the [first short-tailed albatross] chick [to hatch on Midway in decades] was found unharmed about 35 [meters] away and returned unharmed to its nest area. A minimum of 1,000 adult/subadult, and tens of thousands of Laysan Albatross chicks, were lost. Thousands of Bonin petrels were buried alive. Spit Island [was]...

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