October 2, 2013
Editor’s Note, Oct. 9: Based on several comments that mentioned that the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility stopped treating fracking wastewater in 2011, we did a bit of digging and found that the treated water downstream from the plant still showed signatures that fresh fracking water had run through it, according to the study’s authors. The post has been revised with this information, along with the fact that treatment does remove a good bit of contamination.
In the state of Pennsylvania, home to the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation, 74 facilities treat wastewater from the process of hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) for natural gas and release it into streams. There’s no national set of standards that guides this treatment process—the EPA notes that the Clean Water Act’s guidelines were developed before fracking even existed, and that many of the processing plants “are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater”—and scientists have conducted relatively little assessment of the wastewater to ensure it’s safe after being treated.
Recently, a group of Duke University scientists decided to do some testing. They contacted the owners of one treatment plant, the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility on Blacklick Creek in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, but, “when we tried to work with them, it was very difficult getting ahold of the right person,” says Avner Vengosh, an Earth scientist from Duke. “Eventually, we just went and tested water right from a public area downstream.”
Their analyses, made on water and sediment samples collected repeatedly over the course of two years, were even more concerning than we’d feared. As published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, they found elevated concentrations of the element radium, a highly radioactive substance. The concentrations within sediments in particular were roughly 200 times higher than background levels. In addition, amounts of chloride and bromide in the water were two to ten times greater than normal.
This is despite the fact that treatment actually removes most of the contaminants from the wastewater–including 90 percent of the radium. “Even if, today, you completely stopped disposal of the wastewater,” Vengosh says, there’s enough contamination built up in sediments that “you’d still end up with a place that the U.S. would consider a radioactive waste site.”
In recent years, the use of fracking to extract natural gas from shale formations has boomed in several areas, most notably Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, which has been called “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” The process involves injecting mix of water, sand and proprietary chemicals deep into rock at high pressure, causing the rock to fracture and allowing methane gas to seep upward for extraction.
Much of the concern over fracking has related to the seepage of these chemicals or methane from drilling wells into groundwater or the fact that high-pressure injection can trigger earthquakes, but the wastewater recently tested presents a separate, largely overlooked problem.
Between 10 and 40 percent of fluid sent down during fracking resurfaces, carrying contaminants with it. Some of these contaminants may be present in the fracking water to begin with. But others are leached into the fracking water from groundwater trapped in the rock it fractures.
Radium, naturally present in the shales that house natural gas, falls into the latter category—as the shale is shattered to extract the gas, groundwater trapped within the shale, rich in concentrations of the radioactive element, is freed and infiltrates the fracking wastewater.
Other states require this wastewater to be pumped back down into underground deposit wells sandwiched between impermeable layers of rock, but because Pennsylvania has few of these cavities, it allows fracking wastewater to be processed by normal wastewater treatment plants and released into rivers.
In 2011, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) issued a recommendation that plants, including Josephine, voluntarily stop treating fracking wastewater. But Jim Efstathiou Jr. at Bloomberg News reports that, even though spokespeople at PADEP and Josephine say that the plant has stopped treating fracking wastewater, those claims are “contradicted by today’s study, which shows that the Josephine plant continued to treat Marcellus Shale wastewater through the beginning of this year,” according to Vengosh.
“Based on the isotopes that we measured we can see that the effluent that’s coming from Josephine in the last three years, including two months ago, still has the fingerprint of the Marcellus,” Vengosh told Efsathiou.
The treatment plants, many scientists note, are not designed to handle the radioactive elements present in the wastewater. Neither are they required to test their effluent for radioactive elements. As a result, many researchers have suspected that the barely-studied water they release into local streams retains significant levels of radioactivity.
This new work confirms that suspicion for at least one plant—which as about an hour east of Pittsburgh, and releases effluent into the watershed that supplies the city’s drinking water—and Vengosh believes that the findings would likely be similar for many of the other facilities in Pennsylvania. Especially concerning is the fact that, apart from in the water, the team found high levels of radioactivity accumulating on the sediments at the bottom of the stream over time. Radium has a half-life of 1600 years, so unless these sediments are removed, they’ll keep releasing radiation into the water for an extremely long period.
In addition, the high levels of bromide found in the wastewater is a concern, because even in slight quantities, the compound can trigger the formation of a toxic class of chemicals called halomethanes when it’s combined with chlorine. This is a problem because in rural areas, many residents treat well water by chlorinating it.
The study—which is part of a larger Duke project studying the effect of fracking on water—doesn’t show that fracking is inherently unsafe, but does show that without proper controls, the wastewater being dumped into the environment daily represents a very real danger for local residents.
Vengosh notes that there are better methods of treating fracking wastewater (he points to the plants operated by Eureka Resources as a model for adequately removing radioactivity), but these are more expensive to operate. But currently, without the push of federal regulations, companies looking to dispose of wastewater have no incentive to pay for this type of solution.
September 24, 2013
When it comes to the calculating the likelihood of catastrophic weather, one group has an obvious and immediate financial stake in the game: the insurance industry. And in recent years, the industry researchers who attempt to determine the annual odds of catastrophic weather-related disasters—including floods and wind storms—say they’re seeing something new.
“Our business depends on us being neutral. We simply try to make the best possible assessment of risk today, with no vested interest,” says Robert Muir-Wood, the chief scientist of Risk Management Solutions (RMS), a company that creates software models to allow insurance companies to calculate risk. “In the past, when making these assessments, we looked to history. But in fact, we’ve now realized that that’s no longer a safe assumption—we can see, with certain phenomena in certain parts of the world, that the activity today is not simply the average of history.”
This pronounced shift can be seen in extreme rainfall events, heat waves and wind storms. The underlying reason, he says, is climate change, driven by rising greenhouse gas emissions. Muir-Wood’s company is responsible for figuring out just how much more risk the world’s insurance companies face as a result of climate change when homeowners buy policies to protect their property.
First, a brief primer on the concept of insurance: Essentially, it’s a tool for spreading risk—say, the chance your house will be washed away by a hurricane—among a larger group of people, so that the cost of rebuilding the destroyed house is shared by everyone who pays insurance. To accomplish this, insurance companies sell flood policies to thousands of homeowners and collect enough in payments from all of them so that they have enough to pay for the inevitable disaster, plus keep some extra revenue as profit afterward. To protect themselves, these insurance companies even buy their own policies from reinsurance companies, who make the same sorts of calculations, just on another level upward.
The tricky part, though, is determining just how much these companies need to charge to make sure they have enough to pay for disasters and to stay in business—and that’s where Muir-Wood’s work comes in. “If you think about it, it’s actually quite a difficult problem,” he says. “You’ve got to think about all the bad things that can happen, and then figure out how likely all those bad things are, and then work out ‘How much do I need to set aside per year to pay for all the catastrophic losses that can happen?’”
With natural disasters like floods, he notes, you can have many years in a row with no damage in one particular area, then have tens of thousands of houses destroyed at once. The fact that the frequency of some catastrophic weather events may be changing due to climate change makes the problem even more complex.
The best strategy for solving it is the use of computer models, which simulate thousands of the most extreme weather disasters—say, a record-setting hurricane slamming into the East Coast just when the power grid is overloaded due to a heat wave—to tell insurance companies the worst-case scenario, so they know just how much risk they’re taking on, and how likely it is they’ll have to pay out.
“Catastrophes are complex, and the kinds of things that happen during them are complex, so we are constantly trying to improve our modeling to capture the full range of extreme events,” Muir-Wood says, noting that RMS employs more than 100 scientists and mathematicians towards this goal. “When Hurricane Sandy happened, for instance, we already had events like Sandy in our models—we had anticipated the complexity of having a really big storm driving an enormous storm surge, even with wind speeds that were relatively modest.”
These models are not unlike those used by scientists to estimate the long-term changes our climate will undergo as it warms over the next century, but there’s one important difference: Insurance companies care mainly about the next year, not the next 100 years, because they mostly sell policies one year at a time.
But even in the short term, Muir-Wood’s team has determined, the risk of a variety of disasters seems to have already shifted. “The first model in which we changed our perspective is on U.S. Atlantic hurricanes. Basically, after the 2004 and 2005 seasons, we determined that it was unsafe to simply assume that historical averages still applied,” he says. “We’ve since seen that today’s activity has changed in other particular areas as well—with extreme rainfall events, such as the recent flooding in Boulder, Colorado, and with heat waves in certain parts of the world.”
RMS isn’t alone. In June, the Geneva Association, an insurance industry research group, released a report (PDF) outlining evidence of climate change and describing the new challenges insurance companies will face as it progresses. “In the non-stationary environment caused by ocean warming, traditional approaches, which are solely based on analyzing historical data, increasingly fail to estimate today’s hazard probabilities,” it stated. “A paradigm shift from historic to predictive risk assessment methods is necessary.”
Moving forward, Muir-Wood’s group will attempt to keep gauging the shifting likelihood of a range of extreme weather events, so that insurers can figure out how much to charge so that they can compete with others, but not be wiped out when disaster strikes. In particular, they’ll be closely looking at changing the model for flooding rates in higher latitudes, such as Canada and Russia—where climate is shifting more quickly—as well as wildfires around the planet.
On the whole, it seems likely that insurance premiums for houses and buildings in flood-prone coastal regions will go up to account for the shifts Muir-Wood is seeing. On the other hand, because of the complex impacts of climate change, we might see risks—and premiums—go down in other areas. There’s evidence, for example, that snowmelt-driven springtime floods in Britain will become less frequent in the future.
For his own part, Muir-Wood puts his money where his mouth is. “I personally wouldn’t invest in beachfront property anymore,” he says, noting the steady increase in sea level we’re expecting to see worldwide in the coming century, on top of more extreme storms. “And if you’re thinking about it, I’d calculate quite carefully how far back you’d have to be in the event of a hurricane.”
September 6, 2013
The city of Manila, in the Philippines, is home to more than 1.6 million people, packed into an area smaller than 15 square miles—less than a quarter of the size of Washington, D.C. It’s the most densely populated city in the world. Metropolitan Manila, with a population of some 12 million people, is the 10th largest megacity.
This dense urban environment seems like an unlikely place to find a new species. But within the jumble of markets, alleys and skyscrapers of this megacity, Ateneo de Manila University has preserved a 200-acre tract of forested campus, interlaced by ponds and small creeks. Recently, when the university’s biology students and faculty conducted a survey of the forest, they found something remarkable: a new species of water beetle, called Hydraena ateneo, which was previously unknown to science.
The students—Arielle Vidal and Kimberly Go—collected a few dozen closely-related water beetles from shallow rock pools and slow-moving creeks on the heavily forested campus. The insects were feeding on the bacteria and fungi that get trapped in leaf litter.
An analysis showed that the beetles mostly came from six known species, but there were four from a new, unidentified one. The unfamiliar beetles (named ateno after the university) could be differentiated from similar species by slight differences in their size (they range between 1.25 and 1.33 millimeters in length, whereas the closely-related scabara are slightly longer and the palawanensis are a bit shorter), their leg structure and the shape of their aedeagus, the male reproductive organ.
When Freitag compared them to similar beetles housed in the collections of natural history museums in Germany, Denmark and Austria, he found several ateneo specimens that had previously been collected in the Philippines but were unidentified. The group has also since found the new species outside the city, on the island of Mindoro. They speculate that the bug occurs most often in more remote areas, but recolonized the college campus sometime over the past 50 years, as the campus’s formerly sparse forests and dried-up creeks have been allowed to regenerate over that period.
The fact that the beetle repopulated the campus demonstrates the surprising amount of biodiversity that can occur even in the tiny niches that survive among heavy human development—especially in an already biologically rich country like the Philippines. This is the thinking behind the UN’s Urban Biodiversity program and calls to preserve small natural habitats interspersed between the roads and buildings we construct.
Freitag believes that many more unknown species are there to be found within the barely studied Hydraena genus of this newly discovered water beetle. That an unidentified species can be found hiding in an urban college campus, right under our feet, shows just how much of the world’s biodiversity is still yet to be cataloged by science.
Editor’s Note, September 7, 2013: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly stated or implied Ateneo de Manila University was in Manila itself. In fact, the university is in nearby Quezon City, which is a part of Manila’s metropolitan area. To fix this, a few sentences were added to the first and second paragraphs, and the title of the post was changed.
September 5, 2013
Last month, James Hammond, a volcanologist at Imperial College London, traveled with Clive Oppenheimer and Kayla Iacovino of the University of Cambridge to install six seismometers on Mount Paektu—an active volcano on the border of China and North Korea that is famous for, among other things, being the alleged birthplace of Kim Jong-Il. Hammond has previously placed seismometers in locales as far-flung as Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Seychelles, but installing them in North Korea was a new challenge.
“When I first told people about the project, there was a bit of disbelief. People thinking, ‘you must be mad,’” Hammond says. “At times, I even thought myself that it wouldn’t work out.”
His team isn’t the only group of Western scientists to work in North Korea in recent years, but they are one of just a handful, and the first to install scientific equipment in the country’s natural environment. Their project began, Hammond explains, as a result of interest from North Korean researchers.
“The volcano has a pretty dramatic history,” he says. “About 1000 years ago, there was a huge eruption—it was among the top ten eruptions in recorded history, and it dropped ash more than 1000 miles away—so it’s got the potential to be very explosive.” Between 2002 and 2006, researchers on the volcano’s Chinese side observed increased seismic activity, along with slight swelling—both factors that could be harbingers of an upcoming explosion.
This increased unrest in the volcano led researchers in the Korean Earthquake Bureau to seek outside expertise in studying Paektu (sometimes spelled Baekdu, and called Changbai in China). They approached the Beijing-based Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), which contacted Richard Stone, who was then the Asia editor of Science and had previously traveled in North Korea to document the country’s fight against tuberculosis. He, in turn, recruited Hammond and Oppenheimer to install equipment to help characterize the volcano’s activity and perhaps enable scientists to someday predict when it’ll erupt next.
After a weeklong information-gathering trip in 2011, they set about planning a research project, which Stone documents in a news article published today in Science. “No one had done much research into what drives the volcano, from a scientific point of view,” Hammond says.
That’s not a huge surprise, given both the international sanctions that prevent most people from visiting North Korea—let alone bring in scientific equipment—and the country’s ultra-secretive regime. Over the next few years, the group worked to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that prohibits bringing and using virtually all outside technology (including flash memory drives) into the country in preparation for their trip.
Then, last month, the trio returned and spent 16 days in the country. One of their primary goals was installing six seismometers in specially-built concrete huts on the mountain. The instruments—which precisely measure seismic movement in the ground—will eventually help Hammond and other scientists better understand the internal dynamics of Paektu.
“Essentially, whenever earthquakes occur anywhere in the world, we’ll record them in North Korea, and use the way that energy interacts with the ground underneath to build an image of what the inside of the volcano looks like,” Hammond says. “If we can understand that, that can guide us in thinking about the potential for future eruptions.”
Additionally, Oppenheimer and Iacovino gathered geologic samples, mostly pumice, from a variety of sites around the mountain. “From collecting the rocks, you can get an idea of what state the volcano was in just before it erupted,” says Hammond.
They stored some of their equipment in the houses of local villagers, most of whom had never seen a Westerner before. “They were incredibly nice, really friendly,” Hammond says. “We even got to eat lunch with them on occasion. Everyone seemed happy to be involved, and recognized this was something important that needed to be done.”
Similar to how the few Westerners who visit North Korea as tourists are required to take part in a state-organized sightseeing tour, Hammond’s team was taken to see a series of officially-sanctioned sites. “We went to Kim Jong-Il’s birthplace, which is actually on the flanks of the volcano,” Hammond says. “And we saw Arirang, which is really special—it’s like 100,000 people doing gymnastics, and at the back they have 10,000 people holding cards that they flip around to make pictures.” Some of the cards, in fact, showed Paektu, which is traditionally considered an ancestral origin of Korean culture, in addition to Kim Jong-Il’s birthplace.
Hammond counts the trip as a big success. Logistical hurdles obviously remain—for the foreseeable future, for example, the seismometers’ data will be downloaded and sent out every few months by the Korean Earthquake Bureau, instead of transmitted in real time. Still, he found that working with North Korean researchers was not much different from working with scientists anywhere.
“Communication can be hard, but I found that once we got into the science, there was something of a common language for all of us,” he says. “They want to understand that volcano—that’s what drives them, and that’s what drives us as well.”
August 28, 2013
If the phenomena of Star Trek, Area 51, Ancient Aliens, or War of the Worlds can be taken as anthropological clues, humanity is consumed with curiosity about the possibility of life beyond Earth. Do any of the 4,437 newly discovered extrasolar planets contain traces of life? What would these life forms look like? How would they function? If they came to Earth, would we share ET-esque embraces or would the visit be more a Battle Los Angeles style throw down?
Life outside of Earth has spawned endless interest, but less public interest seems to be given to how life on Earth began 3 to 4 billion years ago. But the two topics, it turns out, might be more connected than one would believe–in fact, it’s possible that life on Earth really began outside of Earth, on Mars.
At this year’s Goldschmidt conference in Florence, Steve Benner, a molecular biophysicist and biochemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution will present this idea to an audience of geologists. He’s well aware that half the room will be adamantly against his idea. “People will probably throw things,” he laughs, hinting at a consciousness of how out-of-this-world his ideas sound. But there’s scientific basis for his assertion (PDF), a logical reason for why life maybe truly did begin on Mars.
Science holds a number of paradoxes: If there are an infinite number of stars in the sky, why is the night sky dark? How can light act as both a particle and a wave? If the French eat so much cheese and butter, why is the incidence of coronary disease in their country so low? The origins of life are no different; they, too, are dictated by two paradoxes: the tar paradox, and the water paradox. Both, according to Benner, make it difficult to explain the creation of life on Earth. But both, he also notes, can be solved by placing the creation of life on Mars.
The first, the tar paradox, is simple enough to understand. “If you put energy into organic material it turns to asphalt, not to life,” Benner explains. Without access to Darwinian evolution–that is, without organic molecules having the opportunity to reproduce and create offspring who themselves, mutations and all, are reproducible–organic matter that is bathed in energy (from sunlight or from geothermal heat) will turn into tar. Early Earth was full of organic materials–chains of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen that are believed to be the building blocks of life. Given the tar paradox, these organic materials should have devolved into asphalt. “The question is, how is it possible that the organic materials on early Earth managed to leap from their asphaltic fate to something that had access to Darwinian evolution? Because once that happens–presumably–you’re off to the races, and then you can manage whatever environment you want,” Benner explains.
The second paradox is the so-called water paradox. The water paradox states that even though life needs water, if organic material could escape its asphaltic fate and move toward Darwinian evolution, you can’t assemble the necessary building blocks in a flood of water. The building blocks of life start with genetic polymers–the well-known player DNA and its less-famous but still very smart friend RNA. Experts agree that RNA was likely the first genetic polymer, partly because in the modern world, RNA plays such an important role in the manufacturing other organic compounds. “RNA is the key to the ribosome, which is what makes proteins. There’s almost no question that RNA, which is a molecule involved in catalysis, arose before proteins arose,” Benner explains. The difficulty is that for RNA to assemble into long strands–which is needed for genetics–you can’t have the assembly taking place in water. “Most people think that water is essential for life. Very few people understand how corrosive water is,” Benner says. For RNA, water is extremely corrosive–bonds cannot be made within water, preventing long-strands from forming.
However, Benner says that these paradoxes can be resolved with the help of two very important groups of minerals
. The first are borate minerals. Borate minerals–which contain the element boron–prevent life’s building blocks from devolving into tar if incorporated into organic compounds. Boron, as an element, is seeking electrons to make itself stable. It finds these in oxygen, and together the oxygen and boron form the mineral borate. But if the oxygen boron finds is already bonded to carbohydrates, the carbohydrates linked with boron form a complex organic molecule dotted with borate that’s less resistant to decomposition.
The second group of minerals that come into play
involve those that contain molybdate, a compound that consists of molybdenum and oxygen. Molybdenum, more famous for its conspiratorial relation to the Douglas Adams classic A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than for its other properties, is crucial, because it takes the carbohydrates that borate stabilized, bonds to them and catalyzes a reaction which rearranges them into ribose: the R in RNA.
Which brings us–however circuitously–back to Mars. Both borate and molybdate are scarce and would have been especially scarce on early Earth. The molybdenum in molybdate is
highly oxidized, meaning that it needs electrons from oxygen or other readily available negatively charged ions to achieve stability. But early Earth was too oxygen-scarce to have readily created molybdate. Plus, returning to the water paradox, early Earth was quite literally a water world–with land making up only two to three percent of its surface. Borates are soluble in water–if early Earth was a flooded planet, as scientists believe, it would have been difficult for an already scarce element now diluted in a huge ocean to find ephemeral organic molecules to bond with. Moreover, Earth’s status as a water-logged planet makes it difficult for RNA to form, because that process can’t easily happen in water on its own.
These concepts become less of an issue on Mars, however. Though water was certainly present on Mars 3 to 4 billion years ago, it was never as abundant as it was on Earth, creating the possibility that Martian deserts–locations where borate and molybdate could concentrate–could have fostered the formation of long strands of RNA. Moreover, 4 billion years ago, Mars’ atmosphere contained much more oxygen than Earth’s. Further, recent analysis of a Martian meteorite confirms that boron was once present on Mars.
And, Benner believes, molybdate was there too. “It’s only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidized that it is able to influence how early life formed,”Benner explains. “Molybdate couldn’t have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did.”
Benner believes that these factors imply that life originated on Mars, our closest neighbor in space equipped with all the right ingredients. But life wasn’t sustained there. “Of course Mars dried out. The process of drying was very important for life originating, but not sustaining,” Benner explains. Instead, a meteor would have to have hit Mars, projecting materials into space–and eventually those materials, including some building blocks of life, might have made it to Earth.
Would the sudden change in environment have been too harsh for the fledgling building blocks to survive
? Benner doesn’t think so. “Let’s say life starts on Mars, and becomes very happy in the Martian environment,” Benner explains. “A meteor comes to hit Mars, and the impact ejects rocks on which your predecessor is sitting. Then you land on Earth, and you discover that there is lots of water that you were treating as a scarce element. Will it find the environment adequate? It certainly appreciated the existence of enough water that it didn’t have to worry.”
So, sorry Lil Wayne, looks like it might be time to relinquish your claim to the fourth rock from the Sun. As Brenner notes, “The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians.”