Study hints that ancient Earth made its own water — geologically

A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University– and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

“When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water–in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell–a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser–to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface–a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found–a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”–as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier–a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said–an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

“One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

“If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

Groundwater warming up in synch

For their study, the researchers were able to fall back on uninterrupted long-term temperature measurements of groundwater flows around the cities of Cologne and Karlsruhe, where the operators of the local waterworks have been measuring the temperature of the groundwater, which is largely uninfluenced by humans, for forty years. This is unique and a rare commodity for the researchers. “For us, the data was a godsend,” stresses Peter Bayer, a senior assistant at ETH Zurich’s Geological Institute. Even with some intensive research, they would not have been able to find a comparable series of measurements. Evidently, it is less interesting or too costly for waterworks to measure groundwater temperatures systematically for a lengthy period of time. “Or the data isn’t digitalised and only archived on paper,” suspects the hydrogeologist.

Damped image of atmospheric warming

Based on the readings, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the groundwater is not just warming up; the warming stages observed in the atmosphere are also echoed. “Global warming is reflected directly in the groundwater, albeit damped and with a certain time lag,” says Bayer, summarising the main results that the project has yielded. The researchers published their study in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences.

The data also reveals that the groundwater close to the surface down to a depth of around sixty metres has warmed up statistically significantly in the course of global warming over the last forty years. This water heating follows the warming pattern of the local and regional climate, which in turn mirrors that of global warming.

The groundwater reveals how the atmosphere has made several temperature leaps at irregular intervals. These “regime shifts” can also be observed in the global climate, as the researchers write in their study. Bayer was surprised at how quickly the groundwater responded to climate change.

Heat exchange with the subsoil

The earth’s atmosphere has warmed up by an average of 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade in the last fifty years. And this warming doesn’t stop at the subsoil, either, as other climate scientists have demonstrated in the last two decades with drillings all over the world. However, the researchers only tended to consider soils that did not contain any water or where there were no groundwater flow.

While the fact that the groundwater has not escaped climate change was revealed by researchers from Eawag and ETH Zurich in a study published three years ago, it only concerned “artificial” groundwater. In order to enhance it, river water is trickled off in certain areas. The temperature profile of the groundwater generated as a result thus matches that of the river water.

The new study, however, examines groundwater that has barely been influenced by humans. According to Bayer, it is plausible that the natural groundwater flow is also warming up in the course of climate change. “The difference in temperature between the atmosphere and the subsoil balances out naturally.” The energy transfer takes place via thermal conduction and the groundwater flow, much like a heat exchanger, which enables the heat transported to spread in the subsoil and level out.

The consequences of these findings, however, are difficult to gauge. The warmer temperatures might influence subterranean ecosystems on the one hand and groundwater-dependent biospheres on the other, which include cold areas in flowing waters where the groundwater discharges. For cryophilic organisms such as certain fish, groundwater warming could have negative consequences.

Consequences difficult to gauge

Higher groundwater temperatures also influence the water’s chemical composition, especially the chemical equilibria of nitrate or carbonate. After all, chemical reactions usually take place more quickly at higher temperatures. Bacterial activity might also increase at rising water temperatures. If the groundwater becomes warmer, undesirable bacteria such as gastro-intestinal disease pathogens might multiply more effectively. However, the scientists can also imagine positive effects. “The groundwater’s excess heat could be used geothermally for instance,” adds Kathrin Menberg, the first author of the study.

A unique approach to monitoring groundwater supplies near Ohio fracking sites

This image shows a drilling rig in Carroll County, Ohio. -  Amy Townsend-Small
This image shows a drilling rig in Carroll County, Ohio. – Amy Townsend-Small

A University of Cincinnati research project is taking a groundbreaking approach to monitoring groundwater resources near fracking sites in Ohio. Claire Botner, a UC graduate student in geology, will outline the project at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting & Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver.

Botner’s research is part of UC Groundwater Research of Ohio (GRO), a collaborative research project out of UC to examine the effects of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) on groundwater in the Utica Shale region of eastern Ohio. First launched in Carroll County in 2012, the GRO team of researchers is examining methane levels and origins of methane in private wells and springs before, during and after the onset of fracking. The team travels to the region to take water samples four times a year.

Amy Townsend-Small, the lead researcher for GRO and a UC assistant professor of geology, says the UC study is unique in comparison with studies on water wells in other shale-rich areas of the U.S. where fracking is taking place – such as the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania.

Townsend-Small says water samples finding natural gas-derived methane in wells near Pennsylvania fracking sites were taken only after fracking had occurred, so methane levels in those wells were not documented prior to or during fracking in Pennsylvania.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves using millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to break up organic-rich shale to release natural gas resources.

Proponents say the practice promises a future in lower energy prices, an increase in domestic jobs and less dependence on foreign oil from unstable overseas governments.

Opponents raise concerns about increasing methane gas levels (a powerful greenhouse gas) and other contamination involving the spillover of fracking wastewater in the groundwater of shale-rich regions.

“The only way people with private groundwater will know whether or not their water is affected by fracking is through regular monitoring,” says Townsend-Small.

The Ohio samples are being analyzed by UC researchers for concentrations of methane as well as other hydrocarbons and salt, which is pulled up in the fracking water mixture from the shales. The shales are ancient ocean sediments.

Botner’s study involves testing on 22 private wells in Carroll County between November 2012 and last May. The first fracking permits were issued in the region in 2011. So far, results indicate that any methane readings in groundwater wells came from organic matter. In less than a handful of cases, the natural methane levels were relatively high, above 10 milligrams per liter. However, most of the wells carried low levels of methane.

The UC sampling has now been expanded into Columbiana, Harrison, Stark and Belmont counties in Ohio. Researchers then review data on private drinking water wells with the homeowners. “We’re working on interacting with these communities and educating them about fracking as well as gathering scientific data, which is lacking on a very sensitive issue,” says Botner. “It can also be reassuring to receive data on their water supplies from an objective, university resource.”

The team also is seeking additional funding to begin monitoring groundwater wells near wastewater injection wells, where fracking brine is deposited after the wells are drilled.


Funding for Botner’s research to be presented at the GSA meeting is supported by a grant from the Missouri-based Deer Creek Foundation.

Botner is among UC graduate students and faculty who are presenting more than two dozen research papers, PowerPoint presentations or poster exhibitions at the GSA meeting. The meeting draws geoscientists from around the world representing more than 40 different disciplines.

UC’s nationally ranked Department of Geology conducts field research around the world in areas spanning paleontology, Quaternary geology, geomorphology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, tectonics, environmental geology and biogeochemistry.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 26,500 members from academia, government and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind.

Geologists dig into science around the globe, on land and at sea

University of Cincinnati geologists will be well represented among geoscientists from around the world at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting and Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver, Canada, and will feature geoscientists representing more than 40 different disciplines. The meeting will feature highlights of UC’s geological research that is taking place globally, from Chile to Costa Rica, Belize, Bulgaria, Scotland, Trinidad and a new project under development in the Canary Islands.

UC faculty and graduate students are lead or supporting authors on more than two dozen Earth Sciences-related research papers and/or PowerPoint and poster exhibitions at the GSA meeting.

The presentations also cover UC’s longtime and extensive exploration and findings in the Cincinnati Arch of the Ohio Valley, world-renowned for its treasure trove of paleontology – plant and animal fossils that were preserved when a shallow sea covered the region 450 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era.

Furthermore, in an effort to diversify the field of researchers in the Earth Sciences, a UC assistant professor of science education and geology, Christopher Atchison, was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation and the Society of Exploration Geophysics to lead a research field trip in Vancouver for students with disabilities. Graduate and undergraduate student participants will conduct the research on Oct. 18 and then join events at the GSA meeting. They’ll be guided by geoscience researchers representing the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. Those guides include Atchison and Julie Hendricks, a UC special education major from Batavia, Ohio, who will be using her expertise in American Sign Language (ASL) to assist student researchers representing Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.

The meeting will also formally introduce Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology, as the new president-elect of the national Paleontological Society Thomas Lowell, professor of geology, is a recently elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America – a recognition for producing a substantial body of research. Lowell joins colleagues Warren Huff, professor of geology, and Lewis Owen, professor and head of the Department of Geology, as GSA Fellows.

Here are highlights of the UC research to be presented at the GSA meeting Oct. 19-22:

Staying Put or Moving On? Researchers Develop Model to Identify Migrating Patterns of Different Species

Are plant and animal species what you might call lifelong residents – they never budge from the same place? That’s a relatively common belief in ecology and paleoecology – that classes of organisms tend to stay put over millions of years and either evolve or go extinct as the environment changes. UC researchers developed a series of numerical models simulating shifting habitats in fossil regions to compare whether species changed environments when factoring geological and other changes in the fossil record. They found that geologically driven changes in the quality of the fossil record did not distort the real ecological signal, and that most species maintained their particular habitat preferences through time. They did not evolve to adapt to changing environments, but rather, they migrated, following their preferred environments. That is to say, they did not stay in place geographically but by moving, they were able to track their favored habitats. Field research for the project was conducted in New York state as well as the paleontological-rich region of Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio, Lexington, Ky.; and Indiana. Funding for the project was supported by The Paleontological Society; The Geological Society of America; The American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department’s Kenneth E. Caster Memorial Fund.

Presenter: Andrew Zaffos, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller, Carlton Brett

Pioneering Study Provides a Better Understanding of What Southern Ohio and Central Kentucky Looked Like Hundreds of Millions of Years Ago

The end of the Ordovician period resulted in one of the largest mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. T.J. Malgieri, a UC master’s student in geology, led this study examining the limestone and shales of the Upper Ordovician Period – the geologic Grant Lake Formation covering southern Ohio and central Kentucky – to recreate how the shoreline looked some 445 million years ago. In this pioneering study of mud cracks and deposits in the rocks, the researchers discovered that the shoreline existed to the south and that the water became deeper toward the north. By determining these ecological parameters, the ramp study provides a better understanding of environments during a time of significant ecological change. Malgieri says the approach can be applied to other basins throughout the world to create depth indicators in paeloenvironments.

Presenter: T.J. Malgieri, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Carlton Brett, Cameron Schalbach, Christopher Aucoin, UC; James Thomka (UC, University of Akron); Benjamin Dattilo, Indiana University Purdue University Ft. Wayne

UC Researchers Take a Unique Approach to Monitoring Groundwater Supplies Near Ohio Fracking Sites

A collaborative research project out of UC is examining effects of fracking on groundwater in the Utica Shale region of eastern Ohio. First launched in Carroll County in 2012, the team of researchers is examining methane levels and origins of methane in private wells and springs before, during and after the onset of fracking. The team travels to the region to take water samples four times a year.

Presenter: Claire Botner, a UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Amy Townsend-Small, UC assistant professor of geology

Sawing Through Seagrass to Reveal Clues to the Past

Kelsy Feser, a UC doctoral student in geology, is working at several sites around St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to see if human developments impact marine life. The research focuses on shells of snails and clams that have piled up on the sea floor for thousands of years. Digging through layers of thick seagrass beds on the ocean floor, Feser can examine deeper shells that were abundant thousands of years ago and compare them to shallower layers that include living clams and snails. Early analysis indicates a greater population of potentially pollution-tolerant mussels in an area near a landfill on the island, compared with shells from much earlier time periods. Feser is doing this sea grass analysis around additional sites including tourist resorts, an oil refinery, a power plant and a marina. Funding for the research is provided by the Paleontological Society, the GSA, the American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department.

Presenter: Kelsy Feser, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller

Turning to the Present to Understand the Past

In order to properly interpret changes in climate, vegetation, or animal populations over time, it is necessary to establish a comparative baseline. Stella Mosher, a UC geology master’s student, is studying stable carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium isotopes in modern vegetation from the Canary Islands in order to quantify modern climatic and environmental patterns. Her findings will provide a crucial foundation for future UC research on regional paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental shifts.

Presenter: Stella Mosher, graduate student in geology

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, assistant professor of geology; Yurena Yanes, research assistant professor of geology

A Study on the Impact of Sea Spray

Sulfur is an element of interest in both geology and archaeology, because it can reveal information about the diets of ancient cultures. This study takes a novel approach to studying how sea spray can affect the sulfur isotope values in plants on a small island, focusing on the island of Trinidad. Researchers collected leaves from different plant species to get their sulfur isotope value, exploring whether wind direction played a role in how plants were influenced by the marine water from sea spray. Vegetation was collected from the edges of the island to the deeply forested areas. The study found that sulfur isotope values deeper inland and on the calmer west coast were dramatically lower in indicating marine water than vegetation along the edges and the east coast. The findings can help indicate the foraging activities of humans and animals. Funding for the study was supported by the Geological Society of America, the UC Graduate Student Association and the UC Department of Geology.

Presenter: Janine Sparks, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, UC assistant professor, geology/anthropology; William Gilhooly III, assistant professor, Earth Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Proxy Wars – The Paleobiology Data Debate

For the past several decades, paleobiologists have built large databases containing information on fossil plants and animals of all geological ages to investigate the timing and extent of major changes in biodiversity – changes such as mass extinctions that have taken place throughout the history of life. Biodiversity researcher Arnold Miller says that in building these databases, it can be a challenge to accurately identify species in the geological record, so it has been common for researchers to instead study biodiversity trends using data compiled at broader levels of biological classification, including the genus level, under the assumption that these patterns are effective proxies for what would be observed among species if the data were available. Miller has been involved in construction of The Paleobiology Database, an extensive public online resource that contains global genus- and species-level data, now permitting a direct, novel look at the similarities and differences between patterns at these two levels. Miller’s discussion aims to set the record straight as to when researchers can effectively use a genus as a proxy for a species and also when it’s inappropriate. This research is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

Presenter: Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology

A Novel New Method for Examining the Distribution of Pores in Rocks

Oil and gas companies take an interest in the porosity of sedimentary rocks because those open spaces can be filled with fuel resources. Companies involved with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) are also interested in porosity because it could be a source for storing wastewater as a result of fracking. In this unique study, UC researchers made pore-size measurements similar to those used in crystal size distribution (CSD) theory to determine distribution of pores as a function of their sizes, using thin sections of rock. In addition to providing accurate porosity distribution at a given depth, their approach can be extended to evaluate variation of pore spaces as a function of depth in a drill core, percent of pores in each size range, and pore types and pore geometry. The Texas Bureau of Economic Geology provided the rock samples used in the study. Funding for the study was supported by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

Presenter: Ugurlu Ibrahim, master’s student in geology

Co-author: Attila Kilinc, professor of geology

Researchers Turn to 3-D Technology to Examine the Formation of Cliffband Landscapes

A blend of photos and technology takes a new twist on studying cliff landscapes and how they were formed. The method called Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry – computational photo image processing techniques – is used to study the formation of cliff landscapes in Colorado and Utah and to understand how the layered rock formations in the cliffs are affected by erosion.

Presenter: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Testing the Links Between Climate and Sedimentation in the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile

The Atacama Desert is used as an analog for understanding the surface of Mars. In some localities, there has been no activity for millions of years. UC researchers have been working along the flank of the Andes Mountains in northern Chile, and this particular examination focuses on the large deposits of sediment that are transported down the plateau and gather at the base. The researchers are finding that their samples are not reflecting the million-year-old relics previously found on such expeditions, but may indicate more youthful activity possibly resulting from climatic events. The research is supported by a $273,634 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore glacio-geomorphic constraints on the climate history of subtropical northern Chile.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Uncovering the Explosive Mysteries Surrounding the Manganese of Northeast Bulgaria

UC’s geology collections hold minerals from field expeditions around the world, including manganese from the Obrochishte mines of northeastern Bulgaria. Found in the region’s sedimentary rock, manganese can be added to metals such as steel to improve strength. It’s widely believed that these manganese formations were the result of ocean water composition at the time the sediments were deposited in the ocean. In this presentation, UC researchers present new information on why they believe the manganese formations resulted from volcanic eruptions, perhaps during the Rupelian stage of the geologic time scale, when bentonite clay minerals were formed. The presentation evolved from an advance class project last spring under the direction of Warren Huff, a UC professor of geology.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Warren Huff, UC professor of geology; Christopher Aucoin; Michael Harrell; Thomas Malgieri; Barry Maynard; Cameron Schwalbach; Ibrahim Ugurlu; Antony Winrod

Two UC researchers will chair sessions at the GSA meeting: Doctoral student Gary Motz will chair the session, “Topics in Paleoecology: Modern Analogues and Ancient Systems,” on Oct. 19. Matt Vrazo, also a doctoral student in geology, is chairing “Paleontology: Trace Fossils, Taphonomy and Exceptional Preservation” on Oct. 21, and will present, “Taphonomic and Ecological Controls on Eurypterid Lagerstäten: A Model for Preservation in the Mid-Paleozoic.”


UC’s nationally ranked Department of Geology conducts field research around the world in areas spanning paleontology, quaternary geology, geomorphology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, tectonics, environmental geology and biogeochemistry.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 26,500 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind.

Contaminated water in 2 states linked to faulty shale gas wells

Faulty well integrity, not hydraulic fracturing deep underground, is the primary cause of drinking water contamination from shale gas extraction in parts of Pennsylvania and Texas, according to a new study by researchers from five universities.

The scientists from Duke, Ohio State, Stanford, Dartmouth and the University of Rochester
published their peer-reviewed study Sept. 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using noble gas and hydrocarbon tracers, they analyzed the gas content of more than 130 drinking water wells in the two states.

“We found eight clusters of wells — seven in Pennsylvania and one in Texas — with contamination, including increased levels of natural gas from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and from shallower, intermediate layers in both states,” said Thomas H. Darrah, assistant professor of earth science at Ohio State, who led the study while he was a research scientist at Duke.

“Our data clearly show that the contamination in these clusters stems from well-integrity problems such as poor casing and cementing,” Darrah said.

“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke.

In four of the affected clusters, the team’s noble gas analysis shows that methane from drill sites escaped into drinking water wells from shallower depths through faulty or insufficient rings of cement surrounding a gas well’s shaft. In three clusters, the tests suggest the methane leaked through faulty well casings. In one cluster, it was linked to an underground well failure.

“People’s water has been harmed by drilling,” said Robert B. Jackson, professor of environmental and earth sciences at Stanford and Duke. “In Texas, we even saw two homes go from clean to contaminated after our sampling began.”

“The good news is that most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity,” Darrah stressed.

Using both noble gas and hydrocarbon tracers — a novel combination that enabled the researchers to identify and distinguish between the signatures of naturally occurring methane and stray gas contamination from shale gas drill sites — the team analyzed gas content in 113 drinking-water wells and one natural methane seep overlying the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, and in 20 wells overlying the Barnett shale in Texas. Sampling was conducted in 2012 and 2013. Sampling sites included wells where contamination had been debated previously; wells known to have naturally high level of methane and salts, which tend to co-occur in areas overlying shale gas deposits; and wells located both within and beyond a one-kilometer distance from drill sites.

Noble gases such as helium, neon or argon are useful for tracing fugitive methane because although they mix with natural gas and can be transported with it, they are inert and are not altered by microbial activity or oxidation. By measuring changes in ratios in these tag-along noble gases, researchers can determine the source of fugitive methane and the mechanism by which it was transported into drinking water aquifers — whether it migrated there as a free gas or was dissolved in water.

“This is the first study to provide a comprehensive analysis of noble gases and their isotopes in groundwater near shale gas wells,” said Darrah, who is continuing the analysis in his lab at Ohio State. “Using these tracers, combined with the isotopic and chemical fingerprints of hydrocarbons in the water and its salt content, we can pinpoint the sources and pathways of methane contamination, and determine if it is natural or not.”

New Oso report, rockfall in Yosemite, and earthquake models

From AGU’s blogs: Oso disaster had its roots in earlier landslides

A research team tasked with being some of the first scientists and engineers to evaluate extreme events has issued its findings on disastrous Oso, Washington, landslide. The report studies the conditions and causes related to the March 22 mudslide that killed 43 people and destroyed the Steelhead Haven neighborhood in Oso, Washington. The team from the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) Association, funded by the National Science Foundation, determined that intense rainfall in the three weeks before the slide likely was a major issue, but factors such as altered groundwater migration, weakened soil consistency because of previous landslides and changes in hillside stresses played key roles.

From this week’s Eos: Reducing Rockfall Risk in Yosemite National Park

The glacially sculpted granite walls of Yosemite Valley attract 4 million visitors a year, but rockfalls from these cliffs pose substantial hazards. Responding to new studies, the National Park Service recently took actions to reduce the human risk posed by rockfalls in Yosemite National Park.

From AGU’s journals: A new earthquake model may explain discrepancies in San Andreas fault slip

Investigating the earthquake hazards of the San Andreas Fault System requires an accurate understanding of accumulating stresses and the history of past earthquakes. Faults tend to go through an “earthquake cycle”-locking and accumulating stress, rupturing in an earthquake, and locking again in a well-accepted process known as “elastic rebound.” One of the key factors in preparing for California’s next “Big One” is estimating the fault slip rate, the speed at which one side of the San Andreas Fault is moving past the other.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways geoscientists study fault slip. Geologists formulate estimates by studying geologic features at key locations to study slip rates through time. Geodesists, scientists who measure the size and shape of the planet, use technologies like GPS and satellite radar interferometry to estimate the slip rate, estimates which often differ from the geologists’ estimations.

In a recent study by Tong et al., the authors develop a new three-dimensional viscoelastic earthquake cycle model that represents 41 major fault segments of the San Andreas Fault System. While previous research has suggested that there are discrepancies between the fault slip rates along the San Andreas as measured by geologic and geodetic means, the authors find that there are no significant differences between the two measures if the thickness of the tectonic plate and viscoelasticity are taken into account. The authors find that the geodetic slip rate depends on the plate thickness over the San Andreas, a variable lacking in previous research.

The team notes that of the 41 studied faults within the San Andreas Fault system, a small number do in fact have disagreements between the geologic and geodetic slip rates. These differences could be attributed to inadequate data coverage or to incomplete knowledge of the fault structures or the chronological sequence of past events.

Team develops a geothermometer for methane formation

John Eiler (left) and Daniel Stolper (right) with the Caltech-led team's prototype mass spectrometer -- the Thermo IRMS 253 Ultra. This instrument is the first equipped to measure abundances of rare isotopic versions of complex molecules, even where combinations of isotopic substitutions result in closely similar masses. This machine enabled the first precise measurements of molecules of methane that contain two heavy isotopes -- 13CH3D, which incorporates both a carbon-13 atom and a deuterium atom, and 12CH2D2, which includes two deuterium atoms. -  Caltech
John Eiler (left) and Daniel Stolper (right) with the Caltech-led team’s prototype mass spectrometer — the Thermo IRMS 253 Ultra. This instrument is the first equipped to measure abundances of rare isotopic versions of complex molecules, even where combinations of isotopic substitutions result in closely similar masses. This machine enabled the first precise measurements of molecules of methane that contain two heavy isotopes — 13CH3D, which incorporates both a carbon-13 atom and a deuterium atom, and 12CH2D2, which includes two deuterium atoms. – Caltech

Methane is a simple molecule consisting of just one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms. But that simplicity belies the complex role the molecule plays on Earth-it is an important greenhouse gas, is chemically active in the atmosphere, is used in many ecosystems as a kind of metabolic currency, and is the main component of natural gas, which is an energy source.

Methane also poses a complex scientific challenge: it forms through a number of different biological and nonbiological processes under a wide range of conditions. For example, microbes that live in cows’ stomachs make it; it forms by thermal breakdown of buried organic matter; and it is released by hot hydrothermal vents on the sea floor. And, unlike many other, more structurally complex molecules, simply knowing its chemical formula does not necessarily reveal how it formed. Therefore, it can be difficult to know where a sample of methane actually came from.

But now a team of scientists led by Caltech geochemist John M. Eiler has developed a new technique that can, for the first time, determine the temperature at which a natural methane sample formed. Since methane produced biologically in nature forms below about 80°C, and methane created through the thermal breakdown of more complex organic matter forms at higher temperatures (reaching 160°C�°C, depending on the depth of formation), this determination can aid in figuring out how and where the gas formed.

A paper describing the new technique and its first applications as a geothermometer appears in a special section about natural gas in the current issue of the journal Science. Former Caltech graduate student Daniel A. Stolper (PhD ’14) is the lead author on the paper.

“Everyone who looks at methane sees problems, sees questions, and all of these will be answered through basic understanding of its formation, its storage, its chemical pathways,” says Eiler, the Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology and professor of geochemistry at Caltech.

“The issue with many natural gas deposits is that where you find them-where you go into the ground and drill for the methane-is not where the gas was created. Many of the gases we’re dealing with have moved,” says Stolper. “In making these measurements of temperature, we are able to really, for the first time, say in an independent way, ‘We know the temperature, and thus the environment where this methane was formed.'”

Eiler’s group determines the sources and formation conditions of materials by looking at the distribution of heavy isotopes-species of atoms that have extra neutrons in their nuclei and therefore have different chemistry. For example, the most abundant form of carbon is carbon-12, which has six protons and six neutrons in its nucleus. However, about 1 percent of all carbon possesses an extra neutron, which makes carbon-13. Chemicals compete for these heavy isotopes because they slow molecular motions, making molecules more stable. But these isotopes are also very rare, so there is a chemical tug-of-war between molecules, which ends up concentrating the isotopes in the molecules that benefit most from their stabilizing effects. Similarly, the heavy isotopes like to bind, or “clump,” with each other, meaning that there will be an excess of molecules containing two or more of the isotopes compared to molecules containing just one. This clumping effect is strong at low temperatures and diminishes at higher temperatures. Therefore, determining how many of the molecules in a sample contain heavy isotopes clumped together can tell you something about the temperature at which the sample formed.

Eiler’s group has previously used such a “clumped isotope” technique to determine the body temperatures of dinosaurs, ground temperatures in ancient East Africa, and surface temperatures of early Mars. Those analyses looked at the clumping of carbon-13 and oxygen-18 in various minerals. In the new work, Eiler and his colleagues were able to examine the clumping of carbon-13 and deuterium (hydrogen-2).

The key enabling technology was a new mass spectrometer that the team designed in collaboration with Thermo Fisher, mixing and matching existing technologies to piece together a new platform. The prototype spectrometer, the Thermo IRMS 253 Ultra, is equipped to analyze samples in a way that measures the abundances of several rare versions, or isotopologues, of the methane molecule, including two “clumped isotope” species: 13CH3D, which has both a carbon-13 atom and a deuterium atom, and 12CH2D2, which includes two deuterium atoms.

Using the new spectrometer, the researchers first tested gases they made in the laboratory to make sure the method returned the correct formation temperatures.

They then moved on to analyze samples taken from environments where much is known about the conditions under which methane likely formed. For example, sometimes when methane forms in shale, an impermeable rock, it is trapped and stored, so that it cannot migrate from its point of origin. In such cases, detailed knowledge of the temperature history of the rock constrains the possible formation temperature of methane in that rock. Eiler and Stolper analyzed samples of methane from the Haynesville Shale, located in parts of Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, where the shale is not thought to have moved much after methane generation. And indeed, the clumped isotope technique returned a range of temperatures (169°C�°C) that correspond well with current reservoir temperatures (163°C�°C). The method was also spot-on for methane collected from gas that formed as a product of oil-eating bugs living on top of oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. It returned temperatures of 34°C and 48°C plus or minus 8°C for those samples, and the known temperatures of the sampling locations were 42°C and 48°C, respectively.

To validate further the new technique, the researchers next looked at methane from the Marcellus Shale, a formation beneath much of the Appalachian basin, where the gas-trapping rock is known to have formed at high temperature before being uplifted into a cooler environment. The scientists wanted to be sure that the methane did not reset to the colder temperature after formation. Using their clumped isotope technique, the researchers verified this, returning a high formation temperature.

“It must be that once the methane exists and is stable, it’s a fossil remnant of what its formation environment was like,” Eiler says. “It only remembers where it formed.”

An important application of the technique is suggested by the group’s measurements of methane from the Antrim Shale in Michigan, where groundwater contains both biologically and thermally produced methane. Clumped isotope temperatures returned for samples from the area clearly revealed the different origins of the gases, hitting about 40°C for a biologically produced sample and about 115°C for a sample involving a mix of biologically and thermally produced methane.

“There are many cases where it is unclear whether methane in a sample of groundwater is the product of subsurface biological communities or has leaked from petroleum-forming systems,” says Eiler. “Our results from the Antrim Shale indicate that this clumped isotope technique will be useful for distinguishing between these possible sources.”

One final example, from the Potiguar Basin in Brazil, demonstrates another way the new method will serve geologists. In this case the methane was dissolved in oil and had been free to migrate from its original location. The researchers initially thought there was a problem with their analysis because the temperature they returned was much higher than the known temperature of the oil. However, recent evidence from drill core rocks from the region shows that the deepest parts of the system actually got very hot millions of years ago. This has led to a new interpretation suggesting that the methane gas originated deep in the system at high temperatures and then percolated up and mixed into the oil.

“This shows that our new technique is not just a geothermometer for methane formation,” says Stolper. “It’s also something you can use to think about the geology of the system.”

Another concern arises over groundwater contamination from fracking accidents

The oil and gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could potentially contribute more pollutants to groundwater than past research has suggested, according to a new study in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology. Scientists are reporting that when spilled or deliberately applied to land, waste fluids from fracking are likely picking up tiny particles in the soil that attract heavy metals and other chemicals with possible health implications for people and animals.

Tammo S. Steenhuis and colleagues note that fracking, which involves injecting huge volumes of fluids underground to release gas and oil, has led to an energy boom in the U.S. But it has also ignited controversy for many reasons. One in particular involves flowback, which refers to fluids that surge back out of the fracked wells during the process. It contains water, lubricants, solvents and other substances from the original fracking fluid or extracted from the shale formation. High-profile spills and in some places, legal application of these liquids to land, have raised alarms. Research has linked fracking to groundwater contamination that could have major health effects. But another factor that no one has really addressed could play a role: colloids. These tiny pieces of minerals, clay and other particles are a concern because they attract heavy metals and other environmental toxins, and have been linked to groundwater contamination. Steenhuis’ team set out to take a closer look.

To simulate what would happen to colloids in soil after a fracking spill, the researchers flushed flowback fluids through sand with a known amount of colloids. They found that the fluids dislodged about a third of the colloids, far more than deionized water alone. When they increased the flow rate, the fluids picked up an additional 36 percent. “This indicates that infiltration of flowback fluid could turn soils into an additional source of groundwater contaminants such as heavy metals, radionuclides and microbial pathogens,” the scientists conclude. More research with real soils is planned.

Victoria’s volcano count rises

Geologists have discovered three previously unrecorded volcanoes in volcanically active southeast Australia.

The new Monash University research, published in the Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, gives a detailed picture of an area of volcanic centres already known to geologists in the region.

Covering an area of 19,000 square kilometres in Victoria and South Australia, with over 400 volcanoes, the Newer Volcanics Province (NVP) features the youngest volcanoes in Australia including Mount Schank and Mount Gambier.

Focusing on the Hamilton region, lead researcher Miss Julie Boyce from the School of Geosciences said the surprising discovery means additional volcanic centres may yet be discovered in the NVP.

“Victoria’s latest episode of volcanism began about eight million years ago, and has helped to shape the landscape. The volcanic deposits, including basalt, are among the youngest rocks in Victoria but most people know little about them,”Miss Boyce said.

“Though it’s been more than 5000 years since the last volcanic eruption in Australia, it’s important that we understand where, when and how these volcanoes erupted. The province is still active, so there may be future eruptions.”

The largest unrecorded volcano is a substantial maar-cone volcanic complex – a broad, low relief volcanic crater caused by an explosion when groundwater comes into contact with hot magma – identified 37 kilometres east of Hamilton.

Miss Boyce said the discoveries were made possible only by analysing a combination of satellite photographs, detailed NASA models of the topography of the area and the distribution of magnetic minerals in the rocks, alongside site visits to build a detailed picture of the Hamilton region of the NVP.

“Traditionally, volcanic sites are analysed by one or two of these techniques. This is the first time that this multifaceted approach has been applied to the NVP and potentially it could be used to study other volcanic provinces worldwide.”

The NVP is considered active, as carbon dioxide is released from the Earth’s mantle in several areas, where there is a large heat anomaly at depth. With an eruption frequency of one volcano every 10,800 years or less, future eruptions may yet occur.

It’s hoped that this multifaceted approach will lead to a better understanding of the distribution and nature of volcanism, allowing for more accurate hazard analysis and risk estimates for future eruptions.

Breakthrough provides picture of underground water

Superman isn’t the only one who can see through solid surfaces. In a development that could revolutionize the management of precious groundwater around the world, Stanford researchers have pioneered the use of satellites to accurately measure levels of water stored hundreds of feet below ground. Their findings were published recently in Water Resources Research.

Groundwater provides 25 to 40 percent of all drinking water worldwide, and is the primary source of freshwater in many arid countries, according to the National Groundwater Association. About 60 percent of all withdrawn groundwater goes to crop irrigation. In the United States, the number is closer to 70 percent. In much of the world, however, underground reservoirs or aquifers are poorly managed and rapidly depleted due to a lack of water-level data. Developing useful groundwater models, availability predictions and water budgets is very challenging.

Study co-author Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics and senior fellow, by courtesy, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, compared groundwater use to a mismanaged bank account: “It’s like me saying I’m going to retire and live off my savings without knowing how much is in the account.”

Lead author Jessica Reeves, a postdoctoral scholar in geophysics, extended Knight’s analogy to the connection among farmers who depend on the same groundwater source. “Imagine your account was connected to someone else’s account, and they were withdrawing from it without your knowing.”

Until now, the only way a water manager could gather data about the state of water tables in a watershed was to drill monitoring wells. The process is time and resource intensive, especially for confined aquifers, which are deep reservoirs separated from the ground surface by multiple layers of impermeable clay. Even with monitoring wells, good data is not guaranteed. Much of the data available from monitoring wells across the American West is old and of varying quality and scientific usefulness. Compounding the problem, not all well data is openly shared.

To solve these challenges, Reeves, Knight, Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated geophysics and electrical engineering Professor Howard Zebker, Stanford civil and environmental engineering Professor Peter Kitanidis and Willem Schreüder of Principia Mathematica Inc. looked to the sky.

The basic concept: Satellites that use electromagnetic waves to monitor changes in the elevation of Earth’s surface to within a millimeter could be mined for clues about groundwater. The technology, Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), had previously been used primarily to collect data on volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides.

With funding from NASA, the researchers used InSAR to make measurements at 15 locations in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an important agricultural region and flyway for migrating birds. Based on observed changes in Earth’s surface, the scientists compiled water-level measurements for confined aquifers at three of the sampling locations that matched the data from nearby monitoring wells.

“If we can get this working in between wells, we can measure groundwater levels across vast areas without using lots of on-the-ground monitors,” Reeves said.

The breakthrough holds the potential for giving resource managers in Colorado and elsewhere valuable data as they build models to assess scenarios such as the effect on groundwater from population increases and droughts.

Just as computers and smartphones inevitably get faster, satellite data will only improve. That means more and better data for monitoring and managing groundwater. Eventually, InSAR data could play a vital role in measuring seasonal changes in groundwater supply and help determine levels for sustainable water use.

In the meantime, Knight envisions a Stanford-based, user-friendly online database that consolidates InSAR findings and a range of other current remote sensing data for soil moisture, precipitation and other components of a water budget. “Very few, if any, groundwater managers are tapping into any of the data,” Knight said. With Zebker, postdoctoral fellow Jingyi Chen and colleagues at the University of South Carolina, Knight recently submitted a grant proposal for this concept to NASA.