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.

‘Fracking’ wastewater that is treated for drinking produces potentially harmful compounds

Concerns that fluids from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” are contaminating drinking water abound. Now, scientists are bringing to light another angle that adds to the controversy. A new study, appearing in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, has found that discharge of fracking wastewaters to rivers, even after passage through wastewater treatment plants, could be putting the drinking water supplies of downstream cities at risk.

William A. Mitch, Avner Vengosh and colleagues point out that the disposal of fracking wastewater poses a major challenge for the companies that use the technique, which involves injecting millions of gallons of fluids into shale rock formations to release oil and gas. The resulting wastewater is highly radioactive and contains high levels of heavy metals and salts called halides (bromide, chloride and iodide). One approach to dealing with this wastewater is to treat it in municipal or commercial treatment plants and then release it into rivers and other surface waters. The problem is these plants don’t do a good job at removing halides. Researchers have raised concern that halide-contaminated surface water subsequently treated for drinking purposes with conventional methods, such as chlorination or ozonation, could lead to the formation of toxic byproducts. Mitch’s team set out to see if that was indeed the case.

The researchers diluted river-water samples of fracking wastewater discharged from operations in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, simulating real-world conditions when wastewater gets into the environment. In the lab, they then used current drinking-water disinfection methods on the samples. They found that even at concentrations as low as 0.01 percent up to 0.1 percent by volume of fracking wastewater, an array of toxic compounds formed. Based on their findings, the researchers recommend either that fracking wastewater should not be discharged at all into surface waters or that future water treatment include specific halide-removal techniques.

Burrowing animals may have been key to stabilizing Earth’s oxygen

This image depicts a 530-million-year-old fossil of burrow activity in sediment. -  Martin Brasier, University of Oxford
This image depicts a 530-million-year-old fossil of burrow activity in sediment. – Martin Brasier, University of Oxford

Evolution of the first burrowing animals may have played a major role in stabilizing the Earth’s oxygen reservoir, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience.

Around 540 million years ago, the first burrowing animals evolved. When these worms began to mix up the ocean floor’s sediments (a process known as bioturbation), their activity came to significantly influence the ocean’s phosphorus cycle and as a result, the amount of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.

“Our research is an attempt to place the spread of animal life in the context of wider biogeochemical cycles, and we conclude that animal activity had a decreasing impact on the global oxygen reservoir and introduced a stabilizing effect on the connection between the oxygen and phosphorus cycles”, says lead author Dr. Richard Boyle from the Nordic Center for Earth Evolution (NordCEE) at the University of Southern Denmark.

The computer modelling study by Dr. Richard Boyle and colleagues from Denmark, Germany, China and the UK, published in Nature Geoscience, links data from the fossil record to well established connections between the phosphorus and oxygen cycles.

Marine organic carbon burial is a source of oxygen to the atmosphere, and its rate is proportional to the amount of phosphate in the oceans. This means that (over geologic timescales) anything that decreases the size of the ocean phosphate reservoir also decreases oxygen. The study focuses on one such removal process, burial of phosphorus in the organic matter in ocean sediments.

The authors hypothesize the following sequence of events: Around 540 million years ago, the evolution of the first burrowing animals significantly increased the extent to which oxygenated waters came into contact with ocean sediments. Exposure to oxygenated conditions caused the bacteria that inhabit such sediments to store phosphate in their cells (something that is observed in modern day experiments). This caused an increase in phosphorus burial in sediments that had been mixed up by burrowing animals. This in turn triggered decreases in marine phosphate concentrations, productivity, organic carbon burial and ultimately oxygen. Because an oxygen decrease was initiated by something requiring oxygen (i.e. the activity burrowing animals) a net negative feedback loop was created.

Boyle states: “It has long been appreciated that organic phosphorus burial is greater from the kind of well oxygenated, well-mixed sediments that animals inhabit, than from poorly mixed, low oxygen “laminated” sediments. The key argument we make in this paper is that this difference is directly attributable to bioturbation. This means that (1) animals are directly involved in an oxygen-regulating cycle or feedback loop that has previously been overlooked, and (2) we can directly test the idea (despite the uncertainties associated with looking so far back in time) by looking for a decrease in ocean oxygenation in conjunction with the spread of bioturbation. My colleague, Dr Tais Dahl from University of Copenhagen, compiled data on ocean metals with oxygen-sensitive burial patterns, which does indeed suggest such an oxygen decrease as bioturbation began – confirming the conclusions of the modelling. It is our hope that wider consideration of this feedback loop and the timing of its onset, will improve our understanding of the extent to which Earth’s atmosphere-ocean oxygen reservoir is regulated.”

Co-author Professor Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter adds: “We already think this cycle was key to helping stabilise atmospheric oxygen during the Phanerozoic (the last 542 million years) – and that oxygen stability is a good thing for the evolution of plants and animals. What is new in this study is it attributes the oxygen stabilisation to biology – the presence or absence of animals stirring up the ocean sediments.”

Earlier this year, researchers from the Nordic Center for Earth Evolution showed that early animals may have needed surprisingly little oxygen to grow, supporting the theory that rising oxygen levels were not crucial for animal life to evolve on Earth.

From ‘Finding Nemo’ to minerals — what riches lie in the deep sea?

Left: The first species ever recovered from the deep sea. Center: Rockfish use deep-sea carbonate formations at Hydrate Ridge, US, as a refuge. Right: Deep-sea corals such as the one pictured are a source of jewelery and other riches. -  SERPENT Project/D.O.B. Jones, L. Levin, UK's BIS Department
Left: The first species ever recovered from the deep sea. Center: Rockfish use deep-sea carbonate formations at Hydrate Ridge, US, as a refuge. Right: Deep-sea corals such as the one pictured are a source of jewelery and other riches. – SERPENT Project/D.O.B. Jones, L. Levin, UK’s BIS Department

As fishing and the harvesting of metals, gas and oil have expanded deeper and deeper into the ocean, scientists are drawing attention to the services provided by the deep sea, the world’s largest environment. “This is the time to discuss deep-sea stewardship before exploitation is too much farther underway,” says lead-author Andrew Thurber. In a review published today in Biogeosciences, a journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU), Thurber and colleagues summarise what this habitat provides to humans, and emphasise the need to protect it.

“The deep sea realm is so distant, but affects us in so many ways. That’s where the passion lies: to tell everyone what’s down there and that we still have a lot to explore,” says co-author Jeroen Ingels of Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK.

“What we know highlights that it provides much directly to society,” says Thurber, a researcher at the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University in the US. Yet, the deep sea is facing impacts from climate change and, as resources are depleted elsewhere, is being increasingly exploited by humans for food, energy and metals like gold and silver.

“We felt we had to do something,” says Ingels. “We all felt passionate about placing the deep sea in a relevant context and found that there was little out there aimed at explaining what the deep sea does for us to a broad audience that includes scientists, the non-specialists and ultimately the policy makers. There was a gap to be filled. So we said: ‘Let’s just make this happen’.”

In the review of over 200 scientific papers, the international team of researchers points out how vital the deep sea is to support our current way of life. It nurtures fish stocks, serves as a dumping ground for our waste, and is a massive reserve of oil, gas, precious metals and the rare minerals we use in modern electronics, such as cell phones and hybrid-car batteries. Further, hydrothermal vents and other deep-sea environments host life forms, from bacteria to sponges, that are a source of new antibiotics and anti-cancer chemicals. It also has a cultural value, with its strange species and untouched habitats inspiring books and films from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Finding Nemo.

“From jewellery to oil and gas and future potential energy reserves as well as novel pharmaceuticals, deep-sea’s worth should be recognised so that, as we decide how to use it more in the future, we do not inhibit or lose the services that it already provides,” says Thurber.

The deep sea (ocean areas deeper than 200m) represents 98.5% of the volume of our planet that is hospitable to animals. It has received less attention than other environments because it is vast, dark and remote, and much of it is inaccessible to humans. But it has important global functions. In the Biogeosciences review the team shows that deep-sea marine life plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as methane that occasionally leaks from under the seafloor. In doing so, the deep ocean has limited much of the effects of climate change.

This type of process occurs over a vast area and at a slow rate. Thurber gives other examples: manganese nodules, deep-sea sources of nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals, take centuries or longer to form and are not renewable. Likewise, slow-growing and long-lived species of fish and coral in the deep sea are more susceptible to overfishing. “This means that a different approach needs to be taken as we start harvesting the resources within it.”

By highlighting the importance of the deep sea and identifying the traits that differentiate this environment from others, the researchers hope to provide the tools for effective and sustainable management of this habitat.

“This study is one of the steps in making sure that the benefits of the deep sea are understood by those who are trying to, or beginning to, regulate its resources,” concludes Thurber. “We ultimately hope that it will be a useful tool for policy makers.”

Fracking flowback could pollute groundwater with heavy metals

Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. -  Cornell University
Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. – Cornell University

The chemical makeup of wastewater generated by “hydrofracking” could cause the release of tiny particles in soils that often strongly bind heavy metals and pollutants, exacerbating the environmental risks during accidental spills, Cornell University researchers have found.

Previous research has shown 10 to 40 percent of the water and chemical solution mixture injected at high pressure into deep rock strata, surges back to the surface during well development. Scientists at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences studying the environmental impacts of this “flowback fluid” found that the same properties that make it so effective at extracting natural gas from shale can also displace tiny particles that are naturally bound to soil, causing associated pollutants such as heavy metals to leach out.

They described the mechanisms of this release and transport in a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The particles they studied are colloids – larger than the size of a molecule but smaller than what can be seen with the naked eye – which cling to sand and soil due to their electric charge.

In experiments, glass columns were filled with sand and synthetic polystyrene colloids. They then flushed the column with different fluids – deionized water as a control, and flowback fluid collected from a Marcellus Shale drilling site – at different rates of flow and measured the amount of colloids that were mobilized.

On a bright field microscope, the polystyrene colloids were visible as red spheres between light-grey sand grains, which made their movement easy to track. The researchers also collected and analyzed the water flowing out of the column to quantify the colloid concentration leaching out.

They found that fewer than five percent of colloids were released when they flushed the columns with deionized water. That figure jumped to 32 to 36 percent when flushed with flowback fluid. Increasing the flow rate of the flowback fluid mobilized an additional 36 percent of colloids.

They believe this is because the chemical composition of the flowback fluid reduced the strength of the forces that allow colloids to remain bound to the sand, causing the colloids to actually be repelled from the sand.

“This is a first step into discovering the effects of flowback fluid on colloid transport in soils,” said postdoctoral associate Cathelijne Stoof, a co-author on the paper.

The authors hope to conduct further experiments using naturally occurring colloids in more complex field soil systems, as well as different formulations of flowback fluid collected from other drilling sites.

Stoof said awareness of the phenomenon and an understanding of the mechanisms behind it can help identify risks and inform mitigation strategies.

“Sustainable development of any resource requires facts about its potential impacts, so legislators can make informed decisions about whether and where it can and cannot be allowed, and to develop guidelines in case it goes wrong,” Stoof said. “In the case of spills, you want to know what happens when the fluid moves through the soil.”

Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
This video visualizes the effects of hydrofracking flowback fluid on colloid mobilization in unsaturated sand. Included are the injection of the colloids into the sand column at the beginning of the experiment, the deionized water flush at 0.3 ml/min, the flowback water flush at 0.3 ml/min, and the flowback water flush at 1.5 ml/min. – Cornell University

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.

How productive are the ore factories in the deep sea?

About ten years after the first moon landing, scientists on earth made a discovery that proved that our home planet still holds a lot of surprises in store for us. Looking through the portholes of the submersible ALVIN near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in 1979, American scientists saw for the first time chimneys, several meters tall, from which black water at about 300 degrees and saturated with minerals shot out. What we have found out since then: These “black smokers”, also called hydrothermal vents, exist in all oceans. They occur along the boundaries of tectonic plates along the submarine volcanic chains. However, to date many details of these systems remain unexplained.

One question that has long and intensively been discussed in research is: Where and how deep does seawater penetrate into the seafloor to take up heat and minerals before it leaves the ocean floor at hydrothermal vents? This is of enormous importance for both, the cooling of the underwater volcanoes as well as for the amount of materials dissolved. Using a complex 3-D computer model, scientists at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel were now able to understand the paths of the water toward the black smokers. The study appears in the current issue of the world-renowned scientific journal “Nature“.

In general, it is well known that seawater penetrates into the Earth’s interior through cracks and crevices along the plate boundaries. The seawater is heated by the magma; the hot water rises again, leaches metals and other elements from the ground and is released as a black colored solution. “However, in detail it is somewhat unclear whether the water enters the ocean floor in the immediate vicinity of the vents and flows upward immediately, or whether it travels long distances underground before venting,” explains Dr. Jörg Hasenclever from GEOMAR.

This question is not only important for the fundamental understanding of processes on our planet. It also has very practical implications. Some of the materials leached from the underground are deposited on the seabed and form ore deposits that may be of economically interest. There is a major debate, however, how large the resource potential of these deposits might be. “When we know which paths the water travels underground, we can better estimate the quantities of materials released by black smokers over thousands of years,” says Hasenclever.

Hasenclever and his colleagues have used for the first time a high-resolution computer model of the seafloor to simulate a six kilometer long and deep, and 16 kilometer wide section of a mid-ocean ridge in the Pacific. Among the data used by the model was the heat distribution in the oceanic crust, which is known from seismic studies. In addition, the model also considered the permeability of the rock and the special physical properties of water.

The simulation required several weeks of computing time. The result: “There are actually two different flow paths – about half the water seeps in near the vents, where the ground is very warm. The other half seeps in at greater distances and migrates for kilometers through the seafloor before exiting years later.” Thus, the current study partially confirmed results from a computer model, which were published in 2008 in the scientific journal “Science”. “However, the colleagues back then were able to simulate only a much smaller region of the ocean floor and therefore identified only the short paths near the black smokers,” says Hasenclever.

The current study is based on fundamental work on the modeling of the seafloor, which was conducted in the group of Professor Lars Rüpke within the framework of the Kiel Cluster of Excellence “The Future Ocean”. It provides scientists worldwide with the basis for further investigations to see how much ore is actually on and in the seabed, and whether or not deep-sea mining on a large scale could ever become worthwhile. “So far, we only know the surface of the ore deposits at hydrothermal vents. Nobody knows exactly how much metal is really deposited there. All the discussions about the pros and cons of deep-sea ore mining are based on a very thin database,” says co-author Prof. Dr. Colin Devey from GEOMAR. “We need to collect a lot more data on hydrothermal systems before we can make reliable statements”.

Acid mine drainage reduces radioactivity in fracking waste

Much of the naturally occurring radioactivity in fracking wastewater might be removed by blending it with another wastewater from acid mine drainage, according to a Duke University-led study.

“Fracking wastewater and acid mine drainage each pose well-documented environmental and public health risks. But in laboratory tests, we found that by blending them in the right proportions we can bind some of the fracking contaminants into solids that can be removed before the water is discharged back into streams and rivers,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“This could be an effective way to treat Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing wastewater, while providing a beneficial use for acid mine drainage that currently is contaminating waterways in much of the northeastern United States,” Vengosh said. “It’s a win-win for the industry and the environment.”

Blending fracking wastewater with acid mine drainage also could help reduce the depletion of local freshwater resources by giving drillers a source of usable recycled water for the hydraulic fracturing process, he added.

“Scarcity of fresh water in dry regions or during periods of drought can severely limit shale gas development in many areas of the United States and in other regions of the world where fracking is about to begin,” Vengosh said. “Using acid mine drainage or other sources of recycled or marginal water may help solve this problem and prevent freshwater depletion.”

The peer-reviewed study was published in late December 2013 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

In hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as it is sometimes called – millions of tons of water are injected at high pressure down wells to crack open shale deposits buried deep underground and extract natural gas trapped within the rock. Some of the water flows back up through the well, along with natural brines and the natural gas. This “flowback fluid” typically contains high levels of salts, naturally occurring radioactive materials such as radium, and metals such as barium and strontium.

A study last year by the Duke team showed that standard treatment processes only partially remove these potentially harmful contaminants from Marcellus Shale wastewater before it is discharged back into streams and waterways, causing radioactivity to accumulate in stream sediments near the disposal site.

Acid mine drainage flows out of abandoned coal mines into many streams in the Appalachian Basin. It can be highly toxic to animals, plants and humans, and affects the quality of hundreds of waterways in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Because much of the current Marcellus shale gas development is taking place in regions where large amounts of historic coal mining occurred, some experts have suggested that acid mine drainage could be used to frack shale gas wells in place of fresh water.

To test that hypothesis, Vengosh and his team blended different mixtures of Marcellus Shale fracking wastewater and acid mine drainage, all of which were collected from sites in western Pennsylvania and provided to the scientists by the industry.

After 48 hours, the scientists examined the chemical and radiological contents of 26 different mixtures. Geochemical modeling was used to simulate the chemical and physical reactions that had occurred after the blending; the results of the modeling were then verified using x-ray diffraction and by measuring the radioactivity of the newly formed solids.

“Our analysis suggested that several ions, including sulfate, iron, barium and strontium, as well as between 60 and 100 percent of the radium, had precipitated within the first 10 hours into newly formed solids composed mainly of strontium barite,” Vengosh said. These radioactive solids could be removed from the mixtures and safely disposed of at licensed hazardous-waste facilities, he said. The overall salinity of the blended fluids was also reduced, making the treated water suitable for re-use at fracking sites.

“The next step is to test this in the field. While our laboratory tests show that is it technically possible to generate recycled, treated water suitable for hydraulic fracturing, field-scale tests are still necessary to confirm its feasibility under operational conditions,” Vengosh said.

Researchers quantify toxic ocean conditions during major extinction 93.9 million years ago

Oxygen in the atmosphere and ocean rose dramatically about 600 million years ago, coinciding with the first proliferation of animal life.Since then, numerous short lived biotic events – typically marked by significant climatic perturbations – took place when oxygen concentrations in the ocean dipped episodically.

The most studied and extensive of these events occurred 93.9 million years ago. By looking at the chemistry of rocks deposited during that time period, specifically coupled carbon and sulfur isotope data, a research team led by University of California, Riverside biogeochemists reports that oxygen-free and hydrogen sulfide-rich waters extended across roughly five percent of the global ocean during this major climatic perturbation – far more than the modern ocean’s 0.1 percent but much less than previous estimates for this event.

The research suggests that previous estimates of oxygen-free and hydrogen sulfide-rich conditions, or “euxinia,” were too high. Nevertheless, the limited and localized euxinia were still sufficiently widespread to have dramatic effect on the entire ocean’s chemistry and thus biological activity.

“These conditions must have impacted nutrient availability in the ocean and ultimately the spatial and temporal distribution of marine life,” said team member Jeremy D. Owens, a former UC Riverside graduate student, who is now a postdoctoral scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Under low-oxygen environments, many biologically important metals and other nutrients are removed from seawater and deposited in the sediments on the seafloor, making them less available for life to flourish.”

“What makes this discovery particularly noteworthy is that we mapped out a landscape of bioessential elements in the ocean that was far more perturbed than we expected, and the impacts on life were big,” said Timothy W. Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry at UCR, Owens’s former advisor and the principal investigator on the research project.

Study results appear online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Across the event 93.9 million years ago, a major biological extinction in the marine realm has already been documented. Also associated with this event are high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which are linked to elevated ocean and atmospheric temperatures. Associated consequences include likely enhanced global rainfall and weathering of the continents, which further shifted the chemistry of the ocean.

“Our work shows that even though only a small portion of the ocean contained toxic and metal-scavenging hydrogen sulfide, it was sufficiently large so that changes to the ocean’s chemistry and biology were likely profound,” Owens said. “What this says is that only portions of the ocean need to contain sulfide to greatly impact biota.”

For their analysis, the researchers collected seafloor mud samples, now rock, from multiple localities in England and Italy. They then performed chemical extraction on the samples to analyze the sulfur isotope compositions in order to estimate the chemistry of the global ocean.

According to the researchers, the importance of their study is elevated by the large amount of previous work on the same interval and thus the extensive availability of supporting data and samples. Yet despite all this past research, the team was able to make a fundamental discovery about the global conditions in the ancient ocean and their impacts on life.

“Today, we are facing rising carbon dioxide contents in the atmosphere through human activities, and the amount of oxygen in the ocean may drop correspondingly in the face of rising seawater temperatures,” Lyons said. “Oxygen is less soluble in warmer water, and there are already suggestions of such decreases. In the face of these concerns, our findings from the warm, oxygen-poor ancient ocean may be a warning shot about yet another possible perturbation to marine ecology in the future.”

There’s gold in them thar trees

This is a eucalyptus leaf showing traces of gold. -  CSIRO
This is a eucalyptus leaf showing traces of gold. – CSIRO

Eucalyptus trees – or gum trees as they are know – are drawing up gold particles from the earth via their root system and depositing it their leaves and branches.

Scientists from CSIRO made the discovery and have published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

“The eucalypt acts as a hydraulic pump – its roots extend tens of metres into the ground and draw up water containing the gold. As the gold is likely to be toxic to the plant, it’s moved to the leaves and branches where it can be released or shed to the ground,” CSIRO geochemist Dr Mel Lintern said.

The discovery is unlikely to start an old-time gold rush – the “nuggets” are about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. However, it could provide a golden opportunity for mineral exploration, as the leaves or soil underneath the trees could indicate gold ore deposits buried up to tens of metres underground and under sediments that are up to 60 million years old.

“The leaves could be used in combination with other tools as a more cost effective and environmentally friendly exploration technique,” Dr Lintern said.

“By sampling and analysing vegetation for traces of minerals, we may get an idea of what’s happening below the surface without the need to drill. It’s a more targeted way of searching for minerals that reduces costs and impact on the environment.

“Eucalyptus trees are so common that this technique could be widely applied across Australia. It could also be used to find other metals such as zinc and copper.”

Using CSIRO’s Maia detector for x-ray elemental imaging at the Australian Synchrotron, the research team was able to locate and see the gold in the leaves. The Synchrotron produced images depicting the gold, which would otherwise have been untraceable.

“Our advanced x-ray imaging enabled the researchers to examine the leaves and produce clear images of the traces of gold and other metals, nestled within their structure,” principal scientist at the Australian Synchrotron Dr David Paterson said.

“Before enthusiasts rush to prospect this gold from the trees or even the leaf litter, you need to know that these are tiny nuggets, which are about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair and generally invisible by other techniques and equipment.”

CSIRO research using natural materials, such as calcrete and laterite in soils, for mineral exploration has led to many successful ore deposit discoveries in regional Australia. The outcomes of the research provide a direct boost to the national economy.