New tracers can identify frack fluids in the environment

Scientists have developed new geochemical tracers that can identify hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids that have been spilled or released into the environment.

The tracers, which were created by a team of U.S. and French researchers, have been field-tested at a spill site in West Virginia and downstream from an oil and gas brine wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania.

“This gives us new forensic tools to detect if ‘frac fluids’ are escaping into our water supply and what risks, if any, they might pose,” said Duke University geochemist Avner Vengosh, who co-led the research.

“By characterizing the isotopic and geochemical fingerprints of enriched boron and lithium in flowback water from hydraulic fracturing, we can now track the presence of frac fluids in the environment and distinguish them from wastewater coming from other sources, including conventional oil and gas wells,” Vengosh said.

Using the tracers, scientists can determine where fracturing fluids have or haven’t been released to the environment and, ultimately, help identify ways to improve how shale gas wastewater is treated and disposed of.

Vengosh and his colleagues published their peer-reviewed findings October 20 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Their study, which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is the first to report on the development of the boron and lithium tracers.

Nathaniel R. Warner, Obering Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth College, was lead author of the study. “This new technology can be combined with other methods to identify specific instances of accidental releases to surface waters in areas of unconventional drilling,” he said. “It could benefit industry as well as federal and state agencies charged with monitoring water quality and protecting the environment.”

Hydraulic fracturing fluids, or frac fluids, typically contain mixes of water, proprietary chemicals and sand. Mixtures can vary from site to site. Drillers inject large volumes of the fluids down gas wells at high pressure to crack open shale formations deep underground and allow natural gas trapped within the shale to flow out and be extracted. After the shale has been fractured, the frac fluids flow back up the well to the surface along with the gas and highly saline brines from the shale formation.

Some people fear that toxic frac fluid chemicals in this flowback could contaminate nearby water supplies if flowback were accidentally spilled or insufficiently treated before being disposed of.

“The flowback fluid that returns to the surface becomes a waste that needs to be managed,” Vengosh explained. “Deep-well injection is the preferable disposal method, but injecting large volumes of wastewater into deep wells can cause earthquakes in sensitive areas and is not geologically available in some states. In Pennsylvania, much of the flowback is now recycled and reused, but a significant amount of it is still discharged into local streams or rivers.”

Vengosh said it’s possible to identify the presence of frac fluid in spilled or discharged flowback by tracing synthetic organic compounds that are added to the fluid before it’s injected down a well. But the proprietary nature of these chemicals, combined with their instability in the environment, limits the usefulness of such tracers.

By contrast, the new boron and lithium tracers remain stable in the environment. “The difference is that we are using tracers based on elements that occur naturally in shale formations,” Vengosh said.

When drillers inject frac fluids into a shale formation, they not only release hydrocarbon but also boron and lithium that are attached to clay minerals within the formation, he explained. As the fluids react and mix at depth, they become enriched in boron and lithium. As they are brought back to the surface, they have distinctive isotopic fingerprints that are different from other types of wastewater, including wastewater from a conventional gas or oil well, as well as from naturally occurring background water.

“This type of forensic research allows us to clearly delineate between the possible sources of wastewater contamination,” Vengosh said.

New map uncovers thousands of unseen seamounts on ocean floor

This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. -  David Sandwell, SIO
This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. – David Sandwell, SIO

Scientists have created a new map of the world’s seafloor, offering a more vivid picture of the structures that make up the deepest, least-explored parts of the ocean.

The feat was accomplished by accessing two untapped streams of satellite data.

Thousands of previously uncharted mountains rising from the seafloor, called seamounts, have emerged through the map, along with new clues about the formation of the continents.

Combined with existing data and improved remote sensing instruments, the map, described today in the journal Science, gives scientists new tools to investigate ocean spreading centers and little-studied remote ocean basins.

Earthquakes were also mapped. In addition, the researchers discovered that seamounts and earthquakes are often linked. Most seamounts were once active volcanoes, and so are usually found near tectonically active plate boundaries, mid-ocean ridges and subducting zones.

The new map is twice as accurate as the previous version produced nearly 20 years ago, say the researchers, who are affiliated with California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and other institutions.

“The team has developed and proved a powerful new tool for high-resolution exploration of regional seafloor structure and geophysical processes,” says Don Rice, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

“This capability will allow us to revisit unsolved questions and to pinpoint where to focus future exploratory work.”

Developed using a scientific model that captures gravity measurements of the ocean seafloor, the map extracts data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite.

CryoSat-2 primarily captures polar ice data but also operates continuously over the oceans. Data also came from Jason-1, NASA’s satellite that was redirected to map gravity fields during the last year of its 12-year mission.

“The kinds of things you can see very clearly are the abyssal hills, the most common landform on the planet,” says David Sandwell, lead author of the paper and a geophysicist at SIO.

The paper’s co-authors say that the map provides a window into the tectonics of the deep oceans.

The map also provides a foundation for the upcoming new version of Google’s ocean maps; it will fill large voids between shipboard depth profiles.

Previously unseen features include newly exposed continental connections across South America and Africa and new evidence for seafloor spreading ridges in the Gulf of Mexico. The ridges were active 150 million years ago and are now buried by mile-thick layers of sediment.

“One of the most important uses will be to improve the estimates of seafloor depth in the 80 percent of the oceans that remain uncharted or [where the sea floor] is buried beneath thick sediment,” the authors state.


Co-authors of the paper include R. Dietmar Muller of the University of Sydney, Walter Smith of the NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry Emmanuel Garcia of SIO and Richard Francis of ESA.

The study also was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and ConocoPhillips.

2015 DOE JGI’s science portfolio delves deeper into the Earth’s data mine

The U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), a DOE Office of Science user facility, has announced that 32 new projects have been selected for the 2015 Community Science Program (CSP). From sampling Antarctic lakes to Caribbean waters, and from plant root micro-ecosystems, to the subsurface underneath the water table in forested watersheds, the CSP 2015 projects portfolio highlights diverse environments where DOE mission-relevant science can be extracted.

“These projects catalyze JGI’s strategic shift in emphasis from solving an organism’s genome sequence to enabling an understanding of what this information enables organisms to do,” said Jim Bristow, DOE JGI Science Deputy who oversees the CSP. “To accomplish this, the projects selected combine DNA sequencing with large-scale experimental and computational capabilities, and in some cases include JGI’s new capability to write DNA in addition to reading it. These projects will expand research communities, and help to meet the DOE JGI imperative to translate sequence to function and ultimately into solutions for major energy and environmental problems.”

The CSP 2015 projects were selected by an external review panel from 76 full proposals received that resulted from 85 letters of intent submitted. The total allocation for the CSP 2015 portfolio is expected to exceed 60 trillion bases (terabases or Tb)-or the equivalent of 20,000 human genomes of plant, fungal and microbial genome sequences. The full list of projects may be found at The DOE JGI Community Science Program also accepts proposals for smaller-scale microbial, resequencing and DNA synthesis projects and reviews them twice a year. The CSP advances projects that harness DOE JGI’s capability in massive-scale DNA sequencing, analysis and synthesis in support of the DOE missions in alternative energy, global carbon cycling, and biogeochemistry.

Among the CSP 2015 projects selected is one from Regina Lamendella of Juniata College, who will investigate how microbial communities in Marcellus shale, the country’s largest shale gas field, respond to hydraulic fracturing and natural gas extraction. For example, as fracking uses chemicals, researchers are interested in how the microbial communities can break down environmental contaminants, and how they respond to the release of methane during oil extraction operations.

Some 1,500 miles south from those gas extraction sites, Monica Medina-Munoz of Penn State University will study the effect of thermal stress on the Caribbean coral Orbicella faveolata and the metabolic contribution of its coral host Symbiodinium. The calcium carbonate in coral reefs acts as carbon sinks, but reef health depends on microbial communities. If the photosynthetic symbionts are removed from the coral host, for example, the corals can die and calcification rates decrease. Understanding how to maintain stability in the coral-microbiome community can provide information on the coral’s contribution to the global ocean carbon cycle.

Longtime DOE JGI collaborator Jill Banfield of the University of California (UC), Berkeley is profiling the diversity of microbial communities found in the subsurface from the Rifle aquifer adjacent to the Colorado River. The subsurface is a massive, yet poorly understood, repository of organic carbon as well as greenhouse gases. Another research question, based on having the microbial populations close to both the water table and the river, is how they impact carbon, nitrogen and sulfur cycles. Her project is part of the first coordinated attempt to quantify the metabolic potential of an entire subsurface ecosystem under the aegis of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Subsurface Biogeochemistry Scientific Focus Area.

Banfield also successfully competed for a second CSP project to characterize the tree-root microbial interactions that occur below the soil mantle in the unsaturated zone or vadose zone, which extends into unweathered bedrock. The project’s goal is to understand how microbial communities this deep underground influence tree-based carbon fixation in forested watersheds by the Eel River in northwestern California.

Several fungal projects were selected for the 2015 CSP portfolio, including one led by Kabir Peay of Stanford University. He and his colleagues will study how fungal communities in animal feces decompose organic matter. His project has a stated end goal of developing a model system that emulates the ecosystem at Point Reyes National Seashore, where Tule elk are the largest native herbivores.

Another selected fungal project comes from Timothy James of University of Michigan, who will explore the so-called “dark matter fungi” – those not represented in culture collections. By sequencing several dozen species of unculturable zoosporic fungi from freshwater, soils and animal feces, he and his colleagues hope to develop a kingdom-wide fungal phylogenetic framework.

Christian Wurzbacher of Germany’s the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, IGB, will characterize fungi from the deep sea to peatlands to freshwater streams to understand the potentially novel adaptations that are necessary to thrive in their aquatic environments. The genomic information would provide information on their metabolic capabilities for breaking down cellulose, lignin and other plant cell wall components, and animal polymers such as keratin and chitin.

Many of the selected projects focus on DOE JGI Flagship Plant Genomes, with most centered on the poplar (Populus trichocarpa.) For example, longtime DOE JGI collaborator Steve DiFazio of West Virginia University is interested in poplar but will study its reproductive development with the help of a close relative, the willow (Salix purpurea). With its shorter generation time, the plant is a good model system and comparator for understanding sex determination, which can help bioenergy crop breeders by, for example, either accelerating or preventing flowering.

Another project comes from Posy Busby of the University of Washington, who will study the interactions between the poplar tree and its fungal, non-pathogenic symbionts or endophytes. As disease-causing pathogens interact with endophytes in leaves, he noted in his proposal, understanding the roles and functions of endophytes could prove useful to meeting future fuel and food requirements.

Along the lines of poplar endophytes, Carolin Frank at UC Merced will investigate the nitrogen-fixing endophytes in poplar, willow, and pine, with the aim of improving growth in grasses and agricultural crops under nutrient-poor conditions.

Rotem Sorek from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel takes a different approach starting from the hypothesis that poplar trees have an adaptive immunity system rooted in genome-encoded immune memory. Through deep sequencing of tissues from single poplar trees (some over a century old, others younger) his team hopes to gain insights into the tree genome’s short-term evolution and how its gene expression profiles change over time, as well as to predict how trees might respond under various climate change scenarios.

Tackling a different DOE JGI Flagship Plant Genome, Debbie Laudencia-Chingcuangco of the USDA-ARS will develop a genome-wide collection of several thousand mutants of the model grass Brachypodium distachyon to help domesticate the grasses that are being considered as candidate bioenergy feedstocks. This work is being done in collaboration with researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, as the team there considers Brachypodium “critical to achieving its mission of developing productive energy crops that can be easily processed into fuels.”

Continuing the theme of candidate bioenergy grasses, Kankshita Swaminathan from the University of Illinois will study gene expression in polyploidy grasses Miscanthus and sugarcane, comparing them against the closely related diploid grass sorghum to understand how these plants recycle nutrients.

Baohong Zhang of East Carolina University also focused on a bioenergy grass, and his project will look at the microRNAs in switchgrass. These regulatory molecules are each just a couple dozen nucleotides in length and can downregulate (decrease the quantity of) a cellular component. With a library of these small transcripts, he and his team hope to identify the gene expression variation associated with desirable biofuel traits in switchgrass such as increased biomass and responses to drought and salinity stressors.

Nitin Baliga of the Institute of Systems Biology will use DOE JGI genome sequences to build a working model of the networks that regulate lipid accumulation in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, still another DOE JGI Plant Flagship Genome and a model for characterizing biofuel production by algae.

Other accepted projects include:

The study of the genomes of 32 fungi of the Agaricales order, including 16 fungi to be sequenced for the first time, will be carried out by Jose Maria Barrasa of Spain’s University of Alcala. While many of the basidiomycete fungi involved in wood degradation that have been sequenced are from the Polyporales, he noted in his proposal, many of the fungi involved in breaking down leaf litter and buried wood are from the order Agaricales.

Now at the University of Connecticut, Jonathan Klassen conducted postdoctoral studies at GLBRC researcher Cameron Currie’s lab at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His project will study interactions in ant-microbial community fungus gardens in three states to learn more about how the associated bacterial metagenomes contribute to carbon and nitrogen cycling.

Hinsby Cadillo-Quiroz, at Arizona State University, will conduct a study of the microbial communities in the Amazon peatlands to understand their roles in both emitting greenhouse gases and in storing and cycling carbon. The peatlands are hotspots of soil organic carbon accumulation, and in the tropical regions, they are estimated to hold between 11 percent and 14 percent, or nearly 90 gigatons, of the global carbon stored in soils.

Barbara Campbell, Clemson University will study carbon cycling mechanisms of active bacteria and associated viruses in the freshwater to marine transition zone of the Delaware Bay. Understanding the microbes’ metabolism would help researchers understand they capabilities with regard to dealing with contaminants, and their roles in the nitrogen, sulfur and carbon cycles.

Jim Fredrickson of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will characterize functional profiles of microbial mats in California, Washington and Yellowstone National Park to understand various functions such as how they produce hydrogen and methane, and break down cellulose.

Joyce Loper of USDA-ARS will carry out a comparative analysis of all Pseudomonas bacteria getting from DOE JGI the sequences of just over 100 type strains to infer a evolutionary history of the this genus — a phylogeny — to characterize the genomic diversity, and determine the distribution of genes linked to key observable traits in this non-uniform group of bacteria.

Holly Simon of Oregon Health & Science University is studying microbial populations in the Columbia River estuary, in part to learn how they enhance greenhouse gas CO2 methane and nitrous oxide production.

Michael Thon from Spain’s University of Salamanca will explore sequences of strains of the Colletotrichum species complex, which include fungal pathogens that infect many crops. One of the questions he and his team will ask is how these fungal strains have adapted to break down the range of plant cell wall compositions.

Kathleen Treseder of UC Irvine will study genes involved in sensitivity to higher temperatures in fungi from a warming experiment in an Alaskan boreal forest. The team’s plan is to fold the genomic information gained into a trait-based ecosystem model called DEMENT to predict carbon dioxide emissions under global warming.

Mary Wildermuth of UC Berkeley will study nearly a dozen genomes of powdery mildew fungi, including three that infect designated bioenergy crops. The project will identify the mechanisms by which the fungi successfully infect plants, information that could lead to the development of crops with improved resistance to fungal infection and limiting fungicide use to allow more sustainable agricultural practices.

Several researchers who have previously collaborated with the DOE JGI have new projects:

Ludmila Chistoserdova from the University of Washington had a pioneering collaboration with the DOE JGI to study microbial communities in Lake Washington. In her new project, she and her team will look at the microbes in the Lake Washington sediment to understand their role in metabolizing the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Rick Cavicchioli of Australia’s University of New South Wales will track how microbial communities change throughout a complete annual cycle in three millennia-old Antarctic lakes and a near-shore marine site. By establishing what the microbes do in different seasons, he noted in his proposal, he and his colleagues hope to learn which microbial processes change and about the factors that control the evolution and speciation of marine-derived communities in cold environments.

With samples collected from surface waters down to the deep ocean, Steve Hallam from Canada’s University of British Columbia will explore metabolic pathways and compounds involved in marine carbon cycling processes to understand how carbon is regulated in the oceans.

The project of Hans-Peter Klenk, of DSMZ in Germany, will generate sequences of 1,000 strains of Actinobacteria, which represent the third most populated bacterial phylum and look for genes that encode cellulose-degrading enzymes or enzymes involved in synthesizing novel, natural products.

Han Wosten of the Netherlands’ Utrecht University will carry out a functional genomics approach to wood degradation by looking at Agaricomycetes, in particular the model white rot fungus Schizophyllum commune and the more potent wood-degrading white rots Phanaerochaete chrysosporium and Pleurotus ostreatus that the DOE JGI has previously sequenced.

Wen-Tso Liu of the University of Illinois and his colleagues want to understand the microbial ecology in anaerobic digesters, key components of the wastewater treatment process. They will study microbial communities in anaerobic digesters from the United States, East Asia and Europe to understand the composition and function of the microbes as they are harnessed for this low-cost municipal wastewater strategy efficiently removes waster and produces methane as a sustainable energy source.

Another project that involves wastewater, albeit indirectly, comes from Erica Young of the University of Wisconsin. She has been studying algae grown in wastewater to track how they use nitrogen and phosphorus, and how cellulose and lipids are produced. Her CSP project will characterize the relationship between the algae and the bacteria that help stabilize these algal communities, particularly the diversity of the bacterial community and the pathways and interactions involved in nutrient uptake and carbon sequestration.

Previous CSP projects and other DOE JGI collaborations are highlighted in some of the DOE JGI Annual User Meeting talks that can be seen here: The 10th Annual Genomics of Energy and Environment Meeting will be held March 24-26, 2015 in Walnut Creek, Calif. A preliminary speakers list is posted here ( and registration will be opened in the first week of November.

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

<IMG SRC="/Images/485889256.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="262" BORDER="0" ALT="University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.”>
University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.

Last winter’s curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, and suggests it may worsen as Earth’s climate warms.

“If this trend continues, it could contribute to more extreme winter weather events in North America, as experienced this year with warm conditions in California and Alaska and intrusion of cold Arctic air across the eastern USA,” says geochemist Gabe Bowen, senior author of the study.

The study was published online April 16 by the journal Nature Communications.

“A sinuous or curvy winter jet stream means unusual warmth in the West, drought conditions in part of the West, and abnormally cold winters in the East and Southeast,” adds Bowen, an associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. “We saw a good example of extreme wintertime climate that largely fit that pattern this past winter,” although in the typical pattern California often is wetter.

It is not new for scientists to forecast that the current warming of Earth’s climate due to carbon dioxide, methane and other “greenhouse” gases already has led to increased weather extremes and will continue to do so.

The new study shows the jet stream pattern that brings North American wintertime weather extremes is millennia old – “a longstanding and persistent pattern of climate variability,” Bowen says. Yet it also suggests global warming may enhance the pattern so there will be more frequent or more severe winter weather extremes or both.

“This is one more reason why we may have more winter extremes in North America, as well as something of a model for what those extremes may look like,” Bowen says. Human-caused climate change is reducing equator-to-pole temperature differences; the atmosphere is warming more at the poles than at the equator. Based on what happened in past millennia, that could make a curvy jet stream even more frequent and-or intense than it is now, he says.

Bowen and his co-authors analyzed previously published data on oxygen isotope ratios in lake sediment cores and cave deposits from sites in the eastern and western United States and Canada. Those isotopes were deposited in ancient rainfall and incorporated into calcium carbonate. They reveal jet stream directions during the past 8,000 years, a geological time known as middle and late stages of the Holocene Epoch.

Next, the researchers did computer modeling or simulations of jet stream patterns – both curvy and more direct west to east – to show how changes in those patterns can explain changes in the isotope ratios left by rainfall in the old lake and cave deposits.

They found that the jet stream pattern – known technically as the Pacific North American teleconnection – shifted to a generally more “positive phase” – meaning a curvy jet stream – over a 500-year period starting about 4,000 years ago. In addition to this millennial-scale change in jet stream patterns, they also noted a cycle in which increases in the sun’s intensity every 200 years make the jet stream flatter.

Bowen conducted the study with Zhongfang Liu of Tianjin Normal University in China, Kei Yoshimura of the University of Tokyo, Nikolaus Buenning of the University of Southern California, Camille Risi of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Jeffrey Welker of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and Fasong Yuan of Cleveland State University.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and a joint program by the society and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: the Program for Risk Information on Climate Change.

Sinuous Jet Stream Brings Winter Weather Extremes

The Pacific North American teleconnection, or PNA, “is a pattern of climate variability” with positive and negative phases, Bowen says.

“In periods of positive PNA, the jet stream is very sinuous. As it comes in from Hawaii and the Pacific, it tends to rocket up past British Columbia to the Yukon and Alaska, and then it plunges down over the Canadian plains and into the eastern United States. The main effect in terms of weather is that we tend to have cold winter weather throughout most of the eastern U.S. You have a freight car of arctic air that pushes down there.”

Bowen says that when the jet stream is curvy, “the West tends to have mild, relatively warm winters, and Pacific storms tend to occur farther north. So in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest and parts of western interior, it tends to be relatively dry, but tends to be quite wet and unusually warm in northwest Canada and Alaska.”

This past winter, there were times of a strongly curving jet stream, and times when the Pacific North American teleconnection was in its negative phase, which means “the jet stream is flat, mostly west-to-east oriented,” and sometimes split, Bowen says. In years when the jet stream pattern is more flat than curvy, “we tend to have strong storms in Northern California and Oregon. That moisture makes it into the western interior. The eastern U.S. is not affected by arctic air, so it tends to have milder winter temperatures.”

The jet stream pattern – whether curvy or flat – has its greatest effects in winter and less impact on summer weather, Bowen says. The curvy pattern is enhanced by another climate phenomenon, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, which sends a pool of warm water eastward to the eastern Pacific and affects climate worldwide.

Traces of Ancient Rains Reveal Which Way the Wind Blew

Over the millennia, oxygen in ancient rain water was incorporated into calcium carbonate deposited in cave and lake sediments. The ratio of rare, heavy oxygen-18 to the common isotope oxygen-16 in the calcium carbonate tells geochemists whether clouds that carried the rain were moving generally north or south during a given time.

Previous research determined the dates and oxygen isotope ratios for sediments in the new study, allowing Bowen and colleagues to use the ratios to tell if the jet stream was curvy or flat at various times during the past 8,000 years.

Bowen says air flowing over the Pacific picks up water from the ocean. As a curvy jet stream carries clouds north toward Alaska, the air cools and some of the water falls out as rain, with greater proportions of heavier oxygen-18 falling, thus raising the oxygen-18-to-16 ratio in rain and certain sediments in western North America. Then the jet stream curves south over the middle of the continent, and the water vapor, already depleted in oxygen-18, falls in the East as rain with lower oxygen-18-to-16 ratios.

When the jet stream is flat and moving east-to-west, oxygen-18 in rain is still elevated in the West and depleted in the East, but the difference is much less than when the jet stream is curvy.

By examining oxygen isotope ratios in lake and cave sediments in the West and East, Bowen and colleagues showed that a flatter jet stream pattern prevailed from about 8,000 to 4,000 years ago in North America, but then, over only 500 years, the pattern shifted so that curvy jet streams became more frequent or severe or both. The method can’t distinguish frequency from severity.

The new study is based mainly on isotope ratios at Buckeye Creek Cave, W. Va.; Lake Grinell, N.J.; Oregon Caves National Monument; and Lake Jellybean, Yukon.

Additional data supporting increasing curviness of the jet stream over recent millennia came from seven other sites: Crawford Lake, Ontario; Castor Lake, Wash.; Little Salt Spring, Fla.; Estancia Lake, N.M.; Crevice Lake, Mont.; and Dog and Felker lakes, British Columbia. Some sites provided oxygen isotope data; others showed changes in weather patterns based on tree ring growth or spring deposits.

Simulating the Jet Stream

As a test of what the cave and lake sediments revealed, Bowen’s team did computer simulations of climate using software that takes isotopes into account.

Simulations of climate and oxygen isotope changes in the Middle Holocene and today resemble, respectively, today’s flat and curvy jet stream patterns, supporting the switch toward increasing jet stream sinuosity 4,000 years ago.

Why did the trend start then?

“It was a when seasonality becomes weaker,” Bowen says. The Northern Hemisphere was closer to the sun during the summer 8,000 years ago than it was 4,000 years ago or is now due to a 20,000-year cycle in Earth’s orbit. He envisions a tipping point 4,000 years ago when weakening summer sunlight reduced the equator-to-pole temperature difference and, along with an intensifying El Nino climate pattern, pushed the jet stream toward greater curviness.

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.

Earthquake lights linked to rift environments, subvertical faults

Earthquake lights from Tagish Lake, Yukon-Alaska border region, around the 1st of July, probably 1972 or 1973 (exact date unknown). Estimated size: 1m diameter. Closest orbs slowly drifted up the mountain to join the more distant ones. -  Photo credit: Jim Conacher, used with permission
Earthquake lights from Tagish Lake, Yukon-Alaska border region, around the 1st of July, probably 1972 or 1973 (exact date unknown). Estimated size: 1m diameter. Closest orbs slowly drifted up the mountain to join the more distant ones. – Photo credit: Jim Conacher, used with permission

Rare earthquake lights are more likely to occur on or near rift environments, where subvertical faults allow stress-induced electrical currents to flow rapidly to the surface, according to a new study published in the Jan./Feb. issue of Seismological Research Letters.

From the early days of seismology, the luminous phenomena associated with some earthquakes have intrigued scholars. Earthquake lights (EQL) appear before or during earthquakes, but rarely after.

EQL take a variety of forms, including spheres of light floating through the air. Seconds before the 2009 L’Aquila, Italy earthquake struck, pedestrians saw 10-centimeter high flames of light flickering above the stone-paved Francesco Crispi Avenue in the town’s historical city center. On Nov. 12, 1988, a bright purple-pink globe of light moved through the sky along the St. Lawrence River near the city of Quebec, 11 days before a powerful quake. And in 1906, about 100 km northwest of San Francisco, a couple saw streams of light running along the ground two nights preceding that region’s great earthquake.

Continental rift environments now appear to be the common factor associated with EQL. In a detailed study of 65 documented EQL cases since 1600 A.D., 85 percent appeared spatially on or near rifts, and 97 percent appeared adjacent to subvertical faults (a rift, a graben, strike-slip or transform fault). Intraplate faults are associated with just 5 percent of Earth’s seismic activity, but 97 percent of documented cases of earthquake lights.

“The numbers are striking and unexpected,” said Robert Thériault, a geologist with the Ministère des Ressources Naturelles of Québec, who, along with colleagues, culled centuries of literature references, limiting the cases in this study to 65 of the best-documented events in the Americas and Europe.

“We don’t know quite yet why more earthquake light events are related to rift environments than other types of faults,” said Thériault, “but unlike other faults that may dip at a 30-35 degree angle, such as in subduction zones, subvertical faults characterize the rift environments in these cases.”

Two of the 65 EQL events are associated with subduction zones, but Thériault suggests there may be an unknown subvertical fault present. “We may not know the fault distribution beneath the ground,” said Thériault. “We have some idea of surface structures, but sedimentary layers or water may obscure the underlying fault structure.”

While the 65 earthquakes ranged in magnitude, from M 3.6 to 9.2, 80 percent were greater than M 5.0. The EQL varied in shape and extent, though most commonly appeared as globular luminous masses, either stationary or moving, as atmospheric illuminations or as flame-like luminosities issuing from the ground.

Timing and distance to the epicenter vary widely. Most EQL are seen before and/or during an earthquake, but rarely after, suggesting to the authors that the processes responsible for EQL formation are related to a rapid build-up of stress prior to fault rupture and rapid local stress changes during the propagation of the seismic waves. Stress-activated mobile electronic charge carriers, termed positive holes, flow swiftly along stress gradients. Upon reaching the surface, they ionize air molecules and generate the observed luminosities.

Eyewitness reports and security cameras captured a large number of light flashes during the 2007 Pisco, Peru M 8.0 earthquake. Together with seismic records obtained on a local university campus, the automatic security camera records allow for an exact timing and location of light flashes that illuminated a large portion of the night sky. The light flashes identified as EQL coincided with the passage of the seismic waves.

Thériault likes the account of a local L’Aquila resident, who, after seeing flashes of light from inside his home two hours before the main shock, rushed his family outside to safety.

“It’s one of the very few documented accounts of someone acting on the presence of earthquake lights,” said Thériault. “Earthquake lights as a pre-earthquake phenomenon, in combination with other types of parameters that vary prior to seismic activity, may one day help forecast the approach of a major quake,” said Thériault.

Volcano discovered smoldering under a kilometer of ice in West Antarctica

Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range's migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. -  Doug Wiens
Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range’s migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. – Doug Wiens

It wasn’t what they were looking for but that only made the discovery all the more exciting.

In January 2010 a team of scientists had set up two crossing lines of seismographs across Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica. It was the first time the scientists had deployed many instruments in the interior of the continent that could operate year-round even in the coldest parts of Antarctica.

Like a giant CT machine, the seismograph array used disturbances created by distant earthquakes to make images of the ice and rock deep within West Antarctica.

There were big questions to be asked and answered. The goal, says Doug Wiens, professor of earth and planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the project’s principle investigators, was essentially to weigh the ice sheet to help reconstruct Antarctica’s climate history. But to do this accurately the scientists had to know how the earth’s mantle would respond to an ice burden, and that depended on whether it was hot and fluid or cool and viscous. The seismic data would allow them to map the mantle’s properties.

In the meantime, automated-event-detection software was put to work to comb the data for anything unusual.

When it found two bursts of seismic events between January 2010 and March 2011, Wiens’ PhD student Amanda Lough looked more closely to see what was rattling the continent’s bones.

Was it rock grinding on rock, ice groaning over ice, or, perhaps, hot gases and liquid rock forcing their way through cracks in a volcanic complex?

Uncertain at first, the more Lough and her colleagues looked, the more convinced they became that a new volcano was forming a kilometer beneath the ice.

The discovery of the new as yet unnamed volcano is announced in the Nov. 17 advanced online issue of Nature Geoscience.

Following the trail of clues

The teams that install seismographs in Antarctica are given first crack at the data. Lough had done her bit as part of the WUSTL team, traveling to East Antarctica three times to install or remove stations in East Antarctica.

In 2010 many of the instruments were moved to West Antarctica and Wiens asked Lough to look at the seismic data coming in, the first large-scale dataset from this part of the continent.

“I started seeing events that kept occurring at the same location, which was odd, “Lough said. “Then I realized they were close to some mountains-but not right on top of them.”

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, maybe its just coincidence.’ But then I looked more closely and realized that the mountains were actually volcanoes and there was an age progression to the range. The volcanoes closest to the seismic events were the youngest ones.”

The events were weak and very low frequency, which strongly suggested they weren’t tectonic in origin. While low-magnitude seismic events of tectonic origin typically have frequencies of 10 to 20 cycles per second, this shaking was dominated by frequencies of 2 to 4 cycles per second.

Ruling out ice

But glacial processes can generate low-frequency events. If the events weren’t tectonic could they be glacial?

To probe farther, Lough used a global computer model of seismic velocities to “relocate” the hypocenters of the events to account for the known seismic velocities along different paths through the Earth. This procedure collapsed the swarm clusters to a third their original size.

It also showed that almost all of the events had occurred at depths of 25 to 40 kilometers (15 to 25 miles below the surface). This is extraordinarily deep-deep enough to be near the boundary between the earth’s crust and mantle, called the Moho, and more or less rules out a glacial origin.

It also casts doubt on a tectonic one. “A tectonic event might have a hypocenter 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) deep, but at 25 to 40 kilometers, these were way too deep,” Lough says.

A colleague suggested that the event waveforms looked like Deep Long Period earthquakes, or DPLs, which occur in volcanic areas, have the same frequency characteristics and are as deep. “Everything matches up,” Lough says.

An ash layer encased in ice

The seismologists also talked to Duncan Young and Don Blankenship of the University of Texas who fly airborne radar over Antarctica to produce topographic maps of the bedrock. “In these maps, you can see that there’s elevation in the bed topography at the same location as the seismic events,” Lough says.

The radar images also showed a layer of ash buried under the ice. “They see this layer all around our group of earthquakes and only in this area,” Lough says.

“Their best guess is that it came from Mount Waesche, an existing volcano near Mt Sidley. But that is also interesting because scientists had no idea when Mount Waesche was last active, and the ash layer is sets the age of the eruption at 8,000 years ago. “

What’s up down there?

The case for volcanic origin has been made. But what exactly is causing the seismic activity?

“Most mountains in Antarctica are not volcanic,” Wiens says, “but most in this area are. Is it because East and West Antarctica are slowly rifting apart? We don’t know exactly. But we think there is probably a hot spot in the mantle here producing magma far beneath the surface.”

“People aren’t really sure what causes DPLs,” Lough says. “It seems to vary by volcanic complex, but most people think it’s the movement of magma and other fluids that leads to pressure-induced vibrations in cracks within volcanic and hydrothermal systems.”

Will the new volcano erupt?

“Definitely,” Lough says. “In fact because of the radar shows a mountain beneath the ice I think it has erupted in the past, before the rumblings we recorded.

Will the eruptions punch through a kilometer or more of ice above it?

The scientists calculated that an enormous eruption, one that released a thousand times more energy than the typical eruption, would be necessary to breach the ice above the volcano.

On the other hand a subglacial eruption and the accompanying heat flow will melt a lot of ice. “The volcano will create millions of gallons of water beneath the ice-many lakes full,” says Wiens. This water will rush beneath the ice towards the sea and feed into the hydrological catchment of the MacAyeal Ice Stream, one of several major ice streams draining ice from Marie Byrd Land into the Ross Ice Shelf.

By lubricating the bedrock, it will speed the flow of the overlying ice, perhaps increasing the rate of ice-mass loss in West Antarctica.

“We weren’t expecting to find anything like this,” Wiens says

Mountaintop mining pollution has distinct chemical signatures

Three elements commonly found at elevated levels in an Appalachian river polluted by runoff from mountaintop coal mining have distinctive chemistries that can be traced back to their source, according to a Duke University-led study.

The distinctive chemistries of sulfur, carbon and strontium provide scientists with new, more accurate ways to track pollution from mountaintop mining sites and to distinguish it from contamination from other sources.

“Essentially, we found that these elements have unique isotopic fingerprints, meaning we can use them as diagnostic tools to quantify mountaintop mining’s relative contribution to contamination in a watershed,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The newly identified tracers will be especially useful in watersheds with more than one source of potential contamination, he said. “Because they allow us to distinguish if contaminants are coming from natural sources, fracking and shale gas development, coal mining, coal ash disposal, or other causes.”

Vengosh and his team’s findings were published today in the online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The researchers measured the chemical and isotopic compositions of water samples collected monthly from 23 locations along West Virginia’s Upper Mud River and its tributaries between May and December 2012.

They found that the isotopic signatures of sulfur (in sulfate), carbon (in dissolved inorganic carbon) and strontium from water samples collected from tributaries adjacent to mountaintop mining sites are distinguishable from those collected from unaffected upstream waters. They also found that the strontium isotope ratio is a sensitive tracer for selenium contamination, one of the major pollutants of mountaintop mining.

In mountaintop mining, companies use explosives and heavy machinery to clear away surface rocks and extract shallow deposits of high-quality coal. The companies typically dispose of the waste rock in adjacent valleys, where they bury existing headwater streams.

Previous studies by the Duke team and others have shown that runoff from these “valley fills” contains elevated levels of salts and selenium, a known fish toxin. The contamination can persist and accumulate in downstream waters for decades after active mining stops and the fills are reclaimed.

By conducting tests that simulated the natural leaching of contaminants from local rocks, Vengosh and his team were able to characterize the chemistry of the different geological formations that end up as waste rock in these fills. They found significant differences in strontium isotope ratios and selenium concentrations in streams flowing from reclaimed valley fills versus those flowing from active fills.

“This helps us further pinpoint the source of contamination by linking it directly to the type of rocks in the valley fills,” Vengosh said.

The Upper Mud River flows through sparsely populated areas of southern West Virginia as a headwater stream. For about 10 kilometers, the river passes through the Hobet 21 surface mining complex, which has been active since the 1970s and is among the largest in the Appalachian coalfields.

Better Dams, Levees, Embankments: Soil Type And Compaction Factors Can Make Soil 1,000 Times More Resistant To Erosion

ARS hydraulic engineer Gregory J. Hanson, inventor of the JET test apparatus, uses a field version of the new laboratory device to measure erodibility. (Credit: Image courtesy G. Hanson)
ARS hydraulic engineer Gregory J. Hanson, inventor of the JET test apparatus, uses a field version of the new laboratory device to measure erodibility. (Credit: Image courtesy G. Hanson)

The safety of earthen embankments, including levees and dams, depends in large part on how resistant they are to erosion. That resistance can hinge on the soil materials used in their construction.

Hydraulic engineers Gregory J. Hanson and Sherry L. Hunt work at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Hydraulic Engineering Research Unit in Stillwater, Okla. They have refined methods for estimating the erodibility of large embankment structures with a lab-scale version of the Jet Erosion Test (JET).

Hanson developed JET to evaluate the condition of streams and dam embankments. In the field, JET applies stresses to soil beds with a water jet that can be pumped at various flow rates.

The team studied the roles of compaction effort-the mechanical force needed to increase soil density-and water content in soil erosion. They measured compaction effort using standard engineering tests, which involve dropping a hammer onto soil samples from a specific distance for a specified number of times. As part of their evaluation of compaction effort, they also varied the soil water content, which affects soil plasticity, in their samples.

The engineers observed that the erodibility of their lab samples varied significantly between the two soil types they tested, which were a silty sand and a silty clay. Both soil types also exhibited a large range of erosion, depending on compaction effort and water content.

For instance, lab soil samples that were compacted while containing optimum levels of water showed a significantly stronger resistance to erosion. Higher compaction efforts also increased erosion resistance, and soil texture and plasticity influenced erosion resistance as much, or sometimes even more, than compaction factors. The team compared these results with large-scale field controls and found that their lab-scale JET tests accurately assessed soil erodibility in samples as small as 10 centimeters in diameter.

Overall, these results indicate that soil type and compaction factors can be used to make soil at least 1,000 times more resistant to erosion. These findings will help engineers factor in soil type and other variables to predict embankment failure rates when designing flood control structures.