Life in Earth’s primordial sea was starved for sulfate

This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia -- a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth's early oceans. -  Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.
This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans. – Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.

The Earth’s ancient oceans held much lower concentrations of sulfate–a key biological nutrient–than previously recognized, according to research published this week in Science.

The findings paint a new portrait of our planet’s early biosphere and primitive marine life. Organisms require sulfur as a nutrient, and it plays a central role in regulating atmospheric chemistry and global climate.

“Our findings are a fraction of previous estimates, and thousands of time lower than current seawater levels,” says Sean Crowe, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology, and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“At these trace amounts, sulfate would have been poorly mixed and short-lived in the oceans–and this sulfate scarcity would have shaped the nature, activity and evolution of early life on Earth.”

UBC, University of Southern Denmark, CalTech, University of Minnesota Duluth, and University of Maryland researchers used new techniques and models to calibrate fingerprints of bacterial sulfur metabolisms in Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans.

Measuring these fingerprints in rocks older than 2.5 billion years, they discovered sulfate 80 times lower than previously thought.

The more sensitive fingerprinting provides a powerful tool to search for sulfur metabolisms deep in Earth’s history or on other planets like Mars.


Previous research has suggested that Archean sulfate levels were as low as 200 micromolar– concentrations at which sulfur would still have been abundantly available to early marine life.

The new results indicate levels were likely less than 2.5 micromolar, thousands of times lower than today.

What the researchers did

Researchers used state-of-the-art mass spectrometric approaches developed at California Institute of Technology to demonstrate that microorganisms fractionate sulfur isotopes at concentrations orders of magnitude lower than previously recognized.

They found that microbial sulfur metabolisms impart large fingerprints even when sulfate is scarce.

The team used the techniques on samples from Lake Matano, Indonesia–a sulfate-poor modern analogue for the Earth’s Archean oceans.

“New measurements in these unique modern environments allow us to use numerical models to reconstruct ancient ocean chemistry with unprecedented resolution” says Sergei Katsev an Associate Professor at the Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth.

Using models informed by sulfate isotope fractionation in Lake Matano, they established a new calibration for sulfate isotope fractionation that is extensible to the Earth’s oceans throughout history. The researchers then reconstructed Archean seawater sulfate concentrations using these models and an exhaustive compilation of sulfur isotope data from Archean sedimentary rocks.


Crowe initiated the research while a post-doctoral fellow with Donald Canfield at the University of Southern Denmark.

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.

Researchers turn to 3-D technology to examine the formation of cliffband landscapes

This is a scene from the Colorado Plateau region of Utah. -  Dylan Ward
This is a scene from the Colorado Plateau region of Utah. – Dylan Ward

A blend of photos and technology takes a new twist on studying cliff landscapes and how they were formed. Dylan Ward, a University of Cincinnati assistant professor of geology, will present a case study on this unique technology application at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting & Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver.

Ward is using a method called Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry – computational photo image processing techniques – 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.

To get an idea of these cliff formations, think of one of the nation’s most spectacular tourist attractions, the Grand Canyon.

“The Colorado plateau, for example, has areas with a very simple, sandstone-over-shale layered stratigraphy. We’re examining how the debris and sediment off that sandstone ends up down in the stream channels on the shale, and affects the erosion by those streams,” explains Ward. “The river cuts down through the rock, creating the cliffs. The cliffs walk back by erosion, so there’s this spectacular staircase of stratigraphy that owes its existence and form to that general process.”

Ward’s research takes a new approach to documenting the topography in very high resolution, using a new method of photogrammetry – measurement in 3-D, based on stereo photographs.

“First, we use a digital camera to take photos of the landscape from different angles. Then, we use a sophisticated imaging processing program than can take that set of photos and find the common points between the photographs. From there, we can build a 3-D computer model of that landscape. Months of fieldwork, in comparison, would only produce a fraction of the data that we produce in the computer model,” says Ward.

Ward says that ultimately, examining this piece of the puzzle will give researchers an idea as to how the broader U.S. landscape was formed.

Scientists discover carbonate rocks are unrecognized methane sink

Since the first undersea methane seep was discovered 30 years ago, scientists have meticulously analyzed and measured how microbes in the seafloor sediments consume the greenhouse gas methane as part of understanding how the Earth works.

The sediment-based microbes form an important methane “sink,” preventing much of the chemical from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation. As a byproduct of this process, the microbes create a type of rock known as authigenic carbonate, which while interesting to scientists was not thought to be involved in the processing of methane.

That is no longer the case. A team of scientists has discovered that these authigenic carbonate rocks also contain vast amounts of active microbes that take up methane. The results of their study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, were reported today in the journal Nature Communications.

“No one had really examined these rocks as living habitats before,” noted Andrew Thurber, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-author on the paper. “It was just assumed that they were inactive. In previous studies, we had seen remnants of microbes in the rocks – DNA and lipids – but we thought they were relics of past activity. We didn’t know they were active.

“This goes to show how the global methane process is still rather poorly understood,” Thurber added.

Lead author Jeffrey Marlow of the California Institute of Technology and his colleagues studied samples from authigenic compounds off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest (Hydrate Ridge), northern California (Eel River Basin) and central America (the Costa Rica margin). The rocks range in size and distribution from small pebbles to carbonate “pavement” stretching dozens of square miles.

“Methane-derived carbonates represent a large volume within many seep systems and finding active methane-consuming archaea and bacteria in the interior of these carbonate rocks extends the known habitat for methane-consuming microorganisms beyond the relatively thin layer of sediment that may overlay a carbonate mound,” said Marlow, a geobiology graduate student in the lab of Victoria Orphan of Caltech.

These assemblages are also found in the Gulf of Mexico as well as off Chile, New Zealand, Africa, Europe – “and pretty much every ocean basin in the world,” noted Thurber, an assistant professor (senior research) in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The study is important, scientists say, because the rock-based microbes potentially may consume a huge amount of methane. The microbes were less active than those found in the sediment, but were more abundant – and the areas they inhabit are extensive, making their importance potential enormous. Studies have found that approximately 3-6 percent of the methane in the atmosphere is from marine sources – and this number is so low due to microbes in the ocean sediments consuming some 60-90 percent of the methane that would otherwise escape.

Now those ratios will have to be re-examined to determine how much of the methane sink can be attributed to microbes in rocks versus those in sediments. The distinction is important, the researchers say, because it is an unrecognized sink for a potentially very important greenhouse gas.

“We found that these carbonate rocks located in areas of active methane seeps are themselves more active,” Thurber said. “Rocks located in comparatively inactive regions had little microbial activity. However, they can quickly activate when methane becomes available.

“In some ways, these rocks are like armies waiting in the wings to be called upon when needed to absorb methane.”

The ocean contains vast amounts of methane, which has long been a concern to scientists. Marine reservoirs of methane are estimated to total more than 455 gigatons and may be as much as 10,000 gigatons carbon in methane. A gigaton is approximate 1.1 billion tons.

By contrast, all of the planet’s gas and oil deposits are thought to total about 200-300 gigatons of carbon.

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.

Team advances understanding of the Greenland Ice Sheet’s meltwater channels

An international team of researchers deployed to western Greenland to study the melt rates of the Greenland Ice Sheet. -  Matt Hoffman, Los Alamos National Laboratory
An international team of researchers deployed to western Greenland to study the melt rates of the Greenland Ice Sheet. – Matt Hoffman, Los Alamos National Laboratory

An international research team’s field work, drilling and measuring melt rates and ice sheet movement in Greenland is showing that things are, in fact, more complicated than we thought.

“Although the Greenland Ice Sheet initially speeds up each summer in its slow-motion race to the sea, the network of meltwater channels beneath the sheet is not necessarily forming the slushy racetrack that had been previously considered,” said Matthew Hoffman, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist on the project.

A high-profile paper appearing in Nature this week notes that observations of moulins (vertical conduits connecting water on top of the glacier down to the bed of the ice sheet) and boreholes in Greenland show that subglacial channels ameliorate the speedup caused by water delivery to the base of the ice sheet in the short term. By mid summer, however, the channels stabilize and are unable to grow any larger. In a previous paper appearing in Science, researchers had posited that the undersheet channels were not even a consideration in Greenland, but as happens in the science world, more data fills in the complex mosaic of facts and clarifies the evolution of the meltwater flow rates over the seasons.

In reality, these two papers are not inconsistent – they are studying different places at different times – and they both are consistent in that channelization is less important than previously assumed, said Hoffman.

The Greenland Ice Sheet’s movement speeds up each summer as melt from the surface penetrates kilometer-thick ice through moulins, lubricating the bed of the ice sheet. Greater melt is predicted for Greenland in the future, but its impact on ice sheet flux and associated sea level rise is uncertain: direct observations of the subglacial drainage system are lacking and its evolution over the melt season is poorly understood.

“Everyone wants to know what’s happening under Greenland as it experiences more and more melt,” said study coauthor Ginny Catania, a research scientist at the institute and an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. “This subglacial plumbing may or may not be critical for sea level rise in the next 100 years, but we don’t really know until we fully understand it.”

To resolve these unknowns, the research team drilled and instrumented 13 boreholes through 700-meter thick ice in west Greenland. There they performed the first combined analysis of Greenland ice velocity and water pressure in moulins and boreholes, and they determined that moulin water pressure does not lower over the latter half of the melt season, indicating a limited role of high-efficiency channels in subglacial drainage.

Instead they found that boreholes monitor a hydraulically isolated region of the bed, but decreasing water pressure seen in some boreholes can explain the decreasing ice velocity seen over the melt season.

“Like loosening the seal of a bathtub drain, the hydrologic changes that occur each summer may cause isolated pockets of pressurized water to slowly drain out from under the ice sheet, resulting in more friction,” said Hoffman.

Their observations identify a previously unrecognized role of changes in hydraulically isolated regions of the bed in controlling evolution of subglacial drainage over summer. Understanding this process will be crucial for predicting the effect of increasing melt on summer speedup and associated autumn slowdown of the ice sheet into the future.


The research letter is published in this week’s Nature magazine as “Direct observations of evolving subglacial drainage beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet.” The project was an international collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Michigan Technological University, University of Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College.

This project was supported by United States National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society. The work at Los Alamos was supported by NASA Cryospheric Sciences, and through climate modeling programs within the US Department of Energy, Office of Science.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, and URS for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.

Researcher receives $1.2 million to create real-time seismic imaging system

This is Dr. WenZhan Song. -  Georgia State University
This is Dr. WenZhan Song. – Georgia State University

Dr. WenZhan Song, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgia State University, has received a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a real-time seismic imaging system using ambient noise.

This imaging system for shallow earth structures could be used to study and monitor the sustainability of the subsurface, or area below the surface, and potential hazards of geological structures. Song and his collaborators, Yao Xie of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Fan-Chi Lin of the University of Utah, will use ambient noise to image the subsurface of geysers in Yellowstone National Park.

“This project is basically imaging what’s underground in a situation where there’s no active source, like an earthquake. We’re using background noise,” Song said. “At Yellowstone, for instance, people visit there and cars drive by. All that could generate signals that are penetrating through the ground. We essentially use that type of information to tap into a very weak signal to infer the image of underground. This is very frontier technology today.”

The system will be made up of a large network of wireless sensors that can perform in-network computing of 3-D images of the shallow earth structure that are based solely on ambient noise.

Real-time ambient noise seismic imaging technology could also inform homeowners if the subsurface below their home, which can change over time, is stable or will sink beneath them.

This technology can also be used in circumstances that don’t need to rely on ambient noise but have an active source that produces signals that can be detected by wireless sensors. It could be used for real-time monitoring and developing early warning systems for natural hazards, such as volcanoes, by determining how close magma is to the surface. It could also benefit oil exploration, which uses methods such as hydrofracturing, in which high-pressure water breaks rocks and allows natural gas to flow more freely from underground.

“As they do that, it’s critical to monitor that in real time so you can know what’s going on under the ground and not cause damage,” Song said. “It’s a very promising technology, and we’re helping this industry reduce costs significantly because previously they only knew what was going on under the subsurface many days and even months later. We could reduce this to seconds.”

Until now, data from oil exploration instruments had to be manually retrieved and uploaded into a centralized database, and it could take days or months to process and analyze the data.

The research team plans to have a field demonstration of the system in Yellowstone and image the subsurface of some of the park’s geysers. The results will be shared with Yellowstone management, rangers and staff. Yellowstone, a popular tourist attraction, is a big volcano that has been dormant for a long time, but scientists are concerned it could one day pose potential hazards.

In the past several years, Song has been developing a Real-time In-situ Seismic Imaging (RISI) system using active sources, under the support of another $1.8 million NSF grant. His lab has built a RISI system prototype that is ready for deployment. The RISI system can be implemented as a general field instrumentation platform for various geophysical imaging applications and incorporate new geophysical data processing and imaging algorithms.

The RISI system can be applied to a wide range of geophysical exploration topics, such as hydrothermal circulation, oil exploration, mining safety and mining resource monitoring, to monitor the uncertainty inherent to the exploration and production process, reduce operation costs and mitigate the environmental risks. The business and social impact is broad and significant. Song is seeking business investors and partners to commercialize this technology.


For more information about the project, visit

Predicting landslides with light

Optical fiber sensors are used around the world to monitor the condition of difficult-to-access segments of infrastructure-such as the underbellies of bridges, the exterior walls of tunnels, the feet of dams, long pipelines and railways in remote rural areas.

Now, a team of researchers in Italy are expanding the reach of optical fiber sensors “to the hills” by embedding them in shallow trenches within slopes to detect and monitor both large landslides and slow slope movements. The team will present their research at The Optical Society’s (OSA) 98th Annual Meeting, Frontiers in Optics, being held Oct. 19-23 in Tucson, Arizona, USA.

As major disasters around the world this year have shown, landslides can be stark examples of nature at her most unforgiving. Within seconds, a major landslide can completely erase houses and structures that have stood for years, and the catastrophic toll they inflict on communities is felt not just in that destructive loss of property but in the devastating loss of life. The 1999 Vargus tragedy in Venezuela, for instance, killed tens of thousands of people and erased whole towns from the map without warning.

The motivation for an early warning technology, like the one the Italian team has devised, is to find a way to mitigate such losses -just as hurricane tracking can prompt coastal evacuations and save lives.

Predicting Landslides by Detecting Land Strains

Landslides are failures of a rock or soil mass, and are always preceded by various types of “pre-failure” strains-known technically as elastic, plastic and viscous volumetric and shear strains. While the magnitude of these pre-failure strains depends on the rock or soil involved-ranging from fractured rock debris and pyroclastic flows to fine-grained soils-they are measurable. This new technology can detect small shifts in soil slopes, and thus can detect the onset of landslides. Usually, electrical sensors have been used for monitoring landslides, but these sensors are easily damaged. Optical fiber sensors are more robust, economical and sensitive. This is where the new technology could make a difference.

“Distributed optical fiber sensors can act as a ‘nervous system’ of slopes by measuring the tensile strain of the soil they’re embedded within,” explained Professor Luigi Zeni, who is in the Department of Industrial & Information Engineering at the Second University of Naples.

Taking it a step further, Zeni and his colleagues worked out a way of combining several types of optical fiber sensors into a plastic tube that twists and moves under the forces of pre-failure strains. Researchers are then able to monitor the movement and bending of the optical fiber remotely to determine if a landslide is imminent.

The use of novel fiber optic sensors “allows us to overcome some limitations of traditional inclinometers, because fiber-based ones have no moving parts and can withstand larger soil deformations,” Zeni said. “These sensors can be used to cover very large areas-several square kilometers-and interrogated in a time-continuous way to pinpoint any critical zones.”

The findings clearly demonstrate the potential of distributed optical fiber sensors as an entirely new tool to monitor areas subject to landslide risk, Zeni said, and to develop early warning systems based on geo-indicators-early deformations-of slope failures.

‘Fracking’ in the dark: Biological fallout of shale-gas production still largely unknown

Eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions, including Princeton University, found that shale-gas extraction in the United States has vastly outpaced scientists' understanding of the industry's environmental impact. With shale-gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry's effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority for scientists, industry and policymakers, the researchers said. The photo above shows extensive natural-gas operations at Jonah Field in Wyoming. -  Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.
Eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions, including Princeton University, found that shale-gas extraction in the United States has vastly outpaced scientists’ understanding of the industry’s environmental impact. With shale-gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority for scientists, industry and policymakers, the researchers said. The photo above shows extensive natural-gas operations at Jonah Field in Wyoming. – Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.

In the United States, natural-gas production from shale rock has increased by more than 700 percent since 2007. Yet scientists still do not fully understand the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife, according to a report in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

As gas extraction continues to vastly outpace scientific examination, a team of eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions, including Princeton University, concluded that determining the environmental impact of gas-drilling sites – such as chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failures and other accidents – must be a top research priority.

With shale-gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, the authors call on scientists, industry representatives and policymakers to cooperate on determining – and minimizing – the damage inflicted on the natural world by gas operations such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” A major environmental concern, hydraulic fracturing releases natural gas from shale by breaking the rock up with a high-pressure blend of water, sand and other chemicals, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances.

“We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts,” said co-author Morgan Tingley, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts,” Tingley said.

The researchers found that there are significant “knowledge gaps” when it comes to direct and quantifiable evidence of how the natural world responds to shale-gas operations. A major impediment to research has been the lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal and the composition of fracturing fluids. Of the 24 American states with active shale-gas reservoirs, only five – Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas – maintain public records of spills and accidents, the researchers report.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s website is one of the best sources of publicly available information on shale-gas spills and accidents in the nation. Even so, gas companies failed to report more than one-third of spills in the last year,” said first author Sara Souther, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“How many more unreported spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections?” Souther asked. “We need accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment before we can understand impacts to plants and animals.”

One of the greatest threats to animal and plant life identified in the study is the impact of rapid and widespread shale development, which has disproportionately affected rural and natural areas. A single gas well results in the clearance of 3.7 to 7.6 acres (1.5 to 3.1 hectares) of vegetation, and each well contributes to a collective mass of air, water, noise and light pollution that has or can interfere with wild animal health, habitats and reproduction, the researchers report.

“If you look down on a heavily ‘fracked’ landscape, you see a web of well pads, access roads and pipelines that create islands out of what was, in some cases, contiguous habitat,” Souther said. “What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?”

The chemical makeup of fracturing fluid and wastewater is often unknown. The authors reviewed chemical-disclosure statements for 150 wells in three of the top gas-producing states and found that an average of two out of every three wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical. The exact effect of fracturing fluid on natural water systems as well as drinking water supplies remains unclear even though improper wastewater disposal and pollution-prevention measures are among the top state-recorded violations at drilling sites, the researchers found.

“Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals,” said senior author Kimberly Terrell, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.”

Team develops a geothermometer for methane formation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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