Dangerous Levels of Methane Found While Testing Natural Gas Leaks in D.C.
A team of scientists using portable methane detectors reported last week that it has detected 5,893 leaks of methane, the main component of natural gas, from gas utility lines in Washington D.C.
Last February, the team, composed of researchers from Duke and Boston Universities and led by Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, determined that a dozen of those leaks were big enough to trigger explosions. Its members promptly reported the leaks to Washington Gas Co., according to a paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. But when the scientists retested those sites in June, nine were still emitting dangerous amounts of methane.
Jackson told USA Today that he was “shocked” that Washington Gas hadn’t repaired the leaks. “If you dropped a cigarette down a manhole . . . it could have blown up,” he explained.
Jackson and his colleagues from Duke and Boston University launched their first leak detection project in the fall of 2011, driving the streets of Boston in cars fitted with sensors that sniff methane. They found more than 3,000 leaks across the city. As a result of their findings, utility crews fixed six leaks large enough to cause explosions.
The team repeated the experiment in Washington D.C., in January and February of last year. They discovered that the concentrations of methane in D.C. gas leaks were higher than in Boston’s leaks: fully 51 of the leaks in D.C. contained more methane than Boston’s biggest leak. Two of the 12 potentially explosive leaks in D.C. were found near Union Station. Another was located in downtown Washington, near office buildings and a George Washington University residence hall. The Washington Post’s website shows a map of the leaks.
Natural gas leaks in Boston, D.C. and other cities are often caused by the deterioration of decades-old cast iron and bare steel pipes. Washington has a higher percentage of distribution mains made of cast iron than any other place in the country. That may explain the prevalence of methane leaks in the city.
Sen. Markey (D-MA) introduced two bills last year to support natural gas pipeline development and repair. A report prepared by Markey’s staff asserts that because gas companies can charge their customers for “lost” gas, between 2000 and 2011, American consumers paid as much as $20 billion for gas they never received.
The companies are less able to pass along the costs of capital improvements and repairs. Consequently, they have been slow to replace old pipes with safer materials such as plastic. In 2012, natural gas transmission and distribution pipeline incidents killed seven people, injured 51 more and caused almost $8 million in property damage, as reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some of these tragedies have been attributed to old pipes. A 2011 explosion in Allentown, PA, caused by an aging cast-iron pipe, killed five people and destroyed eight homes.
A less visible but serious problem is that methane is a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, roughly 60 percent of global methane emissions are caused by human activity, and leaks occurring during natural gas and oil extraction, production and distribution are the nation’s most significant source of these emissions. These leaks contribute significantly to global warming—a sobering fact often overlooked by those who propose to increase natural gas use as an alternative to coal.
The findings by Jackson’s team underscore the need for repairs to the aging natural gas infrastructure. As Jackson told the Environmental Working Group, “Reducing natural gas leaks will save people money, improve consumer safety and air quality, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.”
That nearly 6,000 gas leaks have been found in the nation’s capital should serve as an important reminder of the multitude of harms caused by reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas. We can’t afford to stop at fixing broken pipes. We must go even further and repair our broken energy policies.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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Listen:<iframe style="border: none" src="//html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/17278520/height/45/theme/standard/thumbnail/yes/direction/backward/" height="45" width="100%" scrolling="no" allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen oallowfullscreen msallowfullscreen></iframe><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/01/college-course-teaches-students-how-to-be-climate-leaders/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Yale Climate Connections</a>.</em></p>
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