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Fracking Approved in Largest National Forest in Eastern U.S.

Energy
Fracking Approved in Largest National Forest in Eastern U.S.

Despite strong opposition from both elected officials in the affected areas and environmental groups, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has approved fracking in George Washington Forest. Objections to the plan came from members of Congress from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Washington D.C. city council, which passed a resolution opposing it in March. McAuliffe reiterated his opposition before a meeting of the state's Climate Change and Resilience Commission in September.

George Washington National Forest is a mecca for hikers, fishers and bird watchers. Photo credit: Public radio WVTF

The forest, located in Virginia and West Virginia, is the largest national forest on the east coast. It contains the headwaters of the Potomac River, which feed into the Chesapeake Bay and provide drinking water for millions of people in the Washington, DC/Chesapeake region.

The USFS had initially proposed  to ban fracking in the 1.1 million acre forest, the first outright ban of the practice in a national forest. But when the plan was released in 2011, energy companies complained and exerted pressure on the USFS. About 10,000 acres of the forest are already been leased to oil and gas companies, with private mineral rights existing under another 167,000 acres. The newly released plan will only allow fracking on that land, which is located in sparsely populated rural Highland County, Virginia. The plan also puts off limits another 800,000 acres that were available for drilling.

"We think we've ended up in a much better place, which is we are allowing oil and gas drilling," Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for natural resources and environment, told the Associated Press. "From a policy perspective, the Forest Service allows fracking on forest lands throughout the country. We didn't want to make a policy decision or change policy related to fracking. This decision is about where it's appropriate to do oil and gas leasing."

"Allowing the use of fracking within a part of the George Washington National Forest is part of the Obama Administration’s embrace of oil and gas drilling, despite the water, air and climate pollution that is proven to come along with it," said Earthworks energy program director Bruce Baizel. "In the face of dire warnings from the world’s foremost climate scientists about the need to phase out fossil fuels by 2100 and an authoritative body of science demonstrating the health impacts faced by communities living near oil and gas development, this administration continues to promote an 'all of the above' energy policy rather than a swift transition to renewable energy. Nearby communities, local governments, the governor of Virginia, every major water utility in the DC area and the Forest Service’s original recommendation had it right when they opposed the use of hydraulic fracturing in the George Washington National Forest. The President can protect the climate and public health, or he can continue to promote fracking. He cannot do both.”

The leased land lies on the southeastern tip of the lucrative Marcellus shale formation, which has created a fracking boom in Pennsylvania. But the USFS says that the value of this particular land is low and that there has been no interest in drilling  there so far. "The economic value of these reserves is very low," said Bonnie. "We've had very little interest on oil and gas on the forest."

The USFS says before any drilling takes place, there will be a public comment period, and the decision is subject to appeal.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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