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How 11,000 Oil and Gas Wells Gave Utah Community More Ozone Pollution Than Los Angeles

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How 11,000 Oil and Gas Wells Gave Utah Community More Ozone Pollution Than Los Angeles

Clearly, there's no comparing the sparse population of Utah's Uintah Basin and that of the mega-metropolis within the Los Angeles basin. So, how could both places possibly have similar volatile organic compounds (VOCs) levels?

Despite an area population of barely 30,000, Uintah County is home to a combined 11,200 oil- and gas-producing wells. Over time, their presence led to researchers' discovery that the area exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) eight-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) level for ozone pollutants for 39 days last winter, placing it above the Los Angeles Basin's typical summertime levels.

Those results were reported in Highly Elevated Atmospheric Levels of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Uintah Basin, Utaha paper by a group of University of Colorado Boulder researchers like Detlev Helmig and Chelsea Thompson of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. The paper made its way to this month's Environmental Science & Technology journal, published by the American Chemical Society (ACS).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado Boulder researcher Detlev Helmig set up a tethered balloon to collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin. Photo credit: Chelsea Thompson, via Chemical & Engineering News

"Levels above this threshold are considered to be harmful to human health, and high levels of ozone are known to cause respiratory distress and be responsible for an estimated 5,000 premature deaths in the U.S. per year," the report reads. "Because of the photochemical nature of ozone production, tropospheric ozone pollution has traditionally been considered an urban, summertime phenomenon."

That's clearly no longer the case. The group wrote that its 2013 observations from the Uintah Basin oil and gas development area are, "to the best of our knowledge, among the highest-ever reported mole fractions of alkane non-methane hydrocarbon in ambient air. Mole fractions for the aromatic compounds reach or exceed those reported from the most heavily polluted inner cities."

There are about 25,000 more wells under proposal, according to the study.

Compounds like benzene, a carcinogen, that are associated with oil and gas wells are precursors of ozone and can cause respiratory problems, according to the report. The researchers say the Uintah Basin is simlar to the basin of Wyoming and together they are two of the highest producing oil and gas fields in the U.S.

Researchers found that Uintah Basin benzene levels often exceeded 1.4 parts per billion, which is a benchmark for chronic exposure, Lisa M. McKenzie, a public health researcher at the University of Colorado, Denver, told the ASC's Chemical & Engineering News But since benzene is considered a carcinogen, the EPA does not define a safe threshold for its presence.

“This is quite amazing,” says Bernhard Rappenglück, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Houston.

According to the University of Colorado Boulder, the researchers placed instruments attached to a tower and tethered balloons at the edge of a gas field to measure volatile organic VOCs in the air, from the surface to a height of 500 feet during the past two winters.

"These observations reveal a strong causal link between oil and gas emissions, accumulation of air toxics and significant surface production in the atmospheric surface layer," the study reads.

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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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