We’re Just Starting to Learn How Fracking Harms Wildlife
By Tara Lohan
In January 2015 North Dakota experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in its history: A pipeline burst, spilling nearly 3 million gallons of briny, saltwater waste from nearby oil-drilling operations into two creek beds. The wastewater, which flowed all the way to the Missouri River, contained chloride concentrations high enough to kill any wildlife that encountered it.
It wasn't the first such disaster in the state. In 2006 a spill of close to 1 million gallons of fracking wastewater into the Yellowstone River resulted in a mass die-off of fish and plants. Cleanup of that spill was still ongoing at the time of the 2015 spill, nearly a decade later.
Spills like these highlight the dangers that come with unconventional fossil-fuel extraction techniques that go after hard-to-reach pockets of oil and gas using practices like horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking).
But events like these massive spills are just the tip of the iceberg. Other risks to wildlife can be more contained, subtle or hidden.
And while many of the after-effects of fracking have grabbed headlines for years — such as contaminated drinking water, earthquakes and even flammable faucets — the consequences for wildlife have so far been left out of the national conversation.
But those consequences are very real for a vast suite of animals including mussels, birds, fish, caribou and even fleas, and they're as varied as the species themselves. In some places wildlife pays the price when habitat is destroyed. Elsewhere the damage occurs when water is sucked away or polluted. Still other species can't take the traffic, noise and dust that accompany extraction operations.
All this damage makes sense when you think about fracking's outsized footprint.
It starts with the land cleared for the well pad, followed by sucking large volumes of water (between 1.5 and 16 million gallons per well) out of rivers, streams or groundwater.
Fracking trucks and equipment in Doddridge Co, West Virginia.
Then there's the sand that's mined for use during the fracturing of underground rock to release natural gas or oil. There are also new pipelines, compressor stations and other related infrastructure that need to be constructed. And there's the truck traffic that surges during operations, or the disposal of fracking wastewater, either in streams or underground.
The cumulative footprint of a single new well can be as large as 30 acres. In places where hundreds or thousands of wells spring up across a landscape, it's easy to imagine the toll on wildlife — and even cases with ecosystem-wide implications.
"Studies show that there are multiple pathways to wildlife being harmed," said ecologist Sandra Steingraber, a distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College who has worked for a decade compiling research on the health effects of fracking. "Biodiversity is a determinant of public health — without these wild animals doing ecosystem services for us, we can't survive."
The most obvious threats fracking poses to wildlife comes in the form of habitat loss.
As rural areas become industrialized with each new well pad and its associated infrastructure, vital habitat for wildlife is altered or destroyed.
Habitat fragmentation in North Dakota's Bakken shale.
And it's not just the area containing the well. The land or water just outside of the operation, known as "edge habitat," also degrades with an increase in the spread of invasive plant species, among other concerns.
And large-scale development, such as miles-long pipelines, can change the way species move and hunt, often resulting in an increase in predation. The oil and gas development in Alberta, Canada, for example, created "wolf highways" that gave the predators easy access to an endangered herd of woodland caribou.
Roads, another kind of fragmentation, can be particularly dangerous for wildlife. A single fracked well can be responsible for 3,300 one-way truck trips during its operational lifespan, and each journey can injure or kill wildlife large and small. After all, it's hard to get out of the way of a tanker truck carrying 80,000 pounds of sand.
And then there's the big picture. Drilling within large, "core" forest areas previously located far from human development can be permanently detrimental for species such as migratory songbirds.
In one study, published in Biological Conservation in 2016, researchers examined the effects of unconventional gas drilling on forest habits and populations of birds in an area of West Virginia overlaying the Marcellus and Utica shales. The area has been at the center of the shale gas boom, with the number of unconventional wells in central Appalachia jumping from 111 in 2005 to 14,022 by the end of 2015. The study found that shale-gas development there during that period resulted in a 12.4 percent loss of core forest and increased edge habitat by more than 50 percent — and that, in turn, changed the communities of birds found in the forest.
The areas near well pads experienced an overall decline in "forest specialists" — birds that prefer interior forest habitat, among them the hooded warbler and Kentucky warbler, which are of high conservation priority, as well as cerulean warblers. These sky-blue endangered migratory songbirds have been dropping in numbers for decades, but researchers noted that the decline was 15 percent higher in their study area than in the greater Appalachian Mountains region during the same period.
Kentucky warblers prefer large core forest habitat and researchers have found they decline in numbers around shale gas development.
Andrew Weitzel / CC BY-SA 2.0
"For migratory songbirds, large blocks of forest are very important," explains Margaret C. Brittingham, a professor of wildlife resources at Penn State University who has studied the effects of fracking on wildlife. The birds do best in interior forest habitat with mature trees. They also serve as an important part of the forest ecosystem, helping to prevent or suppress insect outbreaks that can damage trees. "They're co-evolved with the forest, feeding on insects and keeping those forests healthy," she said.
Not all species declined in numbers from fracking development. The study found an increase in the kinds of birds that do well among humans and in developed areas — "habitat generalists" such as the American robin, blue jay and brown-headed cowbird, the latter of which are notorious brood parasites that leave their eggs in nests of other birds.
"I think the most alarming thing about all of this is what bird declines may indicate about the declining health of overall ecosystems," said Laura Farwell, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the Biological Conservation study. "I know it's a cliché, but forest interior birds truly are 'canaries in the coal mine' for Appalachian forests experiencing rapid loss and fragmentation."
Farwell adds that many other kinds of development contribute to habitat loss that result in biodiversity declines. Fracking is one more added pressure, but the consequences are quite significant.
"It just happens to be disproportionately affecting some of the largest remaining areas of undisturbed, mature forest left in the eastern U.S., and these forests are incredibly valuable for biodiversity," she said.
Out West the industry is carving up a different kind of habitat, and that has other species on the ropes. Greater sage grouse, for example, depend on large home ranges composed of intact areas of sagebrush. Cattle ranching and development of all kinds have pushed the grouse near extinction, and continued unbridled oil and gas extraction in its remaining habitat could tip it over the edge.
A 2014 study co-authored by Brittingham found that oil and gas infrastructure and related disturbances to sage grouse can cause the birds' populations to decline — or even disappear in areas with particularly high levels of oil and gas development.
Sage grouse have also been shown to exhibit high levels of stress from noise.
Noise poses additional risks for birds that depend on their hearing. A study published in Biological Conservation in 2016 found that noise from compressor stations, which run 24 hours a day, reduced the ability of northern saw-whet owls to catch prey. The researchers found that for owls and other "acoustically specialized predators," noise can cause significant negative impacts on behavior, like a decreased ability to hunt, and that can ripple through the ecosystem.
Lights on a drilling site in West Virginia can affect nocturnal wildlife.
Light, too, can be a problem. Oil and gas operations in some places have turned once-dark rural areas into blazing mini-cities in quick time. A 2012 photo revealed that gas burned off from wells in North Dakota's Bakken Shale was so bright it was visible from space — something not seen just six years before. Light pollution like this can be deadly for migratory birds and disrupt other nocturnal animals.
It’s in the Water
The fracking process uses a lot of water and much of that contaminated H2O returns to the surface, bringing with it heavy metals, radioactivity, toxic chemicals (many of which are industry trade secrets) and high levels of salinity. Disposing of all that wastewater has created headaches for the industry and in some cases it's now proving to endanger wildlife.
Spills or intentional dumping of wastewater or fracking fluid released 180 million gallons into the environment between 2009 and 2014, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. Unsafe levels of some contaminants have been found to persist for years, as was the case in North Dakota.
Not all spills and intentional releases of wastewater in streams create noticeable impacts like fish going belly up — some are more subtle and harder to see — but they may still take a real toll on aquatic life.
A 2019 study in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety looked at what happens when insects called water fleas encounter a fracking-fluid spill. Researchers found that even when the fluids were diluted in a stream, their high salinity could decrease insect mobility and survival. The Canadian province of Alberta, the researchers noted, has recorded 100 such large-volume spills.
Lowly water fleas — in this case a species called Daphnia magna — may not seem like animals we should worry about, but like so many small creatures, they occupy an important niche.
"They are the basis of the freshwater ecosystem," Steingraber explained. "When the water fleas are gone, the guys that feed on them are gone — frogs and fish die, and those that feed on them die and suddenly you have a biodiversity problem because you've knocked out a species at the bottom of the aquatic food chain."
Some of this may already be playing out in other locations. A 2016 study published in Ecotoxicology that found a decrease in biodiversity of macroinvertebrates in Pennsylvania streams where fracking was occurring in the watershed — and, even worse, "no fish or no fish diversity at streams with documented frackwater fluid spills." In some cases streams that once contained large numbers of brook trout had none left. The researchers concluded that "fracking has the potential to alter aquatic biodiversity…at the base of food webs."
Brook trout have disappeared from some streams in central Appalachia following fracking spills.
Elsewhere, it's possible that contamination of surface waters has already taken a toll on the Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla), a bird that breeds along forest headwater streams and feeds on macroinvertebrates. A 2015 study published in Ecosphere found that shale gas development had negative effects on the nest survival and productivity of waterthrushes and the researchers posited that "indirect effects on stream and terrestrial food webs from possible contamination" by the oil and gas industry could be to blame.
The research, which looked at sites in both the Marcellus and Fayetteville shale regions, showed that the birds' feathers contained elevated levels of barium and strontium — two heavy metals associated with the drilling process — in areas where fracking had taken place. Much like when lead shows up in a human's hair, the presence of these metals in the birds' feathers is a sign that contaminants in the environment are making their way into animals' bodies.
And that raises even bigger concerns.
As the researchers concluded in their paper: "Our finding of significantly higher levels of barium and strontium also suggests the possibility of surface water contamination by any of the hundreds of chemicals that may be used in hydraulic fracturing, including friction reducers, acids, biocides, corrosion and scale inhibitors, pH adjusting agents and surfactants."
A similar line of inquiry is being pursued by other researchers. Nathaniel Warner, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State University, has been using the shells of freshwater mussels to read the changes in water chemistry in Pennsylvania's Allegheny River. Mussels record environmental conditions in their shells each year — much like tree rings.
Warner and his colleagues have also found elevated levels of strontium in the shells of mussels living downstream from a site where treated fracking wastewater was discharged. Strontium, which is found in high concentrations in oil and gas wastewaters, is a naturally occurring metal with some medical benefits but which in large exposures can cause bone loss and other side effects.
But Warner says they are still trying to determine what the impacts are for mussels and aquatic ecosystems — not to mention the people who get their dinner from the river.
"We haven't really gotten to the point where we can say this is harmful or not," he said. "We really focused on the hard shell itself. But now we're looking more at what happens in that soft tissue because muskrats and fish don't really eat the shell that much, but they eat the soft tissue. And so what levels of contaminants or pollution ended up in that soft tissue compared to the shell?" He said that's probably more important for determining what this really means for wildlife or even human health.
University of Wisconsin's Farwell says that she'd also like to see more research on what the accumulation of contaminants in the bodies of waterthrushes means for other wildlife and for humans. "Air pollution is another important issue to consider," she added. "I'm not aware of any current studies that have looked directly at impacts of fracking air pollution on wildlife."
You can add these topics to the long list researchers are hoping to explore, but there will still be a lot about how fracking and other extraction technologies are affecting wildlife that we don't know. And with natural gas still projected to be one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States, the time to understand its impacts on wildlife grows short.
"The industry boomed at such a rapid pace, researchers and policymakers could barely keep up," she said. "And in most cases, we don't have baseline data at impacted sites to compare with current numbers. Unfortunately, most of us studying fracking impacts have been playing a game of catch-up since the beginning."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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