Meet Chip Northrup—An Articulate and Energetic Opponent of Fracking
James “Chip” Northrup
When I first began writing about the anti-fracking movement in New York, I was told I must interview James “Chip” Northrup, a Texas oil-investor-turned-anti-fracker with a home in Cooperstown, New York, and another in Dallas, Texas. “Chip,” I was told, had an insider’s knowledge of the industry and was a frequent speaker on the subject in local forums as well as in national and international media.
I found out that he was about to lecture in an Upper New York State village on a mind-deadening topic—decoding the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) 1,500 plus pages of guidelines for the industry. This was in October 2011, when the DEC's public hearings on the “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement” (SGEIS) were about to begin and community members and activists needed briefing on how to comment. Few in New York could do better than Northrup.
He walked in early at the little café where I was to interview him over dinner before the talk—tall, lean, a boyish face under a thatch of pale blond hair. As another reporter wrote recently, he looked “like the kind of guy you’d get from central casting if you were trying to make a Western movie.” The Texas drawl fit the package and under level blue eyes he had a smile that kept appearing as he spoke. Behind that charm was a caustic, take-no prisoners attitude about the industry and its proponents, and detailed knowledge about things I’d had no inkling about—set-backs of gas wells from houses, well casings, “frackonomics” and details about corruption within New York’s DEC.
The following interview is drawn from conversations I've had with Northrup between October 2011 and January 2013.
Q. You’ve compared fracking with a bomb. Can you comment?
A. When you take the amount of energy involved in a shale frack, it’s the equivalent of a thermobaric bomb. In 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission actually exploded a nuclear bomb in the Mancos Shale in Rulison, Colorado. It made a big hole in the shale but the gas was too radioactive to sell and they closed the hole up. Ironically, the shale is radioactive itself. That’s how you find shale on a well log, you’re looking for radioactivity. And what comes back up in the fracking flowback is radioactive because it’s coming back from the shale.
Q. How would fracking disrupt daily life if it happened in New York State?
A. The first things that arrive are the land men. They come in and they sign mineral leases with landowners. And they try to sign them as cheaply as they can and with terms as onerously favorable to the gas industry as possible. So the land grab is the first disruptor. That’s where the scamming starts. It’s very disruptive to the town, the people’s lives, thousands of bad leases have been in litigation in New York State. The brilliance of [Matt Damon’s film] Promised Land is it focuses on the land men, the first aspect of the activity.
The second thing is the seismic crews. They go in and “shoot seismic.” That means they set off dynamite in the ground to record the sound waves from the strata when they’re looking for the shale. There are no regulations in NY State for seismic testing. You can shoot seismic blasts anywhere. Let me back up and say there are no regulations for land men, either, in New York. There are no standards at all, no licensing. They don’t even have to record the leases they sign. They’ll sign up the mineral lease and it’ll be kept a secret.
The third thing you see are the trucks. They build the roads out to the well pad. They travel in convoys. There are thousands of them. They just tear the roads and the whole place up. There are no state standards in New York for that kind of activity. The state has no way to cover the damages they’ll do to state roads, because New York is one of the few places on the planet that does not tax gas at the wellhead.
A town or a county can recover damages that the convoys do to roads. They can’t recover the damages done to cars, to windshields and axles. But they have to enact road use agreements. If they don’t do this they won’t recover the damage to the roads.
The next activity is the drilling and the fracking of the well itself. If you live near one of these well pads it’s gonna basically ruin the value of your farm or house. It doesn’t go on forever but it goes on long enough to ruin the value. If you’re in the process of refinancing or just living there, it’ll ruin the property. If you’re unfortunate, it’ll crater your mortgage, or if you’d need to sell the house, you can’t sell it.
Setback is the distance of the drilling rig from the house, 500 feet. There is no setback in New York from a warehouse or a school or daycare center or hospital or a filling station. If the house is uninhabited or under construction there is no set back of a shale gas well in New York State. Zero. It could be ten feet.
Q. Even at 500 feet, could you compare that with Texas?
A. In Texas the setbacks are done by towns. They are municipal setbacks.
The standard setback is about a thousand feet. But let me get to the real punch-line here. The setback is from the drilling rig. But on each of these sites there are open pits, compressors, generators, gas processing plants, trucks and there are no setbacks from any of that from a house. The rig has to be 500 feet away, but an open pit or a generator could be right next to your house or a church or a daycare center. There’s no setback of any of the industrial infrastructure, which remains after the drilling has ended.
The other thing is getting rid of the toxic radioactive flowback. But by now, how much else do you really want to know to say, “Umm, I don’t think I like that.”
Q. What would fracking do to Cooperstown?
A. It would completely ruin Cooperstown’s economy, which is based on tourism and health care. It would be the end of Cooperstown. Which is why the village of Cooperstown, which is in the Town of Otsego, was the first township to have banned shale-gas drilling. [The organizers] looked at this—Julie Huntsman was the leader—and they said, ‘This would ruin this place." Then other towns followed.
Here’s the catch, the big trade-off. If the surface value is worth more than the mineral rights—that is, the built environment, businesses, the organic farms, the vineyards, the houses—then there’s absolutely no reason to be shooting up the place with shale gas wells. It’s just a given you’re going to ruin the surface rights, the built environment, the water supply.
If on the other hand the value of the surface rights and the water is basically useless, then you have an economic argument in favor of gas well drilling. It’s why you see gas wells and oil wells out in West Texas where there are no farms, houses, nothing. But these shale gas wells are not compatible with most land uses in a place like New York State, and that’s the biggest understatement of this interview.
Q. I was particularly struck by your remarks to an interviewer a year ago about well casings. Can you comment?
A. When you understand how a well is constructed, it’s very simple. The casing is the steel tubing in the well that transports the gas up to the surface. But that is not the problem. The odds of the steel casing bursting or leaking is pretty low initially. Over time, since it’s a ferrous metal, it’ll all rust out and leak. But initially that’s not a big problem. What is the problem, then? The problem is, is that the steel tubing is surrounded by cement, not concrete, not reinforced concrete. Raw cement without aggregate, the closest approximation would be plaster. So what does the plaster do? It’s not gonna support the steel any more than the steel can support itself. All it does is, it plugs the hole up. You pour plaster down and it has the effect of holding the steel tubing upright and also plugs the hole. But the cement as it cures, it shrinks and it does not stick to the side of the well bore. And it allows gas to vent up inside the well bore. Not in the steel casing but between the cement and the well bore. Gas is coming up those well bores into groundwater. I’ll repeat that: gas is coming up into the groundwater and that’s why you get it coming up. The DEC says, we’ll make you have two casings or three casings. That’s not the problem. This leaking or venting is going on outside the casings. You could put in seven casings but the leak would still be happening outside the casings.
Q. Could you also comment on well failure?
A. About 5 percent fail almost immediately. But the real problem is not that they fail catastrophically like the BP Gulf disaster, but they deteriorate rapidly and start venting gas up into the groundwater. They can build them really well but they don’t age well. They never were designed to last long and the reason why is, these shale wells only have an economic life of four or five years. Why would you build something to last 50 or 100 years if it’s only going to be productive four or five years?
Q. Is the four to five year life invariable for all fracking?
A. They can re-frack them [the wells] and extend their productive life, but it doesn’t always work. They can run it out for ten years but under few circumstances much more than that. If they had to last 100 years they’d have to use stainless steel. But now, whatever’s on sale in China, they stick in the ground.
Q. I attended a conference recently where a woman from Cabot Oil & Gas said, “Oh, we’ve taken care of that. We’re making better cement.”
A. Whenever you raise an issue they’ll say ‘We’re working on this.’ But let’s address this. They do have better cement. They put plasticizers in to keep it from having this problem. But they cannot keep the cement from pulling away from the well bore. Think about what the well bore is like. It’s drilled with grease, with drilling mud. When you’re finished drilling the well, you basically have just a big greasy hole in the ground. There’s no disclosure of what they put in drilling mud, which is used to cool the drill bits, and bring cuttings back up. So now you have this big greasy hole in the rock that can go on for miles. So now the cement has to stick to every square inch of the surface of that greasy rock, and they have to do that down to the angstrom level. A methane molecule is only 3.8 angstroms wide. (An angstrom is one ten-millionth of a millimeter). If you have a crack of five angstroms [in the cement] and it’s gonna vent gas. Remember, gas is lighter than air. It’s like helium. It’s not whether or not it will leak, it’s how much, how soon.
Q. You've talked about “frackonomics” in your writing and in your previous interviews. Could you talk about it briefly here?
A. The expert on this is really Deborah Rogers. Art Berman has also commented on this extensively. But frackonomics is very simple. It is very very easy to mislead the public, politicians and investors. It’s because the initial production, the gas produced immediately, can be extraordinarily high, it’s called the “IP” or initial production, it can be eye-popping. But the production declines very very quickly. What happens is, it gives unscrupulous operators like Chesapeake the opportunity to mislead people about how productive an area is going to be. It happens every time a new field is opened up. It’s always overstated initially. There’ll be a rush, and then most of the area that’s defined—like the Marcellus—is not going to be economically productive. It’s almost a guarantee that it’s going to be hyped. And everybody knows this and they forget it about every time there’s a new field.
Q. If the Marcellus is slated to be unprofitable, why would companies start drilling in New York State?
A. Well, they will not. This is a kind of real irony. The Marcellus in New York State is dry gas, it’s methane. It doesn’t have much ethane, propane or butane. Those “liquids” command higher prices. The price of methane is depressed, there isn’t much incentive to go for more dry gas in New York State. Drilling has been cut back by more than 50 percent in New York State because those are dry Marcellus Shale wells. They’re pulling rigs out of that area by the border. So why would you go prospect, what would be the rush, just on the other side of the state line? The short answer is: there is none. And based on the geology, the area north of the border is going to be less lucrative than south, where they’re pulling rigs out.
So what’s the rush of getting the regulations when they’re not gonna come knocking at the door.
The only thing driving this is politics at this point. Much more so than any need to prospect for gas. Cuomo is being pushed into permitting shale gas wells when such wells are uneconomic to drill. The prospects for the Utica are no better in New York than the Marcellus. And like the Marcellus, the Utica is likely dry in New York, based on results form test wells. So we are left with pressure from gas lobbyists as the driver.
Q. Before Governor Cuomo allows fracking, the DEC has to draft regulations. Then Cuomo approves them. Could you talk about the DEC?
A. In most states there’s a state agency for minerals management for issuing gas-well permits and regulating drilling. And there’s a totally distinct and autonomous environmental agency which has oversight over gas wells. So if there’s a problem you complain to the environmental agency, which is autonomous from the minerals management agency. In New York it’s the same agency. Meaning the DEC acts as both the minerals management agency and the environmental agency. As a practical matter, the environmental function gets compromised.
When you go to the DEC to talk about oil and gas or fracking, you know who you see, or talk to? You call up and say, “I want to talk about the regs—because I’ve done this!—You don’t meet with a chemist or an epidemiologist or a toxicologist, a hydrologist or an environmentalist. If you go high up on the chain, you meet with the head of well permitting! You go there, you’re concerned with water pollution and air pollution and you meet with the guy who issues the permits and with his attorneys. If you’re lucky you meet with Allison Crocker, y’know, big tall good looking gal. Allison Crocker is the one who Chesapeake sends their drafts to. When Chesapeake wants wording changed in the SGEIS, they go to Allison Crocker.
Q. Could you talk about the DEC’s regulations? [These “final” drafts were just issued after over three years of massive public protest about the agency’s draft guidelines. See further details here.]
A. The DEC in New York is required by law to show any scientific studies, any statistics, any studies at all, that it has used as the basis for its regulations. That’s a state law. In the SGEIS [preliminary to the final regulations] and in the proposed regulations they just issued, the DEC does not cite any studies whatsoever. No papers, no science, nothing. It has no references, no science at all. So what’s it based on? They basically just made it up with input from the gas lobbyists. Some of these regulations are literally copied verbatim from the lobbyists. They FOILED the meetings with the lobbyists [requested records under the Freedom of Information Act] and [found out that] the lobbyists were feeding them with industry wording. [See further details here.]
Q. Do you think it's likely that Cuomo will OK fracking? If so, what will happen next?
A. There’s no doubt about it. I’m sure he will. I don’t think people realize that the only difference between Cuomo and [Pennsylvania Governor] Corbett [who immediately allowed fracking in Pennsylvania in 2008] is that Cuomo’s a better actor. You can be charitable and say they’ve bought into the shale game, whatever. But they’ve just been co-opted by the gas lobbyists. When you look at what the DEC proposed as regs. and what’s missing, the fingerprints of the gas lobby are all over it. They wrote the regs.
Let me give you just one example. In the September 2011 draft of the regulations, an open pit for storing drilling mud or flow-back, the requirement was for the fluid to be at least two feet from the [top] of the pit—the distance is called the “freeboard.” And guess what the freeboard is in the new regs? Nothing. Zero You can fill the pit up to the brim. You know what would happen if it rained real hard? The gas industry wanted it to be zero. And the DEC changed it [to] zero for the people that paid them.
Q. If the DEC is just going to rubber-stamp industry anyway, why ask people to comment on the regulations?
A. The short answer is, you have to expose this corruption. In commenting, we’re given the opportunity in the hearings—three committees in the State Assembly are having hearings on these proposed regulations and that’s an opportunity to expose the corruption. That is what Tony Ingraffea and Sandra Steingraber are doing, they’re publishing their responses on the proposed fracking regulations. To the press. To journalists. That’s what I’m doing.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
Ellen Cantarow has been a journalist for the past 35 years, and a published writer since the late 1960s. Her writing on Israel and Palestine has appeared widely for three decades, and has been anthologized. Her more recent writing on the environment, especially on the impact of fracking on grassroots communities, appears regularly at Tom Dispatch and has been reprinted at EcoWatch, CBS News, The Nation, Salon, Alternet, European Energy Review, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al-Jazeera English and many more.
On Thursday, April 22, the world will celebrate Earth Day, the largest non-religious holiday on the globe.
This Earth Day falls at a critical turning point. It is the second Earth Day since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and follows a year of devastating climate disasters, such as the wildfires that scorched California and the hurricanes that battered Central America. But the day's organizers still have hope, and they have chosen a theme to match.
"At the heart of Earth Day's 2021 theme, Restore Our Earth, is optimism, a critically needed sentiment in a world ravaged by both climate change and the pandemic," EarthDay.org president Kathleen Rogers told USA TODAY.
Last Earth Day marked the first time that the holiday was celebrated digitally to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will largely be the case this year as well.
"Most of our Earth Day events will be virtual with the exception of individual and small group cleanups through our 'Great Global Cleanup' program," EarthDay.org's Olivia Altman told USA TODAY.
Tuesday, April 20: A Global Youth Summit begins at 2:30 p.m. ET featuring young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor. This will be followed at 7 p.m. ET by "We Shall Breathe," a virtual summit organized by the Hip Hop Caucus to look at issues like the climate crisis, pollution and the pandemic through an environmental justice lens.
Wednesday, April 22: Beginning at 7 a.m. ET, Education International will lead the "Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit." Talks will be offered in multiple languages and across multiple time zones to emphasize the importance of education in fighting the climate crisis.
Thursday, April 22: On the day itself, EarthDay.org will host its second ever Earth Day Live digital event beginning at 12 p.m. ET. This event will feature discussions, performances and workshops focusing on the day's theme of restoring our Earth through natural solutions, technological innovations and new ideas.
"EARTHDAY.ORG looks forward to contributing to the success of this historic climate summit and making active progress to Restore Our Earth," Rogers said in a press release. "We must see every country rapidly raise their ambition across all climate issues — and that must include climate education which would lead to a green jobs-ready workforce, a green consumer movement, and an educated and civically engaged citizenry around the world."
EarthDay.org grew out of the first Earth Day in 1970, which drew 20 million U.S. residents to call for greater environmental protections. The movement has been credited with helping to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to pass landmark environmental legislation like the Clean Air and Water Acts. It has since gone on to be a banner day for environmental action, such as the signing of the Paris agreement in 2016. More than one billion people in more than 192 countries celebrate Earth Day each year.
This legacy continues. The organization called the scheduling of Biden's summit a "clear acknowledgement of the power of Earth Day."
"This is a critical stepping stone for the U.S. to rejoin the world in combating the climate crisis. In concert with several planned parallel EARTHDAY.ORG events worldwide, Earth Day 2021 will accelerate global action on climate change," EarthDay.org wrote.
Super-emitters are individual sources such as leaking pipelines, landfills or dairy farms that produce a disproportionate amount of planet-warming emissions, especially methane and carbon dioxide. Carbon Mapper, the non-profit leading the effort, hopes to provide a more targeted guide to reducing emissions by launching special satellites that hunt for sources of climate pollution.
"What we've learned is that decision support systems that focus just at the level of nation states, or countries, are necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get down to the scale of individual facilities, and even individual pieces of equipment, if we're going to have an impact across civil society," Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona researcher, told BBC News. "Super-emitters are often intermittent but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them you can get a big bang for your buck."
The new project, announced Thursday, is a partnership between multiple entities, including Carbon Mapper, the state of California, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Planet, a company that designs, builds and launches satellites, according to a press release. The project is being implemented in three stages.
The initial stage, which is already complete, involved the initial engineering development. NASA and Planet will work together in the second stage to build two satellites for a 2023 launch. The third phase will launch an entire constellation of satellites starting in 2025.
The satellites will include an imaging spectrometer built by NASA's JPL, NASA explained in a press release. This is a device that can break down visible light into hundreds of colors, providing a unique signature for chemicals such as methane and carbon dioxide. Most imaging spectrometers currently in orbit have larger pixel sizes, making it difficult to locate emission sources that are not always visible from the ground. However, Carbon Mapper spectrometers will have pixels of around 98 square feet, facilitating more detailed pin-pointing.
"This technology enables researchers to identify, study and quantify the strong gas emission sources," JPL Scientist Charles Miller said in the press release.
Once the data is collected, Carbon Mapper will make it available to industry and government actors via an open data portal to help repair leaks.
"These home-grown satellites are a game-changer," California Governor Gavin Newsom said of the project. "They provide California with a powerful, state-of-the-art tool to help us slash emissions of the super-pollutant methane — within our own borders and around the world. That's exactly the kind of dynamic, forward-thinking solution we need now to address the existential crisis of climate change."
By Jenna McGuire
Commonly used herbicides across the U.S. contain highly toxic undisclosed "inert" ingredients that are lethal to bumblebees, according to a new study published Friday in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
The study reviewed several herbicide products and found that most contained glyphosate, an ingredient best recognized from Roundup products and the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. and worldwide.
While the devastating impacts of glyphosate on bee populations are more broadly recognized, the toxicity levels of inert ingredients are less understood because they are not subjected to the same mandatory testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"Pesticides are manufactured and sold as formulations that contain a mixture of compounds, including one or more active ingredients and, potentially, many inert ingredients," explained the Center for Food Safety in a statement. "The inert ingredients are added to pesticides to aid in mixing and to enhance the products' ability to stick to plant leaves, among other purposes."
The study found that these inert substances can be highly toxic and even block bees' breathing capacity, essentially causing them to drown. While researchers found that some of the combinations of inert ingredients had no negative impacts on the bees, one of the herbicide formulations killed 96% of the bees within 24 hours.
According to the abstract of the study:
Bees exhibited 94% mortality with Roundup® Ready‐To‐Use® and 30% mortality with Roundup® ProActive®, over 24 hr. Weedol® did not cause significant mortality, demonstrating that the active ingredient, glyphosate, is not the cause of the mortality. The 96% mortality caused by Roundup® No Glyphosate supports this conclusion.
"This important new study exposes a fatal flaw in how pesticide products are regulated here in the U.S.," said Jess Tyler, a staff scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now the question is, will the Biden administration fix this problem, or will it allow the EPA to continue its past practice of ignoring the real-world harms of pesticides?"
According to the Center for Food Safety, there are currently 1,102 registered formulations that contain the active ingredient glyphosate, each with a proprietary mixture of inert ingredients. In 2017, the group filed a legal petition calling for the EPA to force companies to provide safety data on pesticide formulations that include inert ingredients.
"The EPA must begin requiring tests of every pesticide formulation for bee toxicity, divulge the identity of 'secret' formulation additives so scientists can study them, and prohibit application of Roundup herbicides to flowering plants when bees might be present and killed," said Bill Freese, science director at the Center for Food Safety. "Our legal petition gave the EPA a blueprint for acting on this issue of whole formulations. Now they need to take that blueprint and turn it into action, before it's too late for pollinators."
ATTN @EPA: Undisclosed "inert" ingredients in #pesticide products warrant further scrutiny! ➡️ A new study compared… https://t.co/bdFwXCVHsD— Center 4 Food Safety (@Center 4 Food Safety)1618592343.0
Roundup — also linked to cancer in humans — was originally produced by agrochemical giant Monsanto, which was acquired by the German pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer in 2018.
The merger of the two companies was condemned by environmentalists and food safety groups who warned it would cultivate the greatest purveyor of genetically modified seeds and toxic pesticides in the world.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
By Ayesha Tandon
New research shows that lake "stratification periods" – a seasonal separation of water into layers – will last longer in a warmer climate.
These longer periods of stratification could have "far-reaching implications" for lake ecosystems, the paper says, and can drive toxic algal blooms, fish die-offs and increased methane emissions.
The study, published in Nature Communications, finds that the average seasonal lake stratification period in the northern hemisphere could last almost two weeks longer by the end of the century, even under a low emission scenario. It finds that stratification could last over a month longer if emissions are extremely high.
If stratification periods continue to lengthen, "we can expect catastrophic changes to some lake ecosystems, which may have irreversible impacts on ecological communities," the lead author of the study tells Carbon Brief.
The study also finds that larger lakes will see more notable changes. For example, the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems, are already experiencing "rapid changes" in their stratification periods, according to the study.
As temperatures rise in the spring, many lakes begin the process of "stratification." Warm air heats the surface of the lake, heating the top layer of water, which separates out from the cooler layers of water beneath.
The stratified layers do not mix easily and the greater the temperature difference between the layers, the less mixing there is. Lakes generally stratify between spring and autumn, when hot weather maintains the temperature gradient between warm surface water and colder water deeper down.
Dr Richard Woolway from the European Space Agency is the lead author of the paper, which finds that climate change is driving stratification to begin earlier and end later. He tells Carbon Brief that the impacts of stratification are "widespread and extensive," and that longer periods of stratification could have "irreversible impacts" on ecosystems.
For example, Dr Dominic Vachon – a postdoctoral fellow from the Climate Impacts Research Centre at Umea University, who was not involved in the study – explains that stratification can create a "physical barrier" that makes it harder for dissolved gases and particles to move between the layers of water.
This can prevent the oxygen from the surface of the water from sinking deeper into the lake and can lead to "deoxygenation" in the depths of the water, where oxygen levels are lower and respiration becomes more difficult.
Oxygen depletion can have "fatal consequences for living organisms," according to Dr Bertram Boehrer, a researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who was not involved in the study.
Lead author Woolway tells Carbon Brief that the decrease in oxygen levels at deeper depths traps fish in the warmer surface waters:
"Fish often migrate to deeper waters during the summer to escape warmer conditions at the surface – for example during a lake heatwave. A decrease in oxygen at depth will mean that fish will have no thermal refuge, as they often can't survive when oxygen concentrations are too low."
This can be very harmful for lake life and can even increase "fish die-off events" the study notes.
However, the impacts of stratification are not limited to fish. The study notes that a shift to earlier stratification in spring can also encourage communities of phytoplankton – a type of algae – to grow sooner, and can put them out of sync with the species that rely on them for food. This is called a "trophic mismatch."
Prof Catherine O'Reilly, a professor of geography, geology and the environment at Illinois State University, who was not involved in the study, adds that longer stratified periods could also "increase the likelihood of harmful algae blooms."
The impact of climate change on lakes also extends beyond ecosystems. Low oxygen levels in lakes can enhance the production of methane, which is "produced in and emitted from lakes at globally significant rates," according to the study.
Woolway explains that higher levels of warming could therefore create a positive climate feedback in lakes, where rising temperatures mean larger planet-warming emissions:
"Low oxygen levels at depth also promotes methane production in lake sediments, which can then be released to the surface either via bubbles or by diffusion, resulting in a positive feedback to climate change."
Onset and Breakup
In the study, the authors determine historical changes in lake stratification periods using long-term observational data from some of the "best-monitored lakes in the world" and daily simulations from a collection of lake models.
They also run simulations of future changes in lake stratification period under three different emission scenarios, to determine how the process could change in the future. The study focuses on lakes in the northern hemisphere.
The figure below shows the average change in lake stratification days between 1900 and 2099, compared to the 1970-1999 average. The plot shows historical measurements (black), and the low emission RCP2.6 (blue), mid emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red) scenarios.
Change in lake stratification duration compared to the 1970-1999 average, for historical measurements (black), the low emission RCP2.6 (blue) moderate emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red). Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The plot shows that the average lake stratification period has already lengthened. However, the study adds that some lakes are seeing more significant impacts than others.
For example, Blelham Tarn – the most well-monitored lake in the English Lake District – is now stratifying 24 days earlier and maintaining its stratification for an extra 18 days compared to its 1963-1972 averages, the study finds. Woolway tells Carbon Brief that as a result, the lake is already showing signs of oxygen depletion.
Climate change is increasing average stratification duration in lakes, the findings show, by moving the onset of stratification earlier and pushing the stratification "breakup" later. The table below shows projected changes in the onset, breakup and overall length of lake stratification under different emission scenarios, compared to a 1970-1999 baseline.
The table shows that even under the low emission scenario, the lake stratification period is expected to be 13 days longer by the end of the century. However, in the extremely high emissions scenario, it could be 33 days longer.
The table also shows that stratification onset has changed more significantly than stratification breakup. The reasons why are revealed by looking at the drivers of stratification more closely.
Warmer Weather and Weaker Winds
The timing of stratification onset and breakup in lakes is driven by two main factors – temperature and wind speed.
The impact of temperature on lake stratification is based on the fact that warm water is less dense than cool water, Woolway tells Carbon Brief:
"Warming of the water's surface by increasing air temperature causes the density of water to decrease and likewise results in distinct thermal layers within a lake to form – cooler, denser water settles to the bottom of the lake, while warmer, lighter water forms a layer on top."
This means that, as climate change causes temperatures to rise, lakes will begin to stratify earlier and remain stratified for longer. Lakes in higher altitudes are also likely to see greater changes in stratification, Woolway tells Carbon Brief, because "the prolonging of summer is very apparent in high latitude regions."
The figure below shows the expected increase in stratification duration from lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (center), and high (right) emission scenarios. Deeper colors indicate a larger increase in stratification period.
Expected increase in stratification duration in lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (centre) and high (right) emissions scenarios. Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The figure shows that the expected impact of climate change on stratification duration becomes more pronounced at more northerly high latitudes.
The second factor is wind speed, Woolway explains:
"Wind speed also affects the timing of stratification onset and breakdown, with stronger winds acting to mix the water column, thus acting against the stratifying effect of increasing air temperature."
According to the study, wind speed is expected to decrease slightly as the planet warms. The authors note that the expected changes in near-surface wind speed are "relatively minor" compared to the likely temperature increase, but they add that it may still cause "substantial" changes in stratification.
The study finds that air temperature is the most important factor behind when a lake will begin to stratify. However, when looking at stratification breakup, it finds that wind speed is a more important driver.
Meanwhile, Vachon says that wind speeds also have implications for methane emissions from lakes. He notes that stratification prevents the methane produced on the bottom of the lake from rising and that, when the stratification period ends, methane is allowed to rise to the surface. However, according to Vachon, the speed of stratification breakup will affect how much methane is released into the atmosphere:
"My work has suggested that the amount of accumulated methane in bottom waters that will be finally emitted is related to how quickly the stratification break-up occurs. For example, a slow and progressive stratification break-up will most likely allow water oxygenation and allow the bacteria to oxidise methane into carbon dioxide. However, a stratification break-up that occurs rapidly – for example after storm events with high wind speed – will allow the accumulated methane to be emitted to the atmosphere more efficiently."
Finally, the study finds that large lakes take longer to stratify in spring and typically remain stratified for longer in the autumn – due to their higher volume of water. For example, the authors highlight the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems.
These lakes have been stratifying 3.5 days earlier every decade since 1980, the authors find, and their stratification onset can vary by up to 48 days between some extreme years.
O'Reilly tells Carbon Brief that "it's clear that these changes will be moving lakes into uncharted territory" and adds that the paper "provides a framework for thinking about how much lakes will change under future climate scenarios."
Reposted with permission from Carbon Brief.
By Robert Glennon
Interstate water disputes are as American as apple pie. States often think a neighboring state is using more than its fair share from a river, lake or aquifer that crosses borders.
Currently the U.S. Supreme Court has on its docket a case between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado and another one between Mississippi and Tennessee. The court has already ruled this term on cases pitting Texas against New Mexico and Florida against Georgia.
Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests' ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.
As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.
Alabama, pay attention to Supreme Court ruling against Florida in water war #Water #SDG6 https://t.co/wIjdoY6Ccr— Noah J. Sabich (@Noah J. Sabich)1617800452.0
Dry Times in the West
The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face "extreme or exceptional" drought conditions. California's reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California's Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued "remarkably bleak warnings" about cutbacks to farmers' water allocations.
The Colorado River Basin is mired in a drought that began in 2000. Experts disagree as to how long it could last. What's certain is that the "Law of the River" – the body of rules, regulations and laws governing the Colorado River – has allocated more water to the states than the river reliably provides.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.
The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river's annual flow.
But diversions and increased evaporation due to drought are reducing water levels in the reservoirs. As of Dec. 16, 2020, both lakes were less than half full.
Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains' east slope.
Utah Stakes a Claim
The most controversial proposal comes from one of the nation's fastest-growing areas: St. George, Utah, home to approximately 90,000 residents and lots of golf courses. St. George has very high water consumption rates and very low water prices. The city is proposing to augment its water supply with a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, which would carry 86,000 acre-feet per year.
Truth be told, that's not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah's unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.
In a joint letter dated Sept. 8, 2020, the other states implored the Interior Department to refrain from issuing a final environmental review of the pipeline until all seven states could "reach consensus regarding legal and operational concerns." The letter explicitly threatened a high "probability of multi-year litigation."
Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a $9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah's share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted "huge, huge litigation."
How huge could it be? In 1930, Arizona sued California in an epic battle that did not end until 2006. Arizona prevailed by finally securing a fixed allocation from the water apportioned to California, Nevada and Arizona.
Litigation or Conservation
Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court's original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation's highest.
St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of "nonfunctional turf" – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region's water consumption by 15%.
Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia's water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.
That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide "clear and convincing evidence." Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.
Robert Glennon is a Regents Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy, University of Arizona.
Disclosure statement: Robert Glennon received funding from the National Science Foundation in the 1990s and 2000s.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.