The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Did you know that the U.S. is one of the most volcanic countries in the world? There are more than 160 active volcanoes in the nation—but which ones could cause the most damage if they erupt?
On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released an update of its national volcanic threat assessment for the first time since 2005 and categorized 18 volcanoes as "very high threat."
A new Trump administration protocol requires U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists to run interview requests with the Department of the Interior, its parent agency, before speaking to journalists, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The move is a departure from past media practices that allowed government scientists to quickly respond to journalists' inquiries, according to unnamed USGS employees interviewed by the Times.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
We can add volcanic eruptions to the list of potential climate change hazards.
In a presentation at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly held from April 8 to 13, University of Clermont Auvergne Ph.D. student Gioachino Roberti explained research indicating that melting glaciers could trigger eruptions, the Independent reported Wednesday.
That evening, The Washington Post reported on an Interior Department email thread released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the administration's aversion to accurate climate science.
Yet another U.S. agency has deleted climate change information from its website. This time, the U.S. Geological Survey's "Science Explorer" website—a tax-payer funded online database for the public to browse USGS science programs and activities—has been purged of thousands of formerly searchable climate science links.
The startling discovery was made by Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Science.
By Andy Rowell
Amidst the continued dire warnings about climate change, censored scientists and stranded assets, the oil industry keeps on doing what it does best: keeps on belligerently looking for more oil and gas.
Earlier this week, BP announced it had discovered what it is labelling a "significant new source of U.S. natural gas supply" in New Mexico in the Mancos Shale, just across from the Colorado border.
"The past 24 hours have had an uptick in earthquake numbers, with 8 quakes ranging from 2.6-4.2 magnitude occurring in Oklahoma," USGS tweeted.
Despite a crackdown on wastewater injection volumes, Oklahoma has once again been named the state with the highest risk of human-induced earthquakes, according to new seismicity maps released Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Damage to buildings in Cushing, Oklahoma from a 5.0-magnitude earthquake on November 6, 2016. Dolan Paris, USGS
Geologists believe that these man-made quakes are triggered by wastewater from oil and gas operations being injected into deep underground wells. These fluids can cause pressure changes to faults and makes them more likely to move.
This process has been blamed for the Sooner State's alarming rise in seismic activity. Between 1980 and 2000, Oklahoma averaged only two earthquakes greater than or equal to magnitude 2.7—the level at which ground shaking can be felt—per year.
But in 2014, the numbers jumped to about 2,500 in 2014, 4,000 in 2015 and 2,500 in 2016.
The USGS said that the decline in 2016 quakes could be due to injection restrictions implemented by the state officials. According to Bloomberg, "State regulators aiming to curb the tremors have imposed new production rules cutting disposal volumes by about 800,000 barrels a day and limiting potential for future disposal by 2 million barrels a day."
However, even if there were fewer tremors last year, Oklahoma felt more 4.0+ quakes in 2016 than in any other year. Of the earthquakes last year, 21 were greater than magnitude 4.0 and three were greater than magnitude 5.0.
Some of the biggest quakes include a 5.0-magnitude temblor that struck Cushing, one of the largest oil hubs in the world, on Nov. 6. And the largest quake ever recorded in the state was a 5.8 that hit near Pawnee on Sept. 3.
Even with a decrease in wastewater injection volumes, the USGS determined that the 3.5 million people who live and work in areas of the central and eastern U.S. (CEUS) face significant potential for damaging shaking from induced seismicity in 2017. The majority of this population live in Oklahoma and southern Kansas.
Remarkably, man-made temblors have put this area's earthquake risk on par with another notoriously earthquake-prone state.
"The forecasted chance of damaging ground shaking in central Oklahoma is similar to that of natural earthquakes in high-hazard areas of California," the USGS said.
The researchers also found that an additional half million people in the CEUS face a significant chance of damage from natural earthquakes in 2017, bringing the total number of people at high risk from both natural and human-induced earthquakes to about four million.
"The good news is that the overall seismic hazard for this year is lower than in the 2016 forecast, but despite this decrease, there is still a significant likelihood for damaging ground shaking in the CEUS in the year ahead," said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, in a statement.
"The forecast for induced and natural earthquakes in 2017 is hundreds of times higher than before induced seismicity rates rapidly increased around 2008," said Petersen. "Millions still face a significant chance of experiencing damaging earthquakes, and this could increase or decrease with industry practices, which are difficult to anticipate."
The USGS also identified the Colorado/New Mexico area known as the Raton Basin as another high hazard area in 2017.
"Most of the damage we forecast will be cracking of plaster or unreinforced masonry. However, stronger ground shaking could also occur in some areas, which could cause more significant damage," Petersen said.
In a statement published in the Los Angeles Times, Oklahoma Geological Survey's director Jeremy Boak said that both regulatory actions as well as falling petroleum prices "should result in further declines in the seismicity rate and limit future widespread seismic activity."
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas wells in the state, credited disposal rules for the drop in quakes, telling Bloomberg that it "serves to confirm the validity of the work done in Oklahoma to reduce earthquake risk, as well as the need for the effort to continue."
Katie Brown, a spokeswoman with a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told the Los Angeles Times that the reduced number of earthquakes "is a clear sign that the collaborative efforts between industry, scientists and regulators are working."
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced it found the largest continuous oil and gas deposit ever discovered in the U.S. The Wolfcamp shale sits in West Texas and contains 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Map of the Midland Base and Wolfcamp shale site.USGS
According to the USGS, technically recoverable oil in the Wolfcamp shale—using modern-day horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—could yield three times as much as the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), "In today's oil world, anybody who can produce oil sells as much as possible for whatever price can be achieved." U.S. natural gas production is expected to grow to more than 40 trillion cubic feet by 2040, double the 2010 volume.
Projected U.S. natural gas production.U.S. Energy Information Administration
Despite current low oil prices, oil companies are engaged in a land rush to lock up acreage in the Permian Basin, which spreads across West Texas and parts of New Mexico. Its unique geological structure allows for very long horizontal drills. Some are already nearly two miles out from the wellhead, and more, possibly longer drills are planned. The record is a well in Ohio with a lateral drill 3.5 miles long.
The Permian is currently producing two million barrels of oil a day and has as many active oil rigs as the rest of the U.S. combined. There are already 3,000 horizontal wells drilled in the Wolfcamp shale, and that is expected to grow following the release of the new USGS numbers.
But, not everyone is happy about this new discovery.
Filmmaker Josh Fox told EcoWatch, "This is not good news for anyone except people who wish to rush the demise of civilization due to global warming. If the USGS discovered underground millions of rabid red ants, or zombies waiting to be unearthed to eat human flesh, or a dormant volcano underneath Manhattan the implication would be that we should definitely keep those things safely in the ground. That's exactly what we have to do with this oil if we don't want climate change to destroy the future."
Alan Septoff of Earthworks agrees. "This announcement is bad news on three fronts," he said. "First, because it signals the endangerment of one of Texas's most special places, Balmorhea Springs, which are fed by groundwater endangered by fracking. Second, because we know we can't extract previously announced oil reserves without guaranteeing catastrophic climate change. And third, because it suggests another boom bust cycle seen around the country—where the boom benefits shareholders the most and the bust hurts the community the most."
Texas isn't the only place where more drilling is planned.
The federal Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program is currently in development on its next five-year plan, covering 2017-2022. The draft plan currently calls for 10 leases in the Gulf of Mexico, where the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster released 4.9 million barrels in 2010.
Three sites in Alaska are included in the draft plan: Cook Inlet, Beaufort Sea and Chuckchi Sea. But, with a more fossil-fuel friendly administration coming to Washington, oil companies are looking to exploit even more of the 49th state, including the environmentally-sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
All of this runs up against the global carbon budget. A study published in Nature determined that a third of the world's oil reserves and half of its gas reserves need to stay unused in order to meet the target of 2 degrees Celsius of warming. "We show that development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 °C," wrote the London-based researchers.
"The fact is, oil corporations will have to use increasingly extreme and dangerous methods to get at fossil fuels that no one will need," Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman told EcoWatch. "On top of that, scientists say the climate can't handle the carbon pollution these extreme extraction projects would produce. Spending capital and resources on these 'new' fossil projects doesn't make sense any way you cut it."
Methane emissions and other pollutants are also a concern from increased extraction of oil and gas. According to the Texas Observer, "Every hour, natural gas facilities in North Texas' Barnett Shale region emit thousands of tons of methane—a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide—and a slate of noxious pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and benzene. The Aliso Canyon leak was big. The Barnett leaks, combined, are even bigger."
With increased drilling, west Texans may experience more than just increased oil and gas production. A study released in September proved the link between wastewater injection from fracking operations and a series of earthquakes that struck Texas between 2012 and 2013.
"Instead of blindly allowing destructive fracking to continue in our communities, we should extend statewide fracking bans, like the one in New York, and moratoriums, like the one in Maryland, that will keep dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuels like fracked gas in the ground and invest in truly clean, renewable sources of energy that don't come with the threat of poisoned drinking water and climate disaster," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, concluded.
Is the San Andreas Fault about to unleash The Big One? Southern Californians were on heightened alert this week after a swarm of small quakes in the Salton Sea near the fault triggered officials to issue an earthquake alert for residents in the area.
Aerial photo of San Andreas Fault looking northwest onto the Carrizo Plain with Soda Lake visible at the upper left.John Wiley / User:Jw4nvc
The swarm began just after 4 a.m. on Sept. 26, starting earthquakes three to seven miles deep underneath the Salton Sea, The Los Angeles Times reported. The biggest earthquakes hit later that morning—a 4.3—and then a pair later at night, another 4.3 followed by a 4.1. There was another burst of activity the following night. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said 96 earthquakes above magnitude 2 were reported by Sept. 30.
This is only the third time this area has seen a swarm like this since earthquake sensors were installed in 1932, and it had more earthquakes in it than swarms in 2001 and 2009, LiveScience said.
Earthquakes in the Brawley seismic zone as of the evening of 09/30/2016.U.S. Geological Survey
Based on this activity, on Sept. 27, the USGS said the risk of an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or greater in Southern California increased to between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 100 over the the next seven days. However, as of Friday, Sept. 30, the likelihood was decreasing.
"Preliminary calculations indicate that … there is 0.006% to 0.2% chance (less than 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 500) of a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake being triggered on the southern San Andreas Fault within the next seven days through Oct. 7," the updated warning said. "These revised probabilities are lower than those made earlier this week, due to decreasing swarm activity."
The average chance for such an earthquake striking on any given week is 1 in 6,000.
The risk assessment from USGS prompted California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign legislation Sept. 29 ordering the development of a statewide warning system that would inform Californians of impending earthquakes through their cellphones, radios and other devices, the Associated Press reported.
San Bernardino, which is on the San Andreas Fault, even closed down city hall through today over concerns about how the structure would fare in a big quake. A 2007 report revealed how the building, constructed in 1971, was not built to withstand a major earthquake and would cost about $20 million to get retrofitted for such an event.
"We haven't had an alert like this," Mark Scott, San Bernardino's city manager, told the Los Angeles Times. "We're not trying to suggest that the alert is an impending catastrophe. We're just trying to use an abundance of caution. We care about the safety of the public and our employees."
The city already has plans to vacate the building within the next few months.
Scientists estimate that the last time the San Andreas Fault's southernmost stretch ruptured was in 1680—more than 330 years ago. A big earthquake happens on average in this area once every 150 or 200 years, making the region long overdue for a major quake. The largest historical earthquakes that occurred along the fault were those in 1857 and 1906.
The general location of the San Andreas fault and several other major faults in California.U.S. Geological Survey
The area where this recent swarm occurred was near a set of north-northeast trending cross-faults beneath the Salton Sea, some which are oriented as such that they would add stress to the San Andreas Fault and the San Jacinto Fault system, according to USGS. However, the agency said swarm-like activity in this region has occurred in the past, so this week's activity, in and of itself, is not necessarily cause for alarm.
While this news is somewhat reassuring, residents in Southern California shouldn't breathe too big a sigh of relief, Morgan Page, a research geophysicist with the USGS in Pasadena, told LiveScience.
"We live in earthquake country and we should be prepared for an earthquake at any time," Page said. "Events like this can change the probabilities from week to week but it never goes to zero."
An international team of scientists led by the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) released a comprehensive report last week showing widespread mercury contamination across western North America.
The report, based on decades of mercury data and research, found alarming levels of mercury and methylmercury in the forests, fishes, wildlife, plants and waterways of America's western landscapes. The USGS study provides the first integrated analysis of where mercury occurs in western North America, how it moves through the environment, and the processes that influence its movement and transfer to aquatic and ultimately, the human food chain.
Fish are indicators of methylmercury contamination because they are an important link in the food chain for both wildlife and humans.U.S. Forest Service
Among the many disturbing findings are shocking accumulations of mercury in densely forested areas such as those found along the Pacific mountain ranges of California and Oregon. The scientific team showed that these critical ecosystems collect dangerous mercury loads because they receive high amounts of precipitation. Rainfall washes mercury from the atmosphere onto wet forested regions where it binds to the vegetation and accumulates in the soils and surface waters. From these vectors it can bioaccumulate in fish, including salmon.
Vegetation patterns affect both soil moisture and the amount of sunlight that reaches the soil, two factors associated with mercury release from soils.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The report confirms the findings of a January 2016 study that narrowly investigated mercury levels in rainfall. That study reported that the long-term trend of decreasing mercury levels in precipitation had leveled off and that some sites in the western U.S. were experiencing increases, which the investigators concluded were due to exploding mercury emissions from Asia.
An earlier study in 2002 reported that industrial emissions in Asia are a major source of mercury in rainwater falling along the California coast. The new USGS study describes the precise atmospheric transport mechanisms that carry massive mercury contamination from Asia and deposit the potent neurotoxin in the water, soils and biota across America's West Coast. According to the papers lead author, it is not just the mercury itself, but a cocktail of atmospheric pollutants that contribute to the deposition of mercury in rainfall. Elemental mercury behaves as a gas in the atmosphere and is not washed out in rain until it has been oxidized into a charged ionic form that can be captured by water droplets.
The USGS study sheds light on earlier research with frightening human health implications. A 2008 study reported children living in areas of high precipitation may be more likely to have autism. Those investigators looked at rainfall in California, Washington and Oregon. That team obtained autism prevalence rates for children born in those three states between 1987 and 1999 and calculated average annual precipitation by county from 1987 to 2001. The researchers also computed the autism rates in relation to the average annual precipitation in the counties when the children were younger than 3 years old.
Those scientists found that counties that received relatively large amounts of precipitation had a relatively high rate of autism. More specifically, counties in Oregon and Washington west of the Cascades receive four times as much precipitation as counties east of the Cascades, and had an autism rate that was twice as high. These are the same states that were identified in the USGS's comprehensive report demonstrating the relationship between mercury deposition and precipitation.
The team also looked at each county over time, taking into account the varying annual precipitation levels. The study authors performed this analysis to rule out the effect of other factors, such as differences in the quality of the health care systems from one county to another. The relationship between precipitation and autism held.
Several earlier studies have established a potential connection between mercury from industrial air pollution and autism. In 2006 researchers in Texas reported that on average, for each 1,000 pounds of environmentally released mercury, there was a 43 percent increase in the rate of special education services and a 61 percent increase in the rate of autism. An investigation in the state of California found an association between autism and metal concentrations (mercury, cadmium, nickel, trichloroethylene) and possibly solvents (vinyl chloride).
These studies, however, concentrated on a few individual states. The latest study included women across the whole country. According to the first national study to investigate the possible link, living in an area with high levels of air pollution and mercury increased a woman's chances of having a child with autism.
"Women who were exposed to the highest levels of diesel or mercury in the air were twice as likely to have a child with autism than women who lived in the cleanest parts of the sample," according to the study author Andrea Roberts, a research associate with the Harvard School of Public Health.
Some researchers who first reported the correlation between high precipitation and high rates of autism, hypothesized that the link might be the result of children spending more time indoors where they generated less vitamin D or had increased exposures to household toxins. These reports gave little consideration to increased mercury exposure as a potential causative factor.
Key findings from the report include:
- Methylmercury contamination in fish and birds is common in many areas throughout the West, and climate and land cover are some important factors influencing mercury contamination and availability to animals.
- Fish and birds in many areas were found to have mercury concentrations above levels that have been associated with toxic effects.
- Patterns of methylmercury exposure in fish and wildlife across the West differed from patterns of inorganic mercury on the landscape.
- Some ecosystems and species are more sensitive to mercury contamination, and local environmental conditions are important factors influencing the creation and transfer of methylmercury through the food web.
- Forest soils typically contain more inorganic mercury than soils in semi-arid environments, yet the highest levels of methylmercury in fish and wildlife occurred in semi-arid areas.
- Vegetation patterns strongly influence the amount of mercury emitted to the atmosphere from soils.
- Forested areas retain mercury from the atmosphere, whereas less vegetated areas tend to release mercury to the atmosphere.
- Land disturbances, such as urban development, agriculture, and wildfires, are important factors in releasing inorganic mercury from the landscape, potentially making it available for biological uptake
- Land and water management activities can strongly influence how methylmercury is created and transferred to fish, wildlife, and humans.