It would be difficult to live without oil and gas. But it would be impossible to live without water. Yet, in our mad rush to extract and sell every drop of gas and oil as quickly as possible, we’re trading precious water for fossil fuels.
A recent report, Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress, shows the severity of the problem. Alberta and B.C. are among eight North American regions examined in the study by Ceres, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocating for sustainability leadership.
One of the most disturbing findings is that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is using enormous amounts of water in areas that can scarcely afford it. The report notes that close to half the oil and gas wells recently fracked in the U.S. “are in regions with high or extremely high water stress” and more than 55 percent are in areas experiencing drought. In Colorado and California, almost all wells—97 and 96 percent, respectively—are in regions with high or extremely high water stress, meaning more than 80 percent of available surface and groundwater has already been allocated for municipalities, industry and agriculture. A quarter of Alberta wells are in areas with medium to high water stress.
Drought and fracking have already caused some small communities in Texas to run out of water altogether, and parts of California are headed for the same fate. As we continue to extract and burn ever greater amounts of oil, gas and coal, climate change is getting worse, which will likely lead to more droughts in some areas and flooding in others. California’s drought may be the worst in 500 years, according to B. Lynn Ingram, an earth and planetary sciences professor at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s causing a shortage of water for drinking and agriculture, and for salmon and other fish that spawn in streams and rivers. With no rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles area has returned to dangerous levels of decades past.
Because of lack of information from industry and inconsistencies in water volume reporting, Ceres’ Western Canada data analysis “represents a very small proportion of the overall activity taking place.” Researchers determined, though, that Alberta fracking operations have started using more “brackish/saline” groundwater instead of freshwater. The report cautions that this practice needs more study “given the potential for brackish water to be used in the future for drinking water” and the fact that withdrawing salty groundwater “can also adversely impact interconnected freshwater resources.”
Although B.C. fracking operations are now mainly in low water stress regions, reduced precipitation and snowpack, low river levels and even drought conditions in some areas—likely because of climate change—raise concerns about the government’s plan to rapidly expand the industry. The report cites a “lack of regulation around groundwater withdrawals” and cumulative impacts on First Nations lands as issues with current fracking.
Ceres’ study only looks at fracking impacts on freshwater supplies, and offers recommendations to reduce those, including recycling water, using brackish or wastewater, strengthening regulations and finding better ways to dispose of fracking wastewater. But the drilling method comes with other environmental problems, from groundwater contamination to massive ecosystem and habitat disruption—even small earth tremors—all done in the name of short-term gain.
It’s important to heed the conclusions and recommendations of this study and others, but given the problems with fracking, and other forms of extraction, we must find ways to control our insatiable fossil fuel demand. That burning these—often wastefully—contributes to climate change, and our methods of extraction exacerbate the problems, should make us take a good look at how we’re treating this planet and everything on it, including ourselves and generations to come. It’s a reminder that we need to conserve energy in every way possible.
In the short term, we must realize that we have better ways to create jobs and build the economy than holding an “everything must go” sale on our precious resources. In the longer term, we must rethink our outdated economic systems, which were devised for times when resources were plentiful and infrastructure was scarce. Our highest priorities must be the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that provides food and the biodiversity that keeps us alive and healthy.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
By Jewel Fraser
Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.