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Eric Traub Thesis Defense!

You are invited to attend Eric Traub’s  public MS thesis defense in Geology.

“The Effects of Biogeochemical Sinks on the Mobility of Contaminants in an Area Affected By Acid Mine Drainage, Huff Run, Ohio.”

(Co-Advisors: David Singer and Anne Jefferson)

Monday, Feb. 22, 12:30 pm in McGilvrey Hall, room 339, Kent State University

Drought, groundwater use, and subsidence in California

As California’s drought continues and intensifies, groundwater is ever more heavily exploited. Groundwater withdrawals are happening much faster than natural recharge will ever occur, and the consequences can literally move the ground beneath your feet. This video from the USGS is a nice explainer:

For more on California’s climate and water woes, check out my review of the book “The West Without Water,” which was published last spring in Earth Magazine.

The effects of biogeochemical sinks on the mobility of trace metals in an area affected by acid mine drainage, Huff Run, Ohio

The Watershed Hydrology lab will be out in force for the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Vancouver in October. Over the next few days, we’ll be sharing the abstracts of the work we are presenting there.


TRAUB, Eric L., Department of Geology, Kent State University, 325 S. Lincoln St, 221 McGilvrey Hall, Kent, OH 44240,, JEFFERSON, Anne J., Department of Geology, Kent State University, 221 McGilvrey Hall, Kent, OH 44240, and SINGER, David M., Department of Geology, Kent State University, 228 McGilvrey Hall, Kent, OH 44242
Currently, a watershed restoration group has made progress in remediating surface water contributions to the Huff Run Stream in Mineral City, OH, which is heavily affected by acid mine drainage (AMD) due to historical coal mining. However, the accumulation of AMD sediments on the streambed has prevented the overall ecological health of the area from rebounding. A proposed remediation plan includes dredging, however the efficacy of doing so while preventing further iron buildup and the potential release of trace metals during such an operation is uncertain. The objectives of this research are to examine the effects geochemical sinks can have on the fate and transport of trace metals in order to understand the possible side effects of dredging on the Huff Run. This work aims to build a framework on which to base proposed remediation plans at a wide range of acid-mine drainage impacted sites. To achieve these objectives cores were gathered from the Huff Run and the Farr tributary, where a large amount of AMD is discharged into the Huff Run. These core sediments were analyzed through XRD analysis to understand the abundance and distribution of mineral phases, and ICP analysis to provide information on the amount of trace metals and understand what mineral phases they are associated with. Groundwater piezometers installed in AMD-bearing sediments and streambed sediment were used to quantify changes in trace metals concentrations. The analyses of cores gathered from the stream provide evidence that overtime deposited iron oxides go through thermodynamic transformations into more stable phases, mainly goethite. On-going work aims to determine how mineralogical transformations impact the availability of trace metals. Hydraulic head values gathered the piezometers have shown that hyporheic exchange is occurring, despite the deposition of fine grained sediment and iron oxides from historical mining. Water samples collected from the piezometers have been analyzed for pH and conductivity and show consistent changes as the water is exchanged from the surface and groundwater. On-going work aims to determine how this exchange affects the transport of trace metals.

Mountaintop Removal Mining

This semester I’m teaching Environmental Earth Science to a fantastic group of students at Kent State. In tomorrow’s class about fossil fuels, we’ll be talking about coal formation, use, and environmental consequences. A big one I think they should be aware of is the practice of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. We’ve already talked about it a bit, but I think this video gives some nice visuals, even if the narration veers a bit from overly dramatic to “boys with toys”.

From the Smithsonian:

Several well-respected scientists are working to figure out the impact of mountaintop removal mining on stream ecosystems. The coal companies haven’t exactly lined up to fund their work and provide access to the sites. So what *do* we know about the impacts of mountaintop mining on Appalachian streams and rivers? Here’s just one example, from the abstract of Bernhardt and Palmer (2011):

Southern Appalachian forests are recognized as a biodiversity hot spot of global significance, particularly for endemic aquatic salamanders and mussels. The dominant driver of land-cover and land-use change in this region is surface mining, with an ever-increasing proportion occurring as mountaintop mining with valley fill operations (MTVF). In MTVF, seams of coal are exposed using explosives, and the resulting noncoal overburden is pushed into adjacent valleys to facilitate coal extraction. To date, MTVF throughout the Appalachians have converted 1.1 million hectares of forest to surfacemines and buried more than 2,000 km of stream channel beneath mining overburden. The impacts of these lost forests and buried streams are propagated throughout the river networks of the region as the resulting sediment and chemical pollutants are transmitted downstream. There is, to date, no evidence to suggest that the extensive chemical and hydrologic alterations of streams by MTVF can be offset or reversed by currently required reclamation and mitigation practices.

Here’s an overview of the consequences and some suggested policy recommendations, presented in Science in 2010.

Among the scientists working on the environmental consequences of mountaintop removal, Margaret Palmer has become perhaps the most visible. Here she is on the Colbert Report:

(Note: the content appears to be unavailable tonight. Hopefully it will be made available again soon.)

Finally, here’s an profile of Margaret Palmer and her work on mountaintop removal mining, published earlier this year in Science magazine.

For more information:

Festering Questions from the West Virginia chemical spill

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

A post by Anne Jefferson
The massive impact of last week’s chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia continues to cause hardship for the up to 300,000 people affected by the water ban and to pose tough questions for scientists and authorities involved with assessing and mitigating the spill’s effects on central West Virginia’s water supply.

Before Thursday morning, West Virginia’s Elk River was a well-known river for fishing and the sole water supply for the city of Charleston and populations in parts of nine counties. On Thursday morning, West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Division of Air Quality was alerted to licorice or anise odor and traced the source to a leaking tank at a Freedom Industries facility located on the bank of the Elk River. The leaking tank contained 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in frothing during the coal washing process. The tank has been described as “antique” and was made of riveted stainless steel, which is an old construction technique. Unfortunately, the leaking tank was located near the river bank, and up to 7500 gallons of the chemical made it into the river. (Here’s what the site looks like from the river) Even more unfortunately, the water intake for West Virginia American Water was located only one mile downstream. West Virginia American Water is the major water supplier for 9 counties in central and southwestern Virginia, including the state’s capital, Charleston. Water treatment plants typically aren’t designed to remove industrial chemicals, and West Virginia America Water wouldn’t even have known to test for this one. At some point Thursday afternoon, the dots were connected and a water ban was put in place for anyone served by the water supply. Residents, businesses, and institutional facilities were told not to use the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, or washing clothes or dishes. The only allowed uses are toilet flushing and fire fighting. As of Sunday afternoon, three days after the spill occurred, the water use ban is still in place, state and federal emergencies have been declared, and FEMA and the National Guard are distributing bottled water and water from tanker trucks.

Google Maps view of white industrial tanks adjacent to a river.

Freedom Industries site adjacent to the Elk River, upstream of Charleston, West Virginia. Image from Google Maps.

Google Maps of Elk River and surroundings.

Point A indicates the Freedom Industries site and Point B indicates the water treatment plan. Image from Google Maps.

There aren’t a lot of data on the toxicology or safe levels of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCMH) in water. We know that it is an organic solvent and a light non-aqueous phase liquid, which might be why there have been no reports of fish kills, since fish are hanging out in warmer, deeper pools at this time of year. Deborah Blum did some sleuthing and surmising from related chemicals, and so far the health effects appear to consist of a lot of people worried about symptoms but few people having problems clearly related to the spill. But the axiom of not ingesting industrial chemicals still stands. Officials are scrambling to find out what they can from the chemical’s manufacturer and to test samples to determine what level of contaminant is actually in the water supply. At some point, the state decided that a level of less than 1 part per million (1 ppm) of the contaminant was safe, and now the goal seems to be to have the water treatment plant consistently producing water at with contaminant levels lower than 1 ppm. There will also be some delay between samples being collected and the test results coming in, though it sounds like they may be making rapid on-the-ground strides in the rate at which they can test samples in four labs that have been set up for this task. Some reports say the state reported river water concentrations of MCMH had declined to 1.7 ppm on Friday, from 3 ppm. No numbers seem to have been released Saturday or Sunday, though NBC News is reporting on a news conference indicating 0 ppm going into and out the water treatment plant on Sunday morning. This article from the Bluefield Gazette gives some idea of the plan to flush parts of the massive water distribution system, which goes over mountains. All indications are that it will be days more before the water ban is lifted for everyone.

As an outside observer to this disaster, gleaning what I can from the media reports, here are my questions about the past, present, and future of the central West Virginia water supply.

  • Why was a tank farm allowed to locate on the river bank only a mile upstream of a major municipal water supply intake? And if the tank farm was upriver before the water treatment plant was built, what safety concerns were raised in selecting that site?
  • Were any special emergency procedures in place at either the industrial facility or the water treatment plant given this proximity? (I can find a risk management plan for the water treatment plant to deal with its risk of spilling chloride, but I can’t find anything similar for Freedom Industries or how the water treatment plant planned for risks of spills upstream from its facility. These plans may exist off-line.)
  • How was an acceptable maximum contaminant level of 1 part per million decided upon?
  • When the water treatment plant is producing less than 1 part per million of MCMH in the water supply, how will they test and ensure that all parts of the water distribution network are at that level?
  • What will the flushing recommendations be for water users? How will the recommended flushing times be determined?
  • Will there be longer term monitoring of MCMH levels at various points in the distribution network to ensure that levels remain below the acceptable maximum contaminant level?
  • Will there be long term studies of the environmental and human health effects of the exposure, particularly on vulnerable populations like children?
  • Most importantly, how will this incident change policy and procedures in this region, in West Virginia, in the coal processing industry, and in the nation?

Based on what I’ve learned, the risks of this human-caused disaster could potentially have been substantially mitigated by more stringent watershed planning that prevented the tank farm from operating so close to the river bank so close upstream of the water treatment plant and tighter regulation and routine inspection of the tank farm and its safety procedures. If the spill had still occurred even with those risk reductions, it would have been useful to have more information on the toxicology of the chemical that spilled (and all industrial chemicals) to provide better guidance on what maximum contaminant level is acceptable. As Deborah Blum points out, “Our Toxic Substances Control Act is more than 35 years old and we (by which I mean Congress) haven’t conjured up the backbone to update and strengthen it as of this date.”

This spill and its disruption of West Virginians lives shows what can happen when environmental regulations are not stringent, rigorous, and routinely enforced.  The spectre of 300,000 US residents unable to drink or bathe in their tap water for days on end should stick in our collective consciousness for a long time. We don’t need to invoke the threat of terrorists or climate extremes to disrupt our water lifelines; West Virginia reminds us that business as usual can do that too.

March Meanderings

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

It all began at the end of February, when I travelled to La Crosse, Wisconsin to the Upper Midwest Stream Restoration Symposium, which was a really stimulating and vital mix of academics, consultants, and government folks all interested in improving the state of the science and practice of stream restoration. I gave a talk on Evaluating the success of urban stream restoration in an ecosystem services context, which was my first time talking about some hot-off-the-presses UNCC graduate student research, and I learned a lot from the other speakers and poster presenters. While the conference was incredibly stimulating, travel delays due to bad weather on both ends of my trip made for a somewhat grumpy Anne (nobody really wants to spend their birthday stuck in a blizzard in O’Hare), so I’ll be thinking carefully about how to plan my travel to the Upper Midwest during future winters. Nonetheless, the view from the conference venue was phenomenal.

icy river and snowy land

View of the Mississippi River from the Upper Midwest Stream Restoration Symposium in La Crosse, WI. Not shown: bald eagles that frequent the open water patches of the river.

March proper saw me give variations of the restoration talk two other times. On the 15th, I gave it as the seminar for Kent State’s Biological Sciences department, and on the 26th, I gave it at the North Dakota State University Department of Geosciences (more about that trip below). In between, I gave a seminar on the co-evolution of hydrology and topography to the Geology Department at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Students in that department had just returned from a trip to Hawaii, and a very memorable dialogue occured in the midst of me talking about the High Cascades:

“You’ve seen a young lava flow. What would happen if you poured a bottle of water on it?” “It would steam!” “Not that young!”

Closer to home I also hosted a couple of prospective graduate students, helped interview candidates for a faculty position in our department, and went with a colleague to visit an acid mine drainage site about an hour to the south of Kent. In one fairly small watershed, we were able to tour a number of different remediated and unremediated sites, and it certainly lent a whole different perspective to the ideas of stream restoration and constructed wetlands to look at a landscape irrevocably scarred by mining activities.

Orange water flowing from a tube down a hill and into a stream.

Unremediated acid mine drainage flow directly into Huff Run. The orange is iron precipitate.

Wetland plants and a concrete inlet weir.

Constructed wetland as the second stage of acid mine drainage remediation in the Huff Run watershed.

At the end of the month, we finally got our turn for spring break. I ended up with a somewhat epic combination of mounds of work and a big trip to take, possibly the worst combination of the untenured and tenured professor spring break stereotypes (see this PhD comics strip). The first half of the week, I spent in Fargo, North Dakota, home to the famously flood-prone Red River of the North. (I’ve blogged before about why the river so often produces expansive floods.) It was truly fascinating to put my feet on the ground in a place that I’ve read about and watched from afar for years. And my visit was made all the more interesting by my host and guide, Dr. Stephanie Day, a geomorphologist newly at NDSU and who may well unravel some of the Red’s geomorphological peculiarities.

Scientist in foreground, river in midground, background = flat, snowcovered ground.

Stephanie Day, Assistant Professor of Geosciences at North Dakota State University beside the Red River in Moorhead Minnesota. The flat surface in the background is the approximate elevation of the land for miles around.

Looking towards downtown Fargo, ND from the river side of the levee.

Looking towards downtown Fargo, ND from the river side of the levee.

snow and ice covered river, not in much of a valley.

River’s edge view looking towards downtown Fargo. Snow well over knee deep here on 25 March, by my measurements. As all that snow starts to melt, the water will rise.

There’s a pretty good chance we’ll see a major flood on the Red River later this spring, as the >24″ of snow melts out of the watershed, runs off over frozen ground, and enters the northward flowing river. The Fargo Flood page is the place to go to follow the action, and you can count on updates (and more pictures) here as events unfold.

The latter half of my spring break saw me diagonal across the state of Minnesota to my beloved Driftless Area, back across the Mississippi River, and into the state of Wisconsin. I saw my family, finished paper revisions, and wrote part of a grant proposal. Then I flew home, with nary a weather delay in sight.

If March was a tight, recursive meander of talks and trips to the Upper Midwest, then April promises to be a bit anastomosing with lots of different threads woven together to make another month of scientific delight.

Pakistan floods: Predicted or Predictable, but a disaster nonetheless

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

Unusually heavy monsoon rains in July and August 2010 left large swaths of Pakistan underwater. At least 18 million people were affected by the flood, and it is estimated that, more than six months later, several hundred thousand remain without even temporary shelter. As a result of lost crops and livelihoods from the flood and inadequate relief supplies, malnutrition continues to kill people. Like most floods, the Pakistani poor have suffered far more than those with resources to avoid the flood, or at least its aftermath.

Remains of a school destroyed by flooding, near Jacobabad by DFID - UK Department for International Development, on Flickr

Remains of a school destroyed by flooding, near Jacobabad by UK Department for International Development, on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A paper in press in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the 2010 floods were extraordinary. Monsoonal rains tend to occur in pulses, with multi-day wet periods followed by multi-day dry periods, and while the total rainfall over Pakistan during the 2010 monsoon season was not unprecedented, the number and intensity of extremely heavy rains over northern Pakistan was very unusual. The authors are working with very limited historical and satellite data, but they estimate that the number of intense rain bursts that occurred in 2010 had a probability of less than 3% in any given year.

Using data from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts collection of meteorological models, the authors of the new paper show that the timing and intensity of northern Pakistan’s monsoon rain bursts are predictable up to 6 to 8 days in advance – including the rains that caused the flooding in 2010.

Lead author, Peter Webster, and his coauthors from the Georgia Institute of Technology, draw the following conclusion from their analysis:

We conclude that if these extended quantitative precipitation forecasts had been available in Pakistan, the high risk of flooding could have been foreseen. If these rainfall forecasts had been coupled to a hydrological model then the high risk of extensive and prolonged flooding could have anticipated and actions taken to mitigate their impact.

The floods really kicked off with a burst of rain on 28-29 July 2010, and according to Webster’s reanalysis, that rainfall was predictable with good skill 7 days in advance (21 July). Webster and colleagues argue that if that forecast was available in Pakistan, lives would have been saved and the immensity of the disaster reduced. But, C. Christine Fair, writing on the Foreign Policy magazine website suggests that the flood was forecast in Pakistan.

In the middle of July, the PMD began tracking a storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal. This eastern weather system developed interactively with a western weather system to produce the massive rains and the subsequent super flood of 2010. On July 24, the PMD issued a flood warning to the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Despite these increasingly severe warnings, KPK’s citizenry did not believe them. … The PMD kept issuing warnings to KPK as the rains began to fall. However, as fate would have it, on July 28, … a passenger jet coming to Islamabad from Karachi crashed …With the media beset upon this tragic spectacle, the PMD’s warnings went unheeded as the rain began to fall.

So the Pakistani government did forecast the flood – at least four days out – in plenty of time to get people in northern Pakistan’s valleys out of the way. The problem was not with the meteorological and hydrologic science either internationally or in Pakistan. Instead, disaster was ensured when flood warnings were not taken sufficiently seriously by regional authorities, media, and residents.

Why wouldn’t flood warnings be heeded? Perhaps more could have been done to communicate to Pakistanis through channels whose authority they respected. Webster cites an example of flood warnings in Bangladesh being disseminated by imams at local mosques. The Foreign Policy article quoted above places some blame on media distractedness.

But there was also a more insidious reason the forecasted flood was ignored. It was a rare event, but it was also part of a new climatic pattern for Pakistan. As the Foreign Policy article describes it:

in recent years there has been a slow but steady change in the location where Pakistan’s major rainfalls concentrate. In the past, monsoon rains fell most intensely over the Punjab. Slowly and steadily, the concentration of rainfall has moved north and west to KPK. This redistribution of concentrated rainfall away from the Punjab and towards KPK explains why no one in KPK had any reason to believe the predicted weather.

Flooding frequency and intensity have increased in Pakistan in the last 30-40 years compared to earlier in the 20th century. Webster and coauthors state, “This recent increase is consistent with the increase in intensity of the global monsoon accompanying the last three decades of general global warming.” The flood warnings were ignored, in part, because the statistics of monsoon rain patterns are changing. Human memory and historical records are not good guidance if the weather system is changing. In situations like this one, the past is not the key to the present.

There are lots of things that should have been improved to lessen the magnitude of the Pakistani flood disaster – reservoir management should have been altered; emergency relief supplies should have been distributed more equitably, broadly, and consistently; international assistance should have been much more generous – but the two big lessons for hazard mitigation coming out of the Pakistan floods seem to be: “find a system for making sure that warnings are issued and that they actually make it to people in harm’s way” and “don’t assume the climate of living memory is a very good indicator of the weather of the present and future.”

Webster, P. J., Toma, V.E., & Kim, H.-M. (2011). Were the 2010 Pakistan floods predictable? Geophysical Research Letters : 10.1029/2010GL046346

Boobquake: a slightly silly test of a ridiculous scientific hypothesis

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

It seems that whenever a natural disaster (or other tragedy) strikes, there is but a short delay before someone with a megaphone and an axe to grind points his finger at an entirely innocent group of people and blames them as the cause of the tectonic activity, meteorological phenomenon, or terrorist act.

What am I talking about? Pat Robertson has said that the Port-au-Prince earthquake was caused by a pact the Haitians had made with the devil. Rush Limbaugh recently suggested that the Eyjafjallajökull eruption was a response to the passage of the US healthcare bill (displaying a somewhat tenuous grasp of geography as well as geology). Or remember when Jerry Falwell blamed feminists, lesbians, and the ACLU for the 9-11 terrorist attacks? It’s a strange and loathsome pathology that pushes aside science in favor of demonizing those with little power.

The latest incarnation of such wackaloonery is the statement by an Iranian cleric that the immodest dress of women is the cause of earthquakes:

“Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Sedighi is Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader. (Chicago Tribune, 19 April 2010)

A few days later, the sentiment was supported by Iran’s top spiritual leader:

“We can avoid earthquakes if the faithful and devoted people pray to God,” Jannati said during the Friday sermon. (LA Times, 23 April 2010)

Jen McCreight, a Purdue University grad student, has had enough of this nonsense and has dreamed up and organized a grassroots effort to test the correlation between immodestly dressed women and seismic activity. Today, 26 April 2010, is the day of the “boobquake,” in which thousands of women around the world will wear the least modest shirt in their closet in attempt to set the seismograph needles trembling. After the day is over, McCreight and others will show statistically that seismically…nothing happened. Because women’s bodies do not cause earthquakes.

If you want to follow the silly science, you can read McCreight’s blog, check the hashtag #boobquake on Twitter, or check in on the Facebook event page (177,829 confirmed attendees at this moment). The mainstream media has also picked up on this event, so you may hear something about it on radio or TV.

If you are concerned that this event is somehow anti-feminist or demeaning to women, here’s what McCreight has to say about it:

I’m asking women to wear their most “immodest” outfit that they already would wear, but to coordinate it all on the same day for the sake of the experiment. Heck, just showing an ankle would be considered immodest by some people. I don’t want to force people out of their comfort zones, because I believe women have the right to choose how they want to dress. Please don’t pressure women to participate if they don’t want to. If men ogle, that’s the fault of the men, not me for dressing how I like. If I want to a show a little cleavage or joke about my boobs, that’s my prerogative.

So today I’m wearing a shirt that I wouldn’t normally wear to work and I’ll probably start my 90% male hydrogeology class with a brief mention of earthquake hazards. Because even though I know that the actions of tens of thousands of women for one day aren’t going to change the minds of Iranian clerics or make a measurable difference in women’s rights or sexist attitudes, I also know that my shirt is not going to cause an earthquake. And, in the words of boobquake organizer McCreight: “I’m a firm believer that when someone says something so stupid and hateful, serious discourse isn’t going to accomplish anything – sometimes light-hearted mockery is worthwhile.”