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Fresh looks at the Great Lakes’ health; should we fingerprint fracking fluids?

For three years, the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project has gathered and then plotted data on 34 stress factors.

Overall intensity of environmental stress in Lake Superior.

Another new fascinating look at our part of the world popped up in the mailbox this week, courtesy of U.S. and Canadian researchers cooperating in a mapping venture called GLEAM.

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For three years, their Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project has gathered and then plotted data on 34 stress factors, from agricultural runoff to invasive species, across the basin that holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water (and more than 80 percent of North America’s).

The result: A series of maps allowing viewers to focus on a single stressor — mapped at a resolution of a half-mile – or step back for a scan of the combined impact all 34 are having across the basin’s 900-mile breadth.

The big maps are interactive, too, using the same familiar tools of click, drag and zoom as Google Earth and similar apps.

The image above is a section from the latter view, showing the overall intensity of environmental stress in Lake Superior. Below are examples of a single-stressor imaging that show:

  • The impact of ballast-water discharges from lake freighters, quite heavy around Duluth and up the shore to Silver Bay.
  • Superior’s relatively low burden – so far – from zebra and quagga mussels compared to, say, Lake Ontario, which an outdoorsy person may soon be able to transit from Buffalo to Toronto on foot.

Ballast-water discharges

ballast-water discharge map

Zebra and quagga mussels

zebra and quagga mussels map

A paper on the GLEAM team’s project merited online publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in mid-December. It explains the project’s value to policymakers in this (somewhat condensed) passage:

Despite clear societal dependence on the Great Lakes, their condition continues to be degraded by numerous environmental stressors likely to have adverse impacts on species and ecosystems. As a result, water-quality advisories and beach closings are frequent occurrences, embodying both the human and natural costs of declines in ecosystem health.

Recent studies have demonstrated the value of more comprehensive assessments for prioritizing restoration investments, particularly when a broad suite of stressors or services can be quantified and mapped. However, to date the overlap and interaction between the cumulative impact of stressors and service provisioning has not been assessed in any ecosystem.

Since 2009, the Great Lakes have been the focus of a major restoration initiative entailing proposed expenditures of greater than $1 billion over 5 years by the U.S. government, targeting invasive species, nonpoint run-off, chemical pollution, and habitat alteration. High return on this restoration investment is expected because of enhanced property values, reduced water treatment costs, and increased tourism, recreation, and fisheries.

However, despite the fact that both stressors and services occur in defined locations and vary greatly across space in magnitude, no comprehensive spatial analysis has been available to guide restoration efforts in the Great Lakes.

GLEAM’s home page is here.

Fingerprinting frack fluids

Speaking of threats to fresh water, and high-tech responses to environmental harm, you might take a look at Andy Revkin’s blog of two days ago.

It reports on two current projects to give the chemicals used in natural-gas fracking a harmless chemical signature, which would allow them to be tracked back to the source, not unlike the tagging required in the manufacture of certain explosives.

Then look at the explosion of reader comment that ensued.

Revkin’s points can be summarized this way:

  • Like it or not, fracking is going to go forward in this country and other places around the globe where gas can be brought to the surface by drilling and injection of shale-fracturing water, sand and industrial fluids.
  • Therefore, it makes sense to insist on methods that “harvest this resource with the fewest regrets.”
  • Since gas producers generally have been able to conceal, as trade-secret business info, the chemistry of what they’re injecting into shale formations, it might be worth looking at requiring them to also include unique, inert chemical “tracer” with the mix.

(Interestingly, however, Alaska of all states is preparing rules that require drillers to disclose the chemistry of their fracking fluids.)

  • One possible method involves tagging with DNA engineered for the purpose. Another uses apparently nonbiological “nanoparticles” built for the task.
  • Either way, when fracking operations damage groundwater supplies, there could be a way to trace the harm to its source and then, theoretically, to assign responsibility for the harm.

If that line of reasoning makes any sense to you, you would have few friends in the line of belligerents that formed over at Dot Earth.

Revkin’s kindest critics were geologist types who pointed out that adding tracers to drilling fluids is nothing new, really, and might not be that useful in fracking operations because of their tendency to hang up on rough mineral surfaces as they move through fractures.

Next came activists who argued that the damage caused by fracking extends far beyond the injection zone, and that contaminants finding their way into well water originate outside that zone, too, although they are propelled by the fracturing pressures.

Finally there were opponents of any form of fracking anywhere, who assailed Revkin’s willingness to even consider such measures as naïve and sentimental gullibility, perhaps even corruption.


I admit that I don’t yet know enough about fracking to assess arguments of the first or second type – but I’m interested in the subject, I’m studying up, and I’ll be returning to it regularly.

What troubles me today are arguments of the third kind, and their bar-fight tenor.

Revkin has long impressed me as a fine journalist, thoughtful and thorough, an independent thinker and often a big-idea guy. He is nobody’s fool, certainly nobody’s shill.

So I wonder what these attacks say about Americans’ ability to find any path toward better controls in an energy sector that so urgently needs them.