Scientists are expecting that this year’s Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, also called the “dead zone,” will be approximately 5,483 square miles or about the size of Connecticut — the same as it has averaged over the last several years.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico affects nationally important commercial and recreational fisheries and threatens the region's economy. Hypoxic zones hold very little oxygen, and are caused by excessive nutrient pollution, primarily from activities such as agriculture and wastewater. The low oxygen levels cannot support most marine life and habitats in near-bottom waters.
This year marks the first time the results of four models were combined. The four model predictions ranged from 4,344 to 5,985 square miles, and had a collective predictive interval of 3,205 to 7,645 square miles, which take into account variations in weather and oceanographic conditions.
The NOAA-sponsored Gulf of Mexico hypoxia forecast has improved steadily in recent years, a result of advancements of individual models and an increase in the number of models used for the forecast. Forecasts based on multiple models are called ensemble forecasts and are commonly used in hurricane and other weather forecasts.
The ensemble models were developed by NOAA-sponsored modeling teams and researchers at the University of Michigan, Louisiana State University, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences/College of William and Mary, Texas A&M University, North Carolina State University, and the U.S.Geological Survey (USGS). The hypoxia forecast is part of a larger NOAA effort to deliver ecological forecasts that support human health and well-being, coastal economies, and coastal and marine stewardship.
“NOAA, along with our partners, continues to improve our capability to generate environmental data that can help mitigate and manage this threat to Gulf fisheries and economies,” said Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “We are adding models to increase the accuracy of our dead zone forecast."
The Gulf of Mexico hypoxia forecast is based on nutrient runoff and river stream data from the USGS. The USGS operates more than 3,000 real-time stream gauges, 50 real-time nitrate sensors, and collects water quality data at long-term stations throughout the Mississippi River basin to track how nutrient loads are changing over time.
The USGS estimates that 104,000 metric tons of nitrate and 19,300 metric tons of phosphorus flowed down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers into the Gulf of Mexico in May 2015. This is about 21 percent below the long-term (1980-2014) average for nitrogen and 16 percent above the long-term average for phosphorus.
"Real-time nitrate sensors are advancing our understanding of how nitrate is transported in small streams and large rivers, including the main stem of the Mississippi River,” said William Werkheiser, USGS associate director for water. “Long-term monitoring is critical for tracking how nutrient levels are changing in response to management actions and for improving modeling tools to estimate which sources and areas are contributing the largest amounts of nutrients to the Gulf. "
The confirmed size of the 2015 Gulf hypoxic zone will be released in early August, following a monitoring survey led by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium from July 28 to August 4.
A new GPS survey of Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America, will update the commonly accepted elevation of McKinley’s peak, 20,320 ft. The last survey was completed in 1953.
The USGS, along with NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey (NGS), and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), are supporting a Global Positioning System (GPS) survey of the Mount McKinley apex. Surveying technology and processes have improved greatly since the last survey and the ability to establish a much more accurate height now exists. With the acquisition of new elevation (ifsar) data in Alaska as part of the 3D Elevation Program, there have been inquiries about the height of the summit. The survey party is being led by CompassData, a subcontractor for Dewberry on a task awarded under the USGS’ Geospatial Products and Services Contract (GPSC).
Using modern GPS survey equipment and techniques, along with better gravity data to improve the geoid model in Alaska, the partners will be able to report the summit elevation with a much higher level of confidence than has been possible in the past. It is anticipated the newly surveyed elevation will be published by the National Geodetic Survey in late August.
An experienced team of four climbers, one from UAF and three from CompassData, will start the precarious trek to the summit with the needed scientific instruments in tow, in the middle part of June. They plan to return on or before July 7 and begin work with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and NGS processing the data to arrive at the new summit elevation.At 20, 320 feet, Mount McKinley is North America’s highest peak. (Photo courtesy of Todd Paris, UAF). (High resolution image) Climbing Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, is a daunting task for even the most experienced mountaineers at Denali National Park in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic). (High resolution image) The Mount McKinley survey team, and their equipment, are expected to face temperatures well below zero, high winds and frequent snow. Current forecast, courtesy of NOAA. (Photo courtesy of Todd Paris, UAF). (High resolution image)
North America may have once been attached to Australia, according to research just published in Lithosphere and spearheaded by U.S. Geological Survey geologist James Jones and his colleagues at Bucknell University and Colorado School of Mines.
Approximately every 300 million years, the Earth completes a supercontinent cycle wherein continents drift toward one another and collide, remain attached for millions of years, and eventually rift back apart. Geologic processes such as subduction and rifting aid in the formation and eventual break-up of supercontinents, and these same processes also help form valuable mineral resource deposits. Determining the geometry and history of ancient supercontinents is an important part of reconstructing the geologic evolution of Earth, and it can also lead to a better understanding of past and present mineral distributions.
North America is a key component in reconstructions of many former supercontinents, and there are strong geological associations between the western United States and Australia, which is one of the world’s leading mineral producers.
In this study, Jones and others synthesized mineral age data from ancient sedimentary rocks in the Trampas and Yankee Joe basins of Arizona and New Mexico. They found that the ages of many zircon crystals—mineral grains that were eroded from other rocks and embedded in the sedimentary deposits—were approximately 1.6 to 1.5 billion years old, an age range that does not match any known geologic age provinces in the entire western United States.
This surprising result actually mirrors previous studies of the Belt-Purcell basin (located in Montana, Idaho and parts of British Columbia, Canada) and a recently recognized basin in western Yukon, Canada, in which many zircon ages between 1.6 and 1.5 billion years old are common despite the absence of matching potential source rocks of this age.
However, the distinctive zircon ages in all three study locations do match the well known ages of districts in Australia and, to a slightly lesser known extent, Antarctica.
This publication marks the first time a complete detrital mineral age dataset has been compiled to compare the Belt basin deposits to strata of similar age in the southwestern United States. “Though the basins eventually evolved along very different trajectories, they have a shared history when they were first formed,” said Jones. “That history gives us clues as to what continents bordered western North America 1.5 billion years ago.”
The tectonic model presented in this paper suggests that the North American sedimentary basins were linked to sediment sources in Australia and Antarctica until the break up of the supercontinent Columbia. The dispersed components of Columbia ultimately reformed into Rodinia, perhaps the first truly global supercontinent in Earth’s history, around 1.0 billion years ago. Continued sampling and analysis of ancient sedimentary basin remnants will remain a critical tool for further testing global supercontinent reconstructions.
Although record low precipitation has been the main driver of one of the worst droughts in California history, abnormally high temperatures have also played an important role in amplifying its adverse effects, according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey and university partners.
Experiments with a hydrologic model for the period Oct. 2013-Sept. 2014 showed that if the air temperatures had been cooler, similar to the 1916-2012 average, there would have been an 86% chance that the winter snowpack would have been greater, the spring-summer runoff higher, and the spring-summer soil moisture deficits smaller.
To gauge the effect of high temperatures on drought, lead author Shraddhanand Shukla (University of California – Santa Barbara, UCSB) devised two sets of modeling experiments that compared climate data from water year 2014 (Oct. 2013-Sept. 2014) to similar intervals during 1916-2012.
In the first simulation set, Shukla substituted 2014 temperature values with the historical temperatures for each of the study’s 97 years, while keeping the 2014 precipitation values. In the second simulation set, he combined the observed 2014 temperatures with historical precipitation values for each of the preceding years, 1916-2012.
“This experimental approach allows us to model past situations and tease out the influence of temperature in preceding drought conditions,” said Chris Funk, a USGS scientist and a co-author of the investigation. “By crunching enough data over many, many simulations, the effect of temperature becomes more detectable. We can’t do the same in reality, the here and now, because then we only have a single sample.” Funk, an adjunct professor at UCSB, helps coordinate research at the university that supports USGS programs.
High heat has multiple damaging effects during drought, according to the study, increasing the vulnerability of California’s water resources and agricultural industry. Not only does high heat intensify evaporative stress on soil, it has a powerful effect in reducing snowpack, a key to reliable water supply for the state. In addition to decreased snowpack, higher temperatures can cause the snowpack to melt earlier, dramatically decreasing the amount of water available for agriculture in summer when it is most needed.
Although the study did not directly address the issue of long-term climate change, the implications of higher temperatures are clear.
“If average temperatures keep rising, we will be looking at more serious droughts, even if the historical variability of precipitation stays the same,” Shukla said. “The importance of temperature in drought prediction is likely to become only more significant in the future.”
The research was published online in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
For more information about drought in California, visit the USGS California Water Science Center online.Drought effects at Trinity Lake, a major California reservoir located about 60 miles NW of Redding, California. USGS photo, Tim Reed, Feb. 2014. Photo source: CA Water Science Center
Heidi Koontz ( Phone: 303-202-4763 );
Newly released research from the U.S. Geological Survey describes U.S. hydraulic fracturing (frac) sand deposits and their locations, and provides estimates of frac sand production, consumption, and reserves. A companion map of producing and potential frac sand and resin-coated sand source units in the conterminous U.S. is also included.
The United States is the largest producer and consumer of frac sand in the world with nearly 70 percent of 2014 domestic production coming from the Great Lakes Region, primarily Wisconsin and Minnesota. The specialized silica sand, which consists of natural sand grains with strict mineralogical and textural properties, acts as a proppant (a granular substance that props open fractures) when added to fracking fluids that are injected into unconventional oil and gas wells during hydraulic fracturing.
“These new USGS compilations will provide comprehensive information about frac sand to mining companies, the petroleum industry, and land managers,” said USGS scientist Mary Ellen Benson, principal author of “Frac Sand Sources in the United States”.
Hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. significantly increased around 2004, and frac sand production rapidly grew to meet that demand. “Estimates of Hydraulic Fracturing (Frac) Sand Production, Consumption, and Reserves in the United States” by USGS scientist Don Bleiwas, provides an overview of the frac sand industry, including production, consumption, reserves, and resources.
“Frac Sand Sources in the United States,” by USGS geologists Mary Ellen Benson and Anna Burack Wilson, describes the unique physical properties of frac sand and focuses on the geology and spatial relationships of frac sand sources in the U.S. It also tracks recent published efforts to examine the potential for less optimal frac sand sources, reviews current and future sources in Canada, discusses the emergence of alternative proppants, and provides geologic guidelines for identifying potential new sources.
The papers are contained in a special supplement, Frac Sand Insider Resource Guide, in the May 2015 issue of the magazine Rock Products. A USGS Open-File Report expanding on the geology and containing digital data is expected to be released later this year.Map of producing and potential frac sand and resin-coated source units in the conterminous United States. (High resolution image)
Heidi Koontz ( Phone: 303-202-4763 );
Recently, U.S. Geological Survey researchers and partners working in California’s Channel Islands National Park discovered mammoth remains in uplifted marine deposits that date to about 80,000 years ago, confirming a long-held but never proven hypothesis that mammoths may have been on the Channel Islands long before the last glacial period 25,000 to 12,000 years ago.
“These are the first confidently dated fossils from the California Channel Islands showing that mammoths had been on the islands a long time, not just during the last glacial period,” said lead author and USGS research geologist Dan Muhs. “It supports an older hypothesis that mammoths could have swum from the mainland to the islands any time that conditions were favorable for such a journey, when sea level was low.”
This discovery on Santa Rosa Island, detailed in the online and print journal editions of Quaternary Research, shows that mammoths likely ventured to the islands during at least one earlier glacial period, when sea level was lower than present and the swimming distance from the mainland to the islands was minimal.
The older age of mammoths also challenges the hypothesis that climate change and sea level rise at the close of the last glacial period (about 12,000 years ago) were the causes of mammoth extinction on the Channel Islands. Earlier mammoth populations also would have had to contend with climate change and sea level rise, but apparently survived.
The newly discovered fossil mammoth remains are likely Mammuthus exilis, the pygmy mammoth. The Columbian mammoth immigrated to the islands from the California mainland by swimming and the pygmy mammoth evolved on the islands from this ancestral stock. Most mammoth remains previously reported on the Channel Islands date to the last glacial period, about 25,000 to 12,000 years ago.
Mammoths are iconic animals of the Pleistocene Ice Ages, both in North America and Eurasia. Fossil mammoths and other proboscideans (elephants and their relatives) have also been found on many islands of the Mediterranean.
The risk of extinction for the endangered Florida manatee appears to be lower, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey led study.
Based on the data available in 2012, the long-term probability of the species surviving has increased compared to a 2007 analysis, as a result of higher aerial survey estimates of population size, improved methods of tracking survival rates, and better estimates of the availability of warm-water refuges.
USGS scientists, working with colleagues from several other agencies and universities, used the manatee Core Biological Model to analyze the long-term viability of the manatee population in Florida, and to evaluate the threats it faces. A similar analysis completed in 2007 was used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of its 5-year Review of the status of manatees.
“Our analysis using data from 2007 estimated that there was nearly a nine percent chance of Florida manatee numbers falling below 250 adults over the next 100 years on either the Atlantic or Gulf Coast,” said Michael Runge, a USGS research ecologist and lead author of the study. “The current analysis, using data available in 2012, has the estimate dropping to a fraction of one percent, but we need to be cautious in our conclusion, because the analysis did not include several mortality events that have occurred since then.
The mortality events Runge was referencing were cold winters, loss of seagrass in prime habitat, and a red tide event, all of which affected the population.
“Although the estimated status in 2012 was better than in 2007, questions still remain about the population effects of the more recent cold-related mortality events in the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11,” Runge said. “The 2012 analysis also does not account for the extensive loss of seagrass habitat in Indian River Lagoon in 2011 and 2012 nor the severe red tide event in the Southwest region of Florida in 2013.”
The potential effects of these events will be analyzed in the next update of the Core Biological Model, which is underway in collaboration with Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory, and is expected to be complete within the next year.
The major threats to long-term survival of Florida manatees remain boat-related deaths and loss of warm-water winter habitat. In the Southwest region, an increasing frequency of red-tide deaths also warrants concern.
Manatees are large, gentle, herbivorous, slow-moving mammals. They are entirely aquatic, and their range is limited by temperature. Manatees cannot survive for extended periods in water colder than about 17°C (63°F), and prefer temperatures warmer than 22°C (72°F). Manatees live in shallow fresh, brackish, and marine aquatic habitats, traveling readily among them. In Florida, they travel considerable distances during the winter to access warm water refuges, such as artesian springs and the heated discharges of power generating plants. Some individuals also travel long distances during the warm season.
The publication “Status and threats analysis for the Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), 2012,” USGS Open-File Report 2015-1083, by M. C. Runge, C. A. Langtimm, J. Martin, and C. J. Fonnesbeck is available online.
Several of the 812 new US Topo quadrangles for Louisiana now display public trails along with improved data layers. Other significant additions include public land survey system information (PLSS), redesign of map symbols, enhanced railroad information and new road source data.
“I am very excited about the 2015 US Topo maps for Louisiana!” said R. Hampton Peele, GIS Coordinator for the Louisiana Geological Survey. “These maps will provide a great reference for our Cartographic Section as we compile our annual geologic map deliverables for the USGS.”
For Louisiana recreationalists and visitors who want to explore the diverse Gulf coast landscape on a bicycle, hiking, horseback or other means, the new trail features on the US Topo maps will come in handy. During the past two years the IMBA, in a partnership with the MTB Project, has been building a detailed national database of trails. This activity allows local IMBA chapters, IMBA members, and the public to provide trail data and descriptions through their website. The MTB Project and IMBA then verify the quality of the trail data provided, ensure accuracy and confirm the trail is legal. This unique crowdsourcing venture has increased the availability of trail data available through The National Map mobile and web apps, and the revised US Topo maps.
Additionally, a widely anticipated addition to the new Louisiana US Topo maps is the inclusion of Public Land Survey System data. PLSS is a way of subdividing and describing land in the US. All lands in the public domain (lands owned by the federal government) are subject to subdivision by this rectangular system of surveys, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“The US Topo maps provide an excellent instructional tool in our GIS Certification Program,” said Brent Yantis, Director of the University of Louisiana Lafayette Regional Application Center. “They orient students to their environment and provide a fundamental foundation in the development of geospatial concepts. We look forward to this new release.”
These new maps replace the first edition US Topo maps for the Pelican State and are available for free download from The National Map, the USGS Map Locator & Downloader website , or several other USGS applications.
To compare change over time, scans of legacy USGS topo maps, some dating back to the late 1800s, can be downloaded from the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection.
For more information on US Topo maps: http://nationalmap.gov/ustopo/Updated 2015 version of Saint Landry quadrangle with orthoimage turned on. (1:24,000 scale) (high resolution image 1.3 MB) Updated 2015 version of the Saint Landry quadrangle with the orthoimage turned off to better see the contour intervals. (1:24,000 scale) (high resolution image 1.1 MB) Scan of the 1935 USGS quadrangle of the Turkey Creek area (which covers the Saint Landry map) from the USGS Historic Topographic Map Collection. (1:62, 500 scale) (high resolution image 1.6 MB)
Water contamination by hormone-disrupting pollutants is a concern for water quality around the world. Existing research has determined that elevated concentrations of Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used in consumer products such as plastic food storage and beverage containers, have been deposited directly into rivers and streams by municipal or industrial wastewater. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri and the U.S. Geological Survey have assessed Missouri water quality near industrial sites permitted to release BPA into the air. As a result, scientists now believe that atmospheric releases may create a concern for contamination of local surface water leading to human and wildlife exposure.
“There is growing concern that hormone disruptors such as BPA not only threaten wildlife, but also humans,” said Chris Kassotis, a doctoral candidate in the Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU. “Recent studies have documented widespread atmospheric releases of BPA from industrial sources across the United States. The results from our study provide evidence that these atmospheric discharges can dramatically elevate BPA in nearby environments.”
Water sampling sites were selected based on their proximity to the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) or locations with reported atmospheric discharges of BPA as identified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Current or historical municipal wastewater treatment sites, which have been shown in the past to contribute hormonally active chemicals to surface water from urban or industrial sources, were also tested. Finally, relatively clean sites were chosen to serve as the control group.
The water then was analyzed for concentrations of BPA, Ethinyl estradiol (EE2), an estrogen commonly used in oral contraceptive pills, and several wastewater compounds. Scientists also measured the total estrogen and receptor activities of the water. This approach is used to measure all chemicals present in the water that are able to bind to and activate (or inhibit) the estrogen or androgen receptors in wildlife and humans. Levels of chemicals were highest in samples with known wastewater treatment plant discharges.
“In addition, we were surprised to find that BPA concentrations were up to 10 times higher in the water near known atmospheric release sites,” said Don Tillitt, adjunct professor of biological sciences at MU, and biochemistry and physiology branch chief with the USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center. “This finding suggests that atmospheric BPA releases may contaminate local surface water, leading to greater exposure of humans or wildlife.”
Concentrations of BPA measured in surface water near these sites were well above levels shown to cause adverse health effects in aquatic species, Kassotis said.
The study, “Characterization of Missouri surface waters near point sources of pollution reveals potential novel atmospheric route of exposure for bisphenol A and wastewater hormonal activity pattern,” was published in the journal, Science of the Total Environment, with funding from MU, the USGS Contaminants Biology Program (Environmental Health Mission Area), and STAR Fellowship Assistance Agreement awarded by the U.S. EPA.
WELLSBORO, Pa. — A piece of the restoration puzzle to save populations of endangered freshwater mussels may have been found, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey led study. Local population losses in a river may not result in irreversible loss of mussel species; other mussels from within the same river could be used as sources to restore declining populations.
Though they serve a critical role in rivers and streams, freshwater mussels are threatened by habitat degradation such as dams, alteration to river channels, pollution and invasive species. Mussels filter the water and provide habitat and food for algae, macroinvertebrates, and even fish, which are necessary components of aquatic food webs.
“Few people realize the important role that mussels play in the ecosystem," said USGS research biologist Heather Galbraith, lead author of the study. "Streams and rivers with healthy mussel populations tend to have relatively good water quality which is good for the fish and insects that also inhabit those systems."
Mussels in general are poorly understood and difficult to study. Because of this lack of knowledge, population genetics has become a useful tool for understanding their ecology and guiding their restoration.
More than 200 of the nearly 300 North American freshwater mussel species are imperiled, with rapidly dwindling populations. Researchers are providing information to resource managers, who are working to reverse this trend. USGS led research suggests that re-introducing mussels within the same river could reverse population declines without affecting the current genetic makeup of the population.
The research shows that patterns in the genetic makeup of a population occurs within individual rivers for freshwater mussels; and that in the study area, mussels from the same river could be used for restoration.
“That genetic structuring is occurring within individual rivers is good news, because it may be a means of protecting rare, threatened and endangered species from impending extinction,” said Galbraith. “Knowing the genetic structure of a freshwater mussel population is necessary for restoring declining populations to prevent factors such as inbreeding, high mutation rates and low survivorship.”
Knowing that mussels in the same river are similar genetically opens up opportunities for augmenting declining populations or re-introducing mussels into locations where they were historically found. The genetics also highlight the importance of not mixing populations among rivers without additional studies to verify the genetic compatibility of mussels within those rivers.
The international team of researchers from Canada and the United States working to understand mussel genetics found similar genetic patterns among common and endangered mussel species. This is important information for mussel biologists because studying endangered species can be difficult, and researchers may be able to study the genetic structure of common mussels and generalize the patterns to endangered mussels.
Although understanding the genetic structure of mussel populations is important for restoration, genetic tools do have limitations. Researchers found that despite drastic reductions in freshwater mussel populations, there was little evidence of this population decline at the genetic level. This may be due to the extremely long lifespan of mussels, some of which can live to be more than 100 years old.
“Genetics, it turns out, is not a good indicator of population decline; by the time we observe a genetic change, it may be too late for the population,” said Galbraith.
By way of comparison, in fruit flies, which have short lifespans, genetic changes show up quickly within a few generations. Mussels, on the other hand, are long lived animals; therefore it may take decades to see changes in their genetic structure within a population.
The study examined six species of freshwater mussels in four Great Lakes Tributaries in southwestern Ontario. The species are distributed across the eastern half of North America and range in status from presumed extinct to secure. The six mussels were the snuffbox, Epioblasma triquetra; kidneyshell, Ptychobranchus fasciolaris; mapleleaf, Quadrula quadrula; wavy-rayed lampmussel, Lampsilis fasciola; Flutedshell Lasmigona costata; and the threeridge mussel Amblema plicata.
The study, “Comparative analysis of riverscape genetic structure in rare, threatened and common freshwater mussels” is available online in the journal Conservation Genetics.
For more information on freshwater mussels please visit Stranger than Fiction: The Secret Lives of Freshwater Mussels.
Mining companies, land managers, and regulators now have a wealth of tools to aid in reducing potential mining impacts even before the mine gets started. USGS and various research partners released a special edition of papers specifically targeted at providing modern environmental effect research for modern mining techniques.
Minerals play an important role in the global economy, and, as rising standards of living have increased demand for those minerals, the number and size of mines have increased, leading to larger potential impacts from mining.
“Approaches to protecting the environment from mining impacts have undergone a revolution over the past several decades,” said USGS mineral and environmental expert Bob Seal. “The sustainability of that revolution relies on an evolving scientific understanding of how mines and their waste products interact with the environment.”
Many research conclusions are contained in the special issue, and some of the primary findings are listed here:
- USGS evaluated several tools for predicting pre-mining baseline conditions at a mine, even if no baseline was established. This will make it easier to remediate the mine after it closes.
- USGS also took tools used to screen mine waste for contaminants and tested them for predicting potential sources for contaminants before the mine even got started.
Mitigating while Mining
- Because slag is the byproduct of mineral processing, its physical and chemical properties depend a lot on what the original mined mineral material was.
- Slag from copper, zinc, or nickel may be less attractive for reuse, since it has a higher potential to negatively impact the environment than slag that came from iron or steel production.
- Gold mining runs a lower risk of contaminating the environment with cyanide if mines give enough time for it to safely evaporate and be broken down by sunlight.
- Mine drainage is incredibly complicated. It doesn’t come from a single source, but rather complex interactions between water, air, and micro-organisms like bacteria.
- Mine drainage is not just acid mine drainage—it can be basic, neutral, or even high in salts. All of these drainage types have their own impacts.
- Mine drainage concentrations in streams can actually change based on the time of day.
- USGS tested many of the existing techniques for figuring out what toxic contaminants wind up in stream sediments so managers know the right one for the right job.
- USGS also evaluated a new technique for predicting how toxic certain metals will be in aquatic environments.
The research papers are contained in a special issue of the journal Applied Geochemistry. This research was conducted by scientists from USGS and several collaborating organizations, including the Geological Survey of Canada, InTerraLogic, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Montana Tech, SUNY Oneonta, the University of Maryland, the University of Montana, and the University of Waterloo.
USGS minerals research can help to identify problems before they become problems, or at the very least, help address the impacts that do exist. Learn more about USGS minerals research here, or follow us on www.twitter.com/usgsminerals.
A pine siskin stands on the branch of a northern conifer tree. Photo, USFWS National Digital Library. (High resolution image)
Weaving concepts of ecology and climatology, recent interdisciplinary research by USGS and several university partners reveals how large-scale climate variability appears to connect boom-and-bust cycles in the seed production of the boreal (northern conifer) forests of Canada to massive, irregular movements of boreal birds.
These boreal bird “irruptions” — extended migrations of immense numbers of birds to areas far outside their normal range — have been recorded for decades by birders, but the ultimate causes of the irruptions have never been fully explained.
“This study is a textbook example of interdisciplinary research, establishing an exciting new link between climate and bird migrations” said USGS acting Director Suzette Kimball. “A vital strength of our organization is our ability to pursue scientific issues across the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines.”
The investigation was based on statistical analysis of two million observations of the pine siskin (a finch, Spinus pinus) recorded since 1989 by Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. By methodically counting the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April, FeederWatchers help scientists track continent-wide movements of winter bird populations.
One of several nomadic birds that breed during summer in Canadian boreal forests, pine siskins feed on seed crops of conifers and other tree species. When seed is abundant locally, pine siskins also spend the autumn and winter there. In other years, they may irrupt, migrating unpredictably hundreds or even thousands of kilometers to the south and east in search of seed and favorable habitat. “Superflights” is the term applied to winters (e.g.1997-1998, 2012-2013) when boreal species have blanketed bird feeders across the U.S.
The irruptions of pine siskins and other boreal species follow a lagging pattern of intermittent, but broadly synchronous, accelerated seed production (“masting”) by trees in the boreal forest. Widespread masting in pines, spruces, and firs is driven primarily by favorable climate during the two or three consecutive years required to initiate and mature seed crops. Leading up to masting events, the green developing cones and the promise of abundant seed stimulate higher reproductive rates in birds.
However, seed production is expensive for trees and tends to be much reduced in the years following masting. Consequently, meager seed crops in the years following masting drive boreal birds to search elsewhere for food and overwintering habitat.
The key finding of the new research is that the two principal pine siskin irruption modes – North to South and West to East – correlate closely with spatial patterns of climate variability across North America that are well understood by climatologists. Not surprisingly, severely cold winters tend to drive birds south during the irruption year.
More subtly, the researchers found that favorable and unfavorable climatic conditions of regularly juxtaposed regions called “climate dipoles” two years prior to the irruption also appear to push and pull bird migrations across the continent.
USGS co-author Julio Betancourt commented, “Our study underscores the value of continent-wide biological monitoring. In this case, avid birders across the U.S. and Canada have contributed sustained observations of birds at the same broad geographic scale in which weather and climate have also been observed and understood.”
The research study, authored by Court Strong (University of Utah), Ben Zuckerberg (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Julio Betancourt (USGS-Reston), and Walt Koenig (Cornell University), was published May 11 online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Storage tanks for produced water from natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale gas play of western Pennsylvania. USGS photo, Doug Duncan. (High resolution image)
In a study of 13 hydraulically fractured shale gas wells in north-central Pennsylvania, USGS researchers found that the microbiology and organic chemistry of the produced waters varied widely from well to well.
The variations in these aspects of the wells followed no discernible spatial or geological pattern but may be linked to the time a well was in production. Further, the study highlighted the presence of some organic compounds (e.g. benzene) in produced waters that could present potential risks to human health, if the waters are not properly managed.
Produced water is the term specialists use to describe the water brought to the land surface during oil, gas, and coalbed methane production. This water is a mixture of naturally occurring water and fluid injected into the formation deep underground to enhance production. A USGS Fact Sheet on produced water provides more background information and terminology definitions.
Although the USGS investigators found that the inorganic (noncarbon-based) chemistry of produced waters from the shale gas wells tested in the Marcellus region was fairly consistent from well to well and meshed with comparable results of previous studies (see USGS Energy Produced Waters Project), the large differences in the organic geochemistry (carbon-based, including petroleum products) and microbiology (e.g. bacteria) of the produced waters were striking findings of the study.
“Some wells appeared to be hotspots for microbial activity,” observed Denise Akob, a USGS microbiologist and lead author of the study, “but this was not predicted by well location, depth, or salinity. The presence of microbes seemed to be associated with concentrations of specific organic compounds — for example, benzene or acetate — and the length of time that the well was in production.”
The connection between the presence of organic compounds and the detection of microbes was not, in itself, surprising. Many organic compounds used as hydraulic fracturing fluid additives are biodegradable and thus could have supported microbial activity at depth during shale gas production.
The notable differences in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the produced waters of the tested wells could play a role in the management of produced waters, particularly since VOCs, such as benzene, may be a health concern around the well or holding pond. In wells without VOCs, on the other hand, disposal strategies could concentrate on issues related to the handling of other hazardous compounds.
Microbial activity detected in these samples could turn out to be an advantage by contributing to the degradation of organic compounds present in the produced waters. Potentially, microbes could also serve to help mitigate the effects of organic contaminants during the disposal or accidental release of produced waters. Additional research is needed to fully assess how microbial activity can best be utilized to biodegrade organic compounds found in produced waters.
The research article can be found in the most recent edition of Applied Geochemistry, Special Issue on Shale Gas Geochemistry.
If invasive bighead carp and silver carp spread into Lake Erie, there would be enough food available for these species of Asian carp to survive, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
This information is critical in helping resource managers mitigate effects of an Asian carp invasion. If bighead and silver carp were to populate Lake Erie, they have the potential to damage native fish populations and the Great Lakes economy.
USGS scientists used satellite imagery of Lake Erie showing algae on the surface to determine how much food would be available for Asian carp. Green algae and blue-green algae, specifically floating algal blooms that can be seen on the surface, are a preferred food source for Asian carp. The water temperatures and algal concentrations detected in Lake Erie from 2002-2011 show that the bighead and silver carps could not only live in this environment, but could continue to grow. The full report is available online.
“Remote sensing imagery shows that Lake Erie has huge areas of available food that are often several times more concentrated than necessary for Asian carp growth, particularly in the western basin,” said USGS scientist Karl Anderson.
Food availability and water temperature are the greatest sources of uncertainty for predicting fish growth potential. Water temperature is a big factor in determining how much bighead and silver carps need to eat. Models developed by USGS scientists helped determine how much algae bighead and silver carps need to eat to survive.
For the past 10 years, algal blooms in Lake Erie have been increasing. Remote sensing images showed that the amount of algae doubled, and in some places quadrupled, from 2002-2011. Throughout the lake, algal blooms encompass several hundred to several thousands square kilometers. Specifically, the western part of Lake Erie has algal concentrations that are several times greater than what is needed for bighead or silver carp to survive.
RESTON, Va.-- The latest tool designed to help manage the threatened piping plover is only a download away; iPlover is the first smartphone data collection application developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and will help those managing plover populations.
iPlover supports a long-established network of partners working to address ongoing impacts on plover populations, such as habitat gain or loss due to storms.
More importantly, data from the app is used to develop models that address long-term management concerns for habitat availability. It also improves the overall quality of coastal geologic information available to effectively manage this species.
The piping plover is a small shorebird that depends on open coastal beaches to breed and raise its young. Listed as threatened along the Atlantic coast in 1986, the piping plover’s conservation has been mandated by the Endangered Species Act. Although Atlantic Coast piping plover numbers have more than doubled since their listing nearly 30 years ago, they are still at risk. Recent estimates place the population at fewer than 2000 pairs, and climate change has introduced new threats to their coastal habitat.
Coastal beaches are dynamic systems and managing them for beach-dependent species like the piping plover requires collecting data on physical and biological characteristics that will be affected by sea level rise. Given the extensive Atlantic breeding range of the piping plover – spanning from North Carolina to Newfoundland – biologists have a lot of ground to cover.
The iPlover app supports the need for coordinated, synchronized data collection. It is a powerful new tool to help scientists and coastal resource managers consistently measure and assess the birds’ response to changes to their habitat. Rather than compiling data from multiple sources and formats, the app gives trained resource managers an easy-to-use platform where they can collect and instantly share data across a diverse community of field technicians, scientists, and managers. iPlover improves scientists’ data gathering and analysis capabilities by simplifying and facilitating consistent data collection and management that interfaces with models of shoreline change and beach geomorphology.
“The data come in from all of our study sites basically in real-time,” said Rob Thieler, USGS scientist and lead developer of the app. “It's already formatted, so data can be quickly plugged into our research models. This should really shorten the time between collecting the data, doing the science, and turning it into actionable information for management.”
“The USGS worked with diverse project partners to incorporate specific data collection needs and enable important stakeholders and partners to contribute data from hundreds of field observations within the plover’s U.S. Atlantic coastal breeding range,” said Andrew Milliken, coordinator of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. “This included getting inputs from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, state agencies and non-governmental organizations.”
“The app highlights the synergies and benefits of interagency and interdisciplinary science that advances conservation,” Milliken added. “The information collected will not only greatly improve our understanding of impacts from sea level rise, storms and beach management on piping plovers but also how managing for plovers can benefit other beach-dependent species, such as the American oystercatcher.”
Funding for iPlover was provided through the Department of Interior North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative as part of its Hurricane Sandy response. The app was developed by the USGS’ Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center and the Center for Integrated Data Analytics.
“iPlover is a great example of the USGS’ ability to build and deliver a variety of science applications that use modern technology,” said Nate Booth, USGS Chief of Office of Water Information and former Lead Architect for the USGS Center for Integrated Data Analytics. “It offers research teams great gains in data collection efficiency so that more time can be spent on analyzing the data rather than managing it."
SEATTLE, Wash. — More than 1,000 dams have been removed across the United States because of safety concerns, sediment buildup, inefficiency or having otherwise outlived usefulness. A paper published today in Science finds that rivers are resilient and respond relatively quickly after a dam is removed.
“The apparent success of dam removal as a means of river restoration is reflected in the increasing number of dams coming down, more than 1,000 in the last 40 years,” said lead author of the study Jim O’Connor, geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Rivers quickly erode sediment accumulated in former reservoirs and redistribute it downstream, commonly returning the river to conditions similar to those prior to impoundment.”
Dam removal and the resulting river ecosystem restoration is being studied by scientists from several universities and government agencies, including the USGS and U.S. Forest Service, as part of a national effort to document the effects of removing dams. Studies show that most river channels stabilize within months or years, not decades, particularly when dams are removed rapidly.
“In many cases, fish and other biological aspects of river ecosystems also respond quickly to dam removal,” said co-author of the study Jeff Duda, an ecologist with USGS. “When given the chance, salmon and other migratory fish will move upstream and utilize newly opened habitat.”
The increase in the number of dam removals, both nationally and internationally, has spurred the effort to understand the consequences and help guide future dam removals.
“As existing dams age and outlive usefulness, dam removal is becoming more common, particularly where it can benefit riverine ecosystems,” said Gordon Grant, Forest Service hydrologist. “But it can be a complicated decision with significant economic and ecologic consequences. Better understanding of outcomes enables better decisions about which dams might be good candidates for removal and what the river might look like as a result.”
Sponsored by the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, a working group of 22 scientists compiled a database of research and studies involving more than 125 dam removals. Researchers have determined common patterns and controls affecting how rivers and their ecosystems respond to dam removal. Important factors include the size of the dam, the volume and type of sediment accumulated in the reservoir, and overall watershed characteristics and history.
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla.— The largest and longest Burmese Python tracking study of its kind -- here or in its native range -- is providing researchers and resource managers new information that may help target control efforts of this invasive snake, according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Among the findings, scientists have identified the size of a Burmese python’s home range and discovered they share some “common areas” that multiple snakes use.
“These high-use areas may be optimal locations for control efforts and further studies on the snakes’ potential impacts on native wildlife,” said Kristen Hart, a USGS research ecologist and lead author of the study. “Understanding habitat-use patterns of invasive species can aid resource managers in designing appropriately timed and scaled management strategies to help control their spread.”
Using radio and GPS tags to track 19 wild-caught pythons, researchers were able to learn how the Burmese python moved within its home range. The 5,119 days of tracking data led researchers to conclude that python home ranges are an average of 22 square kilometers, or roughly an area 3 miles wide-by-3 miles long, all currently within the park.
The study found pythons were concentrated in slough and coastal habitats, with tree islands being the principal feature of common-use areas, even in areas where they were not the predominant habitat type. The longest movements of individual pythons occurred most often during dry conditions, but took place during “wet” and “dry” seasons.
Burmese pythons are long-lived, large-bodied constricting snakes native to Southeast Asia. Highly adaptable, these ambush predators can reach lengths greater than 19 feet and produce large clutches of eggs that can range from eight to 107 eggs. Burmese pythons were first observed in South Florida’s Everglades National Park in 1979. Since then, they have spread throughout the park. Although recent research indicates the snakes may be having a significant effect on some populations of mid-sized mammals, it has also shown there is little risk to people who visit Everglades National Park.
Invasive species compete with native wildlife for food, and they threaten native biodiversity across the globe. With nearly 50 percent of the imperiled species in the US being threatened by exotic species, a major concern for land managers is the growing number of exotics that are successfully invading and establishing viable populations.
Florida is home to more exotic animals than any other state. Snakes in particular have been shown to pose a high risk of becoming invasive species. The establishment of Burmese pythons in South Florida poses a significant threat to both the sensitive Everglades ecosystem and native species of conservation concern. For example, in the park, wood storks, Florida panthers and Cape Sable seaside sparrows are all species of conservation concern that have home ranges near the common-use areas of the radio-tracked pythons.
The study, “Home Range, Habitat Use, and Movement Patterns of Non-Native Burmese Pythons in Everglades National Park, Florida, USA,” with authors from the USGS, University of Florida, National Park Service, and Davidson College, was published in the journal Animal Biotelemetry.
Significant strides in science have been made to better understand potential ground shaking from induced earthquakes, which are earthquakes triggered by man-made practices.
Earthquake activity has sharply increased since 2009 in the central and eastern United States. The increase has been linked to industrial operations that dispose of wastewater by injecting it into deep wells.
The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report today that outlines a preliminary set of models to forecast how hazardous ground shaking could be in the areas where sharp increases in seismicity have been recorded. The models ultimately aim to calculate how often earthquakes are expected to occur in the next year and how hard the ground will likely shake as a result. This report looked at the central and eastern United States; future research will incorporate data from the western states as well.
This report also identifies issues that must be resolved to develop a final hazard model, which is scheduled for release at the end of the year after the preliminary models are further examined. These preliminary models should be considered experimental in nature and should not be used for decision-making.
USGS scientists identified 17 areas within eight states with increased rates of induced seismicity. Since 2000, several of these areas have experienced high levels of seismicity, with substantial increases since 2009 that continue today. This is the first comprehensive assessment of the hazard levels associated with induced earthquakes in these areas. A detailed list of these areas is provided in the accompanying map, including the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Scientists developed the models by analyzing earthquakes in these zones and considering their rates, locations, maximum magnitude, and ground motions.
“This new report describes for the first time how injection-induced earthquakes can be incorporated into U.S. seismic hazard maps,” said Mark Petersen, Chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Modeling Project. “These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk to people living nearby. The USGS is developing methods that overcome the challenges in assessing seismic hazards in these regions in order to support decisions that help keep communities safe from ground shaking.”
In 2014, the USGS released updated National Seismic Hazard Maps, which describe hazard levels for natural earthquakes. Those maps are used in building codes, insurance rates, emergency preparedness plans, and other applications. The maps forecast the likelihood of earthquake shaking within a 50-year period, which is the average lifetime of a building. However, these new induced seismicity products display intensity of potential ground shaking from induced earthquakes in a one-year period. This shorter timeframe is appropriate because the induced activity can vary rapidly with time and is subject to commercial and policy decisions that could change at any point.
These new methods and products result in part from a workshop hosted by the USGS and the Oklahoma Geological Survey. The workshop, described in the new report, brought together a broad group of experts from government, industry and academic communities to discuss the hazards from induced earthquakes.
Wastewater that is salty or polluted by chemicals needs to be disposed of in a manner that prevents contaminating freshwater sources. Large volumes of wastewater can result from a variety of processes, such as a byproduct from energy production. Wastewater injection increases the underground pore pressure, which may lubricate nearby faults thereby making earthquakes more likely to occur. Although the disposal process has the potential to trigger earthquakes, most wastewater disposal wells do not produce felt earthquakes.
Many questions have been raised about whether hydraulic fracturing—commonly referred to as “fracking”—is responsible for the recent increase of earthquakes. USGS’s studies suggest that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only occasionally the direct cause of felt earthquakes.
Read the newly published USGS report, “Incorporating Induced Seismicity in the 2014 United States National Seismic Hazard Model—Results of 2014 Workshop and Sensitivity Studies.”Cumulative number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or larger in the central and eastern United States, 1973-2014. The rate of earthquakes began to increase starting around 2009 and accelerated in 2013-2014. (high resolution image) Research has identified 17 areas in the central and eastern United States with increased rates of induced seismicity. Since 2000, several of these areas have experienced high levels of seismicity, with substantial increases since 2009 that continue today. (high resolution image)
The likelihood of Asian carp eggs being kept in suspension and hatching in the St. Joseph River in Michigan has been further evaluated using a model that examines a range of multiple flow and water temperature scenarios. Results illustrate the highest percentage of Asian carp eggs at risk of hatching occurs when the streamflow is low and when the water temperature is high. This new study by the University of Illinois and the U.S. Geological Survey is published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research.
“In this study, the Fluvial Egg Drift Simulator (FluEgg) model allowed us to examine the complex dependencies between flow, temperature and egg development,” said USGS hydrologist Ryan Jackson. “This information provides resource managers with a range of conditions under which the St. Joseph River is vulnerable to Asian carp reproduction."
The FluEgg model was used to evaluate egg movement and the likelihood of successful Asian carp reproduction under different streamflow and temperature conditions representative of historical spawning seasons in the St. Joseph River, a tributary to Lake Michigan. Results show that eggs develop faster at warmer water temperatures, therefore requiring less time to drift in the river until hatching. Low streamflows can also be conducive to reproduction when the streamflow is just fast enough to keep most of the eggs in suspension while allowing for the greatest amount of drift time before reaching the lake, thus increasing the likelihood of hatching.
The FluEgg model, developed by University of Illinois researchers in collaboration with the USGS, was first introduced in 2013. The latest version of the model is available online, and includes a user-friendly interface and improved predictions of egg transport in rivers.
Invasive Asian carp consume plankton from the base of the food web and reproduce prolifically which could pose substantial environmental risks and economic impacts to the Great Lakes if they become established.
"This work focuses on the early life stages of Asian carp," said USGS research fish biologist Duane Chapman. "Targeting early life stages can include disrupting spawning activities or egg development in rivers where Asian carp spawn."
Several factors affect the viability of the eggs. The temperature of the water affects how long the eggs need to hatch, and the velocity of the river affects the movement of the eggs and whether the eggs remain in suspension or sink to the bottom. Eggs that settle on the riverbed will likely die, and eggs that are transported down the river and into a lake may not have enough time to develop to the hatching stage before settling to the lakebed.
The reproduction assessment of Asian carp eggs in the St. Joseph River demonstrated the complexity of the problem where the length of the river, velocity and water temperatures cannot be assessed individually. Rather, a holistic analysis is required, where egg development, water-quality characteristics and the hydrodynamics of the river are interconnected and analyzed together.
“Successful reproduction requires a fine balance between the rate of egg development and the variable flow conditions present in a river required to maintain the eggs in suspension,” said Tatiana Garcia, USGS research hydrologist and lead author of the paper.
The paper, “Application of the FluEgg model to predict transport of Asian carp eggs in the St. Joseph River (Great Lakes tributary)” by Tatiana Garcia, Elizabeth A. Murphy, Patrick R. Jackson and Marcelo H. Garcia, is available online.
Runoff from pavement with coal-tar-based sealant is toxic to aquatic life, damages DNA, and impairs DNA repair, according to two studies by the U.S. Geological Survey published in the journals Environmental Science and Technology and Science of the Total Environment.
Pavement sealant is a black liquid sprayed or painted on the asphalt pavement of parking lots, driveways and playgrounds to improve appearance and protect the underlying asphalt. Pavement sealants that contain coal tar have extremely high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Coal tar is a known human carcinogen; several PAHs are probable human carcinogens and some are toxic to fish and other aquatic life.
Rainwater runoff collected as long as three months after coal-tar-sealcoat application caused 100% mortality to minnows and water fleas, which are part of the base of the food chain, when the test organisms were exposed to ultra-violet radiation to simulate sunlight. The full study, reported in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology, is available online.
Exposure of fish cells to coal-tar sealant runoff damaged their DNA and impaired the ability of the cells to repair DNA damage. “The simultaneous occurrence of DNA damage and impairment of DNA repair has important implications for cell health,” said Sylvie Bony, who led the study at the Ecole Nationale des Travaux Publics de l’Etat (ENTPE), a French research agency in Lyon, France. The study is reported in the scientific journal Science of the Total Environment.
The studies were done to address the concern that rainfall runoff occurring within hours or days of coal-tar-based sealant application might be toxic to fish and other organisms in streams. The two studies collected and tested simulated runoff at various times beginning just hours after coal-tar-sealant application.
"The USGS has been studying coal-tar-sealcoat as a source of PAHs for 10 years, and findings from these two studies are consistent with what is known about toxicity and genotoxicity of these chemicals," said USGS scientist Barbara Mahler.
A previous publication detailed the chemical concentrations in runoff from coal-tar-sealed pavement at a range of times following sealant application. The results, reported in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution, are available online.
Coal-tar sealants have significantly higher levels of PAHs and related compounds compared to asphalt-based pavement sealants and other urban sources, including vehicle emissions, used motor oil, and tire particles. Previous studies have concluded that coal-tar sealants are a major source of PAHs to lake sediments in commercial and residential settings, and that people living near pavement sealed with coal-tar sealant have an elevated risk of cancer.
To learn more, visit the USGS website on PAHs and sealcoat.