There is an important atmospheric mystery that needs to be understood, quickly.
As many of you know, natural gas fracking has become widespread across the United States and is now a major source of natural gas used in heating, power generation, and other applications. Such fracking injects chemicals and sand under high pressure to produce cracks in unerlying rock strata, with the sand keeping the pores open to allow the escape of large quantities of natural gas (methane).
And now the mystery part. In regions where fracking is being done, some quite rural, extraordinarily high ozone values are being observed. And such ozone values have been particularly elevated over regions of snow. But why?
And let's remember that ozone, while wonderful protection from ultraviolet radiation when concentrated in the stratosphere, is NOT your friend near the surface. Ozone is a powerful lung irritant that contributes to asthma and other breathing disorders. High ozone values can also lead to heart disease and premature death and can greatly damage plants.
Pretty nasty stuff.
So it is very important to understand why fracking is associated with high ozone values, why snow is important, and what we can do to mitigate such ozone production during fracking operations.
Now the basic chemistry of ozone production provides some clues of why fracking is a big contributor. Ozone near the surface is generally associated with three contributors: solar radiation, nitrogen oxides (often produced by combustion), and volatile organics (including methane, isoprenes from plants, and petroleum products). We are now learning that fracking operations leak a large amount of methane into the atmosphere, so you have the volatile organics. Many fracking operations are in fairly dry locations (e.g., Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas) with lots of solar radiation. And all the cars, trucks, and machinery associated with fracking produce nitrogen oxides (and there are some natural sources as well).
But why is snow a contributor? One can speculate. Snow reflects solar radiation, so with snow the lower atmosphere can get a lot more ultraviolet radiation from the sun's rays coming down directly and reflected off the snow (that is why we need sunglasses while skiing on a bright day). And snow can act as a catalyst, a substance that encourages a chemical reaction, in this case the production of ozone.
A fellow professor in my department, Dr. Becky Alexander, would like to go into the field next month with graduate student Maria Zatko, to investigate the snow/fracking/ozone connection and she needs your help.
Let me explain. A scientific field program is now planned from Jan. 13 – Feb. 7 in Utah's Uintah Basin, a major location of fracking operations (see map).
But there is a way: crowdfunding. If you remember, last year I noted that Dr. Dan Jaffe needed funds for a study of the effluent and coal dust coming off of coal trains, and noted the potential for contributing on the Microoryza web site. Many of you responded and he secured the full $ 20,000 that was needed. The research was undertaken and completed ...research that is now in review for publication (I will report the important results of this work in a future blog).
Dr. Alexander has established a page on the Microoryza web site that outlines her project (go here to see it). In total, she is trying to raise $12,000.
Please consider donating to this effort. The problem is a serious one and amount of funding required is very modest considering it societal importance.
And no, western Washington will not have a white Christmas...sorry.