Camouflage

Yesterday started the first day of sampling stream water for Mercury (Hg) for the Marcellus and Mercury project. Three FIELD Teams set out to different locations of the state to visit 11 streams for the day.

SEneca

Picture of sign showing 4.0 million gallon-average daily consumption of water (mostly for fracking) by Seneca Resources

Jenn and I ventured back into the “Lions Den” – an area of State Forest and State Game Lands Northwest of Emporium that is highly utilized by Seneca Resources for Marcellus shale natural gas extraction.

If you recall from previous posts, there is a significant presence from Seneca workers, truckers, and a security force in this area (e.g. kiosks and checkpoints along state forest roads), which hindered our progress. Last time we visited this area we were driving a van with “Juniata College” written on the side, which was effectively announcing that we were “outsiders” not involved in the Marcellus shale development/extraction. Once we passed one security kiosk and were asked who we were, where we were from, and what we were doing….all subsequent kiosks and many Seneca employees knew more about us, than we did about them or their works status.

kiosk

Example of a security kiosk set-set up along state forest roads and at wellpads. We observed these units are moved around quite frequently, depending on activity in the area.

This time was different. Because we were going in multiple teams, I drove my personal vehicle. My vehicle happened to be a 16 year old full-sized pickup truck with a Wyoming front license plate. The difference in perception by everyone we encountered was almost unbelievable. Instead of questioned looks, we got nods and waves by employees, and security personal waived us through without a second look. As we drove past one security checkpoint with the window down, we were even told to “have a nice evening guys” as were leaving for the day.

So, what was the difference? Camouflage-I was driving a vehicle that matched the general description of most of the workers vehicles. We blended in, looked like we belonged, didn’t draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves, and as a result were quite efficient in getting to 5 streams largely unnoticed. In biology, mimicry (or more specifically mimesis) is when an organism uses camouflage to blend in with its surroundings in order to dupe its predators. For example, insects may look like twigs or branches, or brook trout have coloration patterns that help them blend into the bed of the stream.  In both cases, this allows the organisms stand a better chance of going undetected and surviving in their environment.

Greenlee Run Mouth Brook11

Picture showing brook trout camouflage

In some ways this is exactly what happened with us yesterday, we were using mimicry to help us remain undetected, survive, and thrive in our environment. I have to laugh at the irony that the very subject matter I teach about in the classroom played out with us in the Lions Den.

Stay tuned for more,

Chris Grant  

 

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Looking back and moving forward

Looking back, over the past two weeks we have spent significant time visiting a number of streams in the Juniata River watershed as part of the Unassessed Waters Project. The aims of this project are to document fish assemblages in previously unassessed streams, in hopes of finding naturally reproducing brook/brown trout that would allow for reclassification of streams and long-term protection of these populations and watersheds.

fishbucket

Picture of a bucket of brook trout captured while working on the Unassessed Waters Project

Since the start of summer, we have assessed 70 streams across central and northern PA to date, and 22 of these we found wild trout populations; allowing for probable reclassification within the coming year. Our goal is to assess over 115 streams for this project by the end of summer.  To find out more details about this aims of this project, check out the description for “Finding Brookies” under the ABOUT tab.

Moving forward, this week we are starting STREAM WATER WEEK. Sounds harmless enough, but it is arguably the busiest few days of our summer work on the Marcellus and Mercury project. Over the course of 2.5 days we aim to visit 25 stream sites to collect water samples that will be analyzed for Mercury (Hg) concentration.

labHg

Picture showing team effort in the lab to filter and prep samples for Hg analysis

Solid teamwork, attention to detail, and collaboration are absolutely necessary to ensure success. More specifically, we start Monday morning with three FIELD teams going to different stream sites (at varied distances from Juniata). Teams return at varied times and an additional LAB team is prepped and ready to filter and preserve water samples for later analysis. The first FIELD team usually arrives back at the lab late afternoon, and successive FIELD teams arrive every few hours. Shortly before the first FIELD team arrives back at Juniata, the LAB team “starts” their day and they work into the wee hours of the morning (with help from the returning FIELD teams). We aim to keep this up for 2.5 days, so that we can process and prep all samples for overnight shipment (by end of day Wednesday) to our collaborators at United States Geological Survey (USGS) Mercury Research Laboratory in Wisconsin. This type of quick turn-around time is necessary to ensure quality samples and valid data.

field Hg

Picture showing sample collection by the by FIELD team

Hglabalex

Picture showing sample filtration by the by LAB team

There are four different measures of Hg we look for in stream water. First off we are interested in both organic (MeHg) and inorganic (THg) forms of mercury in stream water (for more information check out previous post entitled Why Mercury?). We are also interested in knowing what percentage of these forms are dissolved in the stream water (like sugar in coffee) vs. particulate (like backwash in your coffee). This is done by using a filtration setup that separates out the particulate on a filter, and allows the dissolved to pass through. Then for each stream, we send a bottle and a filter to the USGS to be analyzed for MeHg and THg. Once there, the USGS uses different methods to determine concentrations among these forms (for more information: http://wi.water.usgs.gov/mercury-lab/)

In addition to the tight schedule, long hours, and field stories generated from this experience, there are also interesting terms associated with this work. Here are two:

clean hands dirty hands– I remember first learning about this methodology and thinking that this name was quite peculiar, and wondered whether I would get to be the clean or dirty hands in this procedure. In actuality, this is a simple, but important method of collection and preparation of samples that helps to keep contamination risk low. (http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2000/ofr00-213/manual_eng/collect.html#clean)

teflon– while most people have heard of this in reference to cooking eggs with a non-stick frying pan, for our purposes this is referring to a high density plastic that we use to ensure no contamination/alteration of Hg concentration in water samples.

Stay tuned this coming week for some short, but interesting blog posts at odd hours from the field and in the lab.

Chris Grant

Young of Year

While working on the Bells Gap Headwaters Project earlier this summer we were joined by two avid fly fisherman, Todd and Noah Davis, who spent the day working along side us. In addition to the significant help with our field work, they had a wealth of knowledge about this watershed, it’s history, and the best places to drop a fly in the water. Todd, an accomplished poet and English and Environmental Science Professor at Penn State, shared this poem entitled Young of Year (partially inspired by his time in the Bells Gap watershed) with us and has allowed us to post it on wildsonfrack. We hope you enjoy.

photo

Young of Year

 

 

Salvelinus fontinalis

 

 

By the time you hold the native in your hands it is you who has been caught; you who shines, and feels like silver; you who came, long ago, from water; you who suddenly can’t live without this beautiful river.

                                                                                                            —David James Duncan

 

 

The water’s footsteps descend the stairs

of the mountain, digging pools

where native brook trout feed and lay down

their seed in redds, where even more water

forces its way up through gravel

ushering in the young-of-the-year.

 

Springs rise everywhere in this stream,

struggling to forgive us the mines we tunneled

and left behind in a century we try to forget.

Part way up the mountain acid mine drainage

seeps from the punctured side of the ridge.

Iron sulfate sweeps down and banks

its orange flames in a grotesque tongue

of deceit. Scientists call it a “kill zone.”

Nothing lives in its wake. We walk

more than a mile downstream

before we see the first crayfish

and further to find a lone brookie.

 

I spend most of my time searching

for these native fish. My wife asks

what I wish to do with them.

It’s not about hunger, although

a few times each year I build

a small fire in a ring of stone, melt

butter in a cast iron skillet. How easily

the pink and white flesh departs

from needle-thin bones and fingers

bring quivering meat

to the tongue, sweet muscle

that lashed the body to the current

and now fixes itself to the threads

of my flesh.

 

 

I suppose another kind

of hunger causes me to cradle

them, to long for a connection

with that life hidden

in rock-seams, the breach

of boulders, white foam

of oxygen fashioned by water

falling over downed beeches

and hemlocks.

 

At fifty my eyes have begun to fail.

Before it all goes dark

I want to take in

the dimensions of each fish,

arrange their bodies on moss beds

and capture what I’ve missed

in a photograph. I’ll return to

these pictures when sleep

offers no reverie as improbable

as the dream of creation

and the forever-shifting fantasy

of evolution that caused this Atlantic char

to convert, to become landlocked

in a creek most mapmakers ignore.

 

We all worship something.

I’ll take the beauty and strength

of these fish, holy and godlike,

with backs vermiculated

so you can’t see them as they fan

above strewn rocks at your feet.

 

I’ve caught myself praying to them,

hoping such prayers might help them

save themselves, and because I can’t

escape the religion of my youth,

I still believe God is one, or at least three-

in-one, the world drenched by the Holy

Spirit of this fish’s colors.

 

 

Stepping along the bank,

I crush wild mint with my boot.

The fragrance rises into the June air,

reminding me of the mint we grew

at the back steps of the farmhouse

and the friend who would drape

his fish in these pungent

leaves at the bottom

of his creel, keeping the fish

fresh for the evening meal.

 

Consider each cell trembling

in my hand as I hold this precious

fish that gives me faith; or the scales

that cover its side and quake as it fights

at the end of my line; or the life

that runs through rushing water,

and the gravity that forces that water

down the slope of this mountain

in which these ever-moving bodies

bless us with their unceasing

 

If you’ve been in a room

when someone dies

after a long illness,

then you know how

sight recedes, how

the dying fade from

the physical body, the silence

somehow different: not the lack

of sound but its absence.

 

In high school I read about

the transmigration of souls,

and later in college

about how the sun would go out

and the earth would cease to be.

I wonder where these souls will go

when that day comes.

 

 

Here the hermit thrush breaks

the stillness as it praises

the river and all those that reside

within its banks. I’ve seen the bird’s notes

written in a field guide as oh, holy holy,

ah, purity purity, eeh, sweetly sweetly.

Who could argue with that?

 

I wish I could sing a few of the bird’s notes,

but only a croak flies out of my mouth.

As vast as the green world seems

when I’m inside this seam of forest

that was nearly destroyed,

I know we’ve been left a fragment

of what ought to be here.

 

So many of us have the urge to travel

long distances, to escape the place

we were born or find ourselves

consigned to. I don’t drive my pickup

more than ten miles in any direction.

The news of the universe I’m interested in

is written on the sides of these fish.

 

At the edge of the riffle’s white curling

I count three brookies looking up

for a terrestrial to float by, a chance to dart

skyward, to sip the surface with open jaws.

As these fish grow older, longer in tooth,

I understand better what Wang Wei wrote

after the death of Yin Yao: Of your bones

now buried white cloud, this much remains

forever: streams cascading empty

toward human realms.

The Fracks of Wrath

My time working with the Grant Lab has come to an end. This blog will continue to be updated with information about the Grant Lab’s progress as they work on the Marcellus & Mercury project and other research endeavors, but I won’t be the one posting anymore. I’ve had an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience surveying streams in the Pennsylvania Wilds, so I thought it would be appropriate to write one final exit post about our research adventures this past month.

The 2014 summer research team

The 2014 summer research team

I think one of the most important things I learned through this research is about how unpredictable field work can be. On some days the sun would shine all day and we would get four streams done, and on other days it would storm so much that we couldn’t visit a single site. While we were lucky enough to see all sorts of wildlife (like elk, turtles, and porcupines), at other times nature seemed to be slightly more antagonistic to our cause (like when we had to go out of our way to avoid rattlesnakes, or bushwhack through dense thickets of thorns). Even when nothing out of the ordinary happened, the days were still long and both physically and mentally challenging. That being said, it was still a lot of fun, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget my experience in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

creek

But what still stands out to me the more than anything else that happened in the past few weeks was our interaction with fracking itself. The sheer volume of development being done in the Pennsylvania Wilds just for the sake of fracking is absolutely astounding. The hundreds of tanker trucks, all of the security kiosks constantly communicating via radio, the supervisor who threatened Dr. Grant with a gun – in comparison to many of the peaceful, pristine streams that we visited during our work, all of this fracking development seems almost surreal.

dozers

But I suppose any kind of industrial development will always seem at odds with nature; those two things do not usually mix very well. It isn’t fracking development itself that necessarily bothers me – I’m not opposed to progress, especially when it is concerned with valuable resources that our society needs to function. I’m more bothered by the manner in which the fracking industry is developing at an exponential rate in the Pennsylvania Wilds and across the country. For example: are all of the security personnel and thinly veiled threats really necessary? I understand that these are multi-million dollar companies making humongous amounts of profit off of this method of natural gas extraction, so some manner of security is required, but I also find it somewhat unsettling to see these powerful companies doing all of this work without being absolutely certain of the environmental consequences.

fracking7

In 1939 John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” a novel about the struggles of an agricultural family during the Dust Bowl and the height of the Great Depression. The family is forced to close their farm and seek employment in California not only as a result of the economic depression but also because of changes in the agricultural industry, such as large companies stepping in and utilizing new methods to ensure efficient and profitable farming. The title of the book comes from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song written by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe during the Civil War, which calls for justice to be brought upon those who have brought destruction to the land.

The whole time I was doing research up in the Pennsylvania Wilds, I couldn’t help but be reminded about the events of “The Grapes of Wrath.” We don’t know for sure if fracking is having any kind of negative impact on the environment, and it could very well have no effect on anything at all. But regardless, when I look at the bigger picture (and as I experienced it myself), something just doesn’t seem quite right.

– John Dubensky

Independence Day for Brook Trout

As the 4th of July is just a day away, I though it was fitting to share this video of us releasing a brook trout back to the stream.  These fish are one of the main reasons we fell so strongly about conducting research on the impacts of Marcellus shale gas exploration.  Much like the thirteen United States of America in the Declaration of Independence, we hope to enable the brook trout to escape from any negative oppression of fracking, and live wild and free.  Click on image below to see the video of a brook trout being released back into the PA wilds.

releasevideo

-Chris Grant

Back into the Lion’s Den

Today we returned to the campus of fracking sites that we visited last Thursday, when we were indirectly threatened with a gun by a supervisor. As busy as the roads were that day, filled with all kinds of tanker trucks and work vehicles, for whatever reason the place seemed near deserted today. We came across a number of different wellpads that we didn’t even notice last week, which is astounding to me. There has to be at least ten different wellpads in this area alone, and keep in mind that each wellpad can legally contain multiple wells.

Another wellpad

Another wellpad

We ended up surveying another four streams today, putting us at a great number for the week – plus, we also have tomorrow to get some more work done.

Dr. Grant briefing us at the first site

Dr. Grant briefing us at the first site

We also came across another fracked stream today that had the same orange tinge to it that we’ve seen at several different streams this week. Again, we aren’t positive what is causing this kind of coloration, but it’s doesn’t appear to be from natural sources.

chips1

chips2

We also had some more run-ins with some wildlife today, including an impressive bull elk.

elk

Bull elk in the forest

And as we left the final stream of the day, we encountered yet another timber rattlesnake, though this one wasn’t as big as the one we ran into last week. Click the picture below to check out a video we took of the snake.

rattlesnakevideo

Also, it seems as though we were very close to crossing paths with some kind of bear (again).

bearsign

On the way back to the homstead, we also saw a man being reprimanded by a police officer. Because the man had a chair in the middle of the road and was near a heavy fracking traffic area, Grant suggested that he might have actually been protesting fracking development. Tomorrow, we’ll be embarking on our last official day out in the field for the week before heading home for the holiday and, I think, a well-deserved break for all of us.

– John Dubensky

The Grind is Real

“Alright everyone,” said Dr. Grant, as we loaded up the van at around eight in the evening, preparing to head back to the homestead. “Good job today. Four streams, that’s not too bad. Who’s up for another?”

Everyone laughed because thankfully, we knew he was joking.

Eleven Hours Earlier

We unpacked everything from the van in preparation for the first stream of the day. The hike ended up being pretty difficult, given the steep descent on the way down (which isn’t easy on the knees) and the steep ascent on the way back (which isn’t easy on the calves). When we finally did reach the stream, our arrival was hailed by the rattling of an annoyed rattlesnake. We heard the rattle of the snake but couldn’t see it, so we made sure to avoid the log where the noise had come from.

This stream, which has been fracked, had a weird orange tinge and an abundance of periphyton that Dr. Grant noted was not there last year. We also caught a significantly smaller number of trout in this stream than we did last year – while in 2013 we caught 43 brook trout, we only managed to catch 18 this year.

Stream tinged with a strange orange color

Stream tinged with a strange orange color

Abundance of periphyton at the same stream

Abundance of periphyton at the same stream

The next stream we visited required a much shorter hike, and we got all of the data we needed without anything out of the ordinary happening. As we left the site, we came across a seep similar to what we saw at one stream on Monday. However, today’s stream has not been fracked, but wellpads were developed.

Seep

Seep

The last two streams we surveyed we hit one right after the other, without returning to the van. It ended up being quite a trek hiking to the first stream (we had to cut through a large thicket of thorn bushes), and then hiking to one more stream before finally making one long final hike back to the van (up a few very steep hillsides and then finally back through the thorn bushes).

stream2

Despite how tired everyone was (especially by the last stream), we were able to work through everything very quickly and efficiently. It’s interesting to compare our long, busy day today to the first week we had out in the field – I doubt we could have managed four streams in one day back then, especially with all the hiking we had to do. Despite all of the aches and pains we have, we’ll have to work through them tomorrow because the week isn’t over quite yet.

– John Dubensky

Footprints

As we kicked off the first day of our final week in the field yesterday, we were able to ultimately survey three different streams, which isn’t too shabby. Like Friday, we were fortunate that nothing really went wrong, which allowed us to get done what we needed to get done.

That being said, we were probably relatively close to coming across something which could have potentially put a damper on the day. On the way to one stream, we saw some paw prints left by some kind of bear. We were fortunate enough to not cross paths with whatever made the prints.

Bear paw print

Bear paw print

As we left from another stream, we came across something else that might have been left behind by some kind of outside influence. This was some kind of weird looking seep about fifty yards from the stream, the origins of which we really can’t be sure of. The stream is in a fracked watershed, but it’d be impossible to tell at this point whether or not the substance was a product of any kind of fracking development.

Seep

Seep

But all in all, the Grant lab had another productive day out in the field. Hopefully we can get even more work done during the rest of the week.

– John Dubensky