AGU2014: Frack Quakes, Black Riders and Failing with Grace

Like wildebeest through the Serengeti, the common Homo geologicus make their way through San Francisco International Airport in droves, identifiable by ever-present poster tubes, hiking boots, and a tendency to flannel. It is once again that time of year, for the long migration known as the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

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Or rather, it was that time of year, since the conference was before Christmas. About 25,000 geoscientists come to this every year, including myself this year; I was presenting a poster on my undergrad research in Tanzania. The posters and talks available are innumerable, so the first challenge is figuring out what to go to first, but the main themes I followed this year were energy, climate, and induced earthquakes related to energy projects.

The sessions on renewable energy were widely scattered, both geographically and topically; the focus was often on specific projects and their status, like hydrokinetic turbines on the Tanana River in Alaska, or wind power potential in Saudi Arabia. Hydrokinetic power captures energy from the motion of waves, tides, rivers, etc.; apparently in Alaska the turbines they deploy work perfectly, up until large amounts of debris turn the river into a bumper car track. Geothermal development was a prominent topic – the Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal field, is just north of San Francisco. There were few familiar faces as well, presenting Cornell’s work on the potential for a geothermal system in Ithaca. This being California, water resource management was a big topic as well, though the fact that it rained all week had raised hopes about the end of the drought.1507965_10152053363219114_2112957751_n

Hydraulic fracturing was as much a focus as it has been in NY recently; Governor Cuomo’s decision on banning fracking in NY arrived the second day I was at the conference, just after a talk that had found no decrease in water quality around fracking wells. Since this was quickly followed by another few talks on the complexity of monitoring environmental effects from fracking and gas extraction, some directly contradicting the first, the issue is obviously still contentious. There was more agreement over the occurrence of earthquakes as a result of injection of fracking wastewater into rock formations, which is what I’m studying. The main point of discussion was what the risk levels from triggered earthquakes are; while those in the US have been small but numerous, studies of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which was a magnitude 7.9 and killed approximately 70,000 people, have proposed that it was triggered by the construction of a nearby dam. Creation of a reservoir allows water to infiltrate more onto faults, making it easier for them to fail, the same way that injecting wastewater does. A new model of the changes in fluid pressure caused by the Sichuan dam showed that even if the small pressure changes were not enough to cause the initial quake itself, they made it possible for the rupture to occur over a greater area of the fault, resulting in a larger magnitude quake.

The most interesting session that I attended was about “Exploring “Graceful Failure”” as a way to address societal resilience to climate change and weather extremes. The central idea of “graceful failure” is to design human systems in a way that will lessen the effects of climate change and increasing trends in catastrophes, even if we can’t stop the cause of failure itself. For example, the head of the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery pointed out that a large number of population centers are in areas of high seismic risk, like the Ganges basin which includes Delhi and Calcutta. Reducing the risk of widespread destruction in cities with large areas of shantytowns and slums would be practically impossible if you tried to retrofit existing construction, but if all new construction was done to earthquake-resilient standards, there would be a 20% decrease in risk after 15 years. Discussions of climate change and ways to address it often revolved around the ways people assess risk; the analogy that one author used was to users of public transit in Germany who either pay for a ticket or ride without paying but risking a heavy fine, aka “riding black.” It made for a striking title (“Bike Helmets and Black Riders,” which I cribbed for my own), but the idea was that people tend to overvalue immediate known costs compared to an uncertain but potentially devastating future event.

A talk in the graceful failure session that was particularly interesting was on increasing resilience in indigenous communities. In the Great Plains region, temperatures can range from -30 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and heat waves have been increasing in duration over the last decades. Housing in Native American communities has to withstand these extremes, but in poor communities, HUD housing or FEMA trailers are typically inadequate. The speaker described the situation as 14,000 years of green housing followed by 150 years of disaster relief housing, and advocated for straw bale construction that would be energy efficient and climate appropriate, by making use of a usually discarded waste product for efficient insulation.

I’ll keep things professional and leave things here with the leading edge science, policy, and advocacy that abounded at AGU, rather than dwelling on things like the poster adorned with Olaf and Sven from Frozen (it wasn’t even about ice!), or the thrilling new comic strip “Laurentide the Crime-Fighting Geologist.” It was an exhausting and stimulating week, with too little time for so many exciting possibilities; I missed a jam-packed talk about the Rosetta space mission, but I did get to spend some time with my brother in his natural Californian habitat, which was doubly exhausting (though Muir Woods is beautiful). Cheers to next year!

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