The Effects of Fracking on the Biosphere and the Atmosphere

Key Words: Fracking, Atmosphere, Biosphere

Since 1949, the United States has been trying to find a way to best improve its hydraulic fracturing skills in order to dominate the oil industry. In order for this to take place, the United States has to produce a prodigious amount of oil, and that’s where hydraulic fracturing comes into play. Yes, energy independence is something a lot of politicians are yearning for, but Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, results in harm to the environment and the life that occupies it. As David Suzuki once stated, “It’s not unexpected that shooting massive amounts of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into the earth to shatter shale and release natural gas might shake things up [as fracking causes earthquakes as well]. But earthquakes aren’t the worst problem with fracking.” While fracking has its benefits, the negative effects it has on life on earth outweigh these benefits drastically.

The biosphere is the home to all of the earth’s living organisms. The biosphere is also made up of abiotic, non-living, things as well. There are four characteristics of life: life spreads exponentially, life needs energy,  life pollutes, and life is versatile.  All living things need nutrients in order to survive. To obtain these nutrients, photosynthesizers, mostly plants, use solar energy. Chemosynthesizers get their nutrients from chemical energy. Those who do not photosynthesize or chemosynthesize acquire nutrients by intaking photosynthesizers and chemosynthesizers. From intaking these nutrients, living organisms pollute. When they pollute, they can release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Life is versatile in order to survive in a wide array of environments. The biosphere is divided into multiple levels. The lowest level, or unit, is a species. Species are made up of organisms that can reproduce sexually. The next level is the population. Populations consist of all members of a species that live in a given area. Next, a community is a group of two or more species that live in the same area. Lastly, an ecosystem is a community of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes, as well as their physical environments. Included in these levels, is a biome which is a region with a large plant community. It’s important for living organisms to interact with one another in order to sustain life. The condition of the atmosphere contributes to the overall well-being of the biosphere.

The atmosphere is largely composed of water, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. The greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere have an effect on the climate. The atmosphere also acts as a radiation shield, which is important for the living organisms on earth. This subsystem has four layers to it. The four layers from bottom to top are the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, and the thermosphere. The troposphere is where we live. The air at the ground level is the warmest and gets cooler as it rises. The stratosphere is the layer that contains the ozone, which is a type of oxygen module that heats the stratosphere as it absorbs energy from incoming ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Air is thinner in this layer and contains less water vapor. The mesosphere is also very dry and contains the coldest temperatures in the earth’s atmosphere. Less is known about this layer because it’s harder to study, but it has a high concentration of iron and other metal atoms due to the vaporization of meteors. Before getting to the thermosphere, there is the mesopause where gases made of different types of atoms and molecules are mixed. Lastly, the thermosphere is where solar activity strongly influences this layer. The air density is so low that most of this layer is considered outer space. Aside from providing humans with something to breathe, the atmosphere helps make life possible on Earth by protecting us. With all of these natural features of Earth given to protect us, humans produce their own problems by many anthropogenic activities, and fracking is a major one.

Human health is in danger as a result of fracking. Fracking releases toxins into the atmosphere and groundwater making both of these things hazardous. The health issues associated with the air contamination from fracking are pretty severe, “Nevertheless, the effects of air pollution on cardiovascular and respiratory health have been well documented [54], and we believe that exposure to contaminated air may contribute significantly to the health problems of both people and animals living near gas drilling operations…compression” ( Bamberger & Oswald, 2012). Fracking releases gases such as methane into the atmosphere. Large amounts of methane can lead to medical problems. While nausea and headaches may be on the less severe side of the effects that methane can have on humans, large concentrations of methane can also cause vomiting, unconsciousness, make it hard to breathe, and the list goes on. Respiratory issues are not a small issue, if they persist long enough death can be the result.  Some other air contaminants that play a role in declining human health are nitrogen oxides, benzene, xylenes, and volatile organic compounds. These gasses can lead to things such as asthma and birth defects, “Maternal exposure to ambient levels of benzene has been associated with an increase in birth prevalence of neural tube defects.” (Adgate, Goldstein, & McKenzie, 2014). Harming a child before they are even born is absurd. These are not things that can be healed instantaneously, or in some situations at all.

The process of hydraulic fracturing requires a lot of chemicals to dig into the ground, and these chemicals can contaminate our water supply. In hydraulic fracturing, process chemicals are used to fracture the rock blocking the oil, some of these chemicals are dangerous. There is a chance that these chemicals can enter our water supply and some of them can affect humans, “More than 75% of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Approximately 40-50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system, and 25% could cause cancer and mutations. These results indicate that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed” (Colborn). This is proof that fracking exposes people to dangerous chemicals and twenty years from now we could be seeing advertisements about people exposed to chemicals from fracking like the asbestos lawsuits advertisements we see today. Some of these chemicals end up in flowback and produce water (FPW). FPW is a water-based solution that flows back to the surface during the fracking process, and one main use of FPW is irrigation. An experiment was conducted by researchers to figure out the effects of some of these chemicals on wheat and, “Treated grain was found to contain 6.5 times higher arsenic and 1.4 times higher cadmium concentrations than control grain. Health risk evaluations revealed elevated carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic risks associated with the ingestion of arsenic in treated wheat grain.” (Shariq). This shows that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing can leave the digging site and reach civilians, in this case, through FPW used to grow their food. Those near fracking sites have a harder time obtaining clean water, “ The freshwater spring they once relied on for water is now so cloudy they can’t drink from it. For a while, they had to bring in truckloads of clean water from Linda’s mom’s house…” (Barth,2017). Sometimes the water contains methane, “While they did not find evidence of hydraulic fracturing chemicals in their samples, they did find that methane levels were higher in drinking water wells closer to UNG wells.” (Adgate, Goldstein, & McKenzie, 2014). The toxins from even coming in contact with this dirty water have led to headaches, upper respiratory issues, lower respiratory issues, and the burning of eyes, to name a few.  According to Barth, Grant Headley gets rashes as a result of this contamination. Once again, some of these risks can be mortal. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are more susceptible to being harmed by the pollutants from fracking, “People with asthma, children, and the elderly are at increased risk, and adverse health outcomes have been observed…” ( Adgate, Goldstein, & McKenzie, 2014). However, humans are not the only living organisms whose health will begin to decline due to fracking.

Hydraulic Fracturing is used to find natural gas most commonly methane, which causes damage to the atmosphere. The fracking process is used to find methane which causes less damage to the atmosphere when burnt compared to carbon dioxide (CO2). This may seem like a solution to global warming, but it is only another red flag that says that the product of fracking is killing our planet, “Natural gas was also cheap—so, from a politician’s point of view, fracking was a win-win situation. You could appease the environmentalists with their incessant yammering about climate change without having to run up the cost of electricity. It would be painless environmentalism, the equivalent of losing weight by cutting your hair.” (McKibben). McKibben’s quote explains that even if methane keeps less heat in the atmosphere than CO2, the atmosphere will still feel the effects because the damage caused by CO2 is so much that using methane will not cause a significant change in the atmosphere. When methane escapes into the atmosphere without being burnt it is much better at keeping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. In an experiment conducted by researchers, they found out that methane was escaping from fracking plants, “Because here’s the unhappy fact about methane: Though it produces only half as much carbon as coal when you burn it, if you don’t—if it escapes into the air before it can be captured in a pipeline, or anywhere else along its route to a power plant or your stove—then it traps heat in the atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. Howarth and Ingraffea began producing a series of papers claiming that if even a small percentage of the methane leaked—maybe as little as 3 percent—then fracked gas would do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that leak rates could be at least that high: that somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale-drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere” (McKibben). This not only proves that methane is more potent than CO2 when it escapes into the air, but it also proves that methane is escaping from the fracking plants in an amount that would do more damage than CO2.

The contamination that fracking does to the water also has major health risks to marine life, which could ultimately kill them. Many oil companies are doing offshore fracking and dumping fracking fluid, or toxic waste, into the oceans, polluting their key habitat, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and California’s coast. Even onshore fracking is contaminating streams, creeks, and wetlands in states like Pennsylvania, leading to a rising in fish kills. This toxic waste can cause cancer, genetic mutations, and many other harmful impacts on animals that call the ocean home, or even are located near any water reservoirs connected to the ocean. According to Biological Diversity, “Using new fracking technologies on aging infrastructure also increases the risk of accidents like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.” Oil spills caused by offshore fracking destroys mammals and birds’ ability to repel water and insulate them from the cold water, which causes them to die from hypothermia. Other marine life that live directly in the water, like fish, dolphins, or turtles, can ingest the oil which affects the lungs, immune system, and reproduction system. And in worse case scenarios, the animals can be poisoned and die. Along with marine life, animals like horses, cattle, cats, and dogs are exposed to fracking infrastructure or wastewater, from homes or forests. A group of scientists who had coincidentally conducted some tests in the Gulf coast a couple of months before the Deepwater Horizon spill, came back after the spill to survey the corals around the rigs: “Shank was helping Jason pilot Matt Heintz collect samples on the final dive when he noticed a large red “bubblegum” coral that appeared to have lost tissue, exposing its white skeleton. “The coral next to it was covered with this brown, flocculent stuff,” he said. Instead of healthy-looking brittle stars draping the corals’ branches, the scientists also noticed uncharacteristically white brittle stars tightly coiled around the branches of the corals.” (Kostel). This is evidence that hydraulic fracturing affects the biosphere as a whole and not just humans, in the deep sea coral region where the effects of the spill was discovered, scientists say that there are species that we have not discovered that depend on those deep-sea corals, because there is no sunlight that deep.

Overall, the health of humans and animals are being negatively impacted by fracking. The effects of fracking on life are ones that can be deadly. While fracking is helpful in some ways, it’s hurting what’s most important to the earth system, life, the jobs fracking may create will have no meaning if the planet is dying and we should focus on saving the planet by finding renewable sources of energy that would last more than a century. Fracking is exhausting the environment of its resources and life, and the increasing human population means that we need more resources. If no actions are taken against fracking, the world is being abandoned. Without life on earth, the system will be off. Earth which is significant for having life would no longer be so special.

Works Cited

Adgate, J. L., Goldstein, B. D., & Mckenzie, L. M. (2014). Potential Public Health Hazards, Exposures and Health Effects from Unconventional Natural Gas Development. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(15), 8307-8320. doi:10.1021/es404621d

Bamberger, M., & Oswald, R. E. (2012). Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health. NEW SOLUTIONS: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, 22(1), 51-77. doi:10.2190/ns.22.1.e

Barth, A. (2017, February 20). The Fight Over Fracking. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://upfront.scholastic.com/issues/2016-17/022017/the-fight-over-fracking.html

Colborn, Theo, et al. “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective.” Human & Ecological Risk Assessment, vol. 17, no. 5, Sept. 2011, pp. 1039–1056. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10807039.2011.605662.

Gardiner, Lisa. “IE Questions: Is Fracking Dangerous?” Inside Energy, 19 Sept. 2017, insideenergy.org/2017/09/18/ie-questions-is-fracking-dangerous/.

Kostel, K. (2011). Life and death in the deep: does the spill pose risks to seafloor communities? Oceanus, 48(3), 40+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A272077182/OVIC?u=viva2_nvcc&sid=OVIC&xid=3b72b621

McKIBBEN, BILL. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry.” Nation, vol. 302, no. 15/16, Apr. 2016, pp. 12–18. EBSCOhost, eznvcc.vccs.edu:2443/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=114011246&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Meng, Q. (2017). The impacts of fracking on the environment: A total environmental study paradigm. Science of The Total Environment, 580, 953-957. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.12.045

Shariq, Linsey. “Health Risks Associated With Arsenic and Cadmium Uptake in Wheat Grain Irrigated With Simulated Hydraulic Fracturing Flowback Water.” Journal of Environmental Health, vol. 81, no. 6, 2019, p. E1+. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, https://link-gale-com.eznvcc.vccs.edu:2443/apps/doc/A569892340/OVIC?u=viva2_nvcc&sid=OVIC&xid=33ebfe20. Accessed 1 July 2020.

UCAR. (2015). Earth’s Atmosphere | UCAR Center for Science Education. Center for Science Education. https://scied.ucar.edu/shortcontent/earths-atmosphere

Reflections:

Ryann Washington

Fracking has been an interest of mine for about ten years now. Back in 2010, there was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that’s largely known as the deepwater horizon oil spill. It was a major drilling site and when the explosion happened it caused a lot of damage. There were human deaths, animal deaths, and severe damage to the environment. It has taken many years to clean up the residual damage from this catastrophic event.

Visiting beaches and traveling is a big thing for most families during the summer. However, in 2010 the trip to Florida that my family and I had planned, we could not attend due to the damage created by this oil spill. The beach waters were wrecked as a result of the oils. Not only were the beaches tarnished, millions of animals were harmed. There were countless commercials that showed birds covered in oil. Other sea animals were covered in oil as well and the beach water turned fully black and grey. Not only were animals affected by the oil spill, people were also affected by this tragedy. While I was upset that I couldn’t go on vacation, I was more worried about finding ways to help those who were affected. First, I got my family on board to donate money towards helping the oil clean up process. They donated to multiple charities like UNICEF and Ocean Conservancy. These charities needed money for supplies to get into the water, to transport animals, to clean animals, to find ways to clean the water, and so on.  I wanted to volunteer to clean animals and gather trash out of the ocean, but at the time I was quite young, so that wasn’t possible. I watched hundreds of videos and countless hours of new coverage pertaining to the deepwater horizon spill.

This project was important to me because I got to inform others about the hazards that come along with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is not beneficial economically. This specific oil spill has cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up, and that was not the intended price tag associated with this tragedy. More importantly, fracking creates a biohazard. It is  not only harming human life, but animals and plants are also being affected as well. The damage it does to Earth is not minimal. However, a lot of people seem to neglect the fact that it’s doing more harm than good. Investors and companies are just looking at the financial gain of energy independence, and have failed to do any research beyond that aspect. My group mates and I have done the research that shows how fracking can be so detrimental to life on earth.

Paying attention to only the aftermath of fracking is a part of the problem. The effects of fracking are always strenuous whether it’s a spill or just daily work. Fracking contaminates water. Water is what all living things need to survive. Fracking can also cause cancer, birth defects, respiratory issues, and many other illnesses in animals and humans. If everyone continues to let fracking be allowed, the world will continue to be neglected. Life that makes the Earth so special, will no longer be here if the world continues to be contaminated as it is.

 

Denyah Henderson

I remember when I was 8 years old, and I had seen all over the news about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico. Teachers told the story about it in school, but we were all too young to really understand how major this event was. As I grew up, science classes in highschool talked about fracking, but I didn’t pay too much attention. I really just learned what I needed to in order to pass the material for the class, but my interest wasn’t in the cause. And it’s because I was ignorant of the true effects of the event of hydraulic fracturing.

My true interaction with fracking started when my group began this project. In the beginning, I didn’t know much about fracking, but after well conducted research, I found myself signing up to be a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is a natural organization that advocates for Virginia’s healthy environment. They have an office in Richmond, Virginia that I went to visit after my application was accepted. Although I didn’t get to physically see the sites where fracking occurred, the Sierra Club organized a meeting introducing us to fracking issues and other oil issues. They presented us with a slideshow showing all the damage and harm done to humans, animals, and the environment because of fracking. Seeing these pictures broke my heart. These big oil companies are ruining nature by hydraulic fracking when there are other methods that may take more time, but are less catastrophic. I felt the pain in these peoples faces that were in the hospital or dying due to respiratory issues. I saw how hurt they were having children with birth defects because they lived near a factory. I saw the animals covered in oil and struggling to breathe. It was a real eye-opening experience. Being in that meeting made me feel happy that I was now being educated on the real harms being done by these companies that use hydraulic fracking. I couldn’t even imagine what those people and animals had to go through, and I wanted to do something so that others wouldn’t have to keep going through that.

After that meeting, I was officially a member of the Sierra Club. I enjoy being a part of this group because I am involved in trying to make the world a better place. They hold many events together to fight for anti-fracking and other environmental issues or threats. I also donated money to an organization called the National Wildlife Federation, NWF, to help give to the cause. This project was important to me because I would have never even considered joining an advocate group until now. At least not an environmental one, perhaps. It made me be more aware of my surroundings and what’s going on, maybe not in my own state or life, but in other people and animals lives because of fracking. Fracking is a dangerous thing and I now strongly believe that it should be banned everywhere. The benefits of hydraulic fracturing are not at all worth all of the major harm and danger it brings to society. And now I allow myself to learn more about this environmental problem, along with many others, and I am working to stay knowledgeable about the health of the world.

 

Joseph Osaro

I grew up in Nigeria and one of the main exports there is oil, there was always some news on the tv talking about people in the local communities fighting the government for control of the local crude oil reserve, a couple of years ago there was an explosion at one of the spots where local residents would break the pipeline in order to get gas so they could sell it as a source of income, the government in Nigeria is corrupt and neglects its citizens.  For weeks people asked for help putting the fire out, but the government ignored them, and there were dead bodies everywhere for months because people were unable to go retrieve the bodies due to the fire not being completely put out. Events like these happened often during my childhood.

When I got to high school, I learned about how oil drilling and carbon dioxide affects the earth and humans, I had originally thought that oil-related incidents occurred in Nigeria because of the poor living conditions and people trying to find a source of income, but after learning more about oil drilling I realized that I was wrong, the effects of the struggle for oil was worldwide, I learned about the Deepwater Horizon spill that affected people that lived in the coastal regions around the Gulf of Mexico. Since then I have been conscious of the earth and its declining climate, During the summer I took some classes at NVCC, and in my English class we had to do a research paper on fracking, after I had completed that paper I realized that this new form of mining was even more potent to the planet, I learned that when methane escapes from those mines it is more effective at keeping in greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, this was during a time that people were rallying for climate change, and that project made me really look into Fracking, and new forms of energy like solar, or wind energy.

This project was important to me because it was a way for me to continue my research on Fracking, without having to be worried about my assignments, since we had our choice to pick our topic, I was happy when my group members mentioned fracking as the topic, they also had some experience with the topic so it was perfect for us.

The reason I stand against Fracking is not only because it affects the atmosphere, but also humans, I read an article over the summer that talked about a family whose indoor water faucet was producing methane with the water, a lot of articles I read that disputed anti-fracking said that the chances of methane leaking were very slim, but the above example was more than enough evidence to suggest that methane was leaking out, and in large enough amounts to pose a risk to society, another reason I stand against fracking, and oil as a form of energy in general, is that in third world countries countless people are dying because they are risking their lives to steal oil in order to provide for their families.

 

Creative Work

Since none of us are able to visit an actual fracking site, we made a brochure to bring awareness to fracking. Brochures are an easy way to captivate an audience while informing them about important issues. To create this brochure we used a website called canva. We took key components from our paper and some some pictures then inserted them into the brochure. We think that’s important for people to know all of the side effects that come along with fracking, not just the benefits that are fed to people in the media. With the images that we chose, it’s easy for observers to see that we view fracking in a negative light. We hope that others see that fracking isn’t all that it’s talked up to be.
 *THERE IS NOT AN ACTUAL PROTEST*
Written by Denyah Henderson, Joseph Osaro, and Ryann Washington

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