Penn State project receives $4.9 million NSF grant to study Pennsylvania water

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The National Science Foundation has awarded a $4.9 million grant to a team of Penn State researchers led by Distinguished Professor of Geosciences Susan L. Brantley to study the Earth’s surface, including efforts to understand the potential impact of natural gas drilling.

Known as the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory, the project is focused on how water moves through rocks — from the trees at the top down to the depths of groundwater. The five-year grant will support field research in the Shale Hills of central Pennsylvania, including teaching students and providing better understanding about how water sculpts the landscape and nurtures ecosystems.

Brantley, director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, noted that the research will allow for the study of potential water quality issues in parts of the state where drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region is underway. That data collection will take place not only at the Shale Hills in Huntingdon County but at multiple sites in Pennsylvania.

“About 6,000 wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania, and the number of monitoring sites is very low in comparison,” Brantley said. “We simply do not have an adequate number of monitoring sites, nor data available from enough sites over enough time to detect potential environmental issues if they occur.”

Shale can be found below about 85 percent of the Susquehanna River Basin and much of that is being developed for natural gas.

Started in 2007, the Shale Hills project is one of several that are part of the NSF initiative aimed at understanding the Earth’s critical zone — the outer layer where rock, water, air, soil and living organisms come together. The NSF grant will allow the researchers to continue their current investigations and to expand the scope of the project to include the potential impacts of natural gas development.

Brantley said the funding will support the development of computer-aided hydrologic calculations to understand the flow of fluids and the chemistry of sedimentary rocks. Students will receive training in both the hands-on work collecting and analyzing water and rock samples in the field and lab, as well as computer work where that collected data will be entered to refine computer models.

“What we are doing at Shale Hills is training students to understand how water flows through rock, what controls the chemistry and how that impacts the ecosystem,” Brantley said. “Only with such fundamental information will we be able to address and investigate what happens when an industry such as shale gas accelerates though a landscape the way it has since 2005 in Pennsylvania.”

Brantley noted that the federal government shutdown due to a budget impasse highlights the importance of this ongoing data collection by nongovernmental workers.

“The residents of Pennsylvania need this information, especially if the government shuts down and government workers cannot get out and continue to monitor and collect samples,” she said.

The first meeting of the critical zone scientists funded in this new program of research was slated for the first day of the government shutdown in Washington D.C. “Even though most of D.C. was shut down, scientists from all over the nation met without our NSF program officers to get the science started,” said Brantley.

The Penn State project includes eight faculty, four post-doctoral researchers, and more than 10 graduate and undergraduate students. Other project researchers are: Ken Davis, professor of meteorology; Chris Duffy, professor of civil engineering; David Eissenstat, professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences; and Li Li, assistant professor in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering.

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Last Updated October 11, 2013