This INSPIRE project addresses the issue of high volume hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, and its effects on ground water resources. Fracking allows drillers to extract natural gas from shale deep within the earth. Methane gas sometimes escapes from shale gas wells and can contaminate water resources or leak into the atmosphere where it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Monitoring for these potential leaks is difficult because methane is also released into aquifers naturally, and because monitoring is time- and resource-intensive. Such subsurface leakage may also be relatively rare. This project seeks to improve overall understanding of the impacts of natural gas drilling using both advances in computer science and geoscience, and to teach the public about such impacts. The project will elucidate both the effects of human activities such as shale gas development as well as natural processes which release methane into natural waters. Results of the proposed research will lead to a better understanding of water quality in areas of shale-gas development and will highlight problems and potentially problematic management practices. The research will advance both the fields of geoscience and computer science, will train interdisciplinary graduate students, and involve citizen scientists in collecting data and understanding environmental data analysis.
The project combines new hydro-geochemical strategies and data mining approaches to study the release of methane into streams and ground waters. For example, researchers will explore how to analyze the heterogeneous spatial data that describe distributions of methane concentrations in natural waters. The objectives of this project are to i) transform the ability to measure methane in streams; ii) train citizen scientists to work with project scientists to sample streams in an area of shale-gas development and publish large-volume datasets of methane in natural waters and aquifers; iii) innovate data mining and machine learning methods for environmental data to identify anomalous spots with potential leakage; iv) run field campaigns to measure methane concentrations and isotopic signatures of water samples in these spots; v) foster dialogue among nonscientists, consultants, university scientists, members of the gas industry, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations in and beyond the target region. Toward this end, the team will host workshops aimed to build dialogue among stakeholders and will release data analytic software for environmental measurements to benefit a broader research community.