Energy, Resources and the Environment


Take a deep breath… Or not!

We all know that pollution, of any kind, is not good news and that it may lead to health risks. Air pollution, such as smog, is something many large cities experience, especially in low- and middle-income countries. The World Health Organisation reports that “As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them.”  But how do these health risks impact premature mortality?

A recent study on air pollution in urban areas in India has estimated that fine particulate matter (i.e. very small airborne particles released by various sources, such as fossil fuel or organic matter burning) exposure has lead to over half a million premature deaths. Though this number was not obtained by studying who actually died from air pollution, but rather via statistical extrapolation of data obtained in less polluted areas, the study suggests that air pollution in India leads to about 3.4 life years lost.

Read the whole article by Chelsea Harvey in the Energy and Environment section of the Washington Post here.

Down by the River: Environmental Impact of Energy Generation Along the Colorado River

In our hunt for energy, we turn in many directions, especially those that will affect the environment to a lesser extent than the conventional fossil fuels. Though renewable energy is a sustainable form of energy production – it is after all infinite – it does not always mean that this form of energy production is without impact.

In 1963 the Glen Canyon Dam was built across the Colorado River, running through the Grand Canyon. Doing so created Lake Powell and helped in the generation of hydroelectric power. By 1974, researchers discovered the impact the dam had further downstream along the Colorado River, with shrinking sandbars as they no longer were replenished by sediment trapped in Lake Powell, behind the dam. Since then, scientists have been trying to get insight into the possibility of controlled flooding of the river to maintaining, or growing, the number of sandbars in the Colorado River. A new High Flow Experimental Release (HFE) Protocol could be the solution. However, care needs to be taken to protect both the downstream eco-system, as well as ensuring sufficient power generation by the dam.

Read more in this week’s EOS article 🙂

Colorado Horseshoe Bend (by Ioannis Daglis, taken from ImagGeo)

Colorado Horseshoe Bend (by Ioannis Daglis, taken from ImagGeo)

Earth Sciences: ‘Rocks for Jocks’, or hard science?

According to some Republicans in the US, Earth Sciences cannot be regarded as one of the ‘pure sciences’, or hard science. Is Earth Sciences simply Rocks for Jocks, or do the earth sciences actually encompass some fundamental work here? Suggestions have been made that NASA should steer its focus away from Earth Sciences and more onto space exploration and research. If NASA complies, it would most likely mean that will be redirected from Earth Sciences to Planetary Sciences, leaving less budget to study our own planet. A final vote still needs to be made, but what should the outcome be?

“Earth sciences are a fundamental part of science. They constitute hard sciences that help us understand the world we live in and provide a basis for knowledge and understanding of natural hazards, weather forecasting, air quality, and water availability, among other concerns.”

– American Geophysical Union CEO Christine McEntee –

I wholeheartedly agree with Christine McEntee, without Earth Sciences we would definitely not be able to study and better understand some of the most challenging issues society is facing these days: climate change, earthquakes, and energy production, to name a few. Less money automatically will mean less research being done to know more about our own planet. Knowing more about Earth will also help us to understand those other far-away inhabitable planets we are after.

Read the whole article on Science Insider, as well as one of the replies at the AGU Blogoshere. How do you feel about Earth Sciences as a pure science? Do you agree? What research are you doing to help us forward in understanding the Earth (or other planets)? Let us know 🙂

Total Solar Eclipse from the Perspective of Space (by Maximilian Reuter, taken from ImagGeo)

Total Solar Eclipse from the Perspective of Space (by Maximilian Reuter, taken from ImagGeo)

I’m a Geoscientist: Suzanne Hangx – ‘Subsurface’ Officer

It’s I’m a Geoscientist week! Or more exactly: weeks. From March 9 until March 20, the EGU supports I’m a Geoscientist to help students engage with scientists about real science. The Energy, Resources and Environment Division of the European Geosciences Union encompasses a broad range of different ERE-related topics, from surface to subsurface, spanning all aspects of geosciences. In order to demonstrate how broad the Division actually is, and what you can do as a geoscientist to be involved with energy, resources or the environment, we asked the members of the ERE committee to introduce themselves and explain how their day-to-day work relates back to ERE.

From above ground, we will dive down below into the subsurface with Suzanne Hangx, post-doctoral researcher at the High Pressure and Temperature Laboratory at Utrecht University.


Suzanne HangxIn my research, I have always been driven by curiosity about the physical and chemical processes that control rock material behaviour in the subsurface, along with the direct relevance of this field to socially relevant issues. Naturally, working on energy, sustainability and the environment from a geoscientific point of view was a logical step. I want to contribute to solving geo-energy problems, by investigating and quantifying related risks, such as climate change caused by greenhouse gases or surface subsidence caused by oil/gas/ground water production, and contribute to socially acceptable solutions or technologies.

For about 10 years I have mainly been working on CO2 Capture and Storage (CCS). It is considered to be one possible route to get rid of large quantities of CO2 by injecting them into the subsurface, reducing its effect on climate change. Suitable locations are depleted oil or gas reservoirs, or aquifers, at several km’s below the surface. However, it is important to ensure that after injection the CO2 also stays there – not just today or tomorrow, but for thousands of years. Once a potential injection site is suggested, it is important to see if the reservoir (the ‘container’) and the seal keeping the CO2 in place (the ‘lid’), are up for the job, so to speak. I investigate if the injected CO2 does anything to the rocks to alter their mechanical behaviour, i.e. how they break, under which force they break and if they get weaker by the presence of the CO2.

When you inject CO2 into a depleted oil or gas reservoir, part of it will start to dissolve into the water that is present in that reservoir, while the rest will stay in a dense liquid or supercritical phase. When CO2 dissolves in water, the water will become acidic. This acidic fluid can chemically interact with the surrounding rocks, and certain minerals may dissolve and new ones may be formed. In addition, the way cracks propagate through the rock may be affected, changing their strength and the way they break. If a rock gets sufficiently weakened by the chemical interaction with CO2 it may compact or break, which we would like to know in advance!

In Utah, natural CO2 accumulations are present within the Entrada Sandstone ('Layer Cake' by Suzanne Hangx, via ImagGeo)

In Utah, natural CO2 accumulations are present within the Entrada Sandstone (‘Layer Cake’ by Suzanne Hangx, via ImagGeo)

Such chemical interactions may occur on different timescales. Processes that happen in days, weeks or months can still be dealt with in a laboratory setting. However, to be able to predict what will happen on the timescale of thousands of years, we are currently trying to learn as much as we can from naturally occurring CO2 fields, such as those in Utah (USA), Australia and Europe. These fields can contain over 90% pure CO2 and have mostly done so for thousands of years. Studying these fields can help us understand better how subsurface storage of anthropogenic CO2 will evolve over time.

Nowadays I’m trying to apply what I learned during my research on the chemical-mechanical interactions occurring in rocks to understand surface subsidence, and related induced seismicity, resulting from the production of fluids such as oil and gas. Though dealing with a different setting, the mechanisms and processes are similar to those of interest for CCS. Given their interdisciplinary nature, the ERE sessions at the EGU General Assembly are the perfect platform for me to show my most recent research in both areas!