Thursday, October 25, 2012

Detection rats

What comes to mind when you think of rats? I think it's safe to say that most of us would shutter and imagine terrible creatures that spread the plague. Well some rats are trying to beat this stereotype by saving lives.
A trained detection rat hard a work.

Unexploded ordinances (UXO) are a world wide problem which I briefly touched upon in the last post on Green Mountain. In the U.S. sites are mostly old army training locations and the dangerous areas are generally known. But this is not the case in most countries. In Africa especially there are huge swaths of land deemed dangerous because one land mine exploded and they do not know how many others could exist. Land is classified as confirmed hazardous area (CHA), suspected hazardous area (SHA), or area with retrictions (AWR). It is difficult to identify which parts of a CHA can be released back to the community without some type of technology based survey. An example of a technology based survey would be a metal detector or time-domain electromagnetics. These techniques cost a lot of money and time. Especially when usually only 10% of the perceived dangerous area contains UXOs.

Enter the rats. Yes, trained rats that find land mines, shells, etc. The reason rats work is because they have highly sensitive smell and they are light enough that they won't trip a land mine.

A rat making a positive identification of a land mine.
The main company training rats is APOPO. They currently have programs in Mozambique, Tanizania, Belgium, Angola, and Thailand. They have found over 2,000 land mines and cleared 3.1 million square meters of land. 

A trainer with his detection rat.
Some times conventional methods just won't do it. Thinking outside the box can find creative solutions that work for a specific situation. Dogs can also find land mines but they require more kennel space, more food, and more time to train. They also don't fair too well in the hot African climate. Rats to the rescue, literally. The rat is making a come back! To learn more check out this CNN article and the APOPO website where you can "adopt" a rat.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Green Mountain's secret

There's a saying that goes "out of sight out of mind". This might be why Green Mountain has been able to hold on to it's secret for so long. What secret does it hold? Where is Green Mountain? What does it have to do with geophysics? All these questions and more are answered in a short video I made. So go ahead make some popcorn and sit back and enjoy!


The story of the unexploded ordinances (UXO) on Green Mountain is echoed around the country and world. My dad and I used to hike a lot at Croft State Park in South Carolina which was another army training camp. Signs are posted on every trail in Croft warning about the dangers of picking any metal object. Green Mountain needs signs telling people of the danger (I didn't find anything warning people!). I am happy though that geophysics can be used to identify the shells and get them out of there. I just wish they could get it done! Have you encountered any unexploded artillery shells, grenades, etc? Do you know the areas in your state that could be dangerous? Go here to find the report on the UXO sites by state in America and it's territories (these are the ones on private or federal land). If you are in a different country just Google "uxo sites" and the name of the country (there's not a global list). Remember if you're out treasure hunting and you find a UXO: Recognize, Retreat, and Report! Don't chance it!

Update: I was out at Green Mountain over the weekend (10.28.2012) and stumbled upon a sign warning of the danger. It was small and not very noticeable but at least they are out there!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Food (or bumper sticker) for thought

I walk into school every day. (Yup, you can be jealous.) Twice a day I pass by the cars parked in front of my apartment building. For the past couple of months there has been a car with a bumper sticker that bothers me.
Bumper sticker on a car parked by my building.
It’s not that I don’t like bumper stickers. I have put stickers on all (two) of the cars that I've owned. Right now I have a silver palmetto and moon sticker (think South Carolina flag) on my car. I also had the one shown below (before it fell off somewhere :( ). 

Wag More Bark Less bumper sticker.
If you were driving behind me you would probably assume that I'm from South Carolina and that I'm an animal lover who likes it when people are nice. And you would be right. Bumper stickers tell the people driving behind you what you like, where you live, etc. They remind drivers that the big metal boxes on the roads contain people who have lives. Not to mention the chuckle they give you when you’re stuck at a stoplight. One sticker that you can see all over Golden is shown below. I like it because it's sort of nerdy like most of the people in Golden!
Au (Elemental symbol for gold) representing Golden, CO
And I’m not against this person sharing their opinion about drilling with the world. I work in a field that is supported by big oil companies that have drilling project all over the world. My research focuses improving surveys so that drilling can be more successful.

No, I think I’m bothered because this sticker takes a huge issue that is very complex and simplifies it to a black and white fact. I think we all know that the sticker doesn't mean that he or she likes to drilling with his/her power drill or the physical job of drilling out in the field (as we saw here it’s a messy, tough job). The creator of the sticker is from an oil town in Utah and meant it to be a way for people to connect the fuel they put in their car to where it comes from. Check out this article for more information. That's a great thing but I don't think that's the message communicated. I think it is really a sly way to comment on U.S. sources of energy and how they are retrieved like fracking

You can't take this sticker literally. For me at least, it brings to mind all the issues connected to drilling and the way the issues are poorly communicated. I mean things like fracking and the BP Macondo well disaster. As a geophysicist, this sticker urges me to say no! We (the oil industry) know drilling is dangerous and risky but we take precautions and try to be safe. We DON'T just blindly LOVE drilling! I wish there was a bumper sticker that could communicate all the risks and dangers of drilling while also stating the benefits in a way that the reader could take their own position. But as I mull over it more, I conclude that no bumper sticker could ever do that (or be small and readable enough to fit on any car) and that it is MY job as a scientist to put out information that assists decision makers. To communicate with the world and help find the best energy solution that fits the public not the industry. 

And so, in the end, I'm glad that bumper sticker is there every day. Even though most days I just want to replace it with some other "I heart" sticker like this.
Much better than "I heart drilling!" Don't you think?
Or a bumper sticker with this saying on it (Get it? Look at the title of the blog!)

Another good saying for a bumper sticker.
Amazing how a 5 minute walk and a bumper sticker bring can make for a long blog post! These are just my initial thoughts and I don't have it all figured out (obviously). So what do you think? What do your bumper stickers say about you? What does "I heart drilling!" mean to you?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Burning ice

Did you know there is a type of ice that can burn while someone holds it? Don't believe me? Well, look at the picture below. It's not a trick!

Methane hydrate burning in someone's hands.
Alright so it's not really ice. But it looks and feels like ice. It's really methane hydrate, a specific type of gas hydrate. The word hydrate is a term used in organic chemistry to indicate that a substance contains  water. So a gas hydrate is a gas trapped in a ice-like cage of water molecules. It's really the methane burning while the water melts - not exactly burning ice but that's what it looks like!

A diagram of how gas hydrates form.

In addition to looking super cool when it burns, methane hydrates have some important impacts on energy and climate change. Methane hydrate forms in sediments beneath the ocean floor requiring low temperatures and high pressures to form but its usually located shallower than oil reservoirs. The methane hydrates are a problem for the guys drilling wells because it could blow-up. But methane is also a source of energy (natural gas) and ideally the methane hydrate could increase the amount of domestic energy products but we would need to figure out how to extract it. Methane is very bad for our atmosphere (actually worse than CO2) and if the methane hydrates were to melt and release the methane it could be the tipping point to start an even faster global warming.

In a paper published in a 1996 issue of  Science, one of the most highly regarded scientific journals, Steve Holbrook, Hartley Hoskins, Warren Wood, Ralph Stevens, and Daniel Lizarrale report their findings of the amount of methane hydrates in three wells located in the Blake Ridge area, offshore South Carolina. (I lived in SC for 10 years without knowing we had gas hydrates or any energy near!) This paper came out during the early investigations into methane hydrates and everyone was still unsure how much of this stuff was out there. These guys concluded that the volume of hydrates located in the area offshore of South Carolina had been over estimated and that global estimates could be 3 times too high. 
The location of Blake Ridge offshore of SC.
Methane hydrates are found by acquiring seismic data over the location. A seismic survey is where a boat tows a source (air gun - makes vibrations) and receivers (hydrophones - they listen for the reflected vibrations) over the ocean floor. The methane hydrates are found by the presence of a bottom simulating reflector (BSR) in the data. Basically the difference from the presence of gas hydrates creates a reflection that shows up as a line in the seismic profile. The image below depicts the data from the 1996 paper.
Seismic data of the bottom simulating reflector (BSR) highlighted in blue. 
So in 1996 it looked like estimates for methane hydrates were not going to be as large as originally thought but because they could actually provide us with energy and could cause more climate change the research continued. It was actually written into the Energy Act of 2005 that the research would keep getting funded. And now after years of more research the estimate of  global methane hydrate volume is around 700,000 Tcf (trillion cubic feet) which is enormous when compared to the 200 Tcf of worldwide natural gas reserves! Since 1996 lots of methane hydrate was found in the Arctic permafrost and Gulf of Mexico. The estimates from the seismic data were too simplified and the complexity of gas hydrates is now better understood. The first methane was produced from a well going through the permafrost in northern Canada in 2008. Experiments continue but it looks promising that this form of energy can be produced safely. But the future is never certain and with the worry of releasing too much into the atmosphere it is worth taking the risks to get more energy? What do you guys think? Are you just fascinated with the burning ice?