Scientists Have Discovered a Large Freshwater Aquifer off the Northeast Coast of the U.S.

The discovery could point to similar reservoirs adjacent to water starved areas.

Photo of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, by  Ryan Loughlin  on  Unsplash .

Photo of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash.

It’s rare to hear good news on the climate, but occasionally we get lucky. Last month, scientists led by Chloe Gustafson of Comumbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory published an article in the Scientific Reports journal. Their discovery? A large freshwater aquifer located off the northeast coast of the U.S.

The possibility of an aquifer was initially discovered during offshore oil drilling in the 1970’s, when oil companies noticed that they occasionally hit pockets of freshwater in the north Atlantic. There was no consensus at the time on whether these were merely isolated areas or if they pointed to something larger. Then, in the late 90’s, Kerry Key, a geophysicist who co-authored the study, began working with oil companies to develop electromagnetic imaging techniques that could help them better examine the sea floor for oil. He later adapted the technology to look for freshwater deposits.

More recently, Key and his colleagues spent 10 days on board a research vessel, charting areas where freshwater had been discovered. “We knew there was freshwater down there in isolated places, but we did not know the extent or geometry,” Chloe Gustafson explained in a press release.

According to the report, the aquifer spans from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard, and carries an estimated 670 cubic miles of water lying beneath sponge-like sediment which separates it from the saline ocean water. “These aren’t open caverns or lakes underneath the seafloor,” Gustafson told NBC, “this is water trapped within the pores of rocks, so it’s sort of like a water-soaked sponge.” The reservoir reaches from 600 to 1,200 feet below the seafloor. For comparison, the aquifer carries more than half the water of Lake Michigan.

While the discovery of a large freshwater source is exciting under any circumstance, it is unlikely to have a major impact on access to water in New England, as the area is receives a good amount of rainwater. While the aquifer could be pumped, and the water exported to more arid areas, such efforts would be expensive and unsustainable. Graham Fogg, hydrogeology professor at the University of California Davis, told NBC that “there’s a limit to how much you can pump sustainably. It would take a long time to empty these aquifers, but we wouldn’t want to get to a point where we’ve pumped so much that we’ve exhausted the supply.”

The impact of the study lies in the possibility that such reservoirs could exist off the coasts of drier, more arid places that are prone to water shortage. NBC reports that pointers to the possibility of aquifers have already been found off the coasts of Greenland, South Carolina, and California.

As we experience the effects of climate change, and especially in light of the water shortage in Chennai, this is indeed good news.

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

emma bruce.png

How Small Science Is Creating Big Possibilities in Africa

Ofori Charles Antipem wears many hats—he’s an inventor, an entrepreneur and an advocate of STEM. Now, he’s bringing all his passions together, dedicating his life to bringing affordable science education to kids across Africa. The Science Set is Antipem’s creation, developed to give students access to a unique toolkit. Each set contains 45 scientific components and costs just $20. His next invention? Cheap and easy-to-assemble microscopes, carefully designed and built using 3D printed materials. 

This Great Big Story was made possible by IBM Africa.

Scientists Find Elusive Orcas off the Coast of Chile

Orcas, or "Killer Whales" as they are commonly known, are actually members of the dolphin family. Steve Halama. Public Use.

Orcas, or "Killer Whales" as they are commonly known, are actually members of the dolphin family. Steve Halama. Public Use.

The Earth is about 71 percent water, 95 percent of that water unexplored. Every few years, animals emerge from the depths that force the scientific community to rewrite its rhetoric on oceanic life. With climate change upsetting the environmental landscape these occurrences may become more common. In January scientists found what could be a new species of orca off the coast of Cape Horn in Chile. The animals are said to share a common ancestor with the Orcinus orca that we often see in movies and documentaries, and the two have coexisted for thousands of years, a testament to how little we know about the deep.

Orcas, commonly called killer whales, are not whales at all, but the largest species of dolphin. They are found in virtually all of the world's oceans and seas and are widely considered to be apex predators, surpassing even the great white shark. For years, captive orcas have performed at water parks for the amusement of spectators, a practice that has become increasingly unpopular with the release of the documentary Blackfish. Now their wild counterparts facing their own challenges the form of climate change, which alters the weather patterns in an area and redistributes the animals that live there.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were drawn to Cape Horn by reports from the local fishermen who were allegedly losing their catches to the orcas. Upon arrival, they found a group of 30 individuals who spent three hours investigating the scientists while they themselves were being filmed. These “Type D” orcas were first documented in 1955 when a pod washed up on a beach in New Zealand. The animals live in the subantarctic region, home to some of the stormiest waters on the planet, which makes them near impossible to study. Thanks to climate change, however, these waters are warming at an alarming rate, and it could have an effect on the orcas themselves or the food they eat.  In addition to physical analysis, NOAA scientists were able to collect skin and blood samples. Type D orcas have rounder heads and narrower fins than their more commonly known cousins. At around 25 feet, they are also a bit smaller, and their white eyepatches, a defining characteristic of orcas, are almost non-existent. The animals’ blood is still being analyzed, but experts believe that when the test results come back the Type D Orca will be the largest undescribed animal left in the world—at least, for now.

JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 4.06.36 PM.png

Can Genetic Engineering Save Disappearing Forests?

Ash tree killed by the invasive emerald ash borer.  K Steve Cope

Ash tree killed by the invasive emerald ash borer. K Steve Cope

Compared to gene-edited babies in China and ambitious projects to rescue woolly mammoths from extinction, biotech trees might sound pretty tame.

But releasing genetically engineered trees into forests to counter threats to forest health represents a new frontier in biotechnology. Even as the techniques of molecular biology have advanced, humans have not yet released a genetically engineered plant that is intended to spread and persist in an unmanaged environment. Biotech trees – genetically engineered or gene-edited – offer just that possibility.

One thing is clear: The threats facing our forests are many, and the health of these ecosystems is getting worse. A 2012 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service estimated that nearly 7 percent of forests nationwide are in danger of losing at least a quarter of their tree vegetation by 2027. This estimate may not sound too worrisome, but it is 40 percent higher than the previous estimate made just six years earlier.

In 2018, at the request of several U.S. federal agencies and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a committee to “examine the potential use of biotechnology to mitigate threats to forest tree health.” Experts, including me, a social scientist focused on emerging biotechnologies, were asked to “identify the ecological, ethical, and social implications of deploying biotechnology in forests, and develop a research agenda to address knowledge gaps.”

Our committee members came from universities, federal agencies and NGOs and represented a range of disciplines: molecular biology, economics, forest ecology, law, tree breeding, ethics, population genetics and sociology. All of these perspectives were important for considering the many aspects and challenges of using biotechnology to improve forest health.

More than 80 million acres are at risk of losing at least 25 percent of tree vegetation between 2013 and 2027 due to insects and diseases.  Krist et al. (2014) ,  CC BY-SA

More than 80 million acres are at risk of losing at least 25 percent of tree vegetation between 2013 and 2027 due to insects and diseases. Krist et al. (2014)CC BY-SA

A Crisis in US forests

Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg. Forests face higher temperatures and droughts and more pests. As goods and people move around the globe, even more insects and pathogens hitchhike into our forests.

The emerald ash borer is destroying ash trees in 31 states.  Herman Wong HM/

The emerald ash borer is destroying ash trees in 31 states. Herman Wong HM/

The emerald ash borer feeds on ash trees, damaging and eventually killing them.  K Steve Cope/

The emerald ash borer feeds on ash trees, damaging and eventually killing them. K Steve Cope/

We focused on four case studies to illustrate the breadth of forest threats. The emerald ash borer arrived from Asia and causes severe mortality in five species of ash trees. First detected on U.S. soil in 2002, it had spread to 31 states as of May 2018. Whitebark pine, a keystone and foundational species in high elevations of the U.S. and Canada, is under attack by the native mountain pine beetle and an introduced fungus. Over half of whitebark pine in the northern U.S. and Canada have died.

Poplar trees are important to riparian ecosystems as well as for the forest products industry. A native fungal pathogen, Septoria musiva, has begun moving west, attacking natural populations of black cottonwood in Pacific Northwest forests and intensively cultivated hybrid poplar in Ontario. And the infamous chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia to North America in the late 1800s, wiped out billions of American chestnut trees.

Can biotech come to the rescue? Should it?

It’s complicated

Although there are many potential applications of biotechnology in forests, such as genetically engineering insect pests to suppress their populations, we focused specifically on biotech trees that could resist pests and pathogens. Through genetic engineering, for example, researchers could insert genes, from a similar or unrelated species, that help a tree tolerate or fight an insect or fungus.

It’s tempting to assume that the buzz and enthusiasm for gene editing will guarantee quick, easy and cheap solutions to these problems. But making a biotech tree will not be easy. Trees are large and long-lived, which means that research to test the durability and stability of an introduced trait will be expensive and take decades or longer. We also don’t know nearly as much about the complex and enormous genomes of trees, compared to lab favorites such as fruit flies and the mustard plant, Arabidopsis.

In addition, because trees need to survive over time and adapt to changing environments, it is essential to preserve and incorporate their existing genetic diversity into any “new” tree. Through evolutionary processes, tree populations already have many important adaptations to varied threats, and losing those could be disastrous. So even the fanciest biotech tree will ultimately depend on a thoughtful and deliberate breeding program to ensure long-term survival. For these reasons, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee recommends increasing investment not just in biotechnology research, but also in tree breeding, forest ecology and population genetics.

Oversight challenges

The committee found that the U.S. Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, which distributes federal oversight of biotechnology products among agencies such as EPA, USDA and FDA, is not fully prepared to consider the introduction of a biotech tree to improve forest health.

Most obviously, regulators have always required containment of pollen and seeds during biotech field trials to avoid the escape of genetic material. For example, the biotech chestnut was not allowed to flower to ensure that transgenic pollen wouldn’t blow across the landscape during field trials. But if biotech trees are intended to spread their new traits, via seeds and pollen, to introduce pest resistance across landscapes, then studies of wild reproduction will be necessary. These are not currently allowed until a biotech tree is fully deregulated.

The family of James and Caroline Shelton poses by a large dead chestnut tree in Tremont Falls, Tennessee, circa 1920.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library ,  CC BY-SA

The family of James and Caroline Shelton poses by a large dead chestnut tree in Tremont Falls, Tennessee, circa 1920. Great Smoky Mountains National Park LibraryCC BY-SA

Another shortcoming of the current framework is that some biotech trees may not require any special review at all. The USDA, for example, was asked to consider a loblolly pine that was genetically engineered for greater wood density. But because USDA’s regulatory authority stems from its oversight of plant pest risks, it decided that it did not have any regulatory authority over that biotech tree. Similar questions remain regarding organisms whose genes are edited using new tools such as CRISPR.

The committee noted that U.S. regulations fail to promote a comprehensive consideration of forest health. Although the National Environmental Policy Act sometimes helps, some risks and many potential benefits are unlikely to be evaluated. This is the case for biotech trees as well as other tools to counter pests and pathogens, such as tree breeding, pesticides and site management practices.

How do you measure the value of a forest?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report suggests an “ecosystem services” framework for considering the various ways that trees and forests provide value to humans. These range from extraction of forest products to the use of forests for recreation to the ecological services a forest provides – water purification, species protection and carbon storage.

The committee also acknowledged that some ways of valuing the forest do not fit into the ecosystem services framework. For example, if forests are seen by some to have “intrinsic value,” then they have value in and of themselves, apart from the way humans value them and perhaps implying a kind of moral obligation to protect and respect them. Issues of “wildness” and “naturalness” also surface.

Chestnuts lying on the ground in autumn near a chestnut tree.  Peter Wollinga/

Chestnuts lying on the ground in autumn near a chestnut tree. Peter Wollinga/

Wild nature?

Paradoxically, a biotech tree could increase and decrease wildness. If wildness depends upon a lack of human intervention, then a biotech tree will reduce the wildness of a forest. But perhaps so would a conventionally bred, hybrid tree that was deliberately introduced into an ecosystem.

Which would reduce wildness more – the introduction of a biotech tree or the eradication of an important tree species? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they remind us of the complexity of decisions to use technology to enhance “nature.”

This complexity points to a key recommendation of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report: dialogue among experts, stakeholders and communities about how to value forests, assess the risks and potential benefits of biotech, and understand complex public responses to any potential interventions, including those involving biotechnology. These processes need to be respectful, deliberative, transparent and inclusive.

Such processes, such as a 2018 stakeholder workshop on the biotech chestnut, will not erase conflict or even guarantee consensus, but they have the potential to create insight and understanding that can feed into democratic decisions that are informed by expert knowledge and public values.

JASON A DELBORNE is an Associate Professor of Science, Policy, and Society in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University


The 12-Year-Old Scientist Taking On Flint's Water Crisis

When Gitanjali Rao first heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, she wanted to help in any way she could. Now, at only 12 years old, Gitanjali is the proud inventor of “Tethys,” a portable device that detects lead in water. Named “America’s Top Young Scienist,” Gitanjali hopes to inspire other kids to get moving and make a difference in their own communities.