Why scientists have pumped a potent greenhouse gas into streams on public lands

Blacktail Deer Creek in Yellowstone National Park, seen here in a 2019 photo from the ecological study known as NEON, is one site where researchers have bubbled sulfur hexafluoride into the water.

Blacktail Deer Creek in Yellowstone Nationwide Park, seen right here in a 2019 picture from the ecological research generally known as NEON, is one website the place researchers have bubbled sulfur hexafluoride into the water.


A large ecological research that is taking place throughout the USA, and which is designed to trace the affect of long-term modifications like a warming local weather, is intentionally releasing a extremely potent and chronic greenhouse gas in nationwide parks and forests.

The gas, sulfur hexafluoride, is “the most potent greenhouse gas known to date,” according to the Environmental Safety Company. It is 22,800 instances simpler at trapping warmth than carbon dioxide, and lasts within the environment for 1000’s of years.

Up to now, this ecology research has launched round 108 kilos of the gas, which has about the identical affect as burning greater than a million kilos of coal.

That will not look like a huge deal within the grand scheme of world emissions, however authorities scientists working at federal parks and forests have objected to utilizing this gas on public lands — particularly since this main research is designed to go on for 30 years and various gasses can be found.

This kerfuffle has up to now performed out quietly inside authorities companies. But it surely comes at a time when all types of researchers are enthusiastic about the local weather results of previous practices, with some saying that scientists who perceive the urgency of the local weather disaster have a particular obligation to set an instance to the public by decreasing the greenhouse gas emissions of their very own work.

The Nationwide Science Basis (NSF), which funds this massive ecology research, instructed NPR that it helps an analysis that is now underway to see whether or not phasing out using this gas would have an effect on the standard of the data that is being gathered.

That is not ok for one watchdog group, which is looking for a right away halt to the discharge of this gas on public lands.

“We’re using just a tiny amount”

For many years, ecologists have generally burbled small quantities of sulfur hexafluoride into streams and rivers, with a view to research how shortly gasses can transfer from the water into the air. One purpose that is of curiosity is that, though inland waterways cowl up solely a small fraction of the Earth’s floor, researchers imagine these operating waters could possibly be an vital supply of greenhouse gasses, as rainfall can carry carbon from the bottom into turbulent streams that later launch it into the environment.

Ecologists have all the time recognized that sulfur hexafluoride was itself a potent greenhouse gas, “but we always said, ‘Well, we’re using just a tiny amount of it,” says Bob Hall, a professor of stream ecology on the College of Montana.

“The beauty of sulfur hexafluoride is we only have to add very tiny quantities, and it’s really, really easy to measure and it’s perfectly unreactive. We’re not doing anything to the ecosystem by adding it, it’s not reacting with anything, it’s not poisoning anything,” says Corridor, who as soon as calculated that the quantity he utilized in one among his experiments had about the identical local weather affect as burning 35 gallons of gasoline.

Given the usefulness of this gas in stream research, it is not shocking that assessments involving sulfur hexafluoride had been constructed into the standardized protocols of the Nationwide Ecological Observatory Community, or NEON, which is an bold government-funded effort to trace ecological modifications. Its mission is to make use of constant strategies to gather all types of knowledge on 81 totally different areas throughout the nation–and to do that repeatedly for 3 a long time.

“The idea is to understand the effects of things like climate change, land use change, and invasive species on these ecosystems,” says Kaelin Cawley, who works at Battelle, the nonprofit utilized science and expertise group that operates NEON for the NSF.

NEON workers sample fish in 2019 at Lower Hop Brook in Massachusetts, one of the streams being monitored as part of this long-term ecological study.

NEON staff pattern fish in 2019 at Decrease Hop Brook in Massachusetts, one of many streams being monitored as a part of this long-term ecological research.


The planning for this half-billion-dollar ecological challenge, and the development of its monitoring devices, took round twenty years. It started working at full tilt in 2019.

That is the identical yr when a scientist at Yellowstone Nationwide Park began to query why NEON was releasing sulfur hexafluoride at Blacktail Deer Creek, based on paperwork obtained by a public data request by Public Staff for Environmental Duty, a group that helps staff inside the authorities who’re involved about actions that may hurt the atmosphere.

The environmental consequence

NEON’s protocols known as for it to yearly launch round 3.3 kilos of sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6, in Yellowstone Nationwide Park, hydrologist Erin White identified in a November, 2020 electronic mail to a different Nationwide Park Service official. Over the 30-year lifetime of the challenge, White calculated, that meant using SF6 for analysis in Yellowstone Nationwide Park alone can be equal to burning over 1,139,000 kilos of coal.

“In short, the environmental consequence of a small SF6 application in the park is significant,” famous White, who advisable that NEON instantly substitute an alternate gas, reminiscent of argon, regardless that NEON staffers thought making this swap can be problematic due to issues like lab contracting constraints.

Bobby Hensley, who works on NEON for Battelle, instructed NPR that the local weather affect from the scientific use of this gas needs to be stored in perspective.

“I don’t want to sort of criticize Yellowstone National Park, but, I mean, there’s hundreds of thousands of vehicles driving through that park every single day,” says Hensley. “They can’t tell people, ‘Hey, you can’t come visit the park.’ But they can say, ‘You can’t use SF6.'”

Quickly, authorities officers shared the considerations raised at Yellowstone with others who oversaw websites the place NEON had been releasing this gas. Emails went out to Nice Smoky Mountains Nationwide Park, the Bureau of Land Administration, and the USA Forest Service. About half of the NEON websites with streams the place sulfur hexafluoride was launched had been on forest service lands, data present.

“SF6 is a potent greenhouse gas and over the 30 year NEON program the release will be equivalent to burning millions of pounds of coal,” wrote Bret Schichtel of the Nationwide Park Service’s Air Useful resource Division to Linda Geiser, the Nationwide Air Program Supervisor for the Forest Service. “We would like to know if you are aware of this issue and share similar concerns.”

In December of 2020, representatives of the park and forest companies held a digital assembly with NEON workers. Emails despatched after that assembly make it clear that the public land officers felt a “strong desire” to discontinue using this gas.

NEON subsequently convened a group of professional advisers to determine if they may cease utilizing the gas with out disrupting the science.

A kind of advisors was Corridor, who says that he had already moved away from utilizing SF6 in his personal research of streams, partly due to its excessive efficiency as a greenhouse gas. “It is somewhat ironic,” Corridor and a colleague wrote in a single paper, “to study carbon cycling using a tracer gas with that much greenhouse forcing.”

“This doesn’t fit with the mission”

It seems that the bodily options of streams that have an effect on turbulence and gas alternate do not change a lot over time. So NEON’s professional advisers mainly felt it might be okay to only ensure that this research had some baseline measurements utilizing SF6 for every website after which go away it at that, reasonably than switching to an alternate gas that will require new devices and coaching in order that measurements could possibly be taken yr after yr.

“We have discontinued it recently at several of our sites, but not all of them,” says Cawley, who notes that the water degree in streams may at the moment be too low to get the information they need. “Some of the sites, we still need to get certain flow ranges that we haven’t covered yet.”

The NSF’s Program Director for NEON, Charlotte Roehm, instructed NPR in an emailed assertion that Battelle was evaluating the affect of phasing out using SF6 and that “the NSF team that manages NEON is supportive of conducting that evaluation.”

In 2021, based on one memo despatched from NEON to Roehm, NEON used roughly 18 kilos of the gas, which is the equal of greenhouse gas emissions from driving a mean automotive over 460,000 miles. That memo said the brand new plan was to make use of the gas to take measurements “up to three times per year at up to 10 sites,” possible for one to 3 extra years.

“Eventually we will stop using SF6 when all sites have enough data to draw conclusions about gas exchange rates across a wide range of flows at a site,” the memo states.

Public Staff for Environmental Duty, nonetheless, desires them to cease utilizing SF6 instantly.

“They’re doing these experiments on public lands like national parks and national forests,” says Chandra Rosenthal, who directs the non-profit’s Rocky Mountain workplace. “This doesn’t fit with the mission of these agencies at all.”

The federal government staff who handle these federal lands are sad about using this gas, she says, “but they haven’t really had the authority to do anything about the fact that this stuff is being used.”

This week, her group despatched a letter to the director of the NSF, asking the company to cease funding tasks that use SF6 on federal lands, and to evaluate the worth of utilizing SF6 and different greenhouse gasses in all of the analysis it funds. An analogous letter, despatched to U. S. Division of the Inside Secretary Deb Haaland and U. S. Division of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calls on them to cease permitting using SF6 on the lands they handle. “It is our understanding,” the letter says, “that similar research projects have switched to argon without issue.”

One researcher who makes use of small quantities of SF6 for research of gas alternate within the ocean, reasonably than streams, says he thinks NEON’s protocols may have been arrange in another way, to attenuate using this greenhouse gas.

“If I was to do what they’re doing, I would do it differently. I wouldn’t be bubbling it in, because that does use a lot,” says David Ho, an oceanographer with the College of Hawaii, who explains that he may infuse a small quantity of the gas into a bag of water after which launch that into the stream. “They haven’t thought this through, in terms of the best way to do it.”

And even when the quantity that is been launched by NEON and different scientific research is actually nothing in comparison with the amount of SF6 launched globally from industrial sources, the considerations about it nonetheless appear cheap to streams researcher Walter Dodds of Kansas State College, who served on NEON’s technical advisory panel.

“It may be an overreaction of sorts, but it’s completely understandable as well. We all are worried about what our own footprints are,” says Dodds. “Certainly we should be cognizant of the potential for that harm and at least minimize the amount of times we use it and the amount of gas that we use in each experiment.”

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