The Impact of Fracking on Stream Ecosystems

We are studying the potential impacts of Marcellus shale gas exploration on coldwater stream ecosystems across trophic levels

Problem summary:

Pennsylvania is home to the Marcellus Shale Formation, the largest shale gas field in the United States and has become a large contributor to the U.S. energy supply due to technological advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Permits for over 9,500 Marcellus drill sites have been issued in Pennsylvania.  While there has been a recent exponential increase in the shale gas industry, very little research has been conducted concerning the environmental effects of drilling and hydraulic fracturing on headwater stream ecosystems. Initial findings by the USEPA’s research that focused on Marcellus shale natural gas exploration in Wyoming, suggests that fracking poses potential threats to ecosystems and human health.

Donate against frackingProposed research: 

In this study we will assess the ecosystem response (bacteria, microinvertabrate, macroinvertabrate, and fish) to Marcellus Shale Fracturing for natural gas in headwater streams in northwestern Pennsylvania. Chemical and biological samples are being collected from 26 streams in western Pennsylvania at various stages of drilling exploration to accurately capture the impact of fracking on these headwater ecosystems.  Further, several streams with documented frackwater contamination (according to PADEP) are being studied.

Team (Dr. Regina Lamendella’s and Dr. Christopher Grant’s Research Laboratories)

• Dr. Grant has more than ten years of research experience in freshwater ecosystem biology and mercury bioaccumulation/cycling.  Dr. Grant and his research team comprised of eight Juniata undergraduates are collecting chemical and biological (micro/macroinvertabrates, fish, bryophytes) samples from each of these streams that are in close proximity to fracking sites. Samples are being collected at both pre and post-fracking time points, and at several streams where documented frackwater spills have occurred.

• Dr. Regina Lamendella has more than eight years of environmental engineering and microbiology experience.  Dr. Lamendella and her research team (seven Juniata undergraduates) are processing water, sediment, trout gut, and bryophyte samples to study the impacts of fracking on the microbial ecology of these environments.  Dr. Lamendella and her team are applying novel, next generation DNA sequencing methods to study shifts in microbial communities and their potential response to and biodegradation of fracking inputs.

To our knowledge this is the first assessment of headwater stream ecosystem response to fracking inputs at multi-trophic levels (all the way from microscopic microbial communities to top predatory fish)

Sample collection, chemical pre-processing, and biological specimen processing is being carried out at Juniata College.  Samples are being prepped for analysis and sent to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Mercury Research Lab and Penn State’s Institute of Energy and the Environment for heavy metal chemical analyses. Nucleic acid extraction, PCR amplification, and sequencing library preparation will occur in Dr. Lamendella’s Laboratory at Juniata College.  All data analysis and bioinformatics will be processed at Juniata College under the guidance of Dr. Grant and Dr. Lamendella.


Project outcome and impact of result


This project will lead to a better understanding of the impact of fracking on headwater streams in Pennsylvania.  This is very timely and urgent research due the current exponential increase in the shale gas industry.  It is important to understand and characterize the potential risks associated with drilling activities early on, so as to make recommendations to private, public, and governmental entities for better management of these activities if they do indeed pose risks to aquatic ecosystems  and human health. While we recognize the importance of natural gas extraction, we want to ensure these practices are done a sustainable manner. With your support we will be able to fund undergraduate research this summer, in which we will evaluate as many of these stream ecosystems as possible.  Undergraduate research is central to the student’s educational experience and will prepare them for their future career trajectories.


Marcellus shale exploration poses potential threats to species of interest in aquatic ecosytems, such as Salvelinus fontinallis (brook trout).  Brook trout are the only native trout species to Pennsylvania and are also listed as a species of concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service due to their decrease in historic range and overall.  Brook trout are often found in remote locations, where water quality is high, and minimal anthropogenic disturbances exist within the watershed.  All of the streams we are studying not only have Marcellus shale exploration occurring within watershed, but also have naturally reproducing populations of brook trout.  Monitoring populations and mercury levels in brook trout (along with other measures of biodiversity and mercury in aquatic ecosystems), is not only important to document stream conditions prior to fracking, but also to determine whether Hg bioaccumulation and trophic transfer of Hg to top predatory fish (e.g. brook trout) is being impacted by Marcellus shale gas exploration.  Elevated Hg levels in fishes have been shown to affect their ability to forage, reproduce, and evade predators, which has the potential to lead to extirpations of brook trout in streams with elevated Hg levels.  This research may also lead to the development of future potential biomarker indicators for ensuing problems associated with fracking inputs.

Data will be disemminated to the public via public presentations, updates on our website, and via publication in open-access journals.  We feel these mechanisms will allow the public to maintain a constant interaction with the research they are funding.



Click this photo to contact Grant and Lamendella (Scroll down to the bottom of the page when you’re on their website)





This article originally appeared here