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Got gas? Scientist finds both problem and solution in Horseshoe Lake greenhouse gas

October 22, 2010

The ghost of trees past. Many of Horseshoe Lake’s trees have died over the past two decades, victims of carbon dioxide gas. The gas comes from an underground chamber of magma. When it reaches the soil, it kills the trees by denying their roots oxygen and nutrients. Mammoth Times Photo/Susan Morning

While the ghostly white trees hovering around stark Horseshoe Lake may unnerve some people, a Massachusetts scientist found the greenhouse gas that strangled them could actually lead to a solution to climate change problems.

Working under a four-year, $2.3 million grant from the Department of Energy, Dr. Bruno Marino came to Mammoth last week, hoping to refine a high-tech laser he believes will some day soon be absolutely critical in the fight against climate change.

That’s because the same gas that is creating a warmer planet, carbon dioxide, has a very unusual quality when it comes from magmatic sources (like at Horseshoe) which gives scientists the perfect laboratory in trying to find solutions to climate change.

“The carbon coming up from deep underground at Horseshoe Lake contains very small amounts of carbon-14, the rarest form of carbon, a kind found only when fossil fuels burn or from natural magmatic sources like the vents at Horseshoe Lake,” he said.

“The concentration of carbon-14 in the carbon dioxide coming out of the geologic formation is the exact same as that coming out of a coal-burning power plant.”

Lake is valuable testing ground
That makes the lake a valuable place to test the million-dollar laser that the company he founded and owns, Planetary Emissions Management, Inc., hopes will soon be ready to deploy commercially. His goal is to monitor human-made carbon emissions in the air or in underground reservoirs where the carbon has been intentionally injected.

This carbon injection technology, called carbon capture and sequestration, is one possible way to slow the warming climate juggernaut down, he believes.

But that’s only if the carbon stored underground can be identified as to its source and adequately monitored for long periods of time to detect any leakage that may occur.
“While leakage is expected to be small or zero, field methods that are sensitive enough to locate and quantify any leaks are essential,” he said.

Monitoring carbon dioxide emissions is critical, one for obvious safety reasons, the other for business reasons, he said.

He notes that the high “leakage” of carbon dioxide from the Horseshoe Lake site does not represent any known problems from a sequestration project but Horseshoe is a good test site.

“Right now, sequestration projects are very safe, but in 50 years, if there is a lot of carbon dioxide in the ground, citizens are going to need to be aware it’s there and we are going to have to have effective monitoring of the sites,” he said.

“We are looking to the future.”

Track it, manage it
This ability to monitor is also critical from a business standpoint, because the move to commercialize the storage of carbon, to a so-called “cap and trade” economy, is dependent on assigning carbon a real number and given an origin.

“When monitoring, verification and accounting are applied to carbon, you get both sides of the carbon coin, management and trading,” he said.

“Once you can track something, you can manage it.”

But with carbon, that hasn’t been possible on a wide scale, due to the extreme difficulty and high cost in detecting carbon-14 using traditional approaches.

Since carbon-14 is only a “signal” of only fossil fuel burning or of magmatic origins, it can be used as a tracer, allowing scientists and businesses to determine whose carbon is whose and how much was emitted by each party.

Emissions dropping
Marino wasn’t the only scientist out at Horseshoe last week.

Jennifer Lewicki, a geological research scientist with the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is under a subcontract with the DOE to provide field support for Marino’s project.

It’s not her first time out measuring the gas, which is why she was helping Marino.

She’s been measuring carbon dioxide emissions there off and on since the late 1990s. She’s hoping to help develop a baseline emissions number, information she shares with local officials and U.S. Geological Survey, all of whom watch Horseshoe Lake like worried mother bears.

But they may finally be a little less worried than they were.

“I’d say there is about one third less carbon dioxide coming through the ground than there was in the mid-nineties,” she said.

“That’s a rough estimate, but it is certainly going down.”

It’s possible the rock formations over the magma body below the earth that is emitting the gas are closing the gas off from the surface, or it is possible the gas chamber itself is being depleted, she said.
That’s good news to Mammoth’s Inyo National Forest Recreation Officer John Kazmierski.

He just finished propping up some fences, adding some new signs and generally trying to make the area safer, as winter approaches.

“Winter is the time when people need to take extra care, because the gas doesn’t dissipate as easily, due to the snow. It gets trapped in low lying areas, where concentrations can be dangerous,” he said.

He’s heard a lot lately on the issue. An assessment of recreation in the Lakes Basin is under way right now, and Horseshoe is at the top of many people’s list.

“We have heard a strong message that we need better interpretive signs out there."

That will happen next year, when the forest service installs two new kiosks at the lake, he said.

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