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USGS Mendenhall Postdoctoral  Research Fellowship Program

14-41. Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis of the Effects of Hydrocarbon Development on the Landscapes of the Mid-Atlantic Region

We seek a postdoctoral fellow to study the effects of disturbance from hydrocarbon development on the natural landscapes of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.  Research under this Opportunity can utilize a robust suite of remote sensing and geospatial analysis tools to study the potential effects of intense oil and natural gas development in this area.  The recent economic interest in the development of alternative energy sources, such as the deep natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale, has caused a flurry of hydrocarbon development activity in the Marcellus and is now targeting the deeper Utica Shale formation for the deep well, hydraulic fracturing (also known as “hydrofracking” or “fracking”) to harvest unconventional sources of natural gas.  While this activity may be providing important new sources of energy, it is also transforming the landscape at an unprecedented rate. Well pads, haul roads, pipelines and associated infrastructure, such as gravel pits, are creating a pattern of disturbance that is transforming the landscape into smaller and more fragmented patches of natural land cover.

While there has been a boom in the extraction of natural gas from deep formations such as the Marcellus and Utica Shales, it is really only part of the story of landscape alteration in this region.  Conventional oil wells, wells for coal-bed methane and other hydrocarbon extraction activities have already had a heavy influence on many areas of the Mid-Atlantic.  Landscapes dotted with traditional oil wells are now being further impacted by various types of natural gas development (Slonecker and others 2012a, 2012b). The result is a suite of unanswered questions about the cumulative impact of energy development on natural resources, such as forests in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and in other areas of the country.

Much of the science concern revolving around the landscape effects of current hydrocarbon development is well suited to study and analysis by remotely sensed and geospatial analysis methods, one of the major capabilities of the USGS.  We have already initiated a long-term monitoring and mapping program to document drill pads, roads, impoundments and pipelines and related infrastructure comprising the landscape disturbance (Slonecker and others 2012a, 2012b).  The postdoctoral fellow will have access to mapped information on the landscape disturbance in the mid-Atlantic shale gas region.  The information is expected to be at a very high-resolution level of detail and will present numerous opportunities for landscape geospatial analysis such as: evaluating the effect of forest loss and fragmentation, monitoring water quality changes, and correlating disturbance with changes in plant and animal populations and habitats (Wickham and others 2007, Jones and others, 2000).  Especially important are changes in migratory bird populations from Breeding Bird Survey data (Sauer and others, 2011), Brook Trout habitat, and related changes to a wide range of ecosystem services (Weltman-Fahs, 2012). Spatially explicit landscape disturbance data also provides a potentially critical quantification of socioeconomic and ecosystem services issues, such as changes in housing and impacts to water resources.  Detailed disturbance data will enable the landscape analysis and modeling of changes to carbon sequestration (Smithwick and others 2007).

In addition, there are a number of fugitive contaminant issues associated with shale gas drilling that might be explored with multi- and hyper-spectral imagery and analysis.  Well drilling is a complex process that still results in accidents such as spills and wellhead blowouts, and state regulators routinely fine operators for these events.  The imaging spectroscopic detection of additional contaminants from fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, their fate and transport, and associated vegetation stress, has a reasonable probability of success (Slonecker 2011).  Data from the EO-1 Hyperion, NASA AVIRIS, and the Civil Air Patrol Archer system are all available for spectral analysis of hydrocarbons in addition to spectral laboratory facilities.  Landsat Data Continuity Mission data, as well as the Landsat archive, will be critical in assessing moderate to high-resolution land-use and land-cover changes.

Stray hydrocarbon gas also is a major issue.  Whether it is part of an off-gassing process in the development of a well, escapes from abandoned wells, or is part of a natural release process, a variety of remote sensing systems can be brought to bear on the detection of a critical greenhouse gas release.  Thermal and Open-Path Fourier Transform Infrared imaging systems can remotely detect methane emissions.  Also, the USGS archives of historical imagery can be used to potentially identify abandoned wells that might be sources of stray methane (Jordan and others 2002).


Jones, K. B., Neale, A. C., Nash, M. S., Riitters, K. H., Wickham, J. D., O'Neill, R. V., & Van Remortel, R. D. (2000). Landscape correlates of breeding bird richness across the United States mid-Atlantic region. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, v. 63, no. 1, pp. 159-174.

Jordan, P. W., Jordan, P. D. P. W., & Hare, J. L.  2002, A Comprehensive Manual of Methods and Resources Manual of Methods and Resources. Solution Mining Research Institute

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W. A. Link. 2011. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 - 2010. Version 12.07.2011 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD

Smithwick, E. A., Harmon, M. E., & Domingo, J. B. 2007, Changing temporal patterns of forest carbon stores and net ecosystem carbon balance: the stand to landscape transformation. Landscape Ecology, v. 22, no. 1, pp. 77-94.

Slonecker, E.T., Milheim, L.E., Roig-Silva, C.M., Malizia, A.R., Marr, D.A., and Fisher, G.B., 2012a, Landscape consequences of natural gas extraction in Bradford and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania, 2004–2010: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2012–1154, 36 p.

Slonecker, E.T., Milheim, L.E., Roig-Silva, C.M., and Malizia, A.R., 2012b, Landscape consequences of natural gas extraction in Greene and Tioga Counties, Pennsylvania, 2004–2010: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2012–1220, 36 p.

Slonecker. E.T.  2011. Chapter 23: Hyperspectral Analysis of the Effects of Heavy Metals on Vegetation Reflectance.  IN: Hyperspectral Remote Sensing of Terrestrial Vegetation. Edited by Prasad Thenakabail. Taylor and Francis, New York, ISBN:  9781439845370, 731 pp.

Weltman-Fahs, Maya. "Hydraulic Fracturing and Brook Trout Habitat in the Marcellus Shale Region: A Conceptual Model and Research Agenda." In AFS 142nd Annual Meeting. American Fisheries Society, 2012.

Wickham, J. D., Riitters, K. H., Wade, T. G., Coan, M.; Homer, C.  2007, The effect of Appalachian mountaintop mining on interior forest Landscape Ecology, v. 22, pp. 179– 187.

Proposed Duty Station: Reston, VA.

Areas of Ph.D.: Remote Sensing, Geography, Landscape Ecology, or other geospatially related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications - Research Geographer, Research Geologist, Research Geophysicist, Computer Scientist, Research Physicist, Research Mathematician.

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of theposition will be made by the Human Resources specialist).

Research Advisor(s): Terry Slonecker (703) 648-4289,; Barry Haack (George Mason U), (703) 993-1215,, David Kirtland (703) 648-4712,

Human Resources Office Contact: Junell Norris, (303) 236-9557,

Go back to Summary of Opportunities

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URL: Slonecker.htm
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Last modified: 17:58:08 Tue 23 Jul 2013
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