Oil and gas drilling in North America is turning the Central Plains into an industrial landscape and causing long-lasting damage to ecosystems, reports a study in the April 24 issue of Science.
Three Yellowstone National Parks worth of land have been filled with well pads, road and storage facilities, from 2000 to 2012.
Satellite data was used to measure the amount of carbon stored by plants, which the authors write is an effective means to gauge the health of ecosystems: "It is a fundamental and supporting ecosystem service that is the basis for all life on Earth" affecting the ability to grow food, biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
"Nearly half of wells drilled in this time period occurred in already highly or extremely water-stressed regions," the study reports. "As refracturing becomes more common to yield greater production, oil and gas development adds to an already fraught competition among agriculture, aquatic ecosystems, and municipalities for water resources, in addition to concerns of water quality"
The impact of the transformation of the Great Plains is hard to detect when viewing a single region, that authors write, but the degradation has lasting impacts for the continent.
The effect is possibly permanent, because recovery of drilled land hasn't kept up with the pace of drilling.