Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Watery Saturday in Science

After the air we breathe, water is probably the most essential element to human existence and to life on earth.

(Fear not oh Saturday Scientists, we say "element" in the ancient, "fire, air, water, earth" sense. We know water is actually two elements, but even scientists can have a passing knowledge of history and mankind's mistakes.)

Speaking of mistakes, let's talk about our water, which we aren't treating very well these days.

Although ownership of water has spurred more than a few conflicts in dry places, and will again soon, we say "our" water only in the sense that without it, there won't be much of a "we" around to lament its loss.

Less Water, More Problems

Of particular interest to our species is fresh water, which comprises only about 3 percent of all water on earth.

And only about 1.3 percent of it is easily accessible on the surface in lakes and rivers.
The Ogallala Aquifer

About 30 percent of the planet's fresh water is underground, but not to worry, we're messing that up too.

Consider, the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast but shallow groundwater deposit that stretches from South Dakota to Texas and supplies about 30 percent of all irrigation water in the United States.

In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the Ogallala Aquifer in the eight-state area of the Great Plains contained 2.9 billion acre-feet of water.

Formed by melting glaciers, we are consuming it for water hungry crops at a faster rate than the high plains intermittent rains could ever hope to replenish it.

Remember the Dust Bowl? You will when it returns.
As Mort Rosenblum wrote in "America's Profligate Ways with Water" for The New York Times on May 24, the Ogallala: 
... could run dry within a generation if not poisoned earlier by an oil pipeline spill.
Elsewhere, commercial farmers buy costly new pumps and work them hard to amortize them before it’s too late. Industry gulps down all it can; city dwellers water lawns with little thought for tomorrow. And now the fracking that so many people embrace consumes and contaminates huge amounts of water.
Farmers, particularly Agri-Business farmers who see water and farmland as a resource to be plundered, not sustained, are among the most guilty.

Irrigation consumes 60 percent of the world's freshwater.

As much as 50 percent of water pumped for irrigation is lost to evaporation, evapotranspiration and leaks.

"When oil prices rose, speculators bought huge tracts to grow corn for biofuel. Corn takes three times more water than sorghum but fetches a higher price. Pivotal irrigator hoses project streams that allow farmers to squander hundreds, or thousands, of gallons per minute," wrote Rosenblum.

He added: "Back in 1985, Boutros Boutros Ghali, then Egypt’s foreign minister, remarked, 'The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.'"

A 'Protein Factory' That's No Longer Working

In some ways, that war has already begun -- at least on the other life forms which also depend on fresh water.

The Irriwaddy dolphin is related to Orcas.
Consider the case of the Irriwaddy dolphin.

Native to the Mekong and several other rivers in Asia, it lives in brackish water where fresh water and salt water meet.

And, as a species, it is dying, a metaphor for it's entire namesake river, which is also dying, particularly in terms of its harvest.
As Jeff Opperman, a freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy, reported in The New York Times on May 23, the fish on which the dolphin, and the humans along the Mekong's shores, depend are dwindling, both in number and size.
Because so many people are taking so much fish from so many places by so many methods, this assertion is hard to prove scientifically, although Opperman said he heard it all along the river as he traveled its course.

"2.1 million tons of fish is the most solid and accepted estimate," for what the river, or the "protein factory" as he calls it, produces.

By best estimates, harvest from just one location, Tonle Sap, had almost doubled from 1940 to 1995, while the number of people fishing has quadrupled during that period, cutting the catch per-fisher in half, Opperman wrote.

Pretty simple math.
Overfishing? What's that?

Fixed resource, more withdrawal, equals lower output, or shortage. 

But hell, we're already doing it in the oceans, which should we behave any differently inland?

The Census of Marine Life, a decade-long international survey of ocean life completed in 2010, estimated that 90 percent of the big fish had disappeared from the world's oceans, victims primarily of overfishing, CNN reported in March.

Bottom-trawling destroys reefs, which in turn destroys
the places where the fish we ear are born. Brilliant.
The situation is even worse in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, people are now fishing for juvenile fish and protein that they can grind into fishmeal and use as feed for coastal prawn farms. "It's heading towards an end game," laments Callum Roberts, a marine biologist with York University in the United Kingdom.

Much of the over-fishing is the result of bottom trawling, which not only picks up huge numbers of fish, but destroys the coral beds which serve as nurseries for untold species we hope to later eat -- a self-defeating strategy if ever there was one.

"The disturbing truth is that humans are having unrecognized impacts on every part of the ocean, and there is much we have not seen that will disappear before we ever get a chance," Ron O'Dor, a senior scientist with the Census of Marine Life who is also a professor of marine biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, told CNN.

Poisoning Our Own Food Supply

Not content to make rivers and oceans barren of fish, we are also ensuring those that are still with us, live in a continually more poisoned environment, making their survival, and ours, even more challenging.

Forget the threat of terrorists poisoning our water supplies or food supplies, society is on track to take care of it in just a few years without their help.

(One must wonder why our government spends billions to create security agencies to protect the nation's food and water supply from terrorists and, with the other hand, permits and aids corporations in activities which have the same result -- and throws in a tax break just for good measure. But that's a subject for another blog post.)
"Globally, the most prevalent water quality problem is eutrophication, a result of high-nutrient loads (mainly phosphorus and nitrogen), which substantially impairs beneficial uses of water," reports UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"Projected food production needs and increasing wastewater effluents associated with an increasing population over the next three decades suggest a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in the river input of nitrogen loads into coastal ecosystems."

(Need you be reminded that coastal ecosystems are where 80 to 90 percent of all ocean fish breed? You'll recall those as a primary food source for a species close to our heart -- humans.)

UNESCO again:
Sewage treatment? What's that? Does it cost money?
More than 80% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated, polluting rivers, lakes and coastal areas. 
Many industries – some of them known to be heavily polluting (such as leather and chemicals) – are moving from high-income countries to emerging market economies.
You'll know those "developing countries" as the places that are taking our jobs because there, well, companies don't have to deal with all those pesky living wage, safety and environmental regulations.

Water Has a Sense of Irony

Fortunately, there's humor to be found in this situation.

You see, while we poison the water we can see and threaten our own existence, our other activities are ensuring we'll have more freshwater than we know what to do with.

Remember those percentages up top?

Well nearly 70 percent of the planet's freshwater is locked up in snow, ice, glaciers and the polar ice caps.
"We're out of here!" Sincerely, The Russians.

You can see where this is going already can't you clever reader?

Yup, believe in humans causing climate change or not, one fact is irrefutable.

The ice caps are melting.

Even the Russians believe it.

As The Washington Post reported on May 24, the Russians are packing up a scientific monitoring station on a floating slap of ice that was supposed to stay until September because .... wait for it .... it's melting too fast to be safe.

This quote from a March 26 Post report pretty much says it all:
After plunging to its lowest level on record in September, Arctic sea ice extent mounted an impressive recovery this winter. But its maximum, reached March 15, still ranked 6th lowest on record. All ten of the lowest maximums on record (since 1979) have occurred in the last 10 years. (Underlining emphasis courtesy of The Digital Notebook).
In case that hasn't convinced you. Consider this from the same report:
Between 2003 and 2012 alone, Arctic sea ice volume dropped 9 percent in the winter according to the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council.
The summer shrinkage in volume has been even more stunning.
“Findings based on observations from a European Space Agency satellite, published online in Geophysical Research Letters, show that the Arctic has lost more than a third of summer sea-ice volume since a decade ago, when a U.S. satellite collected similar data,” reported the University of Washington in February.

That means more fresh water.

That's good, right?

Well, consider: Not only will the freshwater act as a pollutant, diluting the salinity
Melting ice caps is a good thing right?
Well, unless you lived in this city.
of the oceans, further stressing those already over-stressed marine species, but well, more water means less land ... along the shore .... where more than 50 percent of Americans live.

So, not so much.

So practices which ruin fresh water, and threaten our survival as a species, are actually causing the release of fresh water which will threaten our survival as a species.

You have to appreciate the cyclical nature of it ... kind of like the water cycle.

And, if history is any teacher, we will respond as we always do.

We will not change our ways, and try to reverse this self-destructive course. Instead, we will fight each other over what scarce water remains.

Boutros Boutros Ghali was right, but his vision was too limited.

The war will not be limited to the Middle East.

Blogger Evan Brandt knows a thing or two about water having several years ago written an award-winning five-day series about water for The Mercury called "Ebb and Flow."

(Sadly, the technical promise of the past not being terribly well kept at The Mercury, a link to that masterpiece is not available.)

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