Tag Archives: water

Europa, Europa

europa-moon

A couple of days ago, September 26, 2016, tens of millions of us tuned in to the gory — and usually devoid of fact — spectacle that is the US Presidential election debate. On the same day, something else rather newsworthy took place; some would say much more important than watching two adults throw puerile nonsense at one another.

NASA has found evidence of water plumes spouting from a subsurface ocean on Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. The agency used the Hubble Space Telescope to look for signs of plumes as the icy moon transited Jupiter.

This should make for an fascinating encounter when NASA launches a mission in 2020 to examine Europa more closely, especially to investigate whether it could harbor conditions suitable for life.

Image: Trailing hemisphere of Jupiter’s ice-covered satellite, Europa. Europa is about 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) in diameter, or about the size of Earth’s moon. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/DLR (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luftund Raumfahrt e.V., Berlin, Germany).

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Tantalizing Enceladus

Fountains_of_Enceladus

Sorry, Moon but my favorite satellite doesn’t even orbit the Earth.

Enceladus is my favorite moon, despite its diminutive size — its diameter is only around 500 km. It circles Saturn and while it only ranks as the ringed planet’s sixth largest moon, it is perhaps the most fascinating.

A decade of images courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope show amazing  plumes of icy material spouting from one or more underground sources. To date, astronomers and planetary scientists have catalogued over 90 geyser-like jets on the surface of Enceladus.

More recently, a couple of year’s ago, NASA’s researchers confirmed the presence of a vast subsurface ocean of liquid water beneath Enceladus’ icy crust. Scientists believe this ocean powers its many geysers or cryovolcanoes. Moreover, the many geysers spew a particle cocktail of ices and organic compounds. It is this mixture of liquid water and organic chemistry that has many scientists agog — pondering the possibility of life beyond the shores of our home planet.

Catch the latest on the search for possible signs of life on Enceladus from Scientific American, here.

Image: Fountains of Enceladus. Recent Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Public Domain.

 

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Going, Going, Gone

Our planet continues to warm as climate change relentlessly marches on. These two images of Lake Poopó in the high Bolivian Andes over a period of three years shows the stark reality. The first image was taken in 2013 the second a mere three years later, in 2016.

The images are courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite.

Most climatologists suggest that the lake will not return.

Lake Poopó, 2013

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Lake Poopó, 2016

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Read more about the causes and environmental and human consequences here.

Images: NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Kathryn Hansen.

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H2O and IQ

There is great irony in NASA’s recent discovery of water flowing on Mars.

First, that the gift of our intelligence allows us to make such amazing findings on other worlds while we use the same brain cells to enable the rape and pillage of our own.

CADrought-LakeOroville

Second, the meager seasonal trickles of liquid on the martian surface show us a dire possible future for our own planet.

Mars-Recurring-Slope-Lineae

From the Guardian:

Evidence for flowing water on Mars: this opens up the possibility of life, of wonders we cannot begin to imagine. Its discovery is an astonishing achievement. Meanwhile, Martian scientists continue their search for intelligent life on Earth.

We may be captivated by the thought of organisms on another planet, but we seem to have lost interest in our own. The Oxford Junior Dictionary has been excising the waymarks of the living world. Adders, blackberries, bluebells, conkers, holly, magpies, minnows, otters, primroses, thrushes, weasels and wrens are now surplus to requirements.

In the past four decades, the world has lost 50% of its vertebrate wildlife. But across the latter half of this period, there has been a steep decline in media coverage. In 2014, according to a study at Cardiff University, there were as many news stories broadcast by the BBC and ITV about Madeleine McCann (who went missing in 2007) as there were about the entire range of environmental issues.

Think of what would change if we valued terrestrial water as much as we value the possibility of water on Mars. Only 3% of the water on this planet is fresh; and of that, two-thirds is frozen. Yet we lay waste to the accessible portion. Sixty per cent of the water used in farming is needlessly piddled away by careless irrigation. Rivers, lakes and aquifers are sucked dry, while what remains is often so contaminated that it threatens the lives of those who drink it. In the UK, domestic demand is such that the upper reaches of many rivers disappear during the summer. Yet still we install clunky old toilets and showers that gush like waterfalls.

As for salty water, of the kind that so enthrals us when apparently detected on Mars, on Earth we express our appreciation with a frenzy of destruction. A new report suggests fish numbers have halved since 1970. Pacific bluefin tuna, which once roamed the seas in untold millions, have been reduced to an estimated 40,000, yet still they are pursued. Coral reefs are under such pressure that most could be gone by 2050. And in our own deep space, our desire for exotic fish rips through a world scarcely better known to us than the red planet’s surface. Trawlers are now working at depths of 2,000 metres. We can only guess at what they could be destroying.

A few hours before the Martian discovery was announced, Shell terminated its Arctic oil prospecting in the Chukchi Sea. For the company’s shareholders, it’s a minor disaster: the loss of $4bn; for those who love the planet and the life it sustains, it is a stroke of great fortune. It happened only because the company failed to find sufficient reserves. Had Shell succeeded, it would have exposed one of the most vulnerable places on Earth to spills, which are almost inevitable where containment is almost impossible. Are we to leave such matters to chance?

At the beginning of September, two weeks after he granted Shell permission to drill in the Chukchi Sea, Barack Obama travelled to Alaska to warn Americans about the devastating effects that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels could catalyse in the Arctic. “It’s not enough just to talk the talk”, he told them. “We’ve got to walk the walk.” We should “embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it”. Human ingenuity is on abundant display at Nasa, which released those astounding images. But not when it comes to policy.

Let the market decide: this is the way in which governments seek to resolve planetary destruction. Leave it to the conscience of consumers, while that conscience is muted and confused by advertising and corporate lies. In a near-vacuum of information, we are each left to decide what we should take from other species and other people, what we should allocate to ourselves or leave to succeeding generations. Surely there are some resources and some places – such as the Arctic and the deep sea – whose exploitation should simply stop?

Read the entire article here.

Images: Lake Oroville, California, Earth, courtesy of U.S. Drought Portal. Recurring slope lineae, Mars, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

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One Spinach Leaf = 1 Gallon of Water

spinach-leaves

As I leafed through this article from the New York Times my jaw progressively dropped. The story and the underlying analysis brings the terrible Californian drought in to a very clear focus. The increasing lack of water in the state is causing policy makers to enact ever-tougher water restrictions and forcing farmers and consumers to use less and less of the precious liquid.

While the problem in California pales in comparison to the human cost of past global droughts in Africa and Asia, the situation nonetheless is becoming increasingly dire, especially for farmers and those who depend on their produce (most of us). I’ve been following developments in California for sometime, but I must admit until now I had never pondered the actual cost, in terms of water, of some of the foods I eat. Soul-searching required.

So, here’s a quick snapshot from some of the mountains of data:

The average American consumes over 300 gallons of California water each week by eating food that was produced there.

One spinach leaf — yes, one — requires just under 1 gallon of water to grow until ripe for eating.

It takes 4.1 gallons of water to produce a slice of California avocado each week, which is what an average American eats each week.

It takes over 1 gallon of water to produce ONE California almond.

It takes 42.5 gallons of water to produce 3 mandarin oranges.

Four glasses of milk require almost 144 gallons of water (most of this goes to growing the feed for the cattle that produce our milk and beef).

A handful of strawberries needs 1 gallon of water.

Check out the detailed research here.

Image: Spinach leaves. Public domain.

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MondayMap: Drought Mapping

US-droughtThe NYT has an fascinating and detailed article bursting with charts and statistics that shows the pervasive grip of the drought in the United States. The desert Southwest and West continue to be parched and scorching. This is not a pretty picture for farmers and increasingly for those (sub-)urban dwellers who rely upon a fragile and dwindling water supply.

From the NYT:

Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 34 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of July 22.
Things have been particularly bad in California, where state officials have approved drastic measures to reduce water consumption. California farmers, without water from reservoirs in the Central Valley, are left to choose which of their crops to water. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma and surrounding states are also suffering from drought conditions.
The relationship between the climate and droughts is complicated. Parts of the country are becoming wetter: East of the Mississippi, rainfall has been rising. But global warming also appears to be causing moisture to evaporate faster in places that were already dry. Researchers believe drought conditions in these places are likely to intensify in coming years.
There has been little relief for some places since the summer of 2012. At the recent peak this May, about 40 percent of the country was abnormally dry or in at least a moderate drought.

Read the entire story and see the statistics for yourself here.

Image courtesy of Drought Monitor / NYT.

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Water From Air

WARKAWATER

Ideas and innovations that solve a particular human hardship are worthy of reward and recognition. When the idea is also ingenious and simple it should be celebrated. Take the invention of industrial designers Arturo Vittori and Andreas Vogler. Fashioned from plant stalks and nylon mess their 30 foot tall WarkaWater Towers soak up moisture from the air for later collection — often up to 25 gallons of drinking water today. When almost a quarter of the world’s population has poor access to daily potable water this remarkable invention serves a genuine need.

From Smithsonian:

In some parts of Ethiopia, finding potable water is a six-hour journey.

People in the region spend 40 billion hours a year trying to find and collect water, says a group called the Water Project. And even when they find it, the water is often not safe, collected from ponds or lakes teeming with infectious bacteria, contaminated with animal waste or other harmful substances.

The water scarcity issue—which affects nearly 1 billion people in Africa alone—has drawn the attention of big-name philanthropists like actor and Water.org co-founder Matt Damon and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who, through their respective nonprofits, have poured millions of dollars into research and solutions, coming up with things like a system that converts toilet water to drinking water and a “Re-invent the Toilet Challenge,” among others.

Critics, however, have their doubts about integrating such complex technologies in remote villages that don’t even have access to a local repairman. Costs and maintenance could render many of these ideas impractical.

“If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything,” wrote one critic, Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe, in a New York Times editorial, “it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.”

Other low-tech inventions, like this life straw, aren’t as complicated, but still rely on users to find a water source.

It was this dilemma—supplying drinking water in a way that’s both practical and convenient—that served as the impetus for a new product called Warka Water, an inexpensive, easily-assembled structure that extracts gallons of fresh water from the air.

The invention from Arturo Vittori, an industrial designer, and his colleague Andreas Vogler doesn’t involve complicated gadgetry or feats of engineering, but instead relies on basic elements like shape and material and the ways in which they work together.

At first glance, the 30-foot-tall, vase-shaped towers, named after a fig tree native to Ethiopia, have the look and feel of a showy art installation. But every detail, from carefully-placed curves to unique materials, has a functional purpose.

The rigid outer housing of each tower is comprised of lightweight and elastic juncus stalks, woven in a pattern that offers stability in the face of strong wind gusts while still allowing air to flow through. A mesh net made of nylon or  polypropylene, which calls to mind a large Chinese lantern, hangs inside, collecting droplets of dew that form along the surface. As cold air condenses, the droplets roll down into a container at the bottom of the tower. The water in the container then passes through a tube that functions as a faucet, carrying the water to those waiting on the ground.

Using mesh to facilitate clean drinking water isn’t an entirely new concept. A few years back, an MIT student designed a fog-harvesting device with the material. But Vittori’s invention yields more water, at a lower cost, than some other concepts that came before it.

“[In Ethiopia], public infrastructures do not exist and building [something like] a well is not easy,” Vittori says of the country. “To find water, you need to drill in the ground very deep, often as much as 1,600 feet.  So it’s technically difficult and expensive. Moreover, pumps need electricity to run as well as access to spare parts in case the pump breaks down.”

So how would Warka Water’s low-tech design hold up in remote sub-Saharan villages? Internal field tests have shown that one Warka Water tower can supply more than 25 gallons of water throughout the course of a day, Vittori claims. He says because the most important factor in collecting condensation is the difference in temperature between nightfall and daybreak, the towers are proving successful even in the desert, where temperatures, in that time, can differ as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The structures, made from biodegradable materials, are easy to clean and can be erected without mechanical tools in less than a week. Plus, he says, “once locals have the necessary know-how, they will be able to teach other villages and communities to build the Warka.”

In all, it costs about $500 to set up a tower—less than a quarter of the cost of something like the Gates toilet, which costs about $2,200 to install and more to maintain. If the tower is mass produced, the price would be even lower, Vittori says. His team hopes to install two Warka Towers in Ethiopia by next year and is currently searching for investors who may be interested in scaling the water harvesting technology across the region.

Read the entire article here.

Image: WarkaWater Tower. Courtesy of Andreas vogler and Arturo Vittori, WARKAWATER PROJECT / www.architectureandvision.com.

 

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The Persistent Threat to California

california-drought

Historians dispute the etymology of the name California. One possible origin comes from the Spanish Catalan phrase which roughly translates as “hot as a lime oven”. But while this may be pure myth there is no doubting the unfolding ecological (and human) disaster caused by incessant heat and lack of water. The severe drought in many parts of the state is now in its third year, and while it is still ongoing it is already recorded as the worst in the last 500 years. The drought is forcing farmers and rural communities to rethink and in some cases resettle, and increasingly it also threatens suburban and urban neighborhoods.

From the NYT:

The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state’s drinking water supply.

With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days. State officials said that the number was likely to rise in the months ahead after the State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, announced on Friday that it did not have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that provide water to an additional 25 million people. It is first time the project has turned off its spigot in its 54-year history.

State officials said they were moving to put emergency plans in place. In the worst case, they said drinking water would have to be brought by truck into parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on groundwater. The deteriorating situation would likely mean imposing mandatory water conservation measures on homeowners and businesses, who have already been asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.

“Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing” said Gov. Jerry Brown, who was governor during the last major drought here, in 1976-77.

This latest development has underscored the urgency of a drought that has already produced parched fields, starving livestock, and pockets of smog.

“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

Already the drought, technically in its third year, is forcing big shifts in behavior. Farmers in Nevada said they had given up on even planting, while ranchers in Northern California and New Mexico said they were being forced to sell off cattle as fields that should be four feet high with grass are a blanket of brown and stunted stalks.

Fishing and camping in much of California has been outlawed, to protect endangered salmon and guard against fires. Many people said they had already begun to cut back drastically on taking showers, washing their car and watering their lawns.

Rain and snow showers brought relief in parts of the state at the week’s end — people emerging from a movie theater in West Hollywood on Thursday evening broke into applause upon seeing rain splattering on the sidewalk — but they were nowhere near enough to make up for record-long dry stretches, officials said.

“I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my worry meter has never been this high,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition. “We are talking historical drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My industry’s job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen. And they are happening.”

Officials are girding for the kind of geographical, cultural and economic battles that have long plagued a part of the country that is defined by a lack of water: between farmers and environmentalists, urban and rural users, and the northern and southern regions of this state.

“We do have a politics of finger-pointing and blame whenever there is a problem,” said Mr. Brown. “And we have a problem, so there is going to be a tendency to blame people.” President Obama called him last week to check on the drought situation and express his concern.

Tom Vilsack, secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, said in an interview that his agency’s ability to help farmers absorb the shock, with subsidies to buy food for cattle, had been undercut by the long deadlock in Congress over extending the farm bill, which finally seemed to be resolved last week.

Mr. Vilsack called the drought in California a “deep concern,” and a warning sign of trouble ahead for much of the West.

“That’s why it’s important for us to take climate change seriously,” he said. “If we don’t do the research, if we don’t have the financial assistance, if we don’t have the conservation resources, there’s very little we can do to help these farmers.”

The crisis is unfolding in ways expected and unexpected. Near Sacramento, the low level of streams has brought out prospectors, sifting for flecks of gold in slow-running waters. To the west, the heavy water demand of growers of medical marijuana — six gallons per plant per day during a 150-day period — is drawing down streams where salmon and other endangered fish species spawn.

“Every pickup truck has a water tank in the back,” said Scott Bauer, a coho salmon recovery coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There is a potential to lose whole runs of fish.”

Without rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles basin, which has declined over the past decade, has returned to dangerous levels, as evident from the brown-tinged air. Homeowners have been instructed to stop burning wood in their fireplaces.

In the San Joaquin Valley, federal limits for particulate matter were breached for most of December and January. Schools used flags to signal when children should play indoors.

“One of the concerns is that as concentrations get higher, it affects not only the people who are most susceptible, but healthy people as well,” said Karen Magliano, assistant chief of the air quality planning division of the state’s Air Resources Board.

The impact has been particularly severe on farmers and ranchers. “I have friends with the ground torn out, all ready to go,” said Darrell Pursel, who farms just south of Yerington, Nev. “But what are you going to plant? At this moment, it looks like we’re not going to have any water. Unless we get a lot of rain, I know I won’t be planting anything.”

The University of California Cooperative Extension held a drought survival session last week in Browns Valley, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, drawing hundreds of ranchers in person and online. “We have people coming from six or seven hours away,” said Jeffrey James, who ran the session.

Dan Macon, 46, a rancher in Auburn, Calif., said the situation was “as bad as I have ever experienced. Most of our range lands are essentially out of feed.”

With each parched sunrise, a sense of alarm is rising amid signs that this is a drought that comes along only every few centuries. Sacramento had gone 52 days without water, and Albuquerque had gone 42 days without rain or snow as of Saturday.

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies much of California with water during the dry season, was at just 12 percent of normal last week, reflecting the lack of rain or snow in December and January.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Dry riverbed, Kern River in Bakersfield, California. Courtesy of David McNew/Getty Images / New York Times.

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Ancient Aquifer

curiosity-rover

Mars Curiosity Rover is at it again. This time it has unearthed (or should it be “unmarsed”) compelling evidence of an ancient lake on the red planet.

From Wired:

The latest discovery of Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover is evidence of an ancient freshwater lake on Mars that was part of an environment that could potentially have supported simple microbial life.

The lake is located inside the Gale Crater and is thought to have covered an area that is 31 miles long and three miles wide for more than 100,000 years.

According to a paper published yesterday in Science Magazine: “The Curiosity rover discovered fine-grained sedimentary rocks, which are inferred to represent an ancient lake and preserve evidence of an environment that would have been suited to support a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy.”

When analyzing two rock samples from an area known as Yellowknife Bay, researchers discovered smectite clay minerals, the chemical makeup of which showed that they had formed in water. Due to low salinity and the neutral pH, the water the minerals formed in was neither too acidic nor too alkaline for life to have once existed within it.

Chemolithoautotrophs, the form of life the researchers believed may have lived in the lake, can also be found on Earth, usually in caves or in vents on the ocean floor.

“If we put microbes from Earth and put them in this lake on Mars, would they survive? Would they survive and thrive? And the answer is yes,” the Washington Post is reporting John Grotzinger, a Caltech planetary geologist who is the chief scientist of the Curiosity rover mission, as saying at a press conference.

Evidence of water was first discovered in soil samples on Mars in September by Curiosity, which first landed on the Red Planet in August 2012 with the hope of discovering whether it may have once offered a habitable environment. Increasingly, as studies are finding evidence of the planet’s environment interacting at some point with water, researchers are believing that in the past Mars could have been a more Earth-like planet.

Curiosity cannot confirm whether or not these organisms definitely did exist on Mars, only that the environment was once ideal for them to flourish there.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Mars Curiosity Rover. Courtesy of NASA / JPL.

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Water in Them Thar Hills

Curiosity, the latest rover to explore Mars, has found lots of water in the martian soil. Now, it doesn’t run freely, but is chemically bound to other substances. Yet the large volume of H2O bodes well for future human exploration (and settlement).

From the Guardian:

Water has been discovered in the fine-grained soil on the surface of Mars, which could be a useful resource for future human missions to the red planet, according to measurements made by Nasa’s Curiosity rover.

Each cubic foot of Martian soil contains around two pints of liquid water, though the molecules are not freely accessible, but rather bound to other minerals in the soil.

The Curiosity rover has been on Mars since August 2012, landing in an area near the equator of the planet known as Gale Crater. Its target is to circle and climb Mount Sharp, which lies at the centre of the crater, a five-kilometre-high mountain of layered rock that will help scientists unravel the history of the planet.

On Thursday Nasa scientists published a series of five papers in the journal Science, which detail the experiments carried out by the various scientific instruments aboard Curiosity in its first four months on the martian surface. Though highlights from the year-long mission have been released at conferences and Nasa press conferences, these are the first set of formal, peer-reviewed results from the Curiosity mission.

“We tend to think of Mars as this dry place – to find water fairly easy to get out of the soil at the surface was exciting to me,” said Laurie Leshin, dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author on the Science paper which confirmed the existence of water in the soil. “If you took about a cubic foot of the dirt and heated it up, you’d get a couple of pints of water out of that – a couple of water bottles’ worth that you would take to the gym.”

About 2% of the soil, by weight, was water. Curiosity made the measurement by scooping up a sample of the Martian dirt under its wheels, sieving it and dropping tiny samples into an oven in its belly, an instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars. “We heat [the soil] up to 835C and drive off all the volatiles and measure them,” said Leshin. “We have a very sensitive way to sniff those and we can detect the water and other things that are released.”

Aside from water, the heated soil released sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and oxygen as the various minerals within it were decomposed as they warmed up.

One of Curiosity’s main missions is to look for signs of habitability on Mars, places where life might once have existed. “The rocks and minerals are a record of the processes that have occurred and [Curiosity is] trying to figure out those environments that were around and to see if they were habitable,” said Peter Grindrod, a planetary scientist at University College London who was not involved in the analyses of Curiosity data.

Flowing water is once thought to have been abundant on the surface of Mars, but it has now all but disappeared. The only direct sources of water found so far have been as ice at the poles of the planet.

Read the entire article here.

Image: NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. Courtesy: Nasa/Getty Images

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The Myth of Bottled Water

In 2010 the world spent around $50 Billion on bottled water, with over a third accounted for by the United States alone. During this period the United States House of Representatives spent $860,000 on bottled water for its 435 members. This is close to $2,000 per person per year. (Figures according to Corporate Accountability International).

This is despite the fact that on average bottled water costs around 1,900 times more than it’s cheaper, less glamorous sibling — tap water. Bottled water has become a truly big business even though science shows no discernible benefit of bottled water over that from the faucet. In fact, around 40 percent of bottled water comes from municipal water supplies anyway.

In 2007 Charles Fishman wrote a ground-breaking cover story on the bottled water industry for Fast Company. We excerpt part of the article, Message in a Bottle, below.

By Charles Fishman:

The largest bottled-water factory in North America is located on the outskirts of Hollis, Maine. In the back of the plant stretches the staging area for finished product: 24 million bottles of Poland Spring water. As far as the eye can see, there are double-stacked pallets packed with half-pint bottles, half-liters, liters, “Aquapods” for school lunches, and 2.5-gallon jugs for the refrigerator.

Really, it is a lake of Poland Spring water, conveniently celled off in plastic, extending across 6 acres, 8 feet high. A week ago, the lake was still underground; within five days, it will all be gone, to supermarkets and convenience stores across the Northeast, replaced by another lake’s worth of bottles.

Looking at the piles of water, you can have only one thought: Americans sure are thirsty.

Bottled water has become the indispensable prop in our lives and our culture. It starts the day in lunch boxes; it goes to every meeting, lecture hall, and soccer match; it’s in our cubicles at work; in the cup holder of the treadmill at the gym; and it’s rattling around half-finished on the floor of every minivan in America. Fiji Water shows up on the ABC show Brothers & Sisters; Poland Spring cameos routinely on NBC’s The Office. Every hotel room offers bottled water for sale, alongside the increasingly ignored ice bucket and drinking glasses. At Whole Foods, the upscale emporium of the organic and exotic, bottled water is the number-one item by units sold.

Thirty years ago, bottled water barely existed as a business in the United States. Last year, we spent more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than we spent on iPods or movie tickets–$15 billion. It will be $16 billion this year.

Bottled water is the food phenomenon of our times. We–a generation raised on tap water and water fountains–drink a billion bottles of water a week, and we’re raising a generation that views tap water with disdain and water fountains with suspicion. We’ve come to pay good money–two or three or four times the cost of gasoline–for a product we have always gotten, and can still get, for free, from taps in our homes.

When we buy a bottle of water, what we’re often buying is the bottle itself, as much as the water. We’re buying the convenience–a bottle at the 7-Eleven isn’t the same product as tap water, any more than a cup of coffee at Starbucks is the same as a cup of coffee from the Krups machine on your kitchen counter. And we’re buying the artful story the water companies tell us about the water: where it comes from, how healthy it is, what it says about us. Surely among the choices we can make, bottled water isn’t just good, it’s positively virtuous.

Except for this: Bottled water is often simply an indulgence, and despite the stories we tell ourselves, it is not a benign indulgence. We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 81/3 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water–you have to leave empty space.)

Meanwhile, one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us an array of water “varieties” from around the globe, not one of which we actually need. That tension is only complicated by the fact that if we suddenly decided not to purchase the lake of Poland Spring water in Hollis, Maine, none of that water would find its way to people who really are thirsty.

Please read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Book Review: The Big Thirst. Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman has a fascinating new book entitled The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. In it Fishman examines the origins of water on our planet and postulates an all to probable future where water becomes an increasingly limited and precious resource.

A brief excerpt from a recent interview, courtesy of NPR:

For most of us, even the most basic questions about water turn out to be stumpers.

Where did the water on Earth come from?

Is water still being created or added somehow?

How old is the water coming out of the kitchen faucet?

For that matter, how did the water get to the kitchen faucet?

And when we flush, where does the water in the toilet actually go?

The things we think we know about water — things we might have learned in school — often turn out to be myths.

We think of Earth as a watery planet, indeed, we call it the Blue Planet; but for all of water’s power in shaping our world, Earth turns out to be surprisingly dry. A little water goes a long way.

We think of space as not just cold and dark and empty, but as barren of water. In fact, space is pretty wet. Cosmic water is quite common.

At the most personal level, there is a bit of bad news. Not only don’t you need to drink eight glasses of water every day, you cannot in any way make your complexion more youthful by drinking water. Your body’s water-balance mechanisms are tuned with the precision of a digital chemistry lab, and you cannot possibly “hydrate” your skin from the inside by drinking an extra bottle or two of Perrier. You just end up with pee sourced in France.

In short, we know nothing of the life of water — nothing of the life of the water inside us, around us, or beyond us. But it’s a great story — captivating and urgent, surprising and funny and haunting. And if we’re going to master our relationship to water in the next few decades — really, if we’re going to remaster our relationship to water — we need to understand the life of water itself.

Read more of this article and Charles Fishman’s interview with NPR here.

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MondayPoem: Water

This week, theDiagonal focuses its energies on that most precious of natural resources — water.

In his short poem “Water”, Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us of its more fundamental qualities.

Emerson published his first book, Nature, in 1836, in which he outlined his transcendentalist philosophy. As Poetry Foundation elaborates:

His manifesto stated that the world consisted of Spirit (thought, ideas, moral laws, abstract truth, meaning itself ) and Nature (all of material reality, all that atoms comprise); it held that the former, which is timeless, is the absolute cause of the latter, which serves in turn to express Spirit, in a medium of time and space, to the senses. In other words, the objective, physical world—what Emerson called the “Not-Me”—is symbolic and exists for no other purpose than to acquaint human beings with its complement—the subjective, ideational world, identified with the conscious self and referred to in Emersonian counterpoint as the “Me.” Food, water, and air keep us alive, but the ultimate purpose for remaining alive is simply to possess the meanings of things, which by definition involves a translation of the attention from the physical fact to its spiritual value.

By Ralph Waldo Emerson

– Water

The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

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Flowing Water on Mars?

NASA’s latest spacecraft to visit Mars, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, has made some stunning observations that show the possibility of flowing water on the red planet. Intriguingly,  repeated observations of the same regions over several Martian seasons show visible changes attributable to some kind of dynamic flow.

From NASA / JPL:

Observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars.

“NASA’s Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration.”

Dark, finger-like features appear and extend down some Martian slopes during late spring through summer, fade in winter, and return during the next spring. Repeated observations have tracked the seasonal changes in these recurring features on several steep slopes in the middle latitudes of Mars’ southern hemisphere.

“The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water,” said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson. McEwen is the principal investigator for the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and lead author of a report about the recurring flows published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science.

Some aspects of the observations still puzzle researchers, but flows of liquid brine fit the features’ characteristics better than alternate hypotheses. Saltiness lowers the freezing temperature of water. Sites with active flows get warm enough, even in the shallow subsurface, to sustain liquid water that is about as salty as Earth’s oceans, while pure water would freeze at the observed temperatures.

More from theSource here.

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