Category Archives: Water

Salting Down Our Lakes & Streams

While the Persian Gulf is dealing with a 25% increase in salt concentration due to half a dozen desalination dependent states on its shores, the car crazy U.S. is salting lakes and streams as a result of clearing ice and snow. And this comes on top of wrecking groundwater with ill advised fracking for oil and gas.

Global Water Insecurity Cartogram

Words can not describe how maddening it is to watch us wreck a resource that, in the case of aquifers, will require another glaciation to cleanse.

I grew up in the far northwest corner of my home state, the region known as the Iowa Great Lakes. Wikipedia thinks it’s just Dickinson county but there are lakes in Clay, Emmet, and Palo Alto, too.

Marble Lake

Marble Lake

Among the over one hundred bodies of water in the four county area there are seventeen permanent islands. Four of those are in Virgin Lake, three are drowned bits of shore, one is an enormous pile of glacial erratics. This lake formed due to meltwater draining through a glacier, depositing the rock as it left.

Virgin Lake

Virgin Lake

Five Island Lake #4 Erratics

Five Island Lake #4 Erratics

The pile of glacial erratics in Virgin Lake is maybe two acres but it’s hard to photograph. This postage stamp sized island in Five Island Lake has less cover and shows its glacial erratic composition.

Ingham Lake Island

Ingham Lake Island

I can’t write without including a few pictures. I can’t write about fresh water without cruising my Flickr account. And once I do that my attachment to California’s mild climate melts away like Iowa snow in April. I want to go home, not just back to the farm, I want this ramp, that kayak, a second boat with camping gear to pull behind, and that island.

 

Erratic Wall

Erratic Wall

Most Iowa farm buildings are wood, but the farm where I grew up is now a century old and its buildings are clay block. This wall is a barn well off the main roads and it dates to the late 1800s. This 1895 farmhouse is now part of Peterson Point state park, just a few hundred yards from the ramp pictures above.

Peterson Point Farm House

Peterson Point Farm House

 

The kame and kettle topography of my home is less likely to change than other parts of the world, thanks to a large amount of water and a limited supply of people. The paved roads get salt in the winter but the vast majority are gravel laid out in Louisiana Purchase one mile grids.

There are wonders there, an oasis of some sort in every mile of gravel that spans the corn desert, but you’d need a native to find them, despite the regularity of the roads.

Tilted

Tilted

Graphene v. Saline

Desalination Plant

Desalination Plant

I recorded a litany of woe from Phys.org regarding water but hadn’t really had the spark that leads to an article:

Most of what I have to say any more is about Functional Triage, but this is one of those rare moments where there is a glimmer of hope. Graphene Sieve Turns Sea Water Into Drinking Water is precisely the sort of news we need.

If you want to make drinking water out of sea water there are a variety of methods, which can be summed up as ‘boil & condense’ or ‘push through a filter’.  Graphene is the later variety and the reason it’s exciting are the questions of scale and energy input. If you can build a large plant cheaply, or a small system that works, that’s a win. If it takes much less energy than current reverse osmosis, that’s even better.

I haven’t seen any studies about the details, but I think it would be great if a city with nearby high ground could pump seawater up, using tides or wind energy, then the natural pressure of the gradient would be sufficient to produce drinking water at the base.

 

That middle article keeps drawing my eye. Our international food trade happens quickly – think fresh fruit year round by jet, and it happens slowly in bulk. Look at where we produce wheat and where we don’t have enough water per capita.

World Wheat Production

World Wheat Production

Global Water Insecurity Cartogram

And then finally, look at the fragile states index:

2016 Fragile States

2016 Fragile States

As global wheat trade changes, because oil is more dear, because irrigation water is exhausted, we come right back to Functional Triage. If we can start producing graphene desalination systems that work at nominal pressure, perhaps coupled with solar power or simple gravity pressure, that changes things in many places. It doesn’t fix the large scale winnners/losers problem, but it softens things along the margins, and that’s where humanity will survive in pockets.

Africa’s Great Green Wall

Here’s a spot of good news. I have seen articles about low key plant based geo-engineering, but I didn’t realize it was so advanced. There is a Great Green Wall being built in an effort to hold back the rapidly advancing Sahara.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

The numbers cited in the brochure on the project are encouraging:

  • 500,000 hectares of Acacia woodlands restored in Burkina-Faso, Senegal, and Niger
  • 5,000,000 hectares of farmland rehabilitated in Mali, Burkina-Faso, Niger, and Ethiopia
  • $1 billion invested in Sahel & West Africa Program

The last time I can recall a quoted figure in a documentary, I believe the Sahara was advancing south in the Sahel at a rate of ten miles per year. Climate change will continue to drive that advance, but if it can be slowed by wiser practices across tens of thousands of square miles, that is a good thing.

The Sahara is a major feature on a large continent and it’s also a global climate force, cooling the Iberian peninsula, fertilizing the Atlantic, and impacting air quality in the Caribbean. Best of all, from my perspective, the dust drives California snowfall.

The most interesting effect of the dust is this – when it was less, the warming of the Atlantic drove a stronger monsoon, which kept the Sahara wetter – a positive feedback loop.

I’ve covered ice cores here and the more I look the more I find mention of sediment cores, such as the one that exposed the details of the end of the African Humid Period.

 

Climate is complex and I would argue that it is the existential threat for our species, in conjunction with our inability to maintain our population at a sensible level. The Great Green Wall is a rear guard defense, but it’s a line of defense for South Africa, our species theoretical redoubt during the Toba Catastrophe. Keep in mind that while the Toba theory has been debunked, our species did survive a genetic bottleneck, and there are signs that the refuge was the costal caves near Cape Town.

Priced Out Of The Water Market

A phrase that used to pop up on peak oil blogs was the clever euphemism “priced out of the food market” – neoliberalspeak for something much simpler in humans terms – starved.

Water: The Dry Facts isn’t quite that blunt, but I read the same thinking behind it.

Global Water Pressure

Global Water Pressure

We’ve covered water stress here, most notably in Yemen, Lebanon, and the Tigris & Euphrates basin. One of the biggest issues is efficiency – Cold War era civil engineering projects lose half the water they handle in some places and Egypt is covering open canals to prevent high losses due to evaporation. We have to get better at protecting fresh water, since there are more of us and less of it to go around.

 

The key to managing water better is to price it properly, giving consumers a reason not to waste it and investors an incentive to build infrastructure to supply it. Vast sums are needed: over $26 trillion between 2010 and 2030, by one estimate. Before water can be properly priced, however, it needs to be clear who owns it (or, more precisely, who has the right to extract how much from rivers, aquifers and so on). Australia has led the way in creating such a system of tradable water rights.

And there it is – the inevitable free market fairy dust. They suggest a blockchain solution, which would more more transparent and less susceptible to fiddling, but my initial thesis holds – some people and the environments they inhabit will be priced out of the market.

One of the mistakes free market fairy dust pushers make is the failure to account for what they call ‘externalities’. If you can sell an acre foot of water today for $100 that’s great, never mind the $10,000 in economic activity downstream that won’t be happening because of this, and definitely don’t worry about entire ecosystems collapsing because we’re using all precipitation and over drafting groundwater.

Water is easily understood as a liquid resource that can be pumped, stored, and used for a variety of activities.  But here in California Mother Nature has been showing us who is in charge – years of blistering drought, a failed El Niño, and then a mixed blessing/curse in the form of a massive Pineapple Express that nearly blew out the Oroville Dam.

Writing this pulls me out of reality and into recalling a work by one of my favorite authors, Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids. I’ve only read this book twice and I did so in rapid succession, buying it in hardback when it came out in 2009. Distraction, another favorite of mine by the same author, is a book about the day after tomorrow, while Caryatids is about a world our grandchildren may experience.

I feel like I should have some sort of rousing conclusion for this, but every line of thought leads to more questions than answers. I guess this is a sort of mental milestone, a place I’ll revisit at some time in the future when some of the fog clears.

Not Just Ice Cores, Here Is A Dead Sea Salt Core

Under the Dead Sea, warnings of dire drought jumped right at me off the Phys page.

Dead Sea Salt Core

Dead Sea Salt Core: below the seabed, drilling revealed thick layers of salt, precipitated out during past warm, dry periods. In this specimen, transparent crystals (left) formed on what was then the bottom during winter; finer white ones (right) formed on the water surface in summer and later sank. Credit: Yael Kiro/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The salt core was drilled in 2010 and is now receiving renewed, deeper scrutiny. During interstadial periods the Mideast becomes drier, so much so that inflows of fresh water into the Dead Sea largely stop. We’re not that dry yet, but human use of the Jordan River has effectively accomplished the same thing.

Jordan is developing the Disi aquifer and there is a Red to Dead canal planned.  The Saudis have long tapped that water for local agriculture in a foolhardy bid for food security that runs counter to the natural resources they have at their command. Jordan is engaged in a rear guard action for land that will inevitably become desiccated.

 

This triptych gives as sense of the progression of events in the Dead Sea. The south of the sea is shallow and has been steadily overtaken by human construction. Current practices involve the annual removal of two million tons of potash (potassium chloride) and other salts. You should recognize potash as a precursor for one of the three key plant fertilizers, potassium. It is the least concern of the three in terms of being a Liebig Minimum.

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

 

Bodies of water in the area drain and fill naturally as a consequence of Earth’s glacial cycles. There is a somewhat controversial theory, the Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis, that is thought to be an explanation of the origin of various great flood myths in the region.

The Mediterranean Sea has experienced similar events – the Messinian Salinity Crisis and the Zanclean Flood that restored the sea to its current condition. There are cores from both the Black and Mediterranean seas, but they do not receive the same level of attention that ice cores do.

Four and a half years ago I published Why Gaza Is Screwed, a review of the water supply issues faced there. This is a ticking bomb for foreign policy, a pool of 1.6 million climate refugees just waiting to happen. The entire arc from West Africa to the Indus river valley faces this problem.

 

North of the Dead Sea is the Sea of Galilee, home to the Ohalo archeological site, which was occupied 8,000 years before North America’s Blackwater Draw. Humans hunted, gathered, and apparently performed early experiments with agriculture, inhabiting the site for a few generation before a fire of unknown origin leveled the simple huts. This site was revealed thanks to an epic drought in the late 20th century.

The Denisovans and Neanderthals were already gone except for their imprint on our genetics when that site was inhabited. Humans are now so pervasive and mobile that it will be difficult to track anything based on  genetics, but the Anthropocene is going to feature a massive cull of our species. What comes next? Maybe homo futurae, two thirds of our average height today, so they’ll tolerate the heat, digging into our species’ massive middens a hundred thousand years from now, wondering why we weren’t better at understanding our place in the web of life.

Record Heat Sans El Niño

The smallest posts on Phys.org are often the most terrifying.

Even without an El Nino warming the world’s waters, Earth in February sizzled to its second hottest temperature on record, behind only last year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that February 2017 averaged 55.66 degrees (13.08 degrees Celsius). That’s 1.76 degrees (.98 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 20th century average.

It was also the second hottest winter in the on record. Records go back to 1880.

In the past, Earth doesn’t come near record heat if there’s no El Nino. This year it did—on every continent.

NOAA climate scientist Ahira Sanchez-Lugo called it clear evidence of .

She calculated that the rate of February warming since 1980 is twice as high as since 1880.

July of 2016 was the hottest individual month on record. Just prior to that we had the hottest eleven month streak on record. There are two kinds of reports now – abnormally warm, and extraordinarily abnormally warm.

Previously in Liebig’s Red Line I noted that not only do biological systems have resource constraints, but technical systems do, too. If we were wise we’d be hustling as hard as possible to convert all air conditioning requirements in this country to solar, given that the need matches the production curve. The other big benefits are that solar is naturally distributed, it’s a source of heat for cool, but sunny days, and best of all it produces electricity without requiring cooling water.

California got a reprieve last month in the form of record setting rains, and then we got another reprieve in the form of the Oroville emergency spillway holding despite the stress. Had it failed the top 30′ of the largest reservoir in the state would have come out all at once. The evacuation of nearly 200,000 Butte county residents was deemed a necessary precaution. Now we sit and wait and hope that this early fill is enough, given that the heat is going to quickly drain our natural storage in the Sierra snow pack.

Oroville Spillway

Oroville Spillway. It’s supposed to be a long, straight chute full of water.

 

Pakistan’s Greatest Peril

The news from Pakistan’a Gilgit-Balistan province is grim:

  • 30% of normal snowfall
  • November to March snow was observed before 1994
  • Snows came only January & February 2014
  • March melt is four to six weeks early
  • Water is already gone by May planting time

This province is in the far north of Pakistan, part of the small area that gets snow.

Pakistan Snowfall Areas

Pakistan Snowfall Areas

The country is subject to monsoon rains between June and September, but centered on six weeks in July and August. The cooler, higher altitude areas get the bulk of the precipitation.

Indian Ocean Normal Monsoon

Indian Ocean Normal Monsoon

Pakistan 2012 Monsoon

Pakistan 2012 Monsoon

But on just one night in 2010 this happened, leaving 20% of Pakistan under water.

Pakistan 2010 Flood Rainfall

Pakistan 2010 Flood Rainfall

Various stories can be found indicating the per capita water availability in Pakistan is 20% of what it was when they achieved independence in 1947. These stories neglect to mention population – which has more than quintupled in that time.

Pakistan Population

Pakistan Population

Pakistan’s elected government has been taken over by the army three times starting in 1958 and these takeovers last an average of eleven years. The recent assassination of Hamid Mir, a GeoTV journalist, and the TV network’s immediate blaming of Inter-Services Intelligence are seen as signs that 2014 may see another coup.

A military government can quash dissent and push through unpopular but necessary adaptive infrastructure, like a dam that will flood part of one valley for the sake of stabilizing a region. The problem is that Pakistan already has a couple of domestic insurgencies and countering violence today will take precedence over civil engineering projects that will not contribute immediately to stability.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and couple of the former Soviet stans, along with Iran itself are part of a geographic region the Persian empire called Parthia, but which we now call Greater Iran. Click through that link and you’ll find a similar story about Iran, which stands to have 45 million of their population of 75 million become climate refugees(!)

Greater Iran

Greater Iran

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

The Soviet Union blundered into a war of attrition with Afghan tribes in 1979 and this was a big factor in their collapse in 1991. Just eleven years after Afghanistan’s most recent imperial kill, the United States, as sure of democracy as the Russians were of communism, marched right into the same trap. The United States has not collapsed outright just yet, but the economic malaise at home and our shaky grasp on foreign affairs are clear signs of what is to come.

This entire region is over carrying capacity. This should be both the first and last thought when considering any long term plans. India, Russia, and Turkey will bear the brunt of this and they are the ones who are in a position to do something. The days of unilateral U.S. action are over. If you want to make predictions for the region look at precipitation and the price of staple foods such as wheat, because they matter in ways that ideology and rhetoric can never match.