We have lots of cool, clear water on our planet. But ever think about how it first got here? The folks at MinuteEarth have been thinking about that.
Courtesy Welome ImagesResearchers from the University of Amsterdam have found that nanomachines work more efficiently when water is added as a "lubricant". Nanomachines are structures just one molecule in size (a few dozen atoms or so) that do work. When researchers added a small amount of water to the solvent that surrounded the nanomachines, the machines moved much faster.
Discovering how to optimize these tiny machines is important for the development of things like molecular computers and surfaces that can change properties.
Courtesy Tomas CastelazoIt was just a few weeks ago we posted incredible pictures and video of devastating floods ripping through Duluth. Now, on a national scale, the weather story is drought. But how bad is it really?
Depends on where you live, but much of the Midwest is falling into drought conditions. It's bad, but not as wide spread as the peak of U.S. drought conditions from 1934. USA Today has an interesting toggle map that allows you compare today's conditions with that record drought.
Even earlier this summer, heavy rains in the Twin Cities had lockmasters along the Mississippi River shutting their gates to control fast-flowing river water. Now downstream, the Mississippi is approaching record-level lows. In some areas around Memphis, the river level has fallen 55 feet from highs set last summer. This CNN website report has interesting satellite images of the newly slimmed Mississippi compared to last year's look.
What do you think of this crazy weather? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.
About a month ago, a frack-sand mining operation near Grantsburg, WI, spilled some fine-grained sediment from a settling pond into a tributary of the St. Croix River. Local news media covered the story, and more details, for example, can be found in the Pioneer Press story by Dennis Lien.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, there are standards regarding water turbidity, which means that as a society we’ve decided that we don’t like cloudy water, at least in some settings and at some levels. For a naturally clear-water system like the St. Croix, increasing turbidity would alter the food chain at all levels. Algal primary producers rely on sunlight blocked by turbidity. Sight-based predation at the top of the food change would be altered. Benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms that depend on coarse substrates could be smothered by siltation. Especially in the St. Croix, one of the last refugia for freshwater endangered mussel species, we must be on guard against too much fine sediment. And finally, where does the sediment end up? It’s filling up not only man-made reservoirs but also treasured natural lakes, iconically Lake St. Croix and Lake Pepin. These lakes are filling in with fine-grained sediment at about 3X and 10X their natural rates, respectively. (How do we know? See work done by the Museum’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station.)
Hey, it’s only a little bit...
Or was it? How much is a little? A little here, a little there, and a little more from over there -- it starts to add up. All water in a watershed runs downhill to the river, efficiently carrying both particles and dissolved materials. The river ultimately sees it all: all the disturbances, however seemingly minor, throughout the watershed. Rivers die a death of a thousand cuts. We have enough difficulty trying to control nonpoint sources of sediment and other pollutants. Stopping discharge of fine-grained materials from a mining operation is eminently fixable. It’s the right thing to do. Fortunately, all parties seem in agreement on this, including the mining company, which has repaired its leaky dike.
"The New York Department of Environmental Protection installed a prototype "algal turf scrubber" at once of its wastewater treatment plants in Queens. The scrubber--two 350-foot metal ramps coated with algae that grows naturally--is designed to use algae to remove nutrients and boost dissolved oxygen in the water that passes through it. John McLaughlin, Director of Ecological Services for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and Peter May, restoration ecologist for Biohabitats, explain how the scrubber works, and where the harvested algae goes."
The Minnesota Idea Open is a state-wide idea challenge to address important issues facing Minnesota. This year, the Idea Open Challenge focused on water issues, asking the public: “How would you use $15,000 to help your community become aware of and address water issues in Minnesota?” The Idea Open received 112 ideas from people across the state, and a panel of judges narrowed the ideas to three finalists.
Now, it’s up to the people of Minnesota to decide who is going to be our Challenge Champion! Watch the three videos below and decide which one should receive $15,000 to help make their idea become a reality!
Idea #1: Are You Thirsty?
Submitted by Loren Niemi and Sandy Spieler from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
Loren and Sandy’s idea is to raise awareness of water issues by merging theater and environmental education through artistic performances of “Are You Thirsty?” for organizations, churches, schools, and Greater Minnesota communities. "Are You Thirsty?" is a two-person performance that uses puppet and mask theater to engage the audience in thinking about their relationship with water.
Idea #2: Minnesota FarmWise
Submitted by Peggy Knapp from the Freshwater Society, in partnership with Lark Weller from the Mississippi National River Recreation Area (MNRRA)
Peggy and Lark’s idea is to recruit experienced and retired farmers who have successfully implemented conservation farming techniques. The farmers will mentor, educate, and lead other farmers to implement best practices that have been farmer-proven and farmer-approved.
Idea #3: Canoe and Kayak Library
Submitted by Todd Foster of Friends of the Sauk River
St. Cloud, MN
Todd’s idea is to create a canoe and kayak library where people in the community can borrow canoes and kayaks to use on Minnesota waters. Todd believes that getting people (especially youth) outside on Minnesota lakes, steams, and rivers increases the chances that they will help protect our state’s water resources.
Make sure to check www.mnideaopen.com to find out if your favorite idea receives $15,000 to make it a reality!
Minnesota Idea Open is a venture of Minnesota Community Foundation with its partners: Pentair and its Foundation, Ashoka's Changemakers and the Citizens League.
Courtesy TecfanBy Poseidon's leather hammock! It is the goodship Puddleduck, gone all these years! I thought it lost, perhaps to the waves and rocks of the Horn, or to wild, orange skinned, and tattooed cannibals off the Jersey Shore! Why, were any of those sailors to have left a woman with child (or a man, through some Arnold-Schwarzenegger-in-Junior experiment) before their last voyage, that child would already be speaking fluent French, and learning to play the harpsichord, assuming it was born a genius. (But what other sort of child would a sailor of the Puddleduck produce?!)
Good seamen! I know you must be tired after your adventures, but, we beg of you, share with us but a glimpse of the glittering knowledge you have gained! Please, just the answer to a single question? By Hermes' chafing subligaculum, tell us!
Aaah, thank you!
My science class was learning about energy saving and we learned about water energy. I wrote down that it is a renewable source because we have a never ending supply of water. That could be true at times but then my teacher told me that we only have a little bit of water per person. How does it work so that we have a renewable source (never ending supply) but still have to worry about running out of water?
Ha ha! Good question, dear LRuble! You're fortunate, because deep in the hold of the Puddleduck we have your answer! [I'm the captain now. Deal with it.]
You see, both you and your cursed, blessed teacher are correct! This planet of ours is mostly covered in water—o, how the sailors of the Puddleduck know this to be true—and nothing humans do will change the amount of water the Earth's by any appreciable amount. (We can separate water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, and we can produce it by burning hydrogen in an oxygen-rich environment, but that ain't no thing.) So, in this respect, you are correct—you! You, dear LRuble!
BUT, in another perhaps more important way, you are also incorrect, and it's your foul, fine teacher who is correct!
Have you ever heard the old adage, "Water, water, everywhere, and if you drink a drop, you're freaking dead!"? It's particularly relevant here. You see, while there are what scientists call "buttloads" of water on the planet, only a tiny fraction of a buttload is "fresh." We can't drink or water our fields with saltwater, and 97.25% of all the water on Earth is salty. Of the 2.75% that's fresh, most is frozen (and largely unavailable to us). The rest, about 0.7% of the water on the planet, is in lakes, rivers, and underground. Not very much, eh?
Indeed, some of the ground water we use is what we call "fossil water," water left underground by geological events thousands or millions of years ago. Fossil water is no more renewable than fossil fuels are, and yet we're still using it up for drinking and irrigation.
Lots of people rely on water from mountain glaciers, but as these glaciers shrink from climate change that will become less available.
And lest you think lakes and rivers are limitless sources of water, you need only look to the Aral Sea in Asia, which has dried to a tiny fraction of its former size because of withdrawals for irrigation, and the Colorado River, which often runs dry before it reaches the sea, for the very same reason.
So there's always going to be lots of water on the planet, but we have already proven our ability to consume the relatively tiny amount of available fresh water at a far greater rate than it is replenished. It's renewable, I suppose, but not like the energy of the sun, and, as your terrible, wonderful teacher says, there's only so much to go around.
I only hope that can tide you over, until the next time we ladle out some sweet, precious answers!
This started as a reply to Bryan's comment on the Freaky Frogs post, but it quickly turned into its own blog entry...
Here's Bryan's comment:
I thought the whole BPA freakout was an interesting look at how we think about environmental and personal contaminants like this. People seemed to get all up in arms about BPA in water bottles and bought tons of new plastic or aluminium vessels to replace them. But that switch over raised some questions for me.
Where did all those old bottles go? In the trash?
How much energy does it take to make those aluminium bottles? Is it lots more than the plastic ones?
How many bottles can you own before it'd just be better to use disposable paper?
Courtesy US Government
And my response...
It took some searching, but I did find one article discussing a life cycle analysis from Australia which showed that, in a comparison between aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic, plastic has the smallest carbon emissions footprint, uses the least water, and produces the least manufacturing waste. However, it was unclear whether this comparison included recycled metals in its evaluation. Steel and aluminum are 100% recyclable (vs. plastic, which loses quality every time it's recycled), so over time and on a large scale, their use would lead to less material waste.
Courtesy Matthew Baugh
It's also interesting to note that recycling metals uses significantly less energy vs. what it would take to smelt "new" metal. To paraphrase this reference, recycling steel and aluminum saves 74% and 95%, respectively, of the energy used to make these metals from scratch. As it turns out, we recycle about half the steel we use in a year in the US, and so almost all the steel we use contains recycled content. In contrast, we recycle just 7 percent of the plastic we use.
And then there's glass--we have lots of options, really.
Courtesy Ivy Main
I can't speak to how much material was wasted when people discarded all those bottles (I think I recycled mine?). Personally, I do think that making reusable bottles in general uses less energy than is needed to make all those disposable plastics and recycle them--at least in terms of lifetime footprints. Of course, when it comes to a strict comparison between reusable bottles, switching to a new bottle will always consume more energy than just sticking with your old one.
Unfortunately, it turns out that most plastics, even the ones labeled BPA-free, leach estrogen-mimicking chemicals. So if you're looking for a long term solution, it may be best to just avoid plastics altogether. This does seem to be one of those cases where we have to consider our own health vs. the environment and pick our battles wisely. If people want to switch once to avoid health problems, at least they're still sticking with reusable bottles. Readers, do you agree?
Of course, it would be great if choosing a water bottle were the only drinking water issue we faced. The other day I read about a study by Environmental Working Group, which found that the carcinogen chromium-6 contaminates tap water throughout the US. Are we exposing ourselves to this toxic metal by drinking tap water instead of pre-bottled water? Or is chromium in the bottled water, too? What about other unregulated pollutants in our water?
I guess my point of going into all this is that it's complicated to make these decisions, and we'll probably never be able to avoid every single toxic substance. But does that mean we shouldn't try to make drinking water safer?
For now, I'm gonna stick with the steel and aluminum bottles that I already have and try to get the most out of them. Luckily, I live in the Twin Cities, which don't rate high on EWG's chromium map. Every day, I learn more about my health and the health of our environment, and hopefully by searching, I'll find a direction that hits on a fair compromise.
Courtesy ZooFariHere’s my impression of the future:
“Um, hey. How was lunch? Italian dunkers, eh? Nice. Gotta love the dunkers. Ate those right up, I see. Pretty good sauce too, huh? Got some extra sauce there, actually. Were you going to… can I have that sauce? Yeah? Oh, it’s SO good.”
Yeah, that’s the future for you. Man, is he hungry. Stuff you wouldn’t touch, the future will pound back like Captain Haddock with a bottle of Loch Lomond (before that fiasco in San Theodoros).
But the future is smart, because it realizes that Italian dunker sauce is in short supply, and it’ll take perfectly good extra sauce wherever it can get it.
Are you following the metaphor still? Were you thrown by Captaion Haddock?
Here’s what I’m saying: in the next few decades, we’re going to be super hungry for energy, food, and water, because there will be about 9 billion of us on the planet. So, in addition to coming up with new ways to produce of all of these things, we’re going to have to look for areas where they’re being wasted right now, like all those puddles of Italian Dunker sauce being shoveled into the cafeteria trash bins.
Example: drinking potato chip water.
Potatoes, as it happens, are about 75% water. When we turn them into potato chips, we get rid of all that water—we bake it, dry it, and fry it away. Considering how much we love dried potato products, that’s a lot of water wasted.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop eating potato chips. (NEVER!) Instead, some factories have been installing equipment to reclaim water that would otherwise be vented out of potato processing facilities as steam. One of the factories where the technology is being tried may be able to recapture as much as 3,000 liters of water an hour (about 790 gallons an hour). This water, already clean and pure, can be reused in the factory, or even sent back into the municipal water system.
Although the article doesn’t mention it, I’d be willing to bet that there’s another product being recaptured with the water: energy. Steam, after all, is just water with a whole bunch of heat energy in it. With the right equipment, heat can be extracted from steam, and reused for anything from cooking to powering heating and cooling equipment.
Do you see now? The future, with its peanut butter covered fingers and greasy South Park t-shirt isn’t quite the loser you think it is. It’s using all that Italian Dunker sauce, in ways that you never imagined possible.
An underwater turbine farm producing enough electricity to power 250,000 homes could one day be installed in the Mississippi. Though the project faces some funding and development challenges, the technology has real promise for a river delta starved of sediments. What if dams could be removed and replaced with freestanding turbines?