Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate

Oct
25
2010

Have you ever heard of ‘ocean acidification’? If not, don’t feel alone. You are in vast majority. A new study by Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale University found that that just 25 percent of Americans have ever heard of ocean acidification – the process whereby carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities eventually dissolves into the sea producing carbonic acid which depresses the pH of the ocean. Ocean acidification threatens to dramatically alter marine life if present trends continue. A more informed citizenry is essential if steps are to be taken to address this threat to our futures.

The Science Museum of Minnesota and Fresh Energy on the evening of Thursday, November 4 are hosting the Twin Cities film premiere of the documentary, A Sea Change . The screening of this award-winning, 90-minute film will begin at 6:30 PM followed by Q&A with the film’s director, co-producer, lead NOAA ocean acidification scientist, and Fresh Energy’s science policy director and then concluding with a dessert reception. I hope that you will take advantage of this unique opportunity to see the film and then socialize afterwards. Go to the Science Museum's adult programs to order your tickets.

Oct
15
2010

Water issues are complex and interrelated, so it can be difficult to solve them. But because water is essential to our way of life, we gotta get to work!

Here's an example of how convoluted things can get:

A study at the University of California in Irvine found that freshwater runoff (from precipitation and ice sheet melting) into the oceans has increased significantly--18% more water flowed into the oceans in 2006 compared to 1994. The main problem with this is that the freshwater then becomes saltwater, and we have to wait for it to evaporate and rain onto the ground for it to become drinkable/cookable/agriculturable again. But with global warming, precipitation patterns have changed so that the areas that need water aren't getting as much as they used to.

Speaking of global warming, CO2 in the atmosphere does more than heat things up--it dissolves into the ocean, which makes the water more acidic. This change in pH, though subtle, could become sufficient to kill delicate creatures such as krill in the Southern Ocean within 100 years. Considering that many of the fish we like to eat dine on krill, this could pose a big problem in the future.

But it gets more complicated. The runoff from agricultural fields contains nitogren-based fertilizers, and rivers release tons of it into the ocean each year. The nitrogen fuels an overgrowth of algae, which die when the nitrogen is gone and fall to the seafloor. There, they are consumed by bacteria that thrive and gobble up all the oxygen, creating a "dead zone" where plants and animals cannot live. While human activities add double the natural amount of nitrogen into soils, about 60% of that fertilizer is never used by the plant and ends up in the ocean. Some of it also ends up in the atmosphere, where it becomes N2O--a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. This adds to global warming, bringing us back to increased freshwater runoff.

In short, more water is running into the ocean and that water is full of ick that kills stuff and makes more water run into the ocean. Ick.

Oct
15
2010

How much water is is needed to make ___?

Water footprint: Water used to produce items
Water footprint: Water used to produce itemsCourtesy lorigami
This awesome graphic shows how many gallons of water it takes to produce some common foods. Producing a pound of meat can require thousands of gallons of water. So when you pledge to use less water you need to consider how much water was required to make some of the things you use.

What is your "water footprint"?

A good place to start in learning about water consumption is WaterFootPrint.org.
One page calculated water used per person per year for various nations.

  • United States ----- 2 1/2 million Kgs
  • China --------------- 7/10 million Kgm
  • World average ---- 1 1/4 Kgm

There is a Water Footprint Calculator for anyone wishing to compare their personal water usage with others. Everything is metric, though.

Raise you water usage awareness

TreeHugger has water footprint explained using pounds and gallons.
Browse through some of this information and tell us what you learned in the comments.

Oct
15
2010

I'm watching you...: No, not you, JGordon. Get over yourself.
I'm watching you...: No, not you, JGordon. Get over yourself.Courtesy NOAA Photo Library
I always assumed that I was under near-constant supervision by government satellites. I figured that because satellites can’t really see me inside stores (where I do all my shoplifting), they’d be making up for lost time by watching me put stolen clothing on the dog (in the yard) and having my bubble baths (near a window).

At first it was creepy … but then it was sort of comforting. Like a nightlight. A nightlight that’s always looking at you.

Well, it turns out that my privacy may actually be pretty low on NASA’s list of priorities.

See, a new online system was just launched in the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, which should allow scientists and concerned organizations access to images from NASA satellites. Cool, I thought. I’ll get a fancy new hat. But, no, it just so happens that the images aren’t of me relaxing on the roof, or of me washing my car in carwash-appropriate clothing—they’re images of the Himalayas, and the massive glaciers they hold.

I wouldn’t say that I’m “devastated,” exactly. But I am crushed. I thought we—NASA and I—had something. I mean, yes, those images are recorded and distributed to track the effects of climate change on Himalayan glaciers, and, yes, the glaciers appear to be shrinking at an alarming rate, and, yes, more than a billion people depend on the water released by those glaciers, but … what about my feelings?

Hopefully, the data provided by the satellites will help the people in vast regions of Asia to prepare for floods and, perhaps eventually, severe shortages of fresh water.

In the meantime… I guess I’ll just hide some nanny-cams around the house. To feel looked after, you know?

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]

Oct
15
2010

California water wars
California water warsCourtesy Los Angeles
Every year, my friends in California give me a Mono Lake calendar. I will be there next week to see for myself how the Lake is doing. Mono Lake is recovering after the California Water Wars.

California water wars started 100+ yrs ago

Water diversion, speculation, and fighting has been going on in California for more than 100 years. About 110 years ago some of the visionary leaders in Los Angeles decided to dig canals all the way across the state to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and divert and carry its water to their growing city.

Battle in courts to save Mono Lake

Because the waters were diverted, the water level in Mono Lake started to fall, and the Mono Lake ecosystem became severely impacted.

In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to protect Mono Lake. The Committee (and the National Audubon Society) sued LADWP in 1979, arguing that the diversions violated the public trust doctrine, which states that navigable bodies of water must be managed for the benefit of all people. The litigation reached the California Supreme Court by 1983, which ruled in favor of the Committee. Further litigation was initiated in 1984, which claimed that LADWP did not comply with the state fishery protection laws.

"In 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) established significant public trust protection and eco-system restoration standards, and LADWP was required to release water into Mono Lake to raise the lake level 20 feet. As of 2003, the water level in Mono Lake has risen 9 feet of the required 20 feet. Los Angeles made up for the lost water through state-funded conservation and recycling projects." Wikipedia

Water scarcity will cause more wars

I read recently that a UN Development Program report predicted that Scarcity of water, over the next 25 years, will possibly be the leading reason for major conflicts in Africa, not oil.’

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]

Oct
15
2010

Burdened by water
Burdened by waterCourtesy One Laptop per Child

Thirsty?

When you are thirsty, how long does it take for you to get a drink of water? Drinking water, like breathing air, is necessary to stay alive. So to stay alive, you do what you have to to get some water.

Would you walk three hours for water?

In Africa alone, people, usually women and children, spend 40 billion hours every year just walking for water. Once, when I ran out gas I tried carrying 5 gallons of gas to my car. My arm sockets ached so bad after a quarter mile that I considered pouring half of it out. Five gallons of water weighs 40 pounds. No way I would carry it on my head (an old neck injury would really flare up). I know that carrying that water is causing neck, back, and arm pain.

Wishing for a well

Some charitable organizations are hoping contributions can be used to provide relief to those needing easier and safer sources of water.

With safe water nearby, women are free to pursue new opportunities and improve their families’ lives. Kids can earn their education and build the future of their communities.

They figure that "every $1 invested in improved water access and sanitation yields an average of $12 in economic returns, depending on the project." charitywater.org.

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]

Oct
15
2010

.

Blog Action Day 2010

Water is a global issue, deserving a global conversation. Blog Action Day is an annual event held every October 15. The idea is for everyone to talk about the same topic on the same day to increase world awareness about that topic. This year the topic is WATER.

Water ideas to blog about

You can go here blogaction page at change.org for blogging ideas about water.

Please say something about World Water

I am going to spend 5 or 6 hours today blogging about water. I will put links to my posts in the comments below. If you have time, please use our comments area to talk about World Water.

Oct
13
2010

Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.
Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.Courtesy Ineuw
We love whale poop around here. Love it love it love it. Can’t get enough. It’s fortunate for us that whales poop so much—if you were to get the planet’s daily supply of whale poop in one place, and if you were also in that place, you would suffocate. It’d be awful.

The reason we love whale poop so much is because of its role in what Elton John and I like to call “the circle of life.”

We’ve already discussed how sperm whales have a net negative contribution to atmospheric CO2, because of all the iron in their poop. (The iron rich waste feeds tiny sea creatures, which, in turn, suck up CO2.)

It turns out that whales and their poop are also vital for the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for ocean life. While some parts of the ocean have too much nitrogen—extra nitrogen from fertilizers washes out through rivers, causing algae to grow out of control and create a dead zone—other areas contain a very small amount nitrogen, and local ecosystem productivity is limited by nitrogen availability.

So what brings more nitrogen to these nitrogen-poor areas? Microorganisms and fish bring it from other parts of the ocean, and release it by dying or going to the bathroom. But, also… whales bring it. Whales bring it by the crapload.

Whales, it turns out, probably play a very heavy role in the nitrogen cycle. And because the nitrogen feeds tiny ocean creatures, and those tiny ocean creatures feed larger ocean creatures, and on and on until we get to fish, more whales (and whale poop) means more fish. And we (humans) love fish.

Commercial whaling over the last several hundred years reduced global whale population to a small fraction of what it once was, but even at their current numbers whales contribute significantly to nitrogen levels in some areas. More whales, the authors of a recent whale poop study say, could help offset the damage humans have done to the oceans and ocean fisheries, while relaxing restrictions on whaling could have much further reaching ramifications than we might expect.

See? Whale poop is the best! (Whales too, I guess.)

Sep
23
2010

You might be aware of phosphorus, P, as a key ingredient in your lawn fertilizer. Or, perhaps you’ve seen “Does not contain phosphates” labels on your household detergents. If you haven’t seen these labels yet, chances are high you’ll see them soon. Why??

Phosphorus is Useful as Fertilizer and Detergent...

Fertilizer with P: See the N-P-K?  The P stands for phosphorus.  The number 21 below it tells us the percent of P in the fertilizer.  Many lawn fertilizers are now 0% P.
Fertilizer with P: See the N-P-K? The P stands for phosphorus. The number 21 below it tells us the percent of P in the fertilizer. Many lawn fertilizers are now 0% P.Courtesy Malawi MV project work

Phosphorus is a life-supporting mineral, which is why so many fertilizers contain it. Phosphates, the naturally occurring form of phosphorus, help soften water, form soap suds, and suspend particles making them choice detergents. Supporting life and keeping clean would normally be good things, but phosphorus has a dark side too.

... But, Phosphorus Causes Smelly, Dead Eutrophication

Because phosphorus is so good at growing stuff, it is actually harmful to the environment when it becomes dissolved and concentrated in bodies of water. Phosphorus-rich lakes cause algae blooms – huge increases of algae in a short period of time (kind of like the post-World War II Baby Boom, but for algae). Besides being smelly and turning water green, algae “breathe” the oxygen right out of the lake! Stealing dissolved oxygen even in death, algae create hypoxia – low oxygen, which prevents most other living things from surviving in the surrounding area. This whole process, from phosphorus-loading to algae bloom to hypoxia, is called eutrophication. There are other environmental and health risks to phosphorus, but eutrophication is what politicians are talking about around the water cooler these days.

Icky Algae Bloom: Algae blooms occur in nutrient-loaded water bodies and often led to hypoxia in a process called eutrophication.
Icky Algae Bloom: Algae blooms occur in nutrient-loaded water bodies and often led to hypoxia in a process called eutrophication.Courtesy Felix Andrews

Seventeen States Banned Phosphorus in Automatic Dishwashing Detergents

Deciding that euthrophication was yucky, in July, 17 states, including the entire Great Lakes Commission of which Minnesota is a member, passed laws banning phosphates from automatic dishwasher detergent. That might not seem like a big deal, but automatic dishwasher detergent is said to comprise between 7-12% of all the phosphorus making it into our sewage system (source). Previous legislation has limited or banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizers and laundry detergents.

Consumers Asked to Cope

According to a recent New York Times article, some consumers are getting their feathers ruffled as detergent manufacturers re-do their formulas to comply with state laws. The primary complaint is that the phosphate-free detergents don’t clean as well as traditional formulas. Consumer Reports concurred: of 24 low- or no-phosphate detergents tested, none matched the cleaning capabilities of detergents with phosphates. It may be uncomfortable at first, but learning to cope in a low-phosphorus world is already having environmental and human health benefits.

Green Cleaning: There are several line of green cleaning products that contain low- or no-phosphates.
Green Cleaning: There are several line of green cleaning products that contain low- or no-phosphates.Courtesy Becoming Green

Rest assured, industry officials still want your business and are continually improving their formulations. Indeed, the same Consumer Reports article mentioned above rated seven low- or no-phosphate detergents as “very good.” For the curious, there is a multitude of other websites reviewing phosphate-free detergents online. Pre-rinsing and/or post-rinsing have also been cited as ways to deal with phosphate-free dishwashing detergents.

Peak Phosphorus: Another Consideration

If you still aren’t convinced of the switch, consider this: we’re running out of phosphorus like we’re running out of oil. Phosphorus is a mineral, mined from naturally occurring phosphates, and we’re mining it faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. One Scientific American article cites the depletion of U.S. supplies in a few decades (world supplies may last for roughly another 100 years) given current consumption rates. Without phosphorus, world food production will plummet and with a global population soaring towards 9 billion people, that would be a very sorry state of affairs. If we succeed in limiting our phosphorus consumption, say, through eliminating it from household detergents, we may be able to continue using it in fertilizers and thus keep the human population fed well into the future.

What do you think? Is the phosphate-ban worth it?

Sep
22
2010

NREL's membraine: There's so much science in his head it's projecting colorfully out into the air as a graph.
NREL's membraine: There's so much science in his head it's projecting colorfully out into the air as a graph.Courtesy NREL
You’re worried about the future again, aren’t you? You’re afraid that everything will taste like cardboard, and that most people will be robots, and that the robots will be too cool to hang with you, and that our trips to the bathroom with be confusing and abrasive, and something about bats, and that you will be hot all the time, even in your own homes.

And I wish I could tell you otherwise. But I can’t. I just don’t know enough about the future. Except on that last point—it looks like air conditioning may yet be an option in a necessarily energy efficient future.

Air conditioning can use up a lot of energy. An air conditioning unit typically cools air by blowing it over a coiled metal tube full of a cold refrigerant chemical. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the air in your house, and then it passes through a compressor, which squishes the refrigerant down, making it hot so that it releases heat outside your house. And then the refrigerant expands, and cycles back into the cool tube. (Here’s the explanation with some illustrations.)

Other cooling systems rely on evaporation. So called “swamp coolers” pull hot, dry air from outside, and blow it over water (or through wet fabric pads). The water evaporates to pull heat out of the air, so what is blown into your house is cool, humid air. Swamp coolers are more efficient, but they only work in very dry environments.

And then there’s another way to control your indoor climate: desiccant cooling. A lot of what makes warm air uncomfortable is the amount of moisture it can contain. Normal AC units remove moisture from the air, but they use a lot of energy in doing it. Another way is to use chemicals called desiccants. Desiccants suck up water. The little packs of “silica gel” crystals you might find in a new pair of shoes are full of desiccants. Blowing humid air over desiccants will result in the chemicals sucking the moisture out of the air, making it more comfortable.

Figuring out how to use the desiccants has been a challenge, however; desiccant chemicals can be corrosive to building materials, so they, and any dripping water, need to be contained. With this in mind, US government researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a membrane for desiccant cooling systems that allows the water vapor in humid air to pass through it one way, but does not allow the liquid water removed from the air to pass back.

The researchers claim that this air conditioning process is up to 90% more energy efficient than standard AC. Every so often, the desiccant chemicals need to be “recharged” by heating them up so they release the trapped water (outside), a job that can be done by electric heating elements, or with a solar thermal collector. The University of Minnesota used a desiccant cooling system for their entry into the Solar Decathlon competition. Their system didn’t rely on a membrane—rather, humid air was pumped up through a drum of liquid desiccant—but they did recharge the desiccant using heat from solar thermal panels (which are basically big, flat, black boxes that collect heat from sunlight).

It’s reassuring to know that in the future, even as we’re covered in flesh eating bacteria, and spam advertisements for Spam are being beamed directly into our brains, we’ll at least be able to relax in pleasantly dry, cool air, without worrying too much about the energy we’re using to do it.