When planetary scientists search for life on other planets the first thing they look for is evidence of water.
“There are two main questions in the search for life: With so many places to look, how can we focus in on the places most likely to harbor life? What are the unmistakable signs of life — even if it comes in a form we don’t fully understand?
“Before we go looking for life, we’re trying to figure out what kinds of planets could have a climate that’s conducive to life,” del Genio said.
Del Genio recognizes that life may well exist in forms and places so bizarre that it might be substantially different from Earth. But in this early phase of the search, “We have to go with the kind of life we know,” he said.
Further, we should make sure we use the detailed knowledge of Earth. In particular, we should make sure of our discoveries on life in various environments on Earth, our knowledge of how our planet and its life have affected each other over Earth history, and our satellite observations of Earth’s climate.
Above all else, that means liquid water. Every cell we know of — even bacteria around deep-sea vents that exist without sunlight — requires water.” Our Living Planet Shapes the Search for Life Beyond Earth
Water – A non-renewable resource
Glaciers are normally perceived as rigid sheets of ice that advance or retreat at barely perceptible distances per year. New research however shows that, if a glacier’s stability is compromised, it will lose ice faster and move further than if it was securely attached to the landmass or seabed.
A study funded by NASA found that instability within the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica would cause a tipping point, after which the huge ice mass flowing into the Antarctic Sea can no longer be slowed or stopped.
the eastern tongue of Thwaites glacier
The instability factor comes by way of another scientific study of Thwaites, which is part of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the glacier was likely to succumb to instability linked to the retreat of its grounding line on the seabed that would lead to it shedding ice faster than previously expected, as reported by The Guardian.
Other Antarctic glaciers are thought to be at similar risk of becoming “un-grounded” as they melt.
While largely un-noticed, this discovery has grave implications for civilization, as the effects of climate change become more pronounced – in record-shattering heat waves, a warming Arctic, melting permafrost exposing methane vents, powerful hurricanes, etc. It means the ice covering Antarctica could melt sooner than expected – within 150 years which, in earth science terms, is the blink of an eye.
If that were to happen, and the way warming is going, it could happen sooner, the effects on human populations living in coastal areas would be catastrophic. Most media reports concerning glacial melt focus on Greenland, but in fact Antarctica holds eight times as much ice, and 50X more than all mountain glaciers combined.
It’s estimated that the melting of just the Thwaites glacier, resulting in billions of liters of fresh water flowing into the ocean, would trigger a 50-cm (19.6-inch) sea rise. Thwaites sits at the center of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, if it breaks off into the sea, it would destabilize nearby glaciers raising sea levels by roughly 11 feet. If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt, the oceans would increase by five meters, or 16 feet, drowning many of the world’s coastal cities especially in Asia.
Another study published in July found the sea ice that floats around the desolate continent is disappearing rapidly. Antarctica has lost as much pack ice in four years than the Arctic has in the past 34, according to satellite data.
The loss of sea ice doesn’t trigger sea level rise, the ice is already in the water – it’s the loss of ice on land that increases sea levels but it is just another alarming indication of how a warming planet is affecting the poles. When sea ice melts, the bright surface for sun rays to reflect off also disappears. That triggers a feedback loop of warming, where the sun’s rays become absorbed by areas of dark water formerly covered with ice, thus accelerating rising ocean temperatures.
The melting of Arctic sea ice and polar ice caps has other nasty implications for climate change, including an interruption of the polar vortex, causing cold Arctic air to escape to southern climes which experience winter storms; intense heat waves such as recently occurred in Europe; and the slowing/ potential stoppage of the oceans’ current conveyor system that moderates climates and prevents ice ages.
For this article we are concerned with what is locked within billions of tonnes of, until now, rock-solid ice caps and glaciers: fresh water.
Fresh water facts
With the exception of a few weeks a year of water restrictions, most North Americans won’t think twice about leaving a sprinkler on or taking an extra-long shower. Fresh water is seemingly abundant. Not so for many parts of the world, that face constant water stress. There are somewhere between 780 million to one billion people without basic and reliable water supplies. More than 2 billion lack the water requirements for basic sanitation.
It’s also slightly mind-blowing to remember that, while 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, less than 1% is potable.
98% of the world’s water is in the oceans – which makes it unfit for drinking or irrigation. Just 2% of the world’s water is fresh, but the vast majority of our fresh water, 1.6%, is in a frozen state, locked up in the polar ice caps and glaciers. Our available fresh water (.396% of total supply) is found underground in aquifers and wells (0.36%) and the rest of our readily available fresh water is in lakes and rivers.
Put another way, only 0.007% of the earth’s water is available for drinking, feeding or fueling (through hydro-electric power or cooling towers needed to run industrial equipment) its 7.5 billion people. We are dancing much closer to the knife edge of water scarcity than we think.
National Geographic reminds us that, due to the water cycle, all the water around today was here in one form or another hundreds of millions of years ago. We’ve always had a relatively constant water supply throughout history, what has changed is our climate, the number of people in the world, and their expectancies.
For this article we are concerned with what is locked within billions of tonnes of, until now, rock-solid ice caps and glaciers: fresh water.
In high demand
If water was a tradable commodity, its price would be many multiples higher than it is currently. It isn’t just fresh water’s relative scarcity that makes it valuable, but the fact that demand for it is constantly increasing.
According to the UN, demand for water is expected to grow 55% by 2050, with most of the need (70%) driven by irrigation, to feed the expanding global population, expected to hit 10 billion by 2050. Water for energy use is forecast to rise by 20%.
But the supply won’t be enough to satisfy everyone. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in areas where water is scarce, and two-thirds will be residents in water-stressed regions, reports National Geographic.
How we’re losing fresh water
The water crisis has another dimension besides demand outstripping supply. The amount of water cities, towns and water boards are able to collect is diminishing, due to a number of factors.
Most of the world’s fresh water is contained within glaciers or hard-packed snow that falls in the mountains and becomes freshet in the spring, filling creeks, rivers, lakes, rechargeable aquifers and reservoirs.
A clarification needs to be made between mountain glaciers, such as those found in Glacier National Park, and the glaciers at the poles. The latter slide and break off from polar ice caps and tumble into the sea, forever lost. Then there’s sea ice, which floats freely at the north pole, and at the south pole, moves around the Antarctic land mass.
Very little fresh water, apart from the amount needed to sustain local populations, is extracted from polar glaciers; mountain glaciers on the other hand sustain large numbers of people mostly in the northern hemisphere, who collect the annual freshet as the spring melt tumbles down from higher elevations and is funneled into creeks.
We know from several years of measurements, that mountain glaciers, like those at the poles, are in retreat.
Apparently when President Taft created Glacier National Park in 1910 it had an estimated 150 glaciers; the park is now down to fewer than 30. The snows of Kilimanjaro immortalized by Ernest Hemingway now have 80% less cover than in 1912. Himalayan glaciers in India could be gone by 2035.
The first State of the Mountains report published in May 2018 by the Alpine Club of Canada, says outside of the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland Canada has more glacier cover than any other nation. Canada has 200,000 square kilometres of glaciers, one quarter is found in the west of the country and the remainder are in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Up to 80 per cent of the mountain glaciers in Alberta and B.C. will disappear in the next 50 years.
As of April 8, 2019, all of the earth’s glaciers combined have lost a hard-to-imagine 9 trillion tons of ice, reports Science Alert. The research team that came up with that figure focused on 19 glacial regions including Alaska, Greenland and the Andes. It works out to an annual loss of around three times the volume of all ice stored in the European Alps.
Click to enlarge
MarketWatch published a very interesting Associated Press article NASA scientists track Greenland’s melting ice, and the findings are not good.
“Greenland contains enough ice to make world sea levels rise by 20 feet if it were all to melt. In a single day this month, it lost a record 13.7 billion tons by one estimate.
“It’s a little scary,” Willis said as looked down on an area filled with more water than ice. “We’re definitely watching the ice sheet disappear in front of us.”
Climate change is eating away at Greenland’s glaciers in two ways. The most obvious way is from the warm air above, which has been brutal this summer, with a European heat wave in July working like a hair dryer on the ice. The other way is from warm, salty water, some of it from North America’s Gulf Stream, nibbling at coastal glaciers from below.
When University of Georgia ice scientist Tom Mote, who isn’t part of this project, started studying Greenland’s glaciers in the early 1990s, researchers really didn’t think the water was a big factor.
Willis’ project — called Oceans Melting Greenland, or OMG — is showing that it is. Now the question is how much and how fast.
What Willis is measuring is the water 660 feet or more below the surface, which is warmer and saltier than the stuff that touches the air. It’s this deep water that does the major damage.”
A recent report from Chile showed that rising temperatures likely due to climate change, a nine-year drought, and conflicts with mining have put Chile’s glaciers in peril. The majestic ice sheets are retreating at the decidedly non-glacial pace of a meter per year.
As home to 80% of South America’s glaciers, and one of the world’s largest repositories of fresh water, that’s a problem. It’s estimated by the World Resources Institute, that over 7 million people living around Santiago rely on the glaciers to supply them with fresh water in times of drought, Bloomberg said, noting an opposition bill that would protect them is currently before parliament.
Fresh water aquifers are one of the most important natural resources in the world, but in recent decades the rate at which we’re pumping them dry has more than doubled. The amount of water pumped has gone from 126 to 283 cubic kilometers per year. If water was pumped as rapidly from the Great Lakes they would be dry in roughly 80 years. These fast-shrinking underground reservoirs are essential to life on the planet. They sustain streams, wetlands, and ecosystems, and they resist land subsidence and saltwater intrusion into our freshwater supplies. Some of the largest cities in the developing world – Jakarta, Dhaka, Lima and Mexico City – depend on aquifers for almost all their water. Most rural areas pump groundwater from wells drilled into an aquifer.
According to the BBC, of the world’s major aquifers, 21 out of 37 are receding.
In North America the major concern is over water levels in the Ogallala aquifer under the US Great Plains – the world’s bread basket. The Ogallala is the world’s largest known aquifer. With an approximate area of 450,600 square kilometers, it stretches from southern South Dakota through parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and northern Texas. The Ogallala aquifer was formed roughly 10 million years ago when water flowed onto the plains from retreating glaciers and streams of the Rocky Mountains.
The Ogallala is no longer being recharged by the Rockies and precipitation in the region is only 30-60 cm per year. In three leading grain-producing states – Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas – the underground water table has dropped by more than 30 meters. A 2013 study of 40 aquifers across the United States by the US Geological Survey reported that the rate of groundwater depletion has increased dramatically since 2000, with almost 25 cubic kilometers of water per year being pumped from the ground. This compares to about 9.2 cubic kilometers average withdrawal per year from 1900 to 2008.
Much of the reason for declining groundwater is due to over-use. For example the Ogallala aquifer is being sucked dry at an annual volume equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers.
A World Bank study indicates that China is over-pumping three river basins in the north: the Hai, the Yellow and the Huai. A 2017 study in Nature Journal found that in 10 years, China doubled its use of irreplaceable groundwater from underground reservoirs, and that they are draining faster than they are being replenished.
From 2000 to 2010, the study found that globally, the amount of water drawn from aquifers for the purpose of irrigation increased by a quarter. A third of earth’s largest groundwater basins are being rapidly depleted says a 2015 study.
Streams, rivers and lakes are almost always closely connected with an aquifer. The depletion of aquifers doesn’t allow these surface waters to be recharged. Lower water levels in aquifers are reflected in reduced amounts of water flowing at the surface. This is happening along the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Groundwater depletion is also responsible for the Yellow River in China not reaching the ocean for months at a time, the failure of the Colorado River in the US and the Indus River in Pakistan failing to reach the ocean every day.
If too much groundwater is pumped out from coastal aquifers, saltwater may flow into them, causing contamination of the aquifer. Many coastal aquifers – the Biscayne Aquifer near Miami and the New Jersey Coastal Plain aquifer for example – have problems with saltwater intrusion.
Saltwater intrusion is also caused by rising sea levels caused by melting ice.The warming of the earth’s surface has caused a widespread retreat of the glaciers at both poles. According to NASA between 2002 and 2006 Greenland lost 60 cubic miles of ice; in Antarctica it was 36 cubic miles from 2002-05. All of this melting ice has caused sea levels to rise, from between seven and eight inches over the last 117 years, NASA states, with the most rise occurring since 1993. The expansion of ocean water as it warms also causes higher sea levels.
In Florida the ocean is already starting to seep into swamp land, which weakens the plants from their peat bedding. “When we start to lose the structure of the plants, essentially this peat, which is otherwise held together by roots, becomes a soupy pond,” explains a University of Florida researcher in an NPR article. Millions of people in South Florida get their fresh water from the Biscayne aquifer in the Everglades.
The problem is also occurring in China, the Philippines and Australia. Salt water from the Bay of Bangladesh has penetrated over 100 kilometers inland, due to sea levels rising higher than elsewhere, thereby increasing the risk of water contamination and hypertension caused by drinking high-salinity water. High river and soil salinity in Bangladesh is also predicted to reduce rice crop yields, affect the productivity of fisheries, crack road surfaces, and increase poverty.
Warming & droughts
Global warming theory posits that higher temperatures are bringing more extreme weather and more frequent, high-intensity storms. Last summer in British Columbia, more of BC was burned by wildfires than any previous summer. Heat records were set in the United Kingdom, northern Siberia, the eastern two-thirds of the United States and southeastern Canada.
In 2014, California had its warmest year on record, and its warmest winter as well – the high in the Sierra Nevada’s California’s snowpack was at a 25-year low.
The hottest temperature ever measured, 51.3 degrees C, was in Ouargla, Algeria, in July 2018, shattering the previous record of 50.7C set in 1961 in Morocco.
This past June, a heat wave in Europe meant in France, Germany and Spain, the thermometer climbed to between 6 and 10 degrees higher than normal, in the last few days of the month.
Global drought map
Records were blasted through in France (45C), Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Globally, the month was recorded as the hottest June in 140 years.
Meteorologists blamed the dangerously hot weather on a weakening of the jet stream, pushing super-heated air from Africa up to Europe.
Heat records were also smashed in July, the hottest month on earth since records began in 1880,CBC reported.
Emblematic of the warming Arctic, the Swedish hamlet of Markusvinsa was put on the map as the highest temperature ever measured north of the Arctic Circle.
Warming of course is linked to droughts, which are becoming more frequent and more intense as the planet heats up.
Recall Cape Town, South Africa in 2018. A combination of population growth, over-development and climate change conspired to bring about the worst drought on record, in the country’s most popular tourist city. Officials in Cape Town warned that unless drastic conservation measures were taken, by summer the city’s 4 million residents would be forced to cue up for drinking water surrounded by armed guards.
The BBC compiled a list of 11 cities with recurring water supply problems. They are: Sao Paulo, Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo, Jakarta, Moscow, Istanbul, Mexico City, London, Miami and Tokyo.
An estimated two-thirds of the world’s population lives in drought conditions for at least one month every year.
A report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes developing countries like India are likely to be worst hit by climate change due to the frequency of droughts, which will lead to water shortages and problems with food production.
For more read The day they turned off the taps (Part 4 of a five-part series on climate change)
Between 2011 and 2016, California suffered its worst drought in 1,200 years. The effects on water included aquifers receding at a combined 16 million acre-feet per year, and 1,900 wells ran dry.
According to the EPA, four out of five state water managers expect water shortages in some part of their states over the next decade. (2014 report)
A google search for Texas Heatwave returned the following headlines:
Heat wave fuels ‘crazy heat, even for Mississippi’ and power demand
USA TODAY-Aug. 13, 2019
A heat wave gripping much of the South and Midwest on Tuesday showed little sign of easing after fueling record demand for energy in Texas …
Dangerous heat wave blazes across large parts of Plains, South
NBCNews.com-Aug. 13, 2019
Parts of South and Midwest grapple with dangerous heat wave
Associated Press-Aug. 12, 2019
‘Prepare for the Worst’: Dangerous Heat Wave Continues Across Parts
CBN News-Aug. 13, 2019
‘Ring of fire’ pattern brings dangerous heat, severe storms, flooding
Washington Post-Aug. 12, 2019
Heat Advisories in Place as Dangerous Temperatures Hit 13 States
International-TIME-Aug. 12, 2019
All that energy use for air conditioning places huge demand on power generating stations. Below is an article I wrote years ago warning of the danger.
US Power Supply Will Be Impacted By Water Shortages
Water quality has always been of utmost importance to the health of human populations. Unsafe water sources and open sewers in the Middle Ages led to plagues that decimated villages and towns.
However despite the advances of science, many fresh water supplies are getting fouled. The Guardian reported that since the 1990s, pollution has worsened in almost every river in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The situation is expected to deteriorate due to runoffs of fertilizer and other agrochemicals that lead to the growth of pathogens and algae blooms. About 80% of industrial and municipal wastewater is discharged without treatment, the newspaper states.
It might surprise Canadians to learn that in 2016, nearly 120 million cubic meters of untreated sewage and runoff entered Canadian waterways.
Over the last several years there has been a dramatic rise in the use of hydraulic fracturing – the technology used to extract shale oil and gas. As fracking has increased, worries are growing about fracking’s effect on our fresh water supply.
Fracking just one well can use 2 to 8 million gallons of water with the major components being water (90%), sand or proppants (8 to 9.5%), and chemicals (0.5 to 2%). One 4-million-gallon fracturing operation uses from 80 to 330 tons of chemicals and each well will be fracked numerous times.
Methane concentrations are 17X higher in drinking-water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells. Hydraulic fracturing increases the permeability of shale beds, creating new flow paths and enhancing natural flow paths for gas leakage into aquifers.
According to the industry’s own numbers just 60 to 70% of the fracturing fluid is recovered. The remaining 30 to 40% stays in the ground and is not biodegradable.
The fracking fluid gets mixed with “produced water” (the water that is in the well naturally) and nearly all of it is injected into disposal wells – the safety of which has been called into question.
For more read Poisoning the Earth
The depletion and fouling of already-scarce fresh water is bad enough, to the extent it becomes a looming threat to future generations. Imagine having to limit showers to, say, two minutes a day, or lining up for water. If we don’t get smarter with how we consume and store fresh water, in a future that puts even more stress on it due to climate change, we are going to be in real trouble.
Unfortunately though, there are other knock-on effects. The most serious is how a lack of water could impact the global food supply.
A human-caused degradation of land, including unsustainable farming, overgrazing, clear-cutting, mis-use of water and industrial activities, can all be intensified and accelerated by global warming.
According to Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNDD), “The top 20cm ofsoil is all that stands between us and extinction.” What does that mean? It means that as we strip away the amount of available land for food production, we are literally depriving ourselves of the means to survive. Eventually this will lead to the destruction of human civilization – just as desertification contributed to the collapse of the world’s earliest known empire, the Akkadians of Mesopotamia.
The highest rates of groundwater depletion are in some of the world’s major agricultural centers: Northwest India, Northeastern China, Northeast Pakistan, California’s central valley and Midwestern United States.
Iran is over-pumping its aquifers by an average of 5 billion tons of water per year. Saudi Arabia, relying heavily on subsidies, developed an extensive irrigated agriculture based on its deep fossil aquifer, and they sucked it dry. Some Saudi farmers are now pumping water from wells that are 4,000 feet deep. In 2015, the country announced that the 2016 wheat harvest would be its last. The research in Nature Journal found that depleted water reserves will limit the availability of food and raise food prices.
Pakistan uses the most irreplaceable groundwater to grow and export its food, closely followed by the US, then India. The crops that contribute most to trade in food grown using groundwater are rice, wheat, cotton, maize and soybeans. Climate change is exacerbating over-use of groundwater stored in aquifers.
China’s wheat crop is mostly grown in the semi-arid northern part of the country and is particularly vulnerable to water shortages. Irrigated land accounts for four-fifths of the grain harvest in China. In India the water situation is even more serious – the 21 million wells drilled are lowering water tables in most of the country.
In a feature article, National Geographic writes that aquifer depletion exacerbated by climate change will make farming days hotter and longer, and cause more frequent droughts. Hotter temperatures in feedlots in southwest Kansas mean that beef cattle drink more water than they did in cooler years. The combination of depleted aquifers and lower snowpacks due to warmer winters and hotter summers is causing some of the world’s major lakes and rivers to dry up. Among the most extreme are Lake Poopo in Bolivia, the Colorado River, the Aral Sea, Lake Badwater, Lake Chad, Owens Lake, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Our warming planet has not only caused droughts and exacerbated groundwater depletion, which leads to land subsidence, and saltwater intrusion in aquifers near coastal areas.
“Time is running out for Jakarta.
One of the fastest-sinking cities on earth, environmental experts warn that one third of it could be submerged by 2050 if current rates continue.
Decades of uncontrolled and excessive depletion of groundwater reserves, rising sea-levels, and increasingly volatile weather patterns mean swathes of it have already started to disappear.
Existing environmental measures have had little impact, so authorities are taking drastic action: the nation will have a new capital.
Its location could be announced imminently, according to local reports.
“The capital of our country will move to the island of Borneo,” Indonesian leader Joko Widodo said on Twitter.” Sinking city: Indonesia’s capital on brink of disaster
Droughts are also responsible for denuding the landscape of vegetation, which has dire implications for crops and food supply. Desertification is what happens when fertile land is degraded, due to it becoming too arid, or as a result of deforestation or improper agriculture. The process usually results in a loss of vegetation, water bodies and wildlife.
River run-off and water availability is expected to decrease in dry regions as global temperatures increase and rainfall is reduced – further adding to desertification. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCDD), by 2020, 60 million people could be forced from desertified areas of sub-saharan Africa towards North Africa and Europe. These “climate” refugees would add to the political refugees already pouring into Europe. By 2050, some 2.4 billion may be living in areas subject to periods of intense water scarcity, with up to 700 million being forced to move elsewhere.
Eventually populations will become so water-stressed that conflicts break out, even wars. Water shortages inevitably have a greater impact on the poor, who can least afford to pay extra for higher-priced water or have connections to unofficial sources.
In a feature article on water scarcity, the BBC notes the current civil war in Syria can be traced back to a 2007-10 drought, one of the worst in the country’s history. Rural communities were decimated, and drove hundreds of thousands of people off their lands and into cities where they became marginalized. One source in the article notes that a lack of resources, degraded land and lack of water drastically reduces opportunities for young people, making them vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment into militant Islamic groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab in Africa.
Is fresh water depletion, and all its causes and effects, on your radar screen? It is definitely on mine.
Richard (Rick) Mills
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