Water in Space, Water on Earth
I find that the insights I gain relative to the future often come from reading small articles, graphs or photos that are buried deep in periodicals be it in printed or digital form.
Amidst all the media coverage of the past few weeks on Weinergate, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and who is or isn’t running for the Republican nomination for president there were two separate articles about water buried in the back pages of the New York Times. The significance of these two short articles about water to me far outweighs all the coverage on the more popular subjects. We all get seduced or distracted by immediate superficial media stories, but that is for another column.
Now back to the subject of water. Water is a determinate of life, at least how we on Earth define life. I have written here about water before, relative to other planets, the relative droughts we have experienced in the past few decades, the dying oceans or a critically important new way to utilize water. Water is more important than almost anything else in our lives, yet it only becomes a story if there is too much of it, too little of it or in the years ahead, it becomes too expensive.
In late May there were two stories about water that leapt off the page.
The first was about the reanalysis of some Moon dirt. For decades the prevailing scientific view of the Moon was that it was dry. Then two years ago a NASA probe crashed into a large crater near the Moon’s south pole and confirmed that there was large amounts of water ice within the dark shadows of the crater. This followed an earlier analysis of soil brought back by Apollo astronauts that led to the conclusion that there was water on the moon but in very small amounts and that 95% of water that had been present on the Moon escaped as the hot magma had cooled.
Dr. Erik Hauri, a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was the lead author of a recently published a paper in the journal Science that described a new discovery. His colleague, Professor Saal at Brown University had given a small vial of Moon dirt to Thomas Weinrich a Brown freshman and asked him to sift through it for anything interesting. Student Weinrich found some clear crystals that contained 20 to 100 times the amount of water that had been previously measured; levels comparable to the water content of some Earth magmas. This led the research team to claim that there is a reservoir of water that has a similar concentration of similar reservoirs in the upper mantle of Earth! Not a bad outcome from a freshman science project!
This discovery has led to a lot of consternation about the formation and history of the Moon. That is a discussion for others better scientifically trained than I to discuss. What is significant is that a major assumption about water and the Moon has just been proven wrong. There was and is water on the Moon!
Another human assumption about water is that we live on a planet with a seemingly unlimited amount of it. Lakes, oceans, rivers, floods, wells and ever present availability from faucets in the developed world have given us a sense of a plentiful, always present supply of water. This of course has been called into question in the past couple of decades with issues of pollution and exploding population growth.
Now, there is new evidence, coming from space that a significant source of water on earth is disappearing.
In the early part of this century two satellites were launched that intended to measure the groundwater levels on earth. The full story of the why and how these satellites were launched and operate is too detailed and lengthy for this column. The key facts are that they were launched to measure how water affects gravity and the tilt and rotation of Earth. One of the key data points for this endeavor was to measure the levels of groundwater or water tables.
The recent evidence is now in and in several places on the planet, including the San Joaquin River basin in California, where much of America’s food is grown, there is an alarming lowering of the water table. This drop has been accelerating in the past three years at an unprecedented rate.
This satellite data is taken as being scientifically valid. One problem with this data is that it points out dramatically lowered water tables in areas of high political tension as for example the vast water table shared by India and Pakistan, raising issues of paranoia and accusations. That is a subject for a future column on a topic I have spoken of for years: that water will be the next earth resource –oil being the current one – that will trigger armed disputes.
The lead scientist on this satellite effort, Dr. Jay Famiglietti of the University of California Center for Hydrologic modeling is trying not to get involved in the water politics that will result in the findings of dramatically lowered water tables. However, he does take a clear and direct position on how we will have to change our view of water. Citing climate change, population growth and groundwater contamination he suggests that humanity has taken water for granted and that we must stop.
So, the way we have viewed water, the assumptions we have made about it and the ways we use it and abused it in the 20th century and the Industrial Age must and will change. In the Shift Age and the 21st century how we think about, use and not abuse water will be a significant human concern.