Monthly Archives: March 2016

Drinking From Your Neighbor’s Glass

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In honor of World Water Day, here’s an interesting riddle: There are two kinds of water sources for a town, surface and underground. In times of adequate rain, that water can be used for human activities from farming to consumption to mining and so on.

But let’s say the rain stops for a long time.

"The delicate fingerprints of water imprinted on the sand. The #StoryOfWater."  Image: Kjell Lindgren/NASA via Instagram

“The delicate fingerprints of water imprinted on the sand. The #StoryOfWater.”
Caption/Image: Kjell Lindgren/NASA via Instagram

Fortunately, the town also has an underground lake. And during the drought, the town uses the water from the underground lake. The town can pump and pump and pump water from the underground lake, but – in spite of no rainfall – the water level never seems to diminish. It’s like a magic glass that never empties.

Where is the water coming from?

The map below shows how much water would cover dry land if all hidden aquifers were suddenly above ground.

The lightest shade of blue indicates a depth of one meter or less, a depth through which most adults could easily wade. It might look like the planet is awash in potable water. But it’s not.

Darker blue would create lakes, while the darkest blue points to very deep water. Almost 95 percent of underground water is very deep water that hasn’t seen the light of day for anywhere from decades to eons, is probably saltier than the seas and could contain heavy in toxic minerals.

A map of the Earth's groundwater by University of Victoria’s Tom Gleeson, and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Gottingen, and the University of Calgary. Credit/Caption:

A map of the Earth’s groundwater by University of Victoria’s Tom Gleeson, and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Gottingen, and the University of Calgary.
Credit/Caption: Gleeson, et al/Nature Geoscience via Christian Science Monitor

 

Back to the riddle of the ever-full aquifer. In the case of Needles, California (pop. 4800), the answer would be:

From the underground seepage of the nearby Colorado River, which is counted as a separate surface water system from the aquifer beneath Needles. Also, the Colorado River is in a different state, and thus subject to different water distribution regulations than the aquifer beneath Needles.

In the past, surface water from various regions and underwater aquifers have all been counted as separate water sources.

Which is to say, the water that flows in the Colorado River has been counted as distinct from underwater resources in adjoining regions.

In the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park near the Colorado River. Image: NASA

In the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park near the Colorado River.
Image: NASA

As it turns out, however, many of these water resources are interconnected. So the never-ending underground lake beneath Needles is, in fact, depleting the Colorado River.

35 percent of water used by humans comes from underground aquifers; more in times of drought. In California, those numbers are usually around 40 percent – during the drought, it’s gone up to 60 percent. All that water has to come from somewhere.

Water accountancy has long been a contentious issue, both in the American Southwest and elsewhere.

The water we see or can pump doesn’t always represent what’s really available. But laws and ownership rights have been based on accounting for water as if what we see is what we can get.

A recent study mapped levels of underground water basins around the world from 2003-2013. Satellites were able to chart changes in aquifer levels as they flew overhead because water is so heavy that it exerts a pull on orbiting spacecraft.

Groundwater storage trends for Earth's 37 largest aquifers from UCI-led study using NASA GRACE data (2003 – 2013). Of these, 21 have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted, with 13 considered significantly distressed, threatening regional water security and resilience. Caption/Credits: UC Irvine/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Groundwater storage trends for Earth’s 37 largest aquifers from UCI-led study using NASA GRACE data (2003 – 2013). Of these, 21 have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted, with 13 considered significantly distressed, threatening regional water security and resilience.
Caption/Credits: UC Irvine/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Results of this study show that 13 of the world’s 37 largest underground reservoirs were being emptied with no signs of replenishment.

Some of the most overstressed water supplies were in the world’s driest areas: Arabian Aquifer System, an important water source for more than 60 million people; the Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in northern Africa.

Many of these aquifiers lie directly beneath political and cultural borders that are already flashpoints of hostility.

If California is any example (and when it comes to drought and water challenges, the state is a proverbial coal mine canary), then water is interconnected in more ways than one. But Needles, at least, is only drawing water from a sister state in the same union. The same can’t be said of other places around the world.

Water sustainability doesn’t just mean a good supply of water.

It means a supply of human activity, of food, and of peace.

World Water Day.

The Dire End of the Bandit 6

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Pirates, those outlaws of the high seas, have held a blurred fascination for generations. They share the allure of an in-between realm with horseback bandits, a place free of everyday rules and constricted spaces. Who doesn’t fantasize, from time to time at least, about being outside the drudgery of convention?

Just exactly who the pirates are, though, depends on whose rules they are breaking.

Pirate ship from a children's book. Image: thegraphicfairy

Pirate ship from a children’s book.
Image: thegraphicfairy

For years, the activities of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been considered piratical by the ships and governments they follow and attack. Mainly, by whalers and nations that still permit whaling. And, to a lesser extent, by the allies of these countries. The Sea Shepherd’s logo plays with their self-image as pirates who challenge laws that protect those who hunt endangered marine species.

Back in 2014, the Sea Shepherd began Operation Icefish, a project to chase down and defeat another group that many would call pirates: The Bandit 6, a group of industrial fishing ships that regularly flouted international law by illegally fishing on a grand scale.

By sailing between the loopholes of international fishing regulations, frequently changing registries and flags, and leveraging conflicts between the nations that might have otherwise joined forces to stop them, the ghost ships of the Bandit 6 spent years plundering fish stocks of the Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as Chilean sea bass.

Patagonian toothfish. Image: Reuters

Patagonian toothfish.
Image: Reuters

The Sea Shepherd mission saw the longest sea chase in recorded history – 110 days – which resulted in the captain of the Thunder scuttling his ship to bury evidence of its activities. Scuttling is such a fun-sounding word for sinking the ship in deep waters and then calling on its Sea Shepherd pursuers to rescue the captain and crew according to maritime convention and law.

The Bandit 6 ships weren’t under attack because the Patagonian toothfish is endangered. At issue was the fact that the vessels, their owners and their buyers operated without accountability. Moreoever, it appears that at least some of the vessels were using slave labor to man their ships and process the catch. It’s estimated that the pirate ships hauled over six times the legal fishing limits of the so-called ‘white gold’ on an annual basis since the late 1990s.

So, as of yesterday, the Viking, the final ship in the loose fleet of the Bandit 6, was blown up by the Indonesian government off the coast of West Java.

Destruction of the Viking. Screenshot/Image: Sea Shepherd

Destruction of the Viking.
Screenshot/Image: Sea Shepherd/YouTube

It follows the scuttling of the Thunder, the capture of the Songhua and Yongding in Cabo Verde as well as the detaining of the Perlon in Malaysia.

The Sea Shepherd organization was instrumental in notifying authorities of the ships’ whereabouts, and obtaining evidence to implicate their captains. In the case of the Thunder, this involved Sea Shepherd crew members boarding the ship as it sank to retrieve the ship log and frozen catch, the very things the captain had hoped to put out of reach.

Since 2014, Indonesia has bombed 150 foreign-owned fishing ships accused of poaching, a policy meant to stop illegal fishing and promote the local fishing industry.

The wreck of the Viking is to be left as a monument against illegal fishing and a warning to the pirates currently known as illegal fishing poachers.

Winged hourglass and skull and crossbones. Glasgow Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. Photo: Leo Reynolds/Flickr

Winged hourglass and skull and crossbones.
Glasgow Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
Photo: Leo Reynolds/Flickr

 

Forest Vs. Trees

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Humankind owes its origins to forests. In return, we have been reshaping them for our own uses ever since we learned to use tools and fire.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Image: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Image: Jeffrey James

I’ve told the story before of how an Indonesian palm oil trader once explained to me, many years ago, that I needn’t worry about deforestation in Indonesia. Why? Because the indigenous forests had been mostly cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. There was nothing left to worry about any more.

I’ll say one thing for the trader: He knew the difference between a forest and just a lot of trees. One is a habitat, the other is a plantation. Besides the fact that both include life we call trees, there’s not much similarity between the two.

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture. Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture.
Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

I lived deep in a forest for part of my youth, on a property bordered on two sides by national park and on the other two by undeveloped forest land. The forest was mostly old growth, a rich and varied recipe of bay laurel trees, madrone and manzanita, coastal oak, and the higher one went up the ridge, Bishop pine. The undergrowth was thick and we made paths through hip-high ferns draped in spiderwebs and huckleberry bushes that stained clothing and skin purple. In the spring, small clearings that received direct sunlight would burst forth in carpets of wild iris and forget-me-not.

The forest was only in this condition, more or less untouched except for the occasional dirt road or small cabin, because of the Point Reyes National Seashore. In the 1950s, rather than open the coastal ridge to logging, the government declared it a park. When I was growing up, most of the land that had remained private was still unbuilt. It was idyllic and the experience of living there has stayed with me for life.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

California has a wealth of old growth forest, but as elsewhere, many of the original forests have been logged and replanted, clear-cut for commercial use, or obliterated in mountain-top removal mining . Like greed, deforestation and (sometimes) reforestation are a human habit. When we look out over temperate forests these days, what we usually see is a sea of dark green conifer – undemanding, quick-growing, commercially useful. Other climates see, well, palm oil plantations. Or farmland. Or oil and coal fields.

Land use choices are often offered up as decision between economic prosperity or stagnation; a forest is all that’s in the way of progress, and anyway, ersatz trees can be replanted elsewhere.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James

But reforestation can’t just be a buzzword used to placate or fulfil regulatory requirements with false forests. I’ve written before on the progress of industrial reforestation – this approach only takes on real value if the re-established forests are diverse. And that diversity is exactly what most ‘tree replacement’ projects are lacking. As it turns out, we aren’t as good at recreating nature as we’d like to believe.

A recent study, limited to Europe, suggests that the conifer forests planted in Europe over the past two centuries contribute locally to warmer weather because the dark needles of conifer trees absorb sunlight more than the lighter leaves of a native mixed deciduous forest.

The old saying, you can’t see the forest for the trees, was never so true. Once you’ve known a real forest, you can’t be fooled.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James