Water Falls

This satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States, in 1999. Lake Powell  Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

This 1999 satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States.
Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

A crucible for past, present and future examples of extreme climate developments, the western part of the United States – and California in particular – continues to suffer under extreme drought conditions.

Drought is nothing new in California. What’s new (or rather, not very old in geological terms) is a culture and economy built on water profligacy and the presence of 40 million people in California alone. Add in a couple more tens of millions from other western states that all rely on the shared Colorado River watershed, and a drought today looks very different than it did a century ago.

Many of the water rights in California were, however, assigned over a century ago and they are still in force today. Half of all waterway claims in California are in the hands of just 4,000 owners, and more importantly, the water use by these owners is completely unmonitored.

So, while the recently announced California water rationing and fines for overwatering are important steps in gaining some control over water waste, they will not affect some of the largest users in the state (and region).

They won’t have much real impact on those who can afford the fines or whose usage isn’t monitored in the first place.

More importantly, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, the fundamental flaw in how we use water.

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above. Photo: PK Read

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above.
Photo: PK Read

Amid the talk of eight-minute lawn watering every other day, 500-dollar-fines for water waste and the dry, dry expanses of the famous California hills that should be golden at this time of year but are instead a dusty grey, we were surprised to see these water overflow pipes along the beach. Some were overflowing with what I can only assume was unrecovered excess garden irrigation water.

What a strange sight, the gardens following the erosion of cliffs and the ongoing supply of fresh water all the way down to the beach.

What a strange and outdated concept, this blithe assumption that water should be unlike any other key resource upon which we rely and in which we trade – arable land, forest, gold – and that it will never run out.

That we can just spill it as we please, never mind the consequences.

A cliff-top garden migrates down a cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day. Photo: PK Read

A cliff-top garden migrates down an otherwise rocky cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day.
Photo: PK Read

Beach Sandskrit

DSC02349We were walking on Malibu beach yesterday as the tide was going out.

It left behind a long tale of the previous few hours, written in seaweed and flotsam.

I didn’t count how many different types of seaweed left their notes on the sand, but from the number of red lobster shells in the receding water line, I’d say local birds, seals and otters have been feasting. And if there were no lobster claws to be seen, that’s because the California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) doesn’t have any in the first place.DSC02351

The high tide of our own past few hours was marked by an evening spent on a warm terrace with a good friend, and the Auchentoshan Triple Wood he pulled out to share with us.Unknown

As the name says, this Lowland whisky is matured in three different kinds of wood: Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks, bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry.

It has a combustibly sweet aroma, with a taste that echoes dark chocolate, applesauce, toffee and rum.

It was a delight, as was the day and the company.

One who knows how to read what's skirt in the seaweed.

One who knows how to read what’s skrit in the seaweed.

 

Floor of Sand, Roof of Water

From the new book Shorebreak. Photo: Clark Little

From the new book Shorebreak.
Photo: Clark Little

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time (every possible minute) on the beaches of California. And one of my favorite activities was to run after the receding waves as far as I dared,, right up to where they were beginning another forward surge, and then turn and sprint back to safety. Or not, sometimes.

Getting away with nothing more than wet ankles counted as winning. Getting drenched or knocked over didn’t. Sure, it was a dangerous game. That’s what made it exciting.

One view I always wanted to see but never did (because I never dared or lost badly enough) was the dry sand beneath the roof of an oncoming wave. And here it is, courtesy of photographer Clark Little in his new book of waves, Shorebreak. Someone who dared to wait for the roof of water, and took a picture for the rest of us.

I worked as a translator on a film a few years ago that looked at the dry land beneath the waves, but in that case, the waves were frozen in icy forms. The film, Unter Dem Eis (Under the Ice) was a German-made documentary about the Inuit of the Canadian eastern seaboard and their tradition of gathering a bounty of winter mussels from beneath the frozen sea.

Gathering mussels Under The Ice, hastening before the sea returns. Source: Context Film

Gathering mussels Under The Ice, hastening before the sea returns.
Source: Context Film

The harvest was only possible for a few hours a year, on days of extremely low tide when the sea beneath the ice retreated enough to allow for a quick expedition.

It looks like walking under water, and in a way, it is. Or was. As the Atlantic Ocean warms and there are fewer days when mussels can be gathered without the ice roof collapsing, the tradition is fading.

Still, it’s a vision out of a dream, walking, or sprinting, on the floor of the ocean, however briefly.

Floating Farms

I always have a soft spot for illustrations of future visions. This image of seaweed carriers is no exception. A company called Seaweed Energy Solutions (SES) has developed and patented seaweed growing technology that it hopes will make possible the cultivation of seaweed on a vastly larger scale than we have seen thus far.

Mass Seaweed Carriers Source: SES

Mass Seaweed Carriers
Source: SES

 

Seaweed has so many uses – as I said on a recent post, some are calling it the potato of the 21st century when it comes to feeding large numbers of people. And it can be cultivated without the use of expensive land and water for irrigation.

Which brings me back to the SES floating farms. The goal for this kind of industrial seaweed farming is to grow enough seaweed to make biofuel. Ethanol, to be exact, using the high level of carbohydrates in the sea plants. It’s not the first time at the biofuel circus for seaweed enthusiasts.

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden. Photo: Josie Iselin

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden.
Photo: Josie Iselin

Like algae, seaweed has long been the subject of renewable energy attention, for the same reasons it might be an alternative potato: It doesn’t compete with other food crops for land space or resources and it practically grows itself given the right foundation.

Regions with lots of coastline and little arable land could use a prolific cash crop like that.

I don’t know enough about the topic to say whether there aren’t environmental arguments to be made against the industrialization of seaweed cultivation, although the mass production of any mono-crop usually brings with it some concerns. I don’t know at what stage the seaweed-to-fuel processing technology finds itself, or what distribution channels are already in place.

Maybe, as with many future visions, the idea of seaweed as fuel will float away in time without becoming reality.

Still, I deeply appreciate a technological design that so nicely reflects the very crop it is meant to support.

 

 

 

Seaweed Squares

http://news.yahoo.com/photos/city-art-from-above-slideshow/

Seaweed Farms - Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. (Digital Globe/Caters News)

Seaweed Farms – Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. Click on the photo for the full image.
Photo: Digital Globe/Caters News

When I think of oceans, I think of movement and flow.

When I think of oceanic plant life, I have in my mind an image of free-form fields of seaweed in constant motion.

When life grows for itself, it tends to grow in loose configurations. When I think of tilled land fields, like the ones in my area, I think of grain rising in squared off parameters or the pristine circles of pivot irrigation.

In any case, when we grow for ourselves, we usually grow in geometric patterns. So the multitude of underwater seaweed rectangles in the image above, mirrored in the multitude of angular human dwellings on the neighboring land,  shouldn’t surprise me at all.

Still, these tidy plots, an oceanic harvest of what is being hailed by some as ‘this century’s potato‘ for its farming, nutrition and economic potential, look odd.

Illustration of seaweed farming. Source: Tracy Saxby/Integration and Application Nework

Illustration of seaweed farming.
Source: Tracy Saxby/Integration and Application Nework

Seaweed cultivation has been around for hundreds of years, most of that past spent simply, well, harvesting wild seaweed. Or drifting long ropes to attract seaweed growth, and then pulling in the ropes.

Methods have been improving, but what remains to be seen is if we can manage to farm seaweed without doing what we sometimes do to the places we farm: hacking down everything that was there before to replace it with only the plants we want in tight geometric configurations.

The ocean has a different set of rules from the land, but seaweed farming done right can improve biodiversity, improve air and water quality and feed a lot of people and animals, and maybe even provide a source of biofuel. More on that in a later post.

Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

Accidental Questions

Some of the best experiments are the ones that are accidental. Viewed from the right perspective, they can offer unanticipated insight into questions we didn’t even know needed to be asked. Discovering what happens when we release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in a (geologically-speaking) relatively short amount of time is one example of an experiment in which most of us are participating, willingly or not.

The long-term adaptive abilities of humans and other animals to long-term radiation exposure is a question that’s been asked before, but the area around Chernobyl has been a particularly fine laboratory for study in the wild. Researchers from the British Ecological Society found that a variety of birds can, in fact, adapt to radiation exposure, but that long-term health depends on many species-specific traits and genetic factors.

The Wing (1512) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The Wing (1512)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The result: A few species can adapt surprisingly well. Most don’t do well at all. Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. It’s not that life isn’t thriving within Chernobyl’s 30-km (18-mile) exclusion zone, it’s that the life that’s thriving has undergone what one researcher called ‘unnatural selection’.

Another interesting question is the rate at which radiation disperses and decays across the northern Pacific Ocean. The aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has provided a long-term opportunity to observe how specific radioactive isotopes are carried by water currents.

Pond in the Woods (1496) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Pond in the Woods (1496)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

And while the United States government has determined that this is not a study worthy of official investigation, a number of local coastal communities have taken matters into their own hands and established several citizen-scientist groups to gather and test samples.

And now, another experiment, if we choose to see it that way: The disappearance of most of the plastic garbage swirling around in the world’s oceans. Researchers say that 99% of the stuff has gone missing. Sunk to the bottom of the sea, maybe, but much of the plastic is in minuscule fragments.

The operating assumption at this point is that all that plastic is being consumed by marine animals, large and small. And this, in turn, enters the human food chain in a variety of ways – as livestock feed, fertilizer, and of course, the fish on our plates.

So now we’ll have a chance to find out the effect of injecting large quantities of plastic into the world food chain.

As with the other accidental experiments listed here, studies will be long-term, ongoing, and not necessarily subject to voluntary participant approval, human or otherwise.

Arion riding a dolphin (1514) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Arion riding a dolphin (1514)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Watery Treasure

Draining swamps and wetlands has, over the course of human civilization, been seen as a way to grasp land from the greedy waters that cover most of the Earth’s surface.

Add to this that much of the drained, reclaimed land is then conveniently located on prime river or coastal property, and the terrestrial inclination to dry out wetlands makes even more sense. There’s gold in them there swamps.

A MODIS image from NASA's OceanColor Web shows floodwaters and sediment emptying into the Gulf. Source: PennNews/NASA

A MODIS image from NASA’s OceanColor Web shows floodwaters and sediment emptying into the Gulf.
Source: PennNews/NASA

Conservationists usually look at the loss of ecosystems, plant and animal life, habitat degradation and so on. But the real price of the gold rush mentality is slowly revealing itself.

The impact of river levees on flooding has become well known over the past couple of decades. Heavily developed rivers areas around the world experiencing regular and expensive inundations when water flow in flooded rivers is blocked from flowing into tributaries, marshes or swamps.

I found a report from 2005 that shows the impact of land drainage on Florida – not in terms of habitat loss, but in terms of local and regional climate change.

Human influence has transformed southern Florida. The transformation occurred not only on land converted to cropland or cities, but even in protected and undeveloped areas like the Everglades. Changes in water flows transformed deep-water sloughs into drier sawgrass marshes, and mangrove forests have shrunk dramatically. Source: NASA

Human influence has transformed southern Florida. The transformation occurred not only on land converted to cropland or cities, but even in protected and undeveloped areas like the Everglades. Changes in water flows transformed deep-water sloughs into drier sawgrass marshes, and mangrove forests have shrunk dramatically. Source: NASA

A multi-disciplinary team examined historical land cover and climate evidence from pre-development Florida (i.e. 19th-century), and found that in comparison to a drier, drained modern Florida, local climates were cooler and wetter in summer, and warmer in winter. The lack of local water cover changed local climate patterns.

This begins to get at the argument made by Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project, in a recent piece in National Geographic, namely, that wetlands in their watery form are worth more than the land we take from them.

She cites a new study in the journal Global Environmental Change, which shows that “the global area of freshwater wetlands and floodplains shrank by nearly two-thirds between 1997 and 2011, from an estimated 165 million hectares (408 million acres) to 60 million hectares (148 million acres).”

We’ve never been very good at weighing intangibles against objects of  immediate human value, like land. But Postel makes the argument for putting wetland and watershed services in a language we understand: Money.

Landsat images clearly show different types of landcover in southern Florida. Source: NASA/Robert Simmon

Landsat images clearly show different types of landcover in southern Florida.
Source: NASA/Robert Simmon

Citing the role of wetlands, like those that have been drained in Florida, as well as coral reefs, marshes and tropical forests, in mitigating flood and drought, the research team put together a list of water ‘services’ provided. These include recharging groundwater and filtering water in lakes and rivers, maintaining water levels that facilitate shipping, and several other long-term uses.

The total value of global ecosystem services to humans was evaluated at $120 trillion/year (for 2011). This is compared to a global GDP of  $75.2 trillion/year for the same year.

Now, the question is this:

If we look at everything through the lens of cost effectiveness, do we really believe humans can provide all the same services at a better price, even assuming we could develop the technology to do so?

Is a new condo development, mall, golf course or business center really the most cost efficient way to make use of the golden value of the world’s wetlands?

Memory and Reunion

The blue pulse flow of the Colorado River approaches the brown tidal flow of the Gulf of California. Photo: Sonoran Institute

The blue pulse flow of the Colorado River approaches the brown tidal flow of the Gulf of California.
Photo: Sonoran Institute

A few days ago, the Colorado River flowed into the Gulf of California for the first time in twenty years. The pulse flow, a one-time release of water into a stretch of the Colorado River that has been dry for decades, began on World Water Day on March 23. It was estimated by project coordinators at the time that it would take two weeks for the pulse, which was intended to simulate the annual floodwaters that once irrigated the Colorado river basin and flowed into the Gulf, to reach the Colorado Delta. Sandbars, scrub and underbrush meant it took more like six weeks.

Researchers have been planting trees and seeds in the irrigated areas, aiming to re-establish some of the ecosystem along the non-agricultural branch of the river. Did the delta greet the river as an old friend, and did the river recognize the gulf where it once flowed?

The Colorado River meets the delta and flows into the Gulf of California (15 May 2014) Photo: Francisco Zamora/Sonoran Institute

The Colorado River meets the delta and flows into the Gulf of California (15 May 2014)
Photo: Francisco Zamora/Sonoran Institute

Another reintroduction of old companions took place in the wild Southern Carpathian mountain range in Romania. Seventeen European bison (Bison bonasus), hunted to extinction in the region two centuries ago, were brought in from Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Italy to begin a rewilding effort. The bison has been making a comeback across Europe, but with around 5000 individuals across several countries, Europe’s largest herbivore is still listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.

The hope of organizers Rewilding Europe and WWF-Romania is that the presence of the wild bison will help re-establish biodiversity through grazing and browsing. Over the next few years, several hundred more bison will be brought into the area.

It will be so interesting to see how the land and ecosystems respond to the presence of these long-absent inhabitants of meadow and forest.

Is it possible to reawaken land memories, and memories of land in animals?

European bision (Bison bonasus), also known as wisent Photo: Zimbrii/Rewilding Europe

European bision (Bison bonasus), also known as wisent
Photo: Zimbrii/Rewilding Europe

Pulse Taking

‘Long memory’ is a term used in probability analysis. It originated in hydrology to predict flood patterns on the Nile River.

But do rivers remember where they once flowed?

Floraskin – Huth & Domenig Via: Data Is Nature

Floraskin – Huth & Domenig
Via: Data Is Nature

A large pulse of water was released along the Colorado River this year, an historic ecological undertaking meant to restore the once-lush downriver sections and delta. The goal of the 130 billion-liter (34 bn gallon) pulse was to imitate the spring floodwaters that once coursed the length of the river, but which have been diverted for other uses further upstream.

These images show the river before and after the water pulse was released. The river bed and tributary channels have been little more than dry markers for the memory of a river that once carried 18.5 trillion liters (4.9 trillion gallons) of water every year.

Before: An April 2013 view shows the dry river shell in northern Mexico. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Landsat 8 data from the U.S. Geological Survey

Before: An April 2013 view shows the dry river shell in northern Mexico.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Landsat 8 data from the U.S. Geological Survey

After: Water flows through the same area, April 2014. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Landsat 8 data from the U.S. Geological Survey

After: Water flows through the same area, April 2014.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Landsat 8 data from the U.S. Geological Survey

The final destination of the water is the Colorado Delta, which once formed a rich connection between the river and the Gulf of Mexico. The Delta has rarely seen river water since 1960.

As it turns out, the water pulse may not reach the Delta at all. Sand bars and shrubs are slowing the flow, even as conservationists work to re-establish trees and wetlands in its wake.

If there is such a thing, the long memory of the Colorado River may have to wait a while longer before it once again meets the Gulf of Mexico at the end of a long journey home.

 

http://www.livescience.com/45281-colorado-river-pulse-satellite.html

Twilight and Sunstones

 

Arctic sunset Photo: Patrick Kelley/USGS

Arctic sunset
Photo: Patrick Kelley/USGS

I freely admit that I can follow a map well enough, and also know the most rudimentary basics of navigating by the sky. Still, I managed to get lost yesterday, even with a Google map and the chipper assistance of voice GPS. I can only offer as an excuse that I was headed up a remote Swiss valley and there were a few too many roundabouts. In the end I followed my nose, the Luddite’s rudder, and found my way (more on this trip along the Absinthe Trail another time).

In the case of the Vikings, some of their navigational technology has remained a mystery for centuries. Researchers have been working to decipher what is assumed to be an 11th-century navigational device. The Uunartoq artifact, a broken half-disc of engraved wood, was found beneath a Benedictine monastery in Greenland in 1948. It was long thought to be a compass of some kind.

A recently published paper goes one step further, and suggests that the Uunartoq piece is something a bit more exotic – it could be a twilight compass, capable of guiding mariners by the sun, even when the sun is below the horizon.

A calcite stone, also known as a 'sunstone'. These stones are birefringent, which means that they have 2 refractive indexes. A light beam that enters such material is refracted at two different angles. Caption/Photo: Ricardo Esplugas

A calcite stone, also known as a ‘sunstone’. These stones are birefringent, which means that they have 2 refractive indexes. A light beam that enters such material is refracted at two different angles.
Caption/Photo: Ricardo Esplugas

Aligning compass points using two ‘sunstones’, crystals which have two refractive points rather than one, the plate might have caught light sources no longer visible to the human eye. Not necessarily an instrument of extreme precision, but something that could keep a ship more or less on course until the sun came up again and new measurements could be taken.

This medieval sea navigation makes a deep impression on me. Once painstakingly learned, how was this precious information passed along within cultures and across generations?

And, just as intriguing, how was something this valuable ever lost and forgotten?

Sun compass vs. twilight compass Via: CAnMove

Sun compass vs. twilight compass
Via: Proceedings of the British Royal Society via CAnMove