Tag Archives: #NASA

Stone Cold Facts

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Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

Waiting For Rain

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I was running my loop the other day when I came across this delicate specimen in the middle of the road – a damselfly that was flitting around two weeks later than the very end of the usual damselfly season, probably because it still feels like high summer.

I shooed it off the asphalt as a car approached, and it alighted on a leaf just long enough for me to take its picture. Not for nothing is it known as ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo), but it was a little far from its natural stream habitat. Maybe it was looking for water.

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo). Photo: PKR

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo).
Photo: PKR

In a normal year, we’d get a week of rainfall the first few days of September. Same routine year after year. School starts, and it rains. Not this year. This year saw unbroken rain from spring to early summer, and not much since. The garden lawn is brown and crunchy as shredded wheat underfoot, the plants and trees are hanging on (or not – we’ve lost at least two trees to the heat this year).

The air has been still and heavy, the corn fields look green from a distance but the corn is dried and ruined on the stalks, and while no one is using the word drought because of all the rain earlier in the year, it feels…strange.

I was actually out on two separate runs the day I took these photos – the morning run, when I saw the damselfly, turned out to be too oppressively hot to complete my full 10k. I waited until dusk to do the rest.

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset. Photo: PKR

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset.
Photo: PKR

NASA released numbers showing that 2016 is the hottest year on record, meaning of course not the hottest year ever, but just since we’ve had the technology to record temperatures. Meaning the ‘modern age’ which defines current society.

As much impact as our industrialized society has on the planet’s temperature, it’s hard to even estimate what impact these rising temperatures and extreme weather will have on societies around the world.

A recent study published by the Harvard University Economics Department correlated temperature with school test results and found that above a certain temperature, performance went down. Consistently. We talk about the adaptability of animals and plants to changing conditions, but what about our own adaptability?

Temperature reconstructions by Nasa, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming. Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Temperature reconstructions by NASA, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming.
Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Humans actually function within a relatively small comfort zone of temperature. We can survive at extremes, but it’s not always easy or pretty, and historically it’s been in smaller populations than currently sharing space on Earth.

The sky has turned grey in the past twelve hours, we’ve had a smattering of raindrops, but it’s still summer-hot and sticky. Much of France is on an extreme weather alert this week, not for heat, but for severe storms and hail.

Guess I’ll have to see what the day brings.

Here’s a good waiting for rain tune – one that I like, and not just because of the spoonerism of the band’s name.

Covering Our Eyes

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The main centers of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lay like a loose pearl necklace around the coastal edges of the nation.

I’ve never been to any of the NASA sites, but I grew up watching them from a distance.

As a child of the Sixties, the moon launches that took place were an invitation to dream of the stars. They made everything – anything – seem possible. It was just a matter of extending the grasp of our human hands by a finger’s length.

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt Text credit: European Space Agency

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Text credit: European Space Agency

With the passing of time, those dreams of exploration have expanded in unexpected ways. As it turns out, what we don’t know about space is matched in kind by what we don’t know about our home planet.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say what we don’t know and would like to find about the cosmos runs parallel to what we have chosen not to know, and would rather not find out, about Earth.

We’ve known about human-caused climate impact for a very long time. Even the fossil-fuel industry has known about the effects of its products for longer than any care to admit.

And a rise in sea levels is one of the main effects of a rapidly warming world.

So what to think about the story that many of the most iconic NASA facilities, those stepping stones to understanding our place in the universe and in the environment, are at risk of being submerged by the rising seas of global warming?

NASA and international space agencies around the world provide an array of tools and mechanisms for examining our world as well as others – those first photos of the blue planet bobbing in deep space inspired many to try and protect what turned out to be a rather unique place to live.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells. This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Caption/Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells.
This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data

Those initial images have been followed by a myriad of eyes that look at our planet in self-examination. In photos, measurements, radar, NASA and its partner agencies have been building an ever expanding archive of information, deepening our understanding of the forces at work here on the surface.

These are visions that aren’t necessarily what I would call the stuff of dreams, but they provide a portal to action in a way that perhaps moon launches didn’t for the average earthbound human.

These are images taken from the perspective of celestials, given to the earthbound. They promote an awareness of what the planet it doing, we are doing and maybe, what we can do it better.

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997. Credits: NASA/Goddard

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Goddard

The United States launch pads, were built near coastlines for safety reasons. But latitude plays a role – these are the southernmost regions of the country, and thus closest to the Equator, where “the greater diameter of the planet provides a slingshot effect that gives each rocket more bang for the propulsion buck.” (NYT)

What to say about some of our best technological achievements being inundated by the technologies and habits we can’t seem to quit?

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.

Patch Job

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A study published earlier this year pointed to a decrease in the size of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

This healing process indicates the success of the Montreal Protocol, the 1989 treaty intended to limit the production and use of ozone-harming chemicals.

Ratified by all United Nations Members, as well as Niue, the Cook Islands, the Holy See and the European Union, it’s been hailed as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” (Kofi Annan)

Ten Circles - magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn Artist: Susanna Bauer

Ten Circles – magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn
Artist: Susanna Bauer

It’s worth noting that the movement to reduce the production and use of gases that affect the ozone layer came long before ‘scientific consensus’ was actually reached.

Like the discussion surrounding carbon emissions and climate change, scientists who argued for a reduction in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production and use (mainly for refrigeration purposes and aerosol spray propellant) faced an array of opposition.

One, Two, Three Artist: Susanna Bauer

One, Two, Three
Artist: Susanna Bauer

DuPont held the patent for Freon, a CFC widely used around the world, but one which was losing profitability. The company put up aggressive arguments against any regulation of CFC production for several years – while searching for replacement alternatives.

The publication of ozone hole images in the 1980s focused public attention on the issue, just around the time DuPont felt it had found viable gas alternatives and the Freon patent had expired.

DuPont switched course, became an active supporter of CFC limitation and a strong proponent of international action. It also earned itself a reputation as a company concerned with the environmental impact of its products. (It bears mentioning that most of the alternative products also count as harmful greenhouse gases with varying levels of atmospheric toxicity.)

Common Ground (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Common Ground (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

The Montreal Protocal was the result of a rare confluence of public opinion, environmental interests and corporate action. Corporate and government reluctance to limit CFC production was otherwise similar to today’s climate change discussion.

In the end, it always seems to come down to habits, inertia and money (or lack thereof) on the one side, and an amassing of scientific proof and activism on the other.

Moon (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Moon (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

Perhaps what the Montreal Protocol really had going for it was the image of the hole in the atmosphere, a singular lens that could focus attention, fears, research and opinion.

It’s profoundly encouraging that the positive effects of an international treaty on a large-scale environmental challenge can be measured in a relatively short span of time.

Here’s hoping this visible progress can impact the usual cost-benefit conversations when it comes to climate change negotiations.

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040. Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040.
Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

 

Oxbows and Meanders

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I found this tangled map, created in 1944, over on the ever-fruitful NASA web site for the Earth Observatory. It shows historical changes along a stretch of the Mississippi River.

North of the Atchafalaya River. The 1999 satellite image shows an oxbow lake from 1785, created when a meander (a bend in the river) closes itself off to leave behind a crescent.  From the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944. Source: Earth Observatory

North of the Atchafalaya River. The 1999 satellite image shows an oxbow lake from 1785, created when a meander (a bend in the river) closes itself off to leave behind a crescent.
From the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944.
Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

I stumbled upon it while looking at a small collection of river surveys from 1865, and comparing them to modern Google maps. There was this one, a stretch just south of St. Mary, Missouri.

Sheet 6 of the 1865 U.S. Coast Survey Map of the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL to St. Marys, MO.  Source: Wikimedia

Sheet 6 of the 1865 U.S. Coast Survey Map of the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL to St. Mary, MO.
Source: Wikimedia

The modern one looks a bit different – fewer bends, fewer islands – but not so much that it would be unrecognizable. Notably, the large bend that once branched off to St. Mary, Missouri, visible at the top of each map, is now just a small tributary.

One might have expected more of a difference over the course of 150 years of population increase and civil engineering.

The same stretch of river, with St. Mary, Missouri in the upper left corner.  Source: Googlemaps

The same stretch of river, with St. Mary, Missouri in the upper left corner.
Source: Googlemaps

But, at least on the Mississippi, the differences in major river flow come when the river is left alone to shift, meander, silt up and sidle over. The more humans work on this particular river, the more it stays the same. Levees are installed to prevent overflow (although they don’t always work).

The entire Mississippi Delta once shifted every 1,000 years or so – but with industries and port installations firmly established over the course of a few human generations, that would be an economic disaster. The Old River Control Structure, undertaken in the 1950s, keeps the delta in place.

More or less. At least, for the time being.

Because in the long run and when left to their own devices, rivers are all over the map.

Section of the 1944 Mississippi River Meander Belt. For more, visit here. Source: VisualNews

Section of the 1944 Mississippi River Meander Belt. For more, visit here.
Source: VisualNews

A Little Perspective

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It’s been a rough start to 2015, so I thought I’d step back and look at a bigger picture.

NASA released an image of a section of one of our nearest neighbors, galactically-speaking: the Andromeda galaxy, also known as M31.

The image itself contains 1.5 billion pixels and represents the largest image ever released by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The section of the galaxy shown contains over 100 million stars and would take 40,000 years to traverse at the speed of light.

A section of the Andromeda galaxy.  Click here to explore the image using the NASA zoom tool.  Source: NASA

A section of the Andromeda galaxy.
Click here to explore the image using the NASA zoom tool.
Source: NASA

Something to remind me on the one hand, that we are part of something far more vast than the human squabbles that take place on the surface of our planet, and on the other hand, that among all these countless celestial bodies, this little planet is the only one we’ve got.

If you’ve got the time, set your screen to full-view and spend a few short minutes on this lovely fly-through video, put together by YouTube user daveachuck.

Turtle Chirps, Volcanic Whistles

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Anathasius Kircher, a 17th-century German Jesuit priest and scholar, had interests ranging from fossils to hieroglyphics to micro-organisms and volcanoes, was above all a master of expressing wonder at the natural world.

He proposed, among many other things, the idea of a parabolic horn, an amplification system for sound waves. In the illustration below, the sound waves are created by human voices. We do so like to hear ourselves talk. And we like to think we hear everything around us.

Parabolic amplication  by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

Parabolic amplification by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

But consider all the sounds and songs we can’t hear without the help of other mechanisms, the technological great-grandchildren of Kircher’s giant seashell horns.

The low chirps and meows of sea turtles, which apparently have distinct songs for mating, laying eggs, and for setting off on their first ocean journeys. Turtle hatchlings were recently discovered to use vocalization to improve their odds of survival by migrating together, and they responded to vocalizations of adult females up to hundreds of miles away from their nesting beaches. If they could hear them over human-produced noise pollution, that is.

Here’s an incredible collection of animal sounds, the Macaulay Library, from around the world. I particularly like this haunting recording of a lone common loon.

Plants have been found to communicate with one another via sound frequencies – some even speculate that they use fungi networks in forest floors as sound switchboards.

A water-powered automatic organ by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

A water-powered automatic organ by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

There’s whistling lightning – not the cracks you might have heard during a storm, but very low frequency radio waves sent out by some (though not all) lighting strikes just before they burst. There’s an entire network devoted to listening for whistlers (listen here), which have also been found to be connected to volcanic eruptions.

And then there’s the music of the spheres – or at least, the sphere upon which we live, Earth. The rings of plasma which form part of the planet’s giant magnetosphere are bursting with radio waves, which produce a sound sometimes called Earth’s “chorus” (listen here).

Why do I mention all this?

Because I was thinking this morning, while listening to the dawn chorus of birds, about the fact that, even if it’s just out of our range, not necessarily intended for us and we can’t always hear it, there’s music all around.

Illustration of Earth's plasma rings. Source: FeelGuide

Illustration of Earth’s plasma rings.
Source: FeelGuide

Water Falls

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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

Floating Farms

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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.