The US Geological Survey (USGS) recently published a remarkable image helping us appreciate the preciousness of water. We have all probably heard the oft-quoted statistic that about how 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered – most of it in the form of oceans. Though it sounds like a lot, if we gathered all that water up, how much space would it take up? The USGS, in the image below, shows us that the answer is… not much.
Though about 97% of Earth’s water is in the form of oceans, these oceans are shallow compared to the Earth’s radius – just a couple miles deep. The image above shows us just how shallow the oceans are, using radar image data, mapping the bottom of the ocean. The blue sphere shows what would be required to contain all Earth’s water – from oceans, lakes, rivers, glaciers, snowpack, etc. The sphere has a radius of just 700 kilometers.
When this picture appeared in the news, I found myself wondering what portion of that sphere was fresh water. I noted a number of reader comments asking the same thing. It’s an important question. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects that two-thirds of the planet will be water stressed by 2025. Safe drinking water and abundant water for irrigation will become increasingly scarce.
So what size sphere would be required to hold all the accesible fresh water in the world? The picture below shows the answer. But first, using USGS water data, let’s look at how the size of that fresh water sphere was calculated:
As the USGS demonstrated, all Earth’s water (1,386,000,000 cubic kilometers) can be contained in a sphere with radius of about 693 kilometers.
Of that water, only about .77% is fresh water, usable by humans (ground water, lakes, rivers, etc.) N.B.: An additional 1.74% of global water is stored as glaciers, ice caps and permanent snow, but is not accessible and usable.
.77% x 1,386,000,000 cubic kilometers = 10.7 million cubic kilometers of fresh water
10.7 million cubic kilometers of fresh water = a sphere with radius of 137 kilometers
Here’s the updated image, with spheres representing “All Water” and “Fresh Water” – side by side.
Last Call at the Oasis just opened in movie theaters this past Friday. Film critic Christopher Campbell said it best: Last Call at the Oasis is “necessary viewing for anyone on the planet who drinks water.”
It helps us understand how water is central to every part of our lives, shows how it is becoming more scarce and in some cases toxic, and offers examples of ways to conserve water more effectively, reduce pollution, and manage our precious water resources better.
The movie trailer is below. As you watch it, note the lake that appears at 45 seconds in to the trailer. That is Lake Mead. It is the main source for water to Las Vegas, and feeds the Hoover Dam, which generates electricity for Las Vegas and beyond. The lake has been around for a very very long time, and, according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will likely be dry in the next 10 years. Increased consumption and changing climate have caused the lake to drop an average of 10 feet per year. In 4 years, the water level will likely drop so low that Hoover Dam will be unable to operate.
Here’s a picture of Lake Mead taken in 2007. It was bad then and it’s worse now.
I was driving through Texas last summer, and all the radio stations could talk about was how hot and dry it was. At that time, Austin had over 70 days straight of temperatures above 100 degrees F. Wildfires raged as the drought-parched land baked to a crisp. Here’s a drought map that shows just how extensive the drought was. Note that the brownish-red areas are ranked as “Exceptional” – beyond even extreme drought.
As climate change continues its slow inexorable advance, we should expect to see the southern US trend much drier and hotter. Agriculture and ranching will become unsustainable. Humans will need to be very good at conserving and getting by with much less water. Last Call at the Oasis is a wakeup call.
Here’s the movie trailer for Last Call at the Oasis…
Consider seeing the movie. It helps us understand how we can preserve our precious water resources. It is so much more satisfying being part of the solution, than being part of the problem.
Jeffrey Sachs has a outstanding new book out called The Price of Civilization. The title of the book refers to remarks made by US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who spoke of the need for citizens of a country, who enjoyed the benefits of living in that country, to pay the price to support that civilization.
Sachs provides a thoughtful, cogent analysis of challenges facing America, and how to address those challenges. The book has a clean straightforward jargon-free narrative that is balanced and has elements that will appeal to conservatives, independents and progressives alike – though each group will find things to disagree with, there is much that will be embraced.
Sachs looks at the nature of America, through the lens of democracy, fairness, civic virtue, compassion, and happiness, and asks the question “What is our role in the 21st century?”
Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University.
Here’s Sachs being interviewed by Charlie Rose, about The Price of Civilization.
Here’s Sachs in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, taking questions from reporters. Sachs is articulate, plain speaking and clearly frustrated with the faltering state of the nation and the cozy monied relationship between government and big business.
On a related note, Charles M. Blow had an excellent graphic from the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation report “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?” It helps give some context to issues driving the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and challenges facing America.
Democrats of the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce just released a new report detailing chemicals used in the toxic gas exploration process known as Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking or fracing). Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas from oil shale beneath the earths surface. Communities are increasingly concerned about fracking polluting public water systems and the environment, when the chemicals leak into aquifers, rivers, streams and the atmosphere.
While the oil/gas industry has denied any problem, there is mounting evidence that public water systems and private wells are being polluted in areas around the drilling sites. In states such as Pennsylvania, politicians have welcomed Big Oil in with open arms, and thousands of gas extraction wells are expected to be drilled this year. Presently, the natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals used, but scientists have identified known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The chemicals can most often leak in to the water system in several ways:
Derrick – The natural gas process involves drilling 5,000 feet or more down and a comparable distance horizontally. The majority of the drilling liquid remains in the ground and is not biodegradable.
Well Casing – If the well casing that penetrates through the aquifer is not well sealed, chemicals can leak in to the aquifer.
Fractured Shale – To release the gas from underground, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into the well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. These fissures may allow the chemicals to enter the water system. In addition, recent reports suggest that radiation in the ground is contaminating the fracking fluid. This radiation has been showing up in drinking water. For more on that see the NY Times investigative article by Ian Urbina Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers.
Surface Contamination – The gas comes up wet in produced water and has to be separated from the wastewater on the surface. Only 30-50% of the water is typically recovered from a well. This wastewater can be highly toxic. Holding ponds, and handling mishaps can release this toxic brew into the environment. For some examples, see the video below about residents in Pennsylvania and the impact of fracking on their water systems. Surface evaporation of VOCs coming into contact with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the well site, can produce ground level ozone. Ozone plumes can travel up to 250 miles.
Horizontal fracking uses up to 300 tons of a mixture of 750 chemicals, many of them proprietary, and millions of gallons of water per frack. This water then becomes contaminated and must be cleaned and disposed of. To date, the oil/gas industry has been secretive about what chemicals are used, and has lobbied Congress for a variety of protections. Much of the contaminated water is taken to water treatment plants that are not designed to process the chemicals and radiation found in fracking fluids.
In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the provision took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job. It is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.
The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemical Act) is a House bill intended to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and to require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use.
The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress, in 1974, to ensure clean drinking water free from both natural and man-made contaminates. Remember the days when rivers were so polluted with toxic industrial waste that they would ignite into flame?
Here’s the introduction from the Democrats report from the Energy and Commerce Committee – Chemicals Used In Hydraulic Fracturing (N.B. click on the link at left to see the actual report and list of chemicals):
Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward J. Markey, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette released a new report that summarizes the types, volumes, and chemical contents of the hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 leading oil and gas service companies. The report contains the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by hydraulic fracturing companies during the drilling process.
“Hydraulic fracturing has helped to expand natural gas production in the United States, but we must ensure that these new resources don’t come at the expense of public health,” said Rep. Waxman. “This report shows that these companies are injecting millions of gallons of products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals, including known carcinogens. I urge EPA and DOE to make certain that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies.”
“With our river ways and drinking water at stake, it’s an absolute necessity that the American public knows what is in these fracking chemicals,” said Rep. Markey. “This report is the most comprehensive look yet at the composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process, and should help the industry, the government, and the American public push for a safer way to extract natural gas.”
During the last Congress, the Committee launched an investigation into the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the United States, asking the leading oil and gas service companies to disclose information on the products used in this process between 2005 and 2009.
The Democratic Committee staff analyzed the data provided by the companies about their practices, finding that:
The 14 leading oil and gas service companies used more than 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products, not including water added at the well site. Overall, the companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 different chemicals and other components.
The components used in the hydraulic fracturing products ranged from generally harmless and common substances, such as salt and citric acid, to extremely toxic substances, such as benzene and lead. Some companies even used instant coffee and walnut hulls in their fracturing fluids.
Between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
The BTEX compounds – benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene – are SDWA contaminants and hazardous air pollutants. Benzene also is a known human carcinogen. The hydraulic fracturing companies injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical over the five-year period.
Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, was the most widely used chemical between 2005 and 2009. The substance is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under SDWA. Isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethylene glycol were the other most widely used chemicals.
Many of the hydraulic fracturing fluids contain chemical components that are listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret.” The companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to identify these “proprietary” chemicals, suggesting that the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.
How Fracking Can Effect Your Community And What You Can Do About It
Once a communities water system is made toxic, property values plummet. Homeowners end up with homes that can’t be sold at anywhere near their original value. They are forced to live in their un-sellable homes and continue to be exposed to the toxic environment. Fracking can compromise public health and environmental quality. The map below from the Gasland project shows where oil shale gas drilling areas are most intensive, in red.
Here’s a more detailed map from the Energy Information Administration showing “Shale Plays.”
The term “play” is used in the oil and gas industry to refer to a geographic area which has been targeted for exploration due to: favorable geoseismic survey results; well logs; or production results from a new or “wildcat well” in the area. An area comes into play when it is generally recognized that there is a valuable quantity of oil or gas to be found. Oil and gas companies will send out professional “land men” who research property records at the local courthouses and after having located landowners who own the mineral rights in the play area, will offer them an oil and gas lease deal. Competition for acreage usually increases based on how hot the play is in terms of production from discovery wells in the area. The more oil and gas there is to be had, the higher the lease payments per acre are.
And money talks. Homeowners and towns can be attracted to the offer of money for exploitation of the shale. The heavy costs paid are only realized after the deal is signed – costs to the environment, increased industrial traffic through the community, attraction of outsider oil/gas workforce that can stress local community wellbeing, and of course – environmental degradation, and risk to public water systems.
Bryan Walsh, one of my favorite environmental reporters, just published this evenhanded video that looks at some specific examples of toxic fracking related events in Pennsylvania, the heart of east coast gas extraction. While business leaders in the community enjoy the increased hotel and travel related economics, the devastating impact on homeowners and communities can be tragic.
As the video shows, there is a growing conflict between public health interests and business interests. Anytime oil/gas is involved, big money is at stake. Big Oil spends tens of millions of dollars lobbying politicians to favor their business, often at the expense of public health and the environment. Local businesses welcome all the truckers, traffic and drilling personnel because it means increased commerce. But at what cost?
Communities are fighting back. Do your homework and get to know about fracking. The articles below in Recommended Reading are a good start, and rent the HBO movie documentary Gasland. You will get a good background on how communities across the US are being effected. If you think your community is being impacted by fracking, the Gasland producers have setup a good website to learn more and with tips on how to Take Action, including links to elected officials, info on local organizations, and email action alerts. Remember – oil companies are funneling big money into politicians coffers to influence public policy. It will take your steady, informed, organized community voice to counter big oil special interests.
For ideas on how to hold your elected officials accountable, read Nicholas Kristof’s really fine article on The Power of Mockery. It highlights one of the most effective ways for grass-roots movements to speak truth to power. He also features Tina Rosenberg’s new book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Kristoff offers examples of the techniques in action, including: how kids took on Big Tobacco and reduced teen smoking in Florida; the Egyptian revolution; Serbia, etc.
I just added this excellent video by Josh Fox, calling out NY Governor Cuomo on fracking. It is an excellent review of secret memos leaked from the gas industry, detailing how fracking system failures pollute our water resources. Rolling Stone Magazine online has a good article calling the Governor out on fracking.
And finally, support politicians that are committed to a strong Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Trend Is Our Friend
Fossil fuels are becoming more expensive and extraction more toxic. The easy stuff has already been extracted over the decades. What remains poses greater and greater risk to public health and the environment. Fossil fuels are our past. Renewable energy is our future. Renewables are becoming cheaper and cheaper and are much cleaner to produce. Let’s not compromise our future trying to ring every last drop of oil and gas out of the ground. Support politicians that understand the pressing need to rapidly transition to renewable energy and invest in research and development, education, and regulation.
I’ll leave you with this interactive diagram from the Gasland website. Click on the small circles to learn more about fracking. Click on the “To The City” arrow to scroll the image to the left to see how fracking contaminated water effects community water systems.
Shilong Piao of the Center of Climate Research at Beijing University has published a paper in Nature, reported on by Reuters:
With the climate set to get warmer from greenhouse gases, Chinese scientists predicted on Thursday that freshwater for agriculture will shrink further in China, reducing crop yields in the years ahead.
This story illustrates the typical cause and effect unfolding round the world as the world grows warmer. Food production will be challenged by water scarcity, warmer climate fostering crop pests, and reduced protein in plants. For related posts see:
Highlights of the article Warmer temperatures in China to reduce crop yields
In a paper published in Nature, they said the temperature in China had gone up by 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1960 and will increase by another 1 to 5 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“Such a pronounced summer warming would inevitably enhance evapo-transpiration, increasing the risk of water shortage for agriculture,” wrote the researchers, led by Shilong Piao of the Center of Climate Research at Beijing University.
“Climate change may induce a net yield reduction of 13 percent by 2050.”
They forecast that rice yields would decrease by 4 to 14 percent, wheat by 2 to 20 percent and maize by zero to 23 percent by the middle of the 21st century.
China only has 7 percent of the world’s arable land, but needs to feed 22 percent of the world’s population. Although its total water resource is huge in absolute terms, it is only 25 percent of the per capita world average.
Its climate has also become drier in the north, which holds 18 percent of the total water resource and 65 percent of total arable land, they added.
Apart from shrinking already scarce water supplies, higher temperatures have also led to the spread of pests, they said.
“Countrywide, a 4.5 percent reduction in wheat yields is attributed to rising temperatures over the period 1979-2000,” the researchers wrote.
China’s agriculture minister said in July that China faced a formidable task in meeting demand for grains such as rice, wheat and corn in the next 10 years.
China last year harvested a record 530.82 million tonnes of grain, but will need to increase annual supply by at least 4 million tonnes for the next decde to feed a population expected to hit 1.39 billion in 2015 from 1.32 billion at the end of 2008.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that we track several core issues that we believe will have profound impact on us all – rich and poor, individuals, communities, business, and government. They are population, energy, water, food, climate change and healthcare. In a sense, food interrelates to all the other issues – it takes tremendous energy and water to produce our food, climate change will reduce food production, and food choices affect our health.
Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.
(Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.)
Food, water, shelter and security are the fundamental building blocks of a persons survival. When those basics are removed, even for a few days, a civilized population can move toward anarchy in a heartbeat.
Rather than highlight the NY Times excerpt, I think it is worth looking at the solid concise description Cribb provides, of the main drivers challenging the supply and demand sides of food production. If you read nothing else in this book, read this and remember it as you try to make sense of the news stories realted to food that will become more common as the crisis deepens.
Excerpt of The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb
To see where the answers may lie, we need to explore each of the main drivers. On the demand side the chief drivers are:
Population. Although the rate of growth in human numbers is slowing, the present upward trend of 1.5 percent (one hundred million more people) per year points to a population of around 9.2 billion in 2050 — 3 billion more than in 2000. Most of this expansion will take place in poorer countries and in tropical/subtropical regions. In countries where birth rates are falling, governments are bribing their citizens with subsidies to have more babies in an effort to address the age imbalance.
Consumer demand. The first thing people do as they climb out of poverty is to improve their diet. Demand for protein foods such as meat, milk, fish, and eggs from consumers with better incomes, mainly in India and China but also in Southeast Asia and Latin America, is rising rapidly. This in turn requires vastly more grain to feed the animals and fish. Overfed rich societies continue to gain weight. The average citizen of Planet Earth eats one-fifth more calories than he or she did in the 1960s — a “food footprint” growing larger by the day.
Population and demand. This combination of population growth with expansion in consumer demand indicates a global requirement for food by 2050 that will be around 70–100 percent larger than it is today. Population and demand are together rising at about 2 percent a year, whereas food output is now increasing at only about 1 percent a year.
These demand-side factors could probably be satisfied by the world adopting tactics similar to those of the 1960s, when the Green Revolution in farming technology was launched, were it not for the many constraints on the supply side that are now emerging to hinder or prevent such a solution:
Water crisis. Put simply, civilization is running out of freshwater. Farmers presently use about 70 percent of the world’s readily available freshwater to grow food. However, increasingly megacities, with their huge thirst for water for use in homes, industry, and waste disposal, are competing with farmers for this finite resource and, by 2050, these uses could swallow half or more of the world’s available freshwater at a time when many rivers, lakes, and aquifers will be drying up. Unless major new sources or savings are found, farmers will have about half of the world’s currently available freshwater with which to grow twice the food.
Land scarcity. The world is running out of good farmland. A quarter of all land is now so degraded that it is scarcely capable of yielding food. At the same time, cities are sprawling, smothering the world’s most fertile soil in concrete and asphalt, while their occupants fan out in search of cheap land for recreation that diverts the best food-producing areas from agriculture. A third category of land is poisoned by toxic industrial pollution. Much former urban food production has now ceased. The emerging global dearth of good farmland represents another severe limit on increasing food production.
Nutrient losses. Civilization is hemorrhaging nutrients — substances essential to all life. Annual losses in soil erosion alone probably exceed all the nutrients applied as fertilizer worldwide. The world’s finite nutrient supplies may already have peaked. Half the fertilizer being used is wasted. In most societies, up to half the food produced is trashed or lost; so too are most of the nutrients in urban waste streams. The global nutrient cycle, which has sustained humanity throughout our history, has broken down.
Energy dilemma. Advanced farming depends entirely on fossil fuels, which are likely to become very scarce and costly within a generation. At present farmers have few alternative means of producing food other than to grow fuel on their farms — which will reduce food output by 10–20 percent. Many farmers respond to higher costs simply by using less fertilizer or fuel — and so cutting yields. Driven by high energy prices and concerns about climate change, the world is likely to burn around 400 million tonnes (441 million U.S. tons) of grain as biofuels by 2020 — the equivalent of the entire global rice harvest.
Oceans. Marine scientists have warned that ocean fish catches could collapse by the 2040s due to overexploitation of wild stocks. Coral reefs — whose fish help feed about five hundred million people — face decimation under global warming. The world’s oceans are slowly acidifying as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels dissolves out of the atmosphere, threatening ocean food chains. Fish farms are struggling with pollution and sediment runoff from the land. The inability of the fish sector to meet its share of a doubling in world food demand will throw a heavier burden onto land-based meat industries.
Technology. For three de cades the main engine of the modern food miracle, the international scientific research that boosted crop yields, has been neglected, leading to a decline in productivity gains. Farmers worldwide are heading into a major technology pothole, with less new knowledge available in the medium run to help them to increase output.
Climate. The climate is changing: up to half the planet may face regular drought by the end of the century. “Unnatural disasters” — storms, floods, droughts, and sea-level rise — are predicted to become more frequent and intense, with adventitious impacts on food security, refugee waves, and conflict.
Economics, politics, and trade. Trade barriers and farm subsidies continue to distort world markets, sending the wrong price signals to farmers and discouraging investment in agriculture and its science. The globalization of food has helped drive down prices received by farmers. Speculators have destabilized commodity markets, making it riskier for farmers to make production decisions. Some countries discourage or ban food exports and others tax them, adding to food insecurity. Others pay their farmers to grow fuel instead of food. A sprawling web of health, labor, and environmental regulation is limiting farmers’ freedom to farm.
The collapse in world economic conditions in late 2008 and 2009 has changed the prices of many things, including land, food, fuel, and fertilizer — but has not altered the fact that demand for food continues to grow while limits on its production multiply. Indeed, the economic crash exacerbated hunger among the world’s poor, and has not altered the fundamentals of climate change, water scarcity, population growth, land degradation, or nutrient or oil depletion.
As Cribb astutely points out, as developing nations become more affluent, they consume more protein, in the form of fish, meat, milk, eggs, etc.
That protein is produced with grain, and it is an inefficient process:
It takes 1,ooo tons of water to produce a ton of grain
It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef
It takes about 5,200 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef
Thinking about the Butterfly Effect – the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, changing patterns in the air, can cause a tornado in another part of the world – we can see that famine in one part of the world becomes a kind of super butterfly. All nations – rich and poor – will feel the impact.
Cripp summarizes the challenge and frames the solution:
To sum it all up, the challenge facing the world’s 1.8 billion women and men who grow our food is to double their output of food — using far less water, less land, less energy, and less fertilizer. They must accomplish this on low and uncertain returns, with less new technology available, amid more red tape, economic disincentives, and corrupted markets, and in the teeth of spreading drought. Achieving this will require something not far short of a miracle.
Yet humans have done it before and, resilient species that we are, we can do it again. This time, however, it won’t just be a problem for farmers, scientists, and policy makers. It will be a challenge involving every single one of us, in our daily lives, our habits, and our influence at the ballot box and at the supermarket.
It will be the greatest test of our global humanity and our wisdom we have yet faced.