“Will there be enough water?” – Scientific American

NASA image Source: Scientific American
NASA image
Source: Scientific American

David Biello reports for Scientific American on water usage and reusage on the planet.  He writes that, “Water demands continue to inch up year after year even as climate change queers supply.”

“Can civilization cope,” he asks.

But, how does climate change queer water supply?  Biello sites an article he wrote about the effects of rising temperatures on earth.  He uses information from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Research Council to conclude that man-made global warming is in progress.   He writes in the earlier article, published by journal Momentum from the University of Minnesota:

Climate change is already worse than anticipated by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Extreme precipitation events, such as last spring’s flooding in Nashville, Tenn., or last winter’s drought in China, have become more frequent. Sea ice extents have reached record lows in the Arctic. And 2010 marked the end of the hottest decade in recorded history.

Not only that, but the 0.7-degree-Celsius uptick in global average temperatures we’ve seen so far is only half the warming that can be expected from the concentrations of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, according to a 2010 report from the U.S. National Research Council. And as warming continues, according to the NRC report, the world can expect (among other things) a drop in the yield of cereal crops due to higher temperatures, an increase in heavy rainfall and a rise in ocean levels.

In other words, whatever measures might be adopted to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the world will still need to adapt to a changing climate. Indeed, that process has already begun.

In the Momentum article, Biello sites the neeg to expand “agro-forestry” to offset the effects of climate change.  Here’s more about that from the author:

This arid expanse, known as the Sahel, stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It has undergone a remarkable transformation since farmers in nations across the region began to allow trees to grow amidst their crops.

In some places it was by accident, as seeds sprouted from manure spread as fertilizer in Niger. In others it was by design, such as the “green dam” against the desert started in Algeria in 1971. But the result has been the same: improved harvests of millet, sorghum and other staple crops in a region gripped by perennial drought.

Such “agroforestry” boosts yields by returning vital nutrients to the soil in the form of decaying leaves, shading crops from the harshest sun, and recharging underground water reserves. The trees also provide an additional source of income: wood for fires and construction. And they have another even more important benefit: They may help some of the poorest farmers in the world adapt to climate change – while potentially removing as much as 50 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to agronomist Dennis Garrity, head of the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre.

Whether climate change is man-made is debatable, as there is plenty of evidence to suggest extreme climate changes throughout Earth’s history.  Also, it would depend on how he defines “recorded history”, as the Earth’s history is recorded in stalagmites from caves as well.  But, using agroforestry methods, as Biello describes sounds like a really positive development.

Read the full article from the Spring 2011 edition of Momentum, click here.

Biello begins the article published in Scientific American on causes to possible water shortages in the future:

Some 2.5 billion gallons of water are used to frack oil or gas wells in the U.S. Every day. Nearly all of that water is lost, either in the fracking or by disposing it down a borehole. And industry’s water consumption is dwarfed by agriculture, responsible for more than 80 percent of this country’s enormous water use.

The author sites a recent panel convened to discuss solutions for future water shortage issues.  He wirtes that people should get used to the idea of reusing water over and over again.   Of course, we already do.

Biello asks:

With climate change beginning to affect water supplies, what can be done?

A panel at the recent Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy summit attempted to answer that question. In agriculture, it will take both better breeding—for more water efficient crops—and smarter irrigation. Our power plants could send less steam into the sky with hybrid air-and-water cooling systems. And local, state and federal governments could begin to reform an often hidebound water rights system. Not to mention that we’d all better get comfortable with the idea of reusing water over and over again.

On the other hand, as a new $1 billion facility rising on the California coast may prove, maybe we just need to increase the water supply. The Poseidon desalination plant aims to turn seawater into hundreds of thousands of gallons of freshwater annually. The only problem is: it’s expensive and it requires a lot of energy. And producing energy requires water, which requires energy to clean, which, well, lather, rinse, repeat.

We might also reintegrate bio-diversity into agriculture in a myriad of ways.   Another suggestion might be to harness the energy from the sun through photosynthesis, instead of relying on hydrocarbons to provide electricity.   Research should focus on providing future energy needs in ways that don’t hog all of Earth’s natural resources, while emitting tons of methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Read the full article and listen to the podcast by David Biello, click here.


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