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Changes in global water supply portend future conflicts and crises

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Indian Arm and Belcarra are seen from a helicopter in Burnaby, B.C., on Nov. 25, 2016.

JONATHAN HAYWARD

By combining 14 years’ worth of satellite data, scientists have captured a startling portrait of the world’s water supply undergoing rapid transformation. The new analysis points to areas where there is increasing potential for conflict as a growing demand for water collides with the impacts of climate change. In Canada, the maps shows shifting water supplies that include wetter, more flood-prone regions in many areas of the country but a general drying out in the western sub-Arctic.

“This is an eye-opener,” said Roy Brouwer, an economist and executive director of the University of Waterloo’s Water Institute who was not involved in the analysis. “It raises awareness that things are changing and that in some areas something has to happen to counter and anticipate some of the catastrophes that may be waiting for us in the not-so-far future.”

The analysis is based on data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, a NASA-led mission launched in 2002 that involved two satellites circling the globe in tandem about 220 kilometres apart. A microwave link between the two satellites allowed scientists to precisely monitor minuscule changes in their separation down to a distance of 10 microns, or about one-tenth the width of a human hair.

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The setup created a sort of flying weight scale that mean the satellites could be used to measure slight regional variations in Earth’s gravitational pull. Many of those variations are due to geological features, such as mountain ranges, that do not vary over time. But by taking measurements over many years, the satellite also picked up changes that are largely due to the movement of massive amounts of water at or near Earth’s surface.

Researchers have published many results based on GRACE data but the new analysis, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, marks the first time all available observations from the mission, from April, 2002, to March, 2016, have been analyzed and assembled to provide a comprehensive map of water trends around the world. Those trends encompass changes in where water is stored across Earth’s surface, including groundwater, soil moisture, glaciers, snow cover and surface water. The result suggests a water landscape that is changing fast on a global scale, in large part due to human activity and climate change.

“The human fingerprint is all over what we see in the map,” said Jay Famiglietti, a water-resource expert affiliated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the incoming director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security.

Dr. Famiglietti, a co-author on the Nature study, has played a central role in interpreting data from the GRACE mission over its lifetime. He added that the new analysis pointed to profound changes in the Earth’s water resources that should serve as a wake-up call for policy makers.

“There are implications in that map for food security, for water security and for human security in terms of things like conflict and climate refugees,” he said.

In total, Dr. Famiglietti and his colleagues identified 34 regional trends in water storage observed by GRACE. Some are likely due to natural variations over the time that the observations were taken. For example, the Amazon basin looks like its getting wetter because the area has been recovering from a drought. The same is likely the case for a region centred on the Canadian Prairies and parts of the United States. Over the long term, those trends may fade away.

The most obvious changes are clearly due to climate change and relate to ice loss in the polar regions and in some mountainous areas such as Alaska and the southern portions of the Andes in South America. Others show places where humans have directly affected water storage.

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One example is a large swatch of diminishing water supply across parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq. The shortage is related to dam building in Turkey and overuse of groundwater, both of which have exacerbated an already complex and volatile political situation in the region.

Similar shortfalls in India reflect the impact of subsidized electricity, which has created a “perverse incentive” that makes it inexpensive to pump out more groundwater than can be replenished, said Dr. Brouwer.

Overall, the map shows how the world’s water is increasingly moving from natural storehouses such as glaciers to human-built reservoirs, a change that comes with plenty of political fallout when that water crosses international boundaries, said Aaron Wolf, an expert in water-related conflict at Oregon State University.

“This kind of data really helps us identify hot spots in advance of real crises,” he said.

Support for the GRACE mission officially ended last fall and the last of the satellites burned up as its orbit decayed in mid-March. A follow-up mission with two new satellites that will continue the gravity measurements is currently set for launch this Tuesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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WATCHING THE WATER FLOW

Satellite data accumulated over a 14-year period reveals dramatic changes in the world’s water supply, partly due to natural variation but also because of human activity and climate change

Global water storage trends

Average annual change in water abundance (cm)

The Canada’s agricultural heartland has been getting wetter as rainfall patterns shift while the southern U.S. is drying out

Eastern Brazil shows water loss due to drought. A gain to the southwest may be largely due to dam construction

The starkest shift in water supply on the planet is due to the ongoing loss of ice in polar and mountainous regions

Dams and depletion of groundwater for agriculture has exacerbated political crises in the Middle East

The complex trends in southern Asia’s water supply are partly due to a shift from natural to human-controlled storage

Africa is likely to show more extreme changes in the coming years as groundwater resources are exploited

ivan semeniuk, JOHN SOPINSKI and

murat yükselir / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: Emerging trends in global freshwater availability, doi.org

WATCHING THE WATER FLOW

Satellite data accumulated over a 14-year period reveals dramatic changes in the world’s water supply, partly due to natural variation but also because of human activity and climate change

Global water storage trends

Average annual change in water abundance (cm)

The Canada’s agricultural heartland has been getting wetter as rainfall patterns shift while the southern U.S. is drying out

Eastern Brazil shows water loss due to drought. A gain to the southwest may be largely due to dam construction

The starkest shift in water supply on the planet is due to the ongoing loss of ice in polar and mountainous regions

Dams and depletion of groundwater for agriculture has exacerbated political crises in the Middle East

The complex trends in southern Asia’s water supply are partly due to a shift from natural to human-

controlled storage

Africa is likely to show more extreme changes in the coming years as groundwater resources are exploited

ivan semeniuk, JOHN SOPINSKI and murat yükselir /

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Emerging trends in global freshwater availability, doi.org

WATCHING THE WATER FLOW

Satellite data accumulated over a 14-year period reveals dramatic changes in the world’s water supply, partly due to natural variation but also because of human activity and climate change

Global water storage trends

Average annual change in water abundance (cm)

The Canada’s agricultural heartland has been getting wetter as rainfall patterns shift while the southern U.S. is drying out

Eastern Brazil shows water loss due to drought. A gain to the southwest may be largely due to dam construction

The starkest shift in water supply on the planet is due to the ongoing loss of ice in polar and mountainous regions

Dams and depletion of groundwater for agriculture has exacerbated political crises in the Middle East

The complex trends in southern Asia’s water supply are partly due to a shift from natural to human-controlled storage

Africa is likely to show more extreme changes in the coming years as groundwater resources are exploited

ivan semeniuk, JOHN SOPINSKI and murat yükselir/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Emerging trends in global freshwater availability, doi.org

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Purple bacteria may help harvest green fuel from wastewater

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London, Nov 14 (PTI) A purple bacteria — which store energy from light — can help harvest hydrogen fuel from sewage, and recover carbon from any type of organic waste, scientists have found.

Organic compounds in household sewage and industrial wastewater are a rich potential source of energy, bioplastics and even proteins for animal feed — but with no efficient extraction method, treatment plants discard them as contaminants.

A study, published in the journal Frontiers in Energy Research, is the first to show that supplying electric current to purple phototrophic bacteria can recover nearly 100 per cent of carbon from any type of organic waste, while generating hydrogen gas for electricity production.

“One of the most important problems of current wastewater treatment plants is high carbon emissions,” said Daniel Puyol of King Juan Carlos University in Spain.

“Our light-based biorefinery process could provide a means to harvest green energy from wastewater, with zero carbon footprint,” said Puyol.

Purple phototrophic bacteria capture energy from sunlight using a variety of pigments, which turn them shades of orange, red or brown — as well as purple.

“Purple phototrophic bacteria make an ideal tool for resource recovery from organic waste, thanks to their highly diverse metabolism,” said Puyol.

The bacteria can use organic molecules and nitrogen gas — instead of carbon dioxide and water — to provide carbon, electrons and nitrogen for photosynthesis.

This means that they grow faster than alternative phototrophic bacteria and algae, and can generate hydrogen gas, proteins or a type of biodegradable polyester as byproducts of metabolism.

Which metabolic product predominates depends on the bacteria’s environmental conditions — like light intensity, temperature, and the types of organics and nutrients available.

“Our group manipulates these conditions to tune the metabolism of purple bacteria to different applications, depending on the organic waste source and market requirements,” said Abraham Esteve-Nunez of University of Alcala in Spain.

“But what is unique about our approach is the use of an external electric current to optimise the productive output of purple bacteria,” he said.

The researchers analysed the optimum conditions for maximising hydrogen production by a mixture of purple phototrophic bacteria species.

They also tested the effect of a negative current — that is, electrons supplied by metal electrodes in the growth medium — on the metabolic behaviour of the bacteria.

The first key finding was that the nutrient blend that fed the highest rate of hydrogen production also minimised the production of CO2.

“This demonstrates that purple bacteria can be used to recover valuable biofuel from organics typically found in wastewater — malic acid and sodium glutamate — with a low carbon footprint,” said Esteve-Nunez.

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.

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'A big piece of the puzzle of life': New gallery will tell the story of life's origins through Canada's geography

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Jean-Bernard Caron, senior curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, is awaiting a shipment of fossils from Quebec.

They won’t be much to look at, he says, just microscopic flecks in stone, invisible to the naked eye. But they will be different from the collection of 500-million-year-old fossils in black shale laid out on his desk in a corner office overlooking the provincial legislature.

The recently discovered Quebec fossils are something like 4.2 billion years old. That is almost as old as the planet Earth itself, which is about 4.6 billion years old.

He is understandably excited. The dawn of life is being pushed ever farther back in time, and the vastness of Canada’s geography — which overlays ancient tropical seas and prehistoric forests of ferns — has been the key to many of the discoveries that prove this.

It’s a big piece of the puzzle of life we haven’t told yet

Canada, as Caron puts it, tells the whole story of life on Earth, from the mostly bacterial life forms that arose in the earliest eras, through the first complex organisms that became plants and animals, into the time of dinosaurs, and eventually the more familiar creatures we know today. From the oldest bacterial fossils in Quebec, through the “proto-animals” of Mistaken Point, Nfld., the diverse creatures in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia, the fish transitioning to land life at Miguasha, Que., the giant plants and first evidence of eggs at Joggins, N.S., to the dinosaurs of Alberta’s Badlands, Canada has it all.

But this museum, Canada’s largest, has not told this evolutionary story in all its glory. It’s got mammals down, with their own gallery. The dinosaur gallery is famous. But that only takes you back a quarter billion years. The life forms that predate the dinosaurs, most long since extinct, could fill a museum many times over. Nearly four billion years of life’s history have got short shrift.

“It’s a big piece of the puzzle of life we haven’t told yet,” Caron said.

The Burgess Shale is home to some of the planet’s earliest animals.

There was, for example, one particular Acutiramus, a giant monster lobsterish creature as long as a man and wide as a pig, with claws like lacrosse sticks, that hunted the warm waters over Ontario 420 million years ago, only to be buried in some catastrophic mudslide, and unearthed in the last century. That terrifying slab of stone is now safely stored in the ROM’s back rooms. The museum also has a smaller specimen, from the Fort Erie, Ont., area, that is preserved so well you can not only see its eyes, but the cells that compose them.

“It’s a giant shrimp. You don’t want to meet him in the sea when you scuba dive,” Caron said. “I’m glad he’s extinct.”

So work has begun in earnest on a new gallery dedicated to the “Dawn of Life,” set to open in 2021, financed largely by philanthropists Jeff Willner and Stacey Madge. Nearly all of the artifacts on display will have come from Canada.

It’s a giant shrimp. You don’t want to meet him in the sea when you scuba dive

“We want people to be fascinated by their own history,” Caron said. So the gallery will be designed not only as a journey back in time into the ancient Cambrian Sea, but a journey across Canada, from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia westwards through Ontario toward the Rocky Mountains. Each will represent a new step in evolution: the origins of multicellularity, complex organs, sex, eggs, and the various modifications that let animals escape the water for the land and sky.

There is an old joke that evolution is a tale of teeth mating to produce slightly different teeth. After all, teeth are what gets left behind. Most else rots away. But most animals that existed on Earth had no hard parts, let alone teeth. Finding the soft parts of extinct animals has long been a tricky part of paleontology.

The Burgess Shale cut through this conundrum.

story slug   A big piece of the puzzle of life: New gallery will tell the story of lifes origins through Canadas geography

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron in the Marble Canyon Quarry in Kootenay National Park.

This is Caron’s specialty, an area in the Rocky Mountains in Yoho National Park where a collapse of a huge amount of sediment half a billion years ago exquisitely preserved the earliest creatures of the Cambrian explosion, one of the most productive periods of evolutionary history. It is “a window into a world that normally would have disappeared,” Caron said. Sometimes you can even make out the creatures’ intestines and their final meals. One of the ROM’s fossils from the Burgess Shale is a 500-million-year-old fish that is the ancestor of all modern vertebrates.

Mistaken Point, on the southern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, is the oldest of the four fossil sites, at 565 million years old. One fossil the ROM has from there, for example, is of Bradgatia linfordensis, a strange organism that shows a kind of fractal symmetry. Caron says scientists used to think it was a plant or fungus or algae, but now it is regarded as an early and extinct branch of animals. “They are still very mysterious,” he said.

Miguasha, Que., on the south shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, is 375 million years old, and has given up evidence of the evolutionary changes that later enabled fish to transition from sea to land. Joggins, N.S., on the Bay of Fundy, is a bit more recent, and shows evidence of animals on land in the Carboniferous period, when there was an explosion of plant life and a rise in atmospheric oxygen levels. Caron called it the dawn of the age of giants, such as dragonflies the size of dogs and ferns that grew as high as a 10 storey building.

Josh Basseches, the ROM’s director and CEO was to formally announce the gallery at an event Wednesday morning. Jeff Willner, one of the namesake donors, said the gallery will be “a story for all people, told from a uniquely Canadian perspective, which will help us understand not only our past, but also the world we’ll live in tomorrow.”

• Email: jbrean@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

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Menu for astronauts in space includes variety, comforts of home

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By Rachel Feltman

Special To The Washington Post

Neil Armstrong may have taken that first small step for man onto the moon, but it was John Glenn who took the first slurp of applesauce for humankind.

Until he ate while orbiting Earth in 1962, scientists at NASA weren’t sure humans could swallow and digest food while in space. Luckily, he chowed down in zero gravity with no trouble. Today’s astronauts sometimes spend months at a time living in the International Space Station, so they’d get pretty hungry without a few snacks!

Of course, while the human body is happy to take in a meal while hovering 250 miles above Earth, the process of cooking and eating food isn’t exactly the same as it is back home. That’s why NASA scientists are working hard to perfect astronaut menus. A healthy diet is even more crucial for space travelers than it is here on the surface, because spending time in space makes your body start to lose bone and muscle mass. NASA has to figure out how to send food up in a rocket, store it for as long as possible and make sure it delivers a perfect balance of nutrients — and it has to keep astronauts from getting bored, too!

“Imagine trying to eat the same food for every meal for six months. You may get tired of the food and eat less than you need to maintain weight, health and performance. That’s why we have to make sure there’s a large variety of healthy food available for the astronauts to make choices,” says F. Ryan Dowdy, ISS food system manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Astronauts have about 200 food items to pick from. According to Dowdy, a lot of the options are surprisingly similar to meals we eat on Earth.

“Whether it’s macaroni and cheese or chocolate pudding cake, it’s important for the astronauts when eating to be reminded of home,” he says. “Food can be an important psychological comfort in the stressful environment of space.”

It’s the preparation that’s unique: Food often has to sit in storage for six months before it even goes into space — and last for weeks or months at a time once it’s up there — so NASA designs everything with a shelf life of at least two years. Macaroni and cheese is freeze-dried (meaning that most of the moisture is removed, which makes it safe to store at room temperature), and astronauts add hot water to it on the space station. Chocolate pudding cake is preserved similarly to canned food, but NASA puts it in a flexible pouch so it takes up less space.

Some Earth foods are perfectly fit for zero-gravity consumption. Tortillas, for example, are a great alternative to bread — they last a long time in storage, and they don’t form crumbs that float around and get caught in important parts of the ship. Astronauts can request small quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables whenever NASA sends supplies up, but for the most part, they’re eating various combinations of super-durable stored foods.

As NASA looks to the future of spaceflight — with missions to Mars, and perhaps even farther — the agency has to design even more durable food. It takes about eight months to get to Mars, and astronauts will have to bring food for the journey home, too. Dowdy says NASA is working to extend the shelf life of its foods to around five years, but experiments in space farming are also part of the plan.

Astronauts on the ISS are able to farm plants such as lettuce in small quantities, but Dowdy says it will take some time before this is a sustainable source of calories.

He thinks 3D printed treats may also be on the menu someday soon. One thing is for sure: It’s going to take a lot of scientific know-how to feed the space explorers of the future.

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