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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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NASA sends coldest place in universe into space

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The coldest place in the universe is on Earth, or was on Earth. NASA has just launched it into space.

NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is a chamber which cools a cloud of atoms known as Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero – 100 million times colder than the depths of space.

CAL is a box the size of an ice-chest, designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and it uses lasers and magnets to ensure the atoms are cooled to within the limits of existence.

Getting matter this cold is of huge benefit to scientists because it reveals the effects of quantum mechanics, including superfluidity.

Keeping atoms this cold is not just about using refrigeration, though – it is a matter of eliminating all of the forces acting on (and thus affecting the temperature of) those atoms.

The gravity of Earth is causing NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory to warm up too much under the planet’s enormous pull.

IN SPACE - MAY 23: In this handout image provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth during Endeavour's final sortie on May 23, 2011 in Space. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli captured the first-ever images of an orbiter docked to the International Space Station from the viewpoint of a departing vessel as he returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule. (Photo by Paolo Nespoli - ESA/NASA via Getty Images)
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The experiments will be carried out on the International Space Station

“Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity,” said CAL Project Scientist Robert Thompson.

“The experiments we’ll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy – some of the most pervasive forces in the universe.”

On Earth, BECs are dragged down by the pull of gravity and can only be observed for a fraction of a second.

In the microgravity environment of the International Space Station, however, the freely evolving BECs can be observed for up to 10 seconds.

As superfluid, BECs seem to have zero viscosity, where their atoms move without friction as if they were all one solid substance.

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“If you had superfluid water and spun it around in a glass, it would spin forever,” said aerospace engineer and project manager Anita Sengupta.

“There’s no viscosity to slow it down and dissipate the kinetic energy. If we can better understand the physics of superfluids, we can possibly learn to use those for more efficient transfer of energy.”

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A rare great ape, a 130-foot-tall tree and an extinct marsupial lion make the Top 10 New Species list for 2018

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The highest branches of a Brazilian forest. The permanent darkness of a cave in China. The deepest place on Earth.

Life has carved niches for itself in the most extreme and stunning habitats. As a result, it has taken on surprising — and just plain weird — physical attributes and behaviors.

In celebration of this biodiversity, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry has compiled a list of the Top 10 new species that were described by science in the previous year. (Read the 2017 list here.)

This year’s list includes a rare great ape, a hitchhiking beetle, an extinct omnivorous marsupial lion and many species that are critically endangered. As humans alter habitats and contribute to global climate change, species are going extinct at a faster rate than we can name them.

“If we don’t find them, [these species] will be lost forever,” Wheeler said. “And yet they can teach us so much about the intricacies of ecosystems and the details of evolutionary history. Each of them has found a way to survive against the odds of changing competition, climate and environmental conditions.”

Here are the creatures that made the 2018 Top 10 list:

A mysterious single-celled organism

Ancoracysta twista

Location: Unknown

This microscopic marvel is unlike anything scientists have ever seen.

Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego discovered the protist living on a brain coral in a tropical aquarium. The organism propels itself with a whip-like tail, called a flagella, and uses unusual harpoon-like structures to stun and consume other protists. Because scientists found the species in captivity, they can’t be sure of its geographic origins in the wild.

The cell’s genetic origins also puzzled its discoverers. A. twista does not fit with any known group of organisms. Instead, it appears to belong to an early lineage of eukaryote that was previously unknown.

Ancoracysta twista was discovered in an aquarium in San Diego. Denis V. Tiknonenkov

Brazil’s lonely giants

Dinizia jueirana-facao

Location: Brazil

These massive trees stand up to 130 feet above the canopy of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, producing woody fruits that grow over a foot long. A member of the legume family, this 62-ton giant is found only in and just outside the Reserva Natural Vale in Espirito Santo, Brazil. With just 25 known trees, the species is considered critically endangered.

The tree’s sister species, D. excelsa, was discovered almost 100 years ago. In September, scientists described the smaller D. jueirana-facao as a distinct species.

The Atlantic Forest — which is home to more than half of the country’s threatened animal species — may be endangered itself. The region once covered 330 million acres, but humans have since cleared 85% of the now-fragmented forest.

Dinizia jueirana-facao
Dinizia jueirana-facao weighs an estimated 62 tons. Gwilym P. Lewis
 
The woody pods belonging to Dinizia jueirana-facao. Gwilym P. Lewis

A hunchbacked shrimp

Epimeria quasimodo

Location: Southern Ocean

Last year, scientists discovered 26 new species of tiny crustaceans in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. These amphipods are famous for their bright colors, spines and variety; some live as free-swimming predators and others stay put and feed by filtration. But one species stood out for its humped back, which reminded scientists of Quasimodo of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” E. quasimodo is about 2 inches long.

Epimeria quasimodo
Four specimens of Epimeria quasimodo, named for Victor Hugo’s character Quasimodo the hunchback, in reference to its shape. Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz, copyright Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

A hitchhiking beetle

Nymphister kronaueri

Location: Costa Rica

Plenty of creatures use mimicry and camouflage to great effect, but this tiny beetle takes it to another level.

Nymphister kronaueri evolved a set of traits that allow it to live among a particular species of army ant in Costa Rica. Army ants are nomadic, spending a few weeks in one place before migrating for about three weeks to new territory. When the ants move, so must the beetles. That’s when their mimicry comes into play.

The beetle, only 1.5 millimeters long, is shaped, sized and colored just like the abdomen of a worker ant. N. kronaueri uses its tiny mandibles to clamp down on its host’s abdomen as the ants embark on their journey. This makes it look like the ant has two abdomens. These myrmecophiles, or ant-lovers, likely use similar chemical signals as the host ants to avoid detection.

Nymphister kronaueri
Nymphister kronaueri, seen mounted on a card point, lives exclusively among one species of army ant, Eciton mexicanum. C. von Beeren
Nymphister kronaueri
N. kronaueri uses its jaws to attach itself to an army ant worker’s abdomen. D. Kronauer


A new species of great ape

Pongo tapanuliensis

Location: Sumatra, Indonesia

The great ape family welcomed an eighth member in 2017: Tapanuli orangutans.

In 2013, researchers compared the skull of an adult male Sumatran orangutan killed by humans to 34 others. Last year, they announced that they had found enough subtle differences to convince themselves that this individual belonged to a distinct species. Tapanulis, named for the region of the island in which they’re found, live in the southern range limit of Sumatran orangutans. An estimated 800 individuals exist in a small, fragmented habitat.

About 674,000 years ago, orangutans on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo split into separate species. However, the Sumatran species diverged about 3.38 million years ago. In addition to three species of orangutan, the other living species of great ape are western and eastern gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and, of course, humans.

Tapanuli orangutan
An adult female Tapanuli orangutan named Beta. Andrew Walmsley
Tapanuli orangutan
An adult male Tapanuli orangutan named Togos rests in a tree. Only about 800 individuals exist in fragmented habitat in Sumatra. Andrew Walmsley
Beta, left, an adult female Tapanuli orangutan and Togos, right, an adult male. Only about 800 individuals exist in fragmented habitat in Sumatra. Andrew Walmsley

The deepest fish in the sea

Pseudoliparis swirei

Location: Western Pacific Ocean

Plenty of surprises still lurk in the deep ocean.

Researchers exploring the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, found large numbers of weird, tadpole-like fish swarming their mackerel-baited traps. This translucent snailfish was recorded 5 miles below the surface of the ocean, making it the deepest-dwelling fish in the world. Scientists believe the 5-mile mark represents a physiological limit below which most fish can’t survive.

Mariana snailfish, the deepest-living fish in the world, feed in the Mariana Trench, 5 miles below the surface.

Despite measuring just 4 inches in length, the Mariana snailfish is the top predator in its ocean-floor habitat, the researchers observed.

The Mariana snailfish
A CT scan of the Mariana snailfish reveals its bones and a green crustacean it ate. Mackenzie Gerringer / University of Washington Schmidt Ocean Institute

A fungal-feeding flower

Sciaphila sugimotoi

Location: Ishigaki Island, Japan

Among Japan’s well-documented flora, one unusual flower eluded science until now.

In September and October, Sciaphila sugimotoi produces delicate magenta blossoms in only two locations in Ishigaki’s humid forest. The plant lives symbiotically with a fungus, which provides it with the energy it needs to survive. That’s in contrast to most other plants, which derive energy from the sun using photosynthesis.

About 50 plants make up the critically endangered species, researchers suggest.

Sciaphila sugimotoi
Sciaphila sugimotoi appears only during short flowering times in September and October. Takaomi Sugimoto

A bacterial eruption

Thiolava veneris

Location: Canary Islands

In 2011, the underwater volcano Tagoro erupted and wiped out much of the ecosystem off the coast of El Hierro in the Canary Islands. Three years later, a strange new bacteria was the first organism to re-colonize the area.

Dubbed “Venus’s hair” for its long, hair-like structures, the proteobacteria grew to almost half an acre in size and covered Tagoro’s summit with a massive white mat. The colony, scientists suggest, represents the start of a new ecosystem 430 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Thiolava veneris
Thiolava veneris was the first colonizer after the underwater volcano Tagoro erupted off the coast of El Hierro in the Canary Islands in 2011. Miquel Canals / University of Barcelona

A marsupial lion

Wakaleo schouteni

Location: Australia

About 23 million years ago, a lion the size of a Siberian husky roamed the Australian forest. This marsupial ate both meat and plants, and spent part of its days up in the trees.

Fossilized remains of the creature were unearthed in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland. W. schouteni was one of two marsupial lions that existed toward the end of the late Oligocene Epoch 25 million years ago. In the subsequent Miocene, species of the genus Wakaleo, or little lions, grew larger in an evolutionary chain reaction: Prey animals got bigger as plant life changed in response to a drying and cooling continent.

Wakaleo schouteni
An illustration of Wakaleo schouteni challenging a marsupial lion of another species over a kangaroo carcass in the late Oligocene forest at Riversleigh, Australia. Peter Schouten

A cave-dwelling beetle

Xuedytes bellus

Location: China

Du’an Karst, a system of limestone caves in China’s Guangxi province, is a veritable kingdom of cave-dwelling ground beetles.

To date, more than 130 species have been discovered in the region, the latest being Xuedytes bellus. Researchers marvel at how “extremely cave-adapted” the beetle appears, with its dramatically long head and neck and slender body.

Beetles that evolve in the darkness of caves often take on a similar set of characteristics, including narrow bodies, spider-like appendages and loss of wings, eyes and color.

Xuedytes bellus
Xuedytes bellus displays a dramatic elongation of its head and neck. Sunbin Huang and Mingyi Tian

sean.greene@latimes.com

@seangreene89

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How a Pair of Satellites Will 'Weigh' Water on Earth

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The reason we know today just how much ice is melting in Greenland and Antarctica is because of a pair of satellites, launched in 2002 by NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ). Now, they are set to be replaced by a more modern duo.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 3:47pm (7:47pm GMT) Tuesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, hoisting into orbit the spacecraft known as GRACE-FO, a follow-on to the prior, 15-year mission known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).

How to measure water from space?
Two satellites, each the size of a car, will circle the Earth at a distance of 137 miles (220 kilometres) from each other.

They will be flying about 310 miles (490 kilometres) above the Earth for the next five years.

According to the laws of physics, the slightest variation in mass on Earth modifies the pull of gravity on satellites.

When the lead satellite passes over a mountain, it will get slightly farther from its twin for a few instants because of the extra mass in this area and a slightly stronger pull of gravity.

These slight variations in distance will be constantly recorded by the spacecraft, because each shift signals a change in mass on the planet underneath.

The satellites use a monthly reference point, because unless there is an earthquake or other unusual event, only water has the capacity to change that fast.

Water always has mass, whether it is in the form of liquid, solid, or gas.

When ice melts, the oceans’ mass rises. When it rains a lot in a certain region, the volume of the aquifers mounts. The satellites will pick this up, and the data will show that the mass in a certain area was higher than it was in the prior month, or year.

That is how the GRACE-FO satellites will establish a map of the water on Earth, every 30 days, showing which areas have more and which have less, whether above or below ground.

They operate with a precision equivalent to a change of 0.4 inches (one centimetre) in water height across areas of about 211 miles (340 kilometres) in diameter.

What is the point?
The prior mission, GRACE, allowed scientists to gain an understanding of how much ice Greenland was losing. It was more than they thought, based on ground-observations.

From 2002 to 2016, 280 gigatons of ice melted each year, which led to a sea level rise of 0.8 millimetres.

The satellites were also able to track just how much ice Antarctica was losing, and produced colourful maps that showed losses in red and gains in blue.

The map of California showed plenty of red when it was struck by a massive drought in recent years, and scientists and policymakers were about to calculate how low the water table was falling.

Meanwhile, other parts of the globe such as the Okavango Delta in Botswana saw water reserves mount from 2002 to 2016 due to heavy rains.

Renewing the mission will allow scientists to continue to track trends in sea level rise, glacial and ice melt, and the drying up of certain aquifers.

“Water is critical to every aspect of life on Earth – for health, for agriculture, for maintaining our way of living,” said Michael Watkins, GRACE-FO science lead and director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“You can’t manage it well until you can measure it.”

NASA has spent $430 million on the mission, and the Germans have invested EUR 77 million (about $90 million).

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