Back in November last year, I described how, very controversially, Arizona is exporting its water in vast quantities to Saudi Arabia, via alfalfa to feed Saudi cattle. In that post I quoted from the work of Elie Elhadj, who has compellingly documented the rape of the Kingdom's groundwater resources:
In 2004, Elie Elhadj of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), King’s College London published a blunt analysis of the extraordinary history of the destruction of the country’s water supplies. Titled “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom: an Assessment of Saudi Arabia’s Experiment in Desert Agriculture” the report paints a catastrophic picture.
That experiment in desert agriculture is now essentially over, and Saudi Arabia relies almost entirely on imports of crops and cattle feed. In order to satisfy this need, the country's huge food and agriculture business, Almarai, buy farming land elsewhere in the world - including in the Arizona desert. Since I wrote that post, Almarai have added to their assets by buying land on the other side of the Colorado River in south-eastern California. Both California and Arizona are now in their fourth year of severe to exceptional drought.
After I quoted from his work, Elie contacted me and we commenced an email conversation that led to a fascinating and highly enjoyable meeting and discussion. He told me that he was in touch with a group of students at Arizona State University who were making a short video on the issues of exporting water to Saudi Arabia, and that video is now on line - it's extremely well done and worth watching:
There is an interesting cast of characters (in addition to Elie Elhadj himself): local residents who have seen the water levels in their wells drop 50 feet in four years, a lawyer for Almarai who, when talking about any link between water problems and agriculture, cheerfully states that "I don't think that's the case", local people agreeing that some form of regulation is needed as long as their water usage is not regulated, and Kathleen Ferris of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State, who comments that "It's almost impossible to manage groundwater without some kind of regulation." Such a statement may seem blindingly obvious, but the fact is that, in La Paz County Arizona there are no regulations whatsoever - anyone can arrive, drill as many wells as they want, and deplete the groundwater resources to whatever extent pleases them.
This is madness. Consider the likely reaction of our old friend the alien scientist, flitting around the earth on a resource analysis mission and observing this scene:
"Wait a minute. There's the huge canal that they built to take water from the dwindling and over-exploited flow of the Colorado River, specifically to supply the city of Phoenix where groundwater supplies had been drastically depleted, and, right next to it are fields of water-sucking alfalfa grown to be exported as feed for Saudi cattle - this is no way to run a planet."
Yes, this may be madness for Arizona and California, but it's only part of a global-scale pattern of unsustainable insanity - and we should not be quick to judge Arizona. In a recent issue of the New Scientist, there was an interview with Arjen Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, and founder of the Water Footprint Network. Hoekstra and his colleagues have developed a careful and extensive method of measuring water footprints, expressed as per capita usage country-by-country, and allocating the proportion of blue, green and gray water:
The WF is a measure of humans’ appropriation of freshwater resources and has three components: blue, green, and gray. The blue WF refers to consumption of blue water resources (surface and ground water), whereby consumption refers to the volume of water that evaporates or is incorporated into a product. The blue WF is thus often smaller than the water withdrawal, because generally part of a water withdrawal returns to the ground or surface water. The green WF is the volume of green water (rainwater) consumed, which is particularly relevant in crop production. The gray WF is an indicator of the degree of freshwater pollution and is defined as the volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants based on existing ambient water quality standards.
The title of the interview is "We can avoid a water crisis, but the fix will be hard to swallow" and, when asked "How is the UK doing in terms of water use?", he replied:
Because it imports so many goods, three-quarters of the UK’s water consumption is actually outside of its borders. And about half of that usage is not sustainable. For example, the UK imports rice and olives from southern Spain and sugarcane from Pakistan, regions where water is overexploited. This means groundwater levels are declining and rivers dwindling or drying up. That’s bad news for the exporting countries and for the UK, because these food sources will ultimately fail.
In terms of the broader region, Europe is the biggest net importer of water-intensive commodities in the world, much of it from water-scarce regions. In fact 40 per cent of Europe’s water footprint is outside the continent. A large part of that is unsustainable.
So let's not get too smug about Arizona, but, rather, worry about the large-scale problem. In terms of water footprint, domestic use is only a small part of the total - in Europe, the average consumer’s domestic use is typically only 1 to 2 per cent of their total water footprint. It's agriculture, what food we demand, where we choose to get it from, and how much we're prepared to pay for it that is the overwhelming factor. As Hoekstra comments
All food has a big water footprint, because agriculture is the largest water consumer. Grains generally have a water footprint in the order of 1000 litres per kilogram. Beef is, on average, 15,000 litres per kilogram. Both are big numbers but you can see that meat is in a league of its own. So your diet, and particularly how many animal products you eat, has a big impact on your personal water footprint.
Take a look at that link - it's at the same time fascinating and alarming.
But it's the blue water footprint that is of particular interest here and, fortunately, in one of his publications, Hoekstra breaks down specifically the blue water footprint by country and internal versus external, i.e., indigenous versus imported. Take a look at the whole, intriguing, paper where the graph appears in the supplementary materials. I have cropped the complete graph to start with the UK on the left and highlighted the UK, China, the US, Spain, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia - plus the world average in green.
Blue water footprint of national consumption for countries with a population larger than 5 million, shown by internal and external component (cubic meter per year per capita,1996–2005)
Take a good look at this graph and think through the overwhelming complexity of the issues. Countries whose footprint is relatively small may be dominantly importing other peoples' water - take the UK, for example. Countries whose footprint is large may be mainly consuming their own water but depleting and exporting it (see the US for example). There's an incredible set of questions and issues embedded in this graph, and add to this, overlay, Hoekstra's illustration of just the major global water flows:
Virtual water balance per country and direction of gross virtual water flows related to trade in agricultural and industrial products over the period 1996–2005. Only the biggest gross flows (>15 Gm3∕y) are shown.
By this measure, the US is not a net water importer. But then how much of its own water does it export? And then look at Europe.
I'm going to leave it there - you could write a book about it. In fact, Hoekstra has. To say that this is a thorny problem is a massive understatement - arguably has the makings of shorter-term crisis than climate change. What can we do about it? Well, in Hoekstra's words from the New Scientist interview, the fix can be hard to swallow:
We in northern Europe should realise that we are actually quite well off with water, and ask why we import water-intensive goods from water-scarce areas. It doesn’t make sense that we produce so little of our own food.
Isn’t this an inevitable effect of global markets?
Yes. We lose our own agriculture because elsewhere you have free water, cheap land, cheap labour. But it is not truly cheap; it is at the expense of the people over there, their land and their water. And in the long run, our own food supply is at risk. We need to change the rules of the market by discriminating in favour of sustainable production. It is a global challenge for agriculture, power generation, trade and economics, which we must work together to address. It’s a big deal, and it will only get bigger.
Our societies need to think long and hard about this - and read Hoekstra's latest paper: "Four billion people facing severe water scarcity."
Described as one of the last great enigmas or mysteries, the so-called fairy circles of the arid lands of Namibia remain to be explained. Theories abound, and the fairies have stimulated "lively" academic debate, if not discord. The circles occur in their millions in a band of dry grassland stretching 1800 kilometres south from the Angolan border - but it's now clear that Australia has its own fairies.
In both places, countless circles dot the landscape like a pox of some kind:
Fairy circles in the Marienfluss Valley of Namibia.
(Google Earth image, ~ 650m across)
The circles are rimmed with (more or less) growing grass, vary in size up to several metres across and would seem to grow. Within them their is nothing but bare earth. Explanations include ostriches, rolling zebras, underground gas (or dragons' breath), footsteps of the gods, microbial activity, poisonous plants, termites, and the competition for scarce water. It's the last two that form the main rival hypotheses. As far as biologist Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg is concerned, it's termites. But Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig disagrees - for him and his colleagues, fairy circles result from the way plants organize themselves in response to water shortage. Here's the abstract of this group's paper:
Vegetation gap patterns in arid grasslands, such as the “fairy circles” of Namibia, are one of nature’s greatest mysteries and subject to a lively debate on their origin. They are characterized by small-scale hexagonal ordering of circular bare-soil gaps that persists uniformly in the landscape scale to form a homogeneous distribution. Pattern-formation theory predicts that such highly ordered gap patterns should be found also in other water-limited systems across the globe, even if the mechanisms of their formation are different. Here we report that so far unknown fairy circles with the same spatial structure exist 10,000 km away from Namibia in the remote outback of Australia. Combining fieldwork, remote sensing, spatial pattern analysis, and process-based mathematical modeling, we demonstrate that these patterns emerge by self-organization, with no correlation with termite activity; the driving mechanism is a positive biomass–water feedback associated with water runoff and biomass-dependent infiltration rates. The remarkable match between the patterns of Australian and Namibian fairy circles and model results indicate that both patterns emerge from a nonuniform stationary instability, supporting a central universality principle of pattern-formation theory. Applied to the context of dryland vegetation, this principle predicts that different systems that go through the same instability type will show similar vegetation patterns even if the feedback mechanisms and resulting soil–water distributions are different, as we indeed found by comparing the Australian and the Namibian fairy-circle ecosystems. These results suggest that biomass–water feedbacks and resultant vegetation gap patterns are likely more common in remote drylands than is currently known.
Note "no correlation with termite activity."
The patterns are fascinatingly regular and there has been a suggestion that the geometry of organisation is, bizarrely, directly equivalent to that of skin cells. Robert Sinclair, who heads the Mathematical Biology Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) in Japan, and his collaborator, Haozhe Zhang, were the first to identify this strange analogy.
Both the majority of fairy circles and majority of cells have six neighbors. But the similarity gets even more specific -- the percentage of fairy circles with four, five, six, seven, eight and nine neighbors is essentially the same as the skin cells. "I didn't expect it to be so close," Sinclair said. "We spent a lot of time checking because it really looked too close to believe."
... The researchers suspect the patterns might be similar because both skin cells and fairy circles are fighting for space. If true, scientists might one day be able to glean information about systems just by analyzing patterns. For example, they could search for signs of life on other planets or moons, where images are usually the only data initially available.
Finding such a pattern could also benefit ecology and biology in general. Understanding processes on one scale could illuminate what is happening at the other end of the spectrum. "Otherwise, we need a whole new theory for each type of system we study, and may miss general principles, or, as some say, not see the forest for the trees," Sinclair said.
Self-organising systems and patterns are widespread and intriguing - I can't help but think of so-called "patterned ground," the permafrost polygons of the periglacial regions, the patterns on Mars (and now on Pluto), and various strange behaviours of granular materials...
Oh, and in aid of conservation in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, you can, if you wish, adopt a fairy circle.
[Image at the head of this post credit, Stephan Getzin. The BBC has a very good piece summarising this mysterious phenomenon]
"Epic" "intimate" "brutal" "riveting" "spellbinding" "spectacular." The adjectives come tumbling out of the reviews - but please see this movie for yourself. Described as an "Arabic Western" and a "coming of age story," I suspect that this is one of those rare films that stimulates a unique reaction in every viewer.
Directed by British-born Jordanian Naji Abu Nowar, the story is set during the First World War at the time of the Arab Revolt, and, given that it was filmed in and around Wadi Rum, the instinctive reaction is "ah, Lawrence of Arabia." But, other than the location and the historical context, these films have absolutely nothing in common. "Theeb" is filmed entirely with Bedouin people for whom this is their first experience of acting; it is their story and, most of all, it is the story of a young Bedouin boy caught up in a strange and frightening journey and through whose eyes we perceive the events.
Theeb ("wolf") is played by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. Abu Nowar has commented that he "never actually liked [Jacir] as an actor as he was so shy and quiet and I never considered him, but he has this crazy thing that when you put him on camera he a different person. Immediately it became obvious. And so he was the first person we cast and we never looked back or at anyone else." It is indeed not only this kid's extraordinary performance but the kid himself that makes this movie, and, together with Abu Nowar's unique and sensitive directing skills, creates an intangible grip on the viewer. And this grip lasts for the entire film - at the end I could not fathom how one hundred minutes had just gone by.
Watch the trailer:
In a fascinating interview, Abu Nowar comments that:
The time in which the film is set is the single most important period in Middle-Eastern history. That’s when the end of a 400 year empire came to be and radical redrawing of the map which we are still suffering from today. With all the issues going on in Iraq, Syria, with the Kurds and the Turks, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen. All of these issues we hear about today are a direct result from that single moment in history. So, it was such a crucial moment and such an existential crisis for the region and I like the mirror of the character going through a similar sort of crisis.
For myself I wanted to make something that felt authentic to the Bedouin. And so I tried to listen to them as much as possible and incorporated their feelings and thoughts as much as I could. All of it was just exciting for me. I love their poetry. I love their stories and so it was why it comes about in that way. In no way was I trying to enforce a cinematic understanding of storytelling onto subject matter, it is really the subject matter informing it.
And I think that is why is has that feel because it is really genuine. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a director is to step out of the way and not put you two cents in and let people do their thing. I do that and I like getting surprised by what they come up with. That’s the enjoyment of it. There were things all along the way, for example the sound design adding little tiny moments here and there that you pick up and generally just member of the team surprising you. It was a lot of fun.
"Theeb" premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival on 4 September 2014, where Abu Nowar won the award for Best Director. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, making it the first Jordanian nomination ever.
It just doesn't stop, and the scale of the damage to communities and the environment is staggering.
NASA recently released the pair of images, above, showing changes to the sediment system of Poyang Lake and its rivers. The lake, these days much diminished in size, was once the largest freshwater lake in China, its water feeding into the Yangtze and providing an important haven for migrating birds. But when, in 2000, China shut down sand mining along the middle and lower Yangtze, the activity, legal and illegal, simply moved to Ponyang. The image on the left was acquired in 1995, the one on the right in 2013. The scale of devastation is obvious - try the "image comparison" feature for drama.
The text accompanying the images describes the problem here (and elsewhere) in depressing detail:
When you see the vast expanses of sand in the Sahara and other major deserts, it is hard to comprehend how sand could ever be a resource in short supply. Yet for certain types, the supply of sand is indeed short.
For the construction industry, river and lake sand is more desirable than desert and ocean sand. To produce mortar for cement, concrete, and other building materials, the angular sand particles found in rivers and lakes are most useful. Making a strong mortar with the particles found in deserts—which are rounded by winds—is more challenging because the sand does not bind together as well. Likewise, ocean sand is mixed with salt, which can cause metals to corrode. Washing this marine sand can be time-consuming and expensive.
Over the past few decades, the global demand for construction sand has boomed, especially in Asia due to rapidurbanization. In China alone, the demand for cement has increased 438 percent over the past two decades,according to the United Nations Environmental Program.
In 2000, dredging and other sand mining become so intensive along the Yangtze River that Chinese authoritiesbanned the activity along the lower and middle reaches of the river. This drove many sand mining operators to Poyang Lake, a large body of water that flows into the Yangtze about 600 kilometers (400 miles) upstream ofShanghai.
This pair of false-color images captured by Landsat satellites shows the impact of sand mining on the northern reaches of Poyang Lake. The top image was acquired by the Thematic Mapper on Landsat 5 on December 7, 1995; the second image shows the same area as observed by Landsat 8’s Operational Land Imager on December 24, 2013. Water levels vary throughout the year at Poyang Lake, with the lowest levels occurring in winter.
By contrasting the two images, we can see dramatic changes in the outlet channel that connects Poyang Lake to the Yangtze river. Sand removal and dredging have deepened and widened the channel significantly. These activities also have left the remaining sandbars and shores with an irregular, serrated appearance. Turn on the comparison tool to see the changes.
As part of an effort to assess the scale of the sand mining and its environmental impacts, a group of researchers analyzed data collected by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) sensor on NASA’s Terra satellite. Using infrared data collected by ASTER in 2005, the researchers found that the lake was producing up to 236 million cubic meters of sand per year—about 9 percent of the total produced by China. The researchers estimated that the volume of sand removed was probably enough to make Poyang Lake the largest sand mining operation in the world.
“Sand mining has compromised the ecological integrity of the lake by contributing to less predictable seasonal water fluctuations and to a series of recent low water events,” said James Burnham, an ecologist with the University of Wisconsin and the International Crane Foundation. Burnhan has conducted field research on wintering waterbirds at Poyang Lake. “This is a lake that hosts 98 percent of the endangered Siberian Cranes and Oriental White Storks, as well as a significant number of over a dozen other endangered waterbirds in the winter.”
Google "sand" and news and, among the entertaining images of sand sculptures and odd reports such as the discovery of hundreds of kilos of marijuana buried in the dunes of South Padre Island, Texas, you will find, every day, endless reports of the issues of sand mining around the world. A sampling:
Vietnam, Nepal, India (endless problems, mafias, crime), Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia, the list goes on. The issues raised by the documentary, Sand Wars, have also been taken up by The Smithsonian, the United Nations, Wired, and Coastal Care. Numerous TV and radio programmes have covered the topic. And yet so few people are aware of it, and it just goes on and on.
I spent twenty years of my life living and working in the US.
My wife is American. My kids were born in Detroit and Dallas (and my daughter currently works in non-profit health care in New York). My first visit was for a year when I was six years old – my father was one of the pioneers in developing American Studies programmes in British universities where, at the time, literature stopped in the nineteenth century. I first heard a Bob Dylan record sitting in a café in Berkeley in 1963. I spent a year at graduate school in the US during the turmoil of the late 1960s – US graduate programmes had more to offer than UK universities and, anyway, I loved the US. Later, I taught geology at two different US universities, working with (and learning from) terrific graduate students whose dedication led to their obtaining masters’ degrees while holding down jobs. I can only name a couple of states that I haven’t spent any time in. I have worked in five different US cities. To say that some of my best friends are American is correct, and this doesn’t include the countless people I admire and respect.
Whenever, in the early days, I returned to the UK, I found that I had to spend significant time defending the US against the knee-jerk Americophobia of the Brits – but I did so with sincerity and enthusiasm.
Today, however much I would want to, I just can’t do that anymore, and that saddens me – deeply. It’s no longer easy to recognise the country that, for decades and despite all its faults, I enjoyed and admired.
What the hell is happening to the US? Why do I find myself the victim of a masochistic obsession to constantly check the news, follow up on the latest outrageous events in the dominant half of the presidential campaign – and, more often than not, find myself shouting at my computer? In November 2008, there were, quite literally, tears in my eyes as I watched Obama’s victory speech. Today, there are again tears in my eyes – not, this time, of optimism, but rather of bewilderment, disbelief, and something close to horror.
When did the US become a country in which hatred dominates the news, and, of course, social media? When did the US become a country in which most of the so-called political debate, highjacked by the leaders of one deranged party, takes place in the gutter, with rhetoric and vocabulary at the level of a fourth-grader? When did the US become one of the world leaders in inequality? When did home eviction become big business? When did the US become a country that poisons the water of its citizens and yet no-one is accountable? When did the “land of the free,” whose greatness was founded on immigration and diversity, embrace the rhetoric of xenophobia?
Why do I see on social media posts of which Goebbels would have been proud?
When did a complete disregard for facts and evidence become a hallmark of so many American politicians? When did science - when the US has some of the world’s finest institutions - become something to denigrate? And when were humanity and engagement with the rest of the world dropped from the agenda of so many representatives of the home of democracy?
Now please don’t get me wrong. By my standards, the UK has little to be proud of when our government, declaring itself the home of “compassionate conservatism,” presides over rampant inequality, undermines our health system, callously penalises the disabled, spies on its citizens (sorry, “subjects”), attempts to muzzle our scientists through lobbying legislation, and refuses to take in desperate refugees. And yes, we have right-wing lunatics of our own.
No, I’m not claiming any moral high ground – indeed, I’m not sure where to find such a place. I simply can’t defend many of my country’s actions or the way in which our politics is evolving. But I find it impossible to explain or defend what’s going on the US today – and I am deeply saddened.
[I sincerely hope that I have not offended any of my American readers. I shall return to the arenaceous and the arid shortly.]
The desert has its own palette, distinctive and at the same time subtle yet dramatic. There are many factors at work creating the patterns and hues of arid lands - obviously the kind of sand, the kind of rock, the vegetation, minerals and salts, desert varnish - but there are also artists at work that we can't see and barely understand: microbial communities.
We can see the mosses and the lichens, but the vast ecosystem of bacteria and fungi operates essentially invisibly; we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the desert to reveal the ubiquity and importance of microbial life in environments we often describe as "lifeless." These are communities labelled "cryptic" by biologists, a useful term disguising the fact that they are something we really don't understand very well. I found this definition helpful, from a piece in Nature a few years ago titled "Body doubles" by Alberto G. Sáez and Encarnación Lozano:
Have you ever approached someone whom you thought you knew, talked to him with familiarity, only to find out later that he was a complete stranger, albeit remarkably similar in appearance to the person you had in mind, such as a twin brother? Well, taxonomists are similarly puzzled when they come across two or more groups of organisms that are morphologically indistinguishable from each other, yet found to belong to different evolutionary lineages. That is, when they discover a set of cryptic species.
The microscopic cryptic communities of arid lands form the well-known "desert" or "cryptobiotic" crusts that we now realise play key roles in the ecosystem, cycling carbon dioxide and nitrogen, providing resources for plant life, controlling drainage and the hydrologic behaviour of the soil, and reducing erosion - and hence, atmospheric dust.
Among the leading researchers shedding light on these cryptic communities is Ferran Garcia-Pichel at Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences. For example, in 2013, togather with international colleagues, he published a paper titled "Temperature Drives the Continental-Scale Distribution of Key Microbes in Topsoil Communities." Science summarises the work as follows:
Soil microorganisms make up a substantial fraction of global biomass, turning over carbon and other key nutrients on a massive scale. Although the soil protects them somewhat from daily temperature fluxes, the distribution of these communities will likely respond to gradual climate change. ... [We] surveyed bacterial diversity across a range of North American desert soils, or biocrusts—ecosystems in which photosynthetic bacteria determine soil fertility and control physical soil properties such as erodability and water retention. Most of the sites were dominated by one of two cyanobacterial species, but their relative proportions were controlled largely by factors related to temperature. Laboratory enrichment cultures of the two species at different temperatures also showed temperature as a primary determining factor of bacterial diversity. It is unknown if temperature will affect the distribution of other soil microorganisms, but the marked shifts of these two keystone bacterial species suggest further change is in store for these delicate ecosystems.
The work, only available behind the Science paywall, was helpfully reported by Live Science. The two dominant "keystone" bacterial species are Microcoleus vaginatus and M. steenstrupii, the former preferring cooler conditions whereas the latter likes things hot. As temperatures vary, things become competitive and warming conditions result in the mysterious steenstrupii taking over. Now, because these communities are microscopic and cryptic, we can only measure such effects - and detect which organisms are in the soil - through sophisticated DNA analysis. It is further results of this kind of painstaking and careful work that Garcia-Pichel and his colleagues have just published in Nature. With Estelle Couradeau, also at Arizona State, as the lead author, the paper describes - startlingly - how "Bacteria increase arid-land soil surface temperature through the production of sunscreens." Microcoleus vaginatus and M. steenstrupii are far from alone, and, amongst their companions are tribes of cyanobacteria such as the hundreds of species belonging to the genera Scytonema and Tolypothrix. These little critters dislike the sun and apply a biosynthetic sunscreen, scytonemin, an alkaloid pigment that strongly absorbs solar radiation and dissipates this energy as heat. This sunscreen can be seen as patches of darker colour covering areas of desert crust, as in this photo by Garcia-Pichel from the recent report on Science Daily.
This pigmentation may protect some members of the bacterial community, but it can locally warm up the surface by as much as 10 degrees C (18 degrees F). This has a dramatic effect on the health of the cool-loving Microcoleus vaginatus, but is welcomed by M. steenstrupii, who come to dominate as the sunscreen develops, at the expense of vaginatus. As Garcia-Pichel comments:
... we can show that the darkening of the crust brings about important modifications in the soil microbiome, the community of microorganisms in the soil, allowing warm-loving types to do better. This warming effect is likely to speed up soil chemical and biological reactions, and can make a big difference between being frozen or not when it gets cold... On the other hand, it may put local organisms at increased risk when it is already quite hot.
And this has to be happening on a global scale. As Estelle Coradeau suggests, "Because globally they cover some 20 percent of Earth's continents, biocrusts, their microbes and sunscreens must be important players in global heat budgets. We estimate that there must be some 15 million metric tons of this one microbial sunscreen compound...warming desert soils worldwide."
But because we have only a poor understanding of what exactly these desert crusts are and how they work, their roles in local ecology and global systems are impossible to define. It is only through the meticulous work of Ferran Garcia-Pichel and his team, together with others such as Jayne Belnap of the USGS in Moab, Utah, that we can begin to unravel the extraordinary nature and contributions of these long-ignored microbial desert communities. As Belnap has commented:
These are the only game in town to prevent dust storms and erosion, so they're really, really critical parts of this ecosystem. Yet we've never asked the question, 'who's really in there, and what's going to happen there as things shift?'
and, as reported in a piece on Belnap in High Country News, the palette and patterns of our arid lands owe much to an invisible living world:
She also remains convinced that the dark shadows on the desert are the true — and fragile — foundation of the Colorado Plateau. "Whenever we pull on the thread of what makes the system tick," she says, "we end up with soil crusts on the other end."
Curiosity, that hard-working field geologist, just keeps on delivering - this is surely the selfie to end all selfies (please). The rover continues to bustle around the Bagnold dunes, sending back extraordinary images, taking samples and sieving (Ralph Bagnold would appreciate that activity). Take a look at this screenshot from an incredible 360° interactive video:
The laws of physics - and The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes - are the same everywhere. This beautiful image of the avalanching slip-face of the "Namib dune" (the glorious full resolution can be enjoyed here) could be from a desert anywhere:
The detail and the dynamics are stunning, avalanches and sand sculpture more than 70 million kilometres away:
The sieving that Curiosity has been doing delivers the smaller than 150 micron fraction to the on-board instruments for analysis and simply dumps the larger grains.
Curiosity then gets out its hand lens and takes a close look:
From the NASA description of this image:
The larger-grain portion dumped onto the ground became accessible to investigation by other instruments on Curiosity, including imaging by MAHLI and composition analysis by the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer instruments. Laser-zapping of the dump pile by ChemCam caused an elongated dimple visible near the center of this view.
The MAHLI images combined into this focus-merged view were taken on Jan. 22, 2016, after dark on the 1,230th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. The illumination source is two white-light LEDs (light-emitting diodes) on MAHLI. They shone down on the right side of the image, so shadows are toward the left. The focus-merge product was generated by the instrument autonomously combining in-focus portions of eight separate images taken at different focus settings.
The dark appearance is purposeful: The camera team chose an exposure setting that would prevent most of the white grains in this otherwise very dark sand from being over-exposed.
Perhaps it's just a sign of being of a certain age, but all this fills me with indescribable wonder.
Turn on the tap in your kitchen so that it's running at a typical (if not particularly conservative) rate of around three US gallons per minute. Ensure that your drain is working well and leave it flowing for 17 years. By then you will have used the amount of water that the State of California consumes in one minute.
Return after one year and you will have used roughly the volume of groundwater extracted from the Central Valley in one minute.
Last month, I started what I intended to be a series of posts stimulated by "A Reverence for Rivers," the title of the address given by the great hydrogeologist, Luna Leopold, to California Governor Jerry Brown's Drought Conference held nearly thirty years ago. Leopold threw down some challenges in the "philosophy of water management" to an audience that represented all the stakeholders in management of the state's water supplies at a time of what was then a record drought. Today, those records continue to be broken as California enters its fifth consecutive year of drought, and, for much of the state, the third year of "extreme," never mind "exceptional" drought. Yes, some relief is being provided by El Nino precipitation, but that does nothing to change the drought crisis - as shown by the US Drought Monitor image above. At the end of 2014, a NASA analysis indicated that "It will take about 11 trillion gallons of water (42 cubic kilometers) -- around 1.5 times the maximum volume [potential capacity] of the largest U.S. reservoir -- to recover from California's continuing drought." That was a year ago and it's only got worse. At the time of that report, some rains had arrived, but
“It’s not time to start watering your grass,” said Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the lead researcher of the new analysis. “Looking at the numbers, it’s probably going to take about three years to fill the hole.”
The NASA team found that the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, key water sources for cities and farms, lost 4 trillion gallons of water each year since 2011, most of it from farmers tapping the underground supply because rivers and reservoirs were low.
How can California still find itself in this amount of trouble when, nearly thirty years ago, in his first incarnation as drought Governor, Brown declared that “this is an era of limits and there are some very hard choices to be made”? One of the reasons that I have only now embarked on this episode of the series of posts is that there are no easy answers, and research and fact-checking leads only into a black hole of conflicting data, never mind the labyrinthine political abyss of western water politics, policy and history. It is clear that, post 1997, Brown and some of the more enlightened interests in California attempted to embark on reform and future drought preparation - but many of the choices proved to be too hard. Yes, there were initiatives to reduce domestic and municipal consumption and these lasted, although Brown, in his second drought incarnation, still had to declare a State of Emergency in January 2014, and a year later, the first ever state-wide mandatory water reductions. Individual Californians and communities have dramatically reduced their consumption (with the notable exception of Beverly Hills celebrities and billionaires), but by far the largest proportion of the 38 billion gallons per day consumed by California goes to agriculture - and therein lies the rub.
Exactly how much water does Californian agriculture use? Well, incredibly nobody really knows and nobody has the day-to-day measurements to know. You can easily, depending on the sources and assumptions, find estimates from 40% to 80% of total water use. In order to find a single group of statistics that have some credibility, it's worth consulting a report put out by the Congressional Research Service in June 2015. Attempting to rationalize the data differences, it is titled California Agricultural Production and Irrigated Water Use and begins:
California ranks as the leading agricultural state in the United States in terms of farm-level sales. In 2012, California’s farm-level sales totaled nearly $45 billion and accounted for 11% of total U.S. agricultural sales. Five counties—Tulare, Kern, Fresno, Monterey, and Merced—rank among the leading agricultural counties in the nation.
Given current drought conditions in California, however, there has been much attention on the use of water to grow agricultural crops in the state. Depending on the data source, irrigated agriculture accounts for roughly 40% to 80% of total water supplies. Such discrepancies are largely based on different survey methods and assumptions, including the baseline amount of water estimated for use (e.g., what constitutes “available” supplies). Two primary data sources are the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). USGS estimates water use for agricultural irrigation in California at 25.8 million acre-feet (MAF), accounting for 61% of USGS’s estimates of total withdrawals. DWR estimates water use withdrawals for agricultural irrigation at 33 MAF, or about 41% of total use. Both of these estimates are based on available data for 2010. These estimates differ from other widely cited estimates indicating that agricultural use accounts for 80% of California’s available water supplies, as reported in media and news reports.
The differences result from arcane variations in the definitions of the words "use," consumption," "withdrawals," and "application." Welcome to the rabbit-hole of terminology, both technical and political. Oh, and also welcome to the "acre-foot." An acre-foot is a volume of water equal to 325,851 gallons (around 1200 cubic metres) and represents the amount of water needed to flood an acre of land one foot deep. In the US, it is the long-standing measure of water volume.
Since Brown's initiatives following the 1970s drought, water use has dropped, partly as a result of domestic frugality, partly following increased efficiency irrigation systems - and the brutal realities of maintaining agriculture in a semi-arid land. However, the USGS reports that California in 2010 remained the chart-topper of all US states for water consumption - more than half again as much as the runner-up, Texas. And the USGS estimates that agriculture accounts for 60% of the state's thirst.
Any, even brief, review of media reports will reveal that to say that this is a controversial topic is a gross understatement. Vested interests, lobbies, open and hidden agendas, battle for dominance in issues scarcely tainted by facts or science. And these arguments also take place in a virtually policy-free environment - water regulations and laws in the arid Western US are labyrinthine, opaque, complex beyond normal comprehension and certainly unfit for purpose, particularly in California. In 1991, during yet another drought, Peter Passell, an economics writer for the New York Times, wrote that California's water system - infrastructure and laws - "might have been invented by a Soviet bureaucrat on an LSD trip... While this infrastructure was built with state and Federal money, the benefits are by tradition (and, hazily, by law) reserved for the private interests who lobbied for its construction."
California's surface water supply system resembles nothing more than a Heath Robinson contraption or a Rube Goldberg machine, deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion. But at least the State Government has some ability to regulate it. In a normal year that's an ability to attempt to manage and allocate perhaps 70% of the state's water consumption. In a typical drought year that drops to less than 40%. In extreme drought conditions, the state can - and does - dramatically reduce surface water allocations but then where does the other 60-70% come from? Groundwater. Over which the government has virtually no control whatsoever. It doesn't even have the knowledge or the data to manage its groundwater, never mind the legal ability to do so.
And here is the vital fact that is mostly ignored or unknown in political and commercial circles, largely because it's highly inconvenient: surface water and groundwater are part of the same system, the hydrological cycle - mess with one and you mess with the other.
Over 60 years ago, Luna Leopold and his colleague, Harold Thomas, wrote an article titled "Ground Water in North America: The fast-growing demands on this natural resource expose a need to resolve many hydrologic unknowns." Here's an extract:
There are enough examples of streamflow depletion by ground-water development, and of ground-water pollution from wastes released into surface waters, to attest to the close though variable relation between surface water and ground water.
Man has coped with the complexity of water by trying to compartmentalize it. The partition committed by hydrologists—into ground water, soil water, surface water, for instance—is as nothing compared with that which has been promulgated by the legal profession, which has on occasion borrowed from the criminal code to term some waters "fugitive" and others, a "common enemy." The legal classification of water includes "percolating waters," "defined underground streams," "underflow of surface streams," "water-courses." and "diffuse surface waters"; all these waters are actually interrelated and interdependent, yet in many jurisdictions unrelated water rights rest upon this classification
Water habitually does not subscribe to our efforts at compartmentalization according to special interests in irrigation, industrial use, recreational use, municipal use; or to allocations of fields for the chemist, for the geologist, for the sanitary engineer, for the physicist, for this or that government agency, any more than it does to separation into areas bounded by property lines, county lines, state lines, or even some river-basin boundaries. As the areas of heavy demand expand toward each other and the necessity for water management increases, these artificial boundaries and classifications will have to yield more and more to the realities of the hydrologic cycle.
Ah yes, the lessons we have learned in 60 years. In an article in July of last year for the New York Times, Abrahm Lustgarten, an environmental reporter for ProPublica, summarized a report he had written for the site (the whole piece is well-worth reading). From the summary, titled "How the West Overcounts Its Water Supplies":
In California, the state’s water agency has said that the failure to account for how groundwater withdrawals affect the state’s rivers is a major impediment to a true accounting of its resources. In April, authorities reported that less than half of the state’s local water agencies had complied with a 2002 law that made them eligible for state funds only if they set up groundwater management plans and determined if a connection between surface water and groundwater existed. That connection does not exist uniformly and varies depending on local geology. Only 17 percent of the state’s groundwater basins had been examined.
Indeed, California still doesn’t require that water pumped from underground be measured at all, much less factored into an overall assessment of total water resources; it’s merely an option under a new law signed last September.
California’s new groundwater legislation does require local water authorities to come up with sustainable groundwater plans, but they don’t have to do that until 2020, and they don’t have to balance their water withdrawals until 2040.
So fierce was the pushback by the agriculture industry against any regulation of underground water that the new law, somewhat perversely, explicitly barred any attempt by the state to count the groundwater withdrawals as coming from one overall water supply until local agencies had at least 10 more years to come up with — and implement — their plans.
“Those who have unlimited water supply don’t particularly like the idea of changing that,” said Fran Pavley, a Democrat and the California state senator who drafted two of the three bills that became the groundwater law. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Thomas Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, acknowledged that pumping from wells could dry up streams, but said the current law kept the two resources separate, and “it would be a huge upset to the economy to do away with that.”
But John Bredehoeft, a leading hydrogeologist and former director of the federal government’s Western states water program, bluntly emphasized the importance of basic honesty in counting water.
“If you don’t connect the two, then you don’t understand the system,” he said. “And if you don’t understand the system, I don’t know how in the hell you’re going to make any kind of judgment about how much water you’ve got to work with.”
Until state officials do, it seems unlikely that there will be any real solution to managing the Southwest’s strained water resources for the future.
And, in the words of Jay Famiglietti:
Managing our water in this context will require an overhaul of existing water policy that matches our modern understanding of the water cycle. Surface and groundwater are tightly interconnected and should be managed accordingly. The rule of capture for groundwater worked exceedingly well when we shot bears with muskets. Let's not kid ourselves that we're great stewards when most of our available water -- groundwater -- is still offered up in a land rush.
We must treat and price water as the precious commodity that it truly is. That means conserve, reuse, recycle, and then do it all over again. Enhanced conservation and efficiency is cheap, easy, and incredibly effective.
So, turn on your tap for a year and contemplate the disappearance of groundwater in California's Central Valley every minute. You could at least rush home and turn off the tap - the government of the State of California can't. We'll talk about all this some more in the next episode...