Three Times As Much Water

As we persist in haphazardly polluting global water, what would it mean if three times as much surface water was locked beneath the Earth? Geophysicist Dr. Steven Jacobsen and Seismologist Dr. Brandon Schmandt think a “ocean” lays 650 Kilometers beneath the surface of North America.

Before you breath a sigh of relief, thinking some underground “do over” waits to salvage our flippant disregard for limited resources – it doesn’t wait to fill your water bottle. Jacobsen and Schmandt believe the water is locked within a crystalline mineral called Ringwoodite. By studying seismic waves during earthquakes, researchers think Earth’s mantle is “saturated” with water. The two published results last June in the journal Science, Their data was collected beneath North America – further exploration is taking place to understand if the entire planet hides deep mantle water.

Pondering the possibility of 3 times as much water,  hundreds of miles below the surface, isn’t a discovery of some future supply once we’ve turned ours to sludge. What it is, is a step closer to understanding life in relation to water. Life as we know it can’t exist without water – if all this water resides in Earth’s mantle –  what forms of life might lie beneath the surface of other planets, perhaps even those in our solar system?

Old Water

Earth has a lot of water – over 70% of the planet is below sea level. Less than 3%  fresh water – almost all of that hiding as groundwater or frozen glaciers and ice-caps. Earth commands a orbital sweet spot around the sun – not too far, not too close, but just right to set us apart with liquid surface water. Water responsible for another unique distinction – plate tectonics. Water lubricates  continental plates, facilitating constant bump and grind across our molten outer core. Movement responsible for mountain ranges, weather patterns and life as we know it.

Not often pondered outside quality, supply and demand – our most basic element is taken for granted. Understanding frozen objects litter the universe doesn’t often translate to consideration of how we ended up with all that water.

A study led by Ilsedore Cleeves, an Astrochemist from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, indicates much of our water was present before the sun formed – more importantly 30-50% of Earth’s water not only escaped heat,radiation, and vaporization when the sun booted up, some 4.6 billion years ago – it prevailed despite those conditions. When a star first “lights up”, the surrounding cosmic cloud (imagine a chaotic jumble of cosmic dust particles and ice) it’s subjected to intense heat and radiation – vaporizing ice, and separating some water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.

Science could only speculate as to how much water survived this bombardment – in other words, what might have remained as a “universal ingredient” in planet formation. Of particular interest, the study of two very different waters – regular old water and heavy water. Heavy water contains an element called Deuterium or heavy hydrogen – Deuterium rich water (identified as having a hydrogen isotope containing  a neutron in addition to proton in the nucleus) is the product of substantial exposure to cosmic radiation.

Cleeves led researchers in creating a “planetary disk” – essentially a laboratory mock up of what happened to ice and water when the sun “lit” up. How much heat, direct solar radiation, and distance traveled by outside cosmic radiation were needed to account for measurable heavy water in our solar system.  Their conclusion, published Sept. 26 in the journal Science – water and heavy water didn’t add up. A whole lot of  water – perhaps as high as 50% came from icy interstellar space, millions of years before our sun got down to business.

“Our findings show that a significant fraction of our solar system’s water, the most-fundamental ingredient to fostering life, is older than the sun, which indicates that abundant, organic-rich interstellar ices should probably be found in all young planetary systems.” – Conel Alexander, research team member from the Carnegie Institute of Science.

Ponder that statement a moment – “abundant, organic-rich interstellar ices should probably be found in all young planetary systems” – that is so cool.



Pondering Water

I’ve pondered climate change, plastic water bottles in land fills, and oil families the likes of George Bush snapping up land over the world’s largest aquifer. I’m used to the rolling eyes and ho-hum attitudes of people believing it’s not their problem. The moment Al Gore faded from front page news, so too did awareness, urgency, and social responsibility. Sure, there’s a core group of grass roots realists; their efforts seized upon by marketing gurus – turning a tidy profit with buzz words like free or fair trade, sustainable, and ethical. A marketing wet dream, after  slumpish years struggling for new adjectives to describe “new, and improved”.

Lets ponder water. A friend sent me this link tonight, a visual aid that knocked my socks off. Looking at the photo you should see three blue spheres. The largest one represents all the water on earth – everything from oceans, ice caps, moisture in fog banks, even your runny nose. The next size illustrates how much of the first sphere is fresh water; rivers, lakes, streams, and groundwater. 99% of this sphere is groundwater, and inaccessible. The last tiny blue speck shows accessible fresh water.

We take water for granted, assuming the supply is infinite. Rising temperatures mean our glaciers melt faster than they are able to restore themselves. Many scientists believe the “tipping point” has been reached – within a few decades the Himalayas could be glacier free. Millions upon millions of people rely on the water glaciers deliver to rivers.

It takes 7 litres of water to manufacture a single plastic water bottle. a puny “water footprint” compared to the 16,000 litres needed for a single KG. of boneless beef. Americans use on average 575 litres a day per household, we use more water washing our cars than many people in the world survive on in a week.

We allow ourselves to be lulled by slick ad-men, consuming with wild abandon like there’s no tomorrow. There’s a reason Texas oil men are buying  land atop aquifers, and it sure isn’t for a place to build  retirement cottages. They understand the oil will dry up and water is the next market to corner.

A link to the massive land purchase by the Bush family atop the world’s largest aquifer in Paraguay.