Monday, December 9, 2013

Someone Build A Really Big Straw

There are a couple semi-related things that catch my attention today; three, in fact. But two of them are really pretty obvious. The first relates to a new record being established of the coldest temperature recorded on Earth, clocking in, at least for now, at -135.8 Fahrenheit. The previous record was -128.6 degrees, recorded at Vostok Station in Antarctica. It will not surprise you to know that the new record, measured in 2010 by satellite, is also in Antarctica, this time at a random spot of land in the middle of the continent.

Story #2 regards the sun, long known as a place where, shall we say, the property values are rather low. When you get a close-up view of the sun, you can figure out pretty fast that it's kind of hot and inhospitable there. The story revolves around NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) getting a picture of the sun's interface region- the area between surface and atmosphere- and the story is, wow, it's even more inhospitable than we thought. If you'd like to get into the nitty-gritty of it, great, it's there in the link for you, but here I've got something better.

According to a release from Flinders University of Brisbane, Australia, a group of researchers has discovered some 500,000 cubic kilometers of freshwater. (The Black Sea, for reference, stands at 547,000 cubic kilometers.) Where is the freshwater? Oh, nowhere special, it's just below the saltwater, underneath seabeds off the coasts of Australia, South Africa, China and New Jersey. Lead author Vincent Post notes this to be "a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900 … This volume of water could sustain some regions for decades."

Let's note right now that scientists did already know that freshwater can sit below saltwater like this. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, the coastline will go in and out depending on the sea level. When it's low enough, such as during the Ice Age, rainwater can seep into aquifers. By the time the Ice Age ended and the glacial melt had filled the oceans to their current level, layers of clay and sediment had reached the aquifers, blocking them off and keeping the saltwater from contaminating the freshwater below. What's happened here is that the amount of that freshwater is being shown at way higher levels than previously thought.

However, even though it could sustain parts of the Earth for decades, 'decades' does not mean 'infinitely'. The water is definitely not renewable. You can, given enough time, drain a lake by way of bucket brigade. Once the water is used up, that's that until such time as the sea level falls to a level far below what it is now. And with the sea level rising due to global warming, don't hold your breath.

And that is assuming we're able to actually grab all of it without a leak. Do remember, in the event of an offshore drilling leak, oil and water don't mix. Theoretically, the oil can be pulled out with enough effort, though it will likely take more effort than we're able to expend. But you know what does mix? Saltwater and freshwater, and when you mix them, you get saltwater. You screw up drilling for freshwater, and your freshwater reservoir becomes a saltwater reservoir, and that means game over. So you have to be very careful with this.

But I'm sure the people operating offshore drilling rigs would never let something like a leak happen. Right?

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