Category: Water

The oceans cannot absorb infinite amounts of CO2

While North Carolina and most of the South of the US reels under drought like conditions and the local newspaper is filled with all kinds of stories about water shortages, this one sentence, steeped in science-speak has caught the attention of climate scientists and general climate change worriers.

The third process is indicated by increasing evidence (P =0.89) for a long-term (50-year) increase in the airborne fraction (AF) of CO2 emissions, implying a decline in the efficiency of CO2 sinks on land and oceans in absorbing anthropogenic emissions.

Huh? What they’re saying is that while increasing CO2 emissions are rightfully blamed for the bulk of global warming, a not insignificant (18% to be precise) percentage can be linked to the fact that the oceans just are not absorbing CO2 at the rate that they used to. The reasons are yet unclear, but the trend can definitely be seen.


The noise in the data is clear indication that there are many natural factors that greatly influence this uptake. But recent observational studies (not a free paper, look up reference 2, so I won’t link to it) in the North Atlantic are backing up this trend.

The reasons could be as simple as decreasing solubility with increasing temperature, or with increasing ocean acidity, who knows. But it points in the general direction of our climate models being in danger of underestimating climate change effects.

What does this mean for climate research? Well, there was a really interesting paper out in Science today (Reference 3, not free!) talking about the uncertainties in climate change estimates. The best guess (95% confidence interval) is between 2 and 4.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperature with doubling of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. But the probability graph around this estimate is not symmetrical, it has a long tail towards the right (>4.5 degrees). The paper discusses why this uncertainty is not related to model limitations, but is an inherent feature of the way climate change processes work, through non-linear feedbacks and multiplying processes.

What these observations tell us is that uncertainty in climate estimates is not a bug, it’s a feature and will never go away. Also, all the uncertainty is on the wrong side, meaning we’re always in danger of underestimating climate change. There goes one more excuse for not tackling climate change with all the urgency it deserves.

We will never predict how bad it will be, we only know it will be pretty bad, possibly worse.

1) Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks — Canadell et al., 10.1073/pnas.0702737104 — Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

2) Schuster, U., and A. J. Watson (2007), A variable and decreasing sink for atmospheric CO2 in the North Atlantic, J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2006JC003941, in press.

3) Gerard H. Roe and Marcia B. Baker (26 October 2007) Why Is Climate Sensitivity So Unpredictable?Science 318 (5850), 629. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1144735]

Shaming People into Pooping Indoors

Meanwhile, in the other India, people still poop outdoors…

Using shame to change sanitary habits – Los Angeles Times

Every morning before sunrise, Ravi Shankar Singh, a cheerful man known to his neighbors as “Luv” Singh, sets out to patrol the potholed roads and rice fields of this north Indian village. He carries a whistle and a flashlight. He sings while he walks. The village’s self-appointed sanitation guardian, Singh is on the lookout for anyone squatting in the fields or alleys, using the cover of darkness to do what millions of people have always done across India: defecate outdoors. After years of programs to increase the number of latrines in villages, the government still has not managed to eradicate a practice that is cited in the spread of water-borne illnesses and parasites, such as diarrhea and hookworms. Critics say the obstacle is not so much the shortage of latrines, though that, too, remains a problem for nearly half of India’s rural population. The main challenge is getting people to use the facilities they have. Singh says he’s found a way. When he spots someone squatting, he lets loose with a blast on his whistle. Or shines his light on the offender. Or both.

This is clearly a serious public health issue and one that is linked to many avoidable deaths from disease. I am not sure if blowing whistles at people is an ethical way to do it. In a country where actual toilet facilities are still rare, and the people who grew up in this scarcity have internalized the fact that they have to “externalize” their poop, just providing facilities and shaming them is not enough.

Just as with most things in India, no easy answers, I guess the right combination of education (especially targeting the young), enforcement through fines, and most importantly, saturation coverage of clean and easily available toilets would eventually work.  But it will take time, and of course, public urination is a completely  different beast!

Meanwhile, in the other India

While India prepares to spend many billions of dollars on fighter jets, it cannot provide clean water for its citizens.

Cholera-diarrhoea toll mounts to 164 in Orissa-India-The Times of India

Cholera and diarrhoea, having assumed epidemic proportions in three tribal dominated Orissa districts, have so far claimed 164 lives as officials confirmed five more deaths in worst-hit Koraput on Thursday.

The death toll, which had mounted to 159 on Wednesday, further rose to 164 with confirmation of five casualties in Dasmantpur block of Koraput district, Chief District Medical Officer (CDMO) R K Agarwal said.

While the toll in Koraput district went up to 73, the situation remained by and large unchanged in Rayagada with 64 casualties as the killer diseases claimed as many as 27 lives in Kalahandi, official sources said.

The water-borne diseases had assumed epidemic form in nine blocks of these three backward districts located adjacent to each other though separated by hills and the waterspread of the vast Indravati reservoir.

Despite state government’s claim to have effectively controlled the spread of the diseases, residents of the affected areas alleged that the administration had failed to provide adequate medical facilities to the patients.

This is disgusting and very symptomatic of the urban-rural divide that exists in India. Unless the government can provide basic infrastructure to its rural citizens, all those fancy malls and F16s mean little.

Arsenic a rising risk?

This is new information? Tell that to the millions of Bangladeshis and Indians suffering from Arsenic for many years now.

As groundwater use increases due to population pressure and overexploitation of freshwater, expect this problem to get worse.

Arsenic in Drinking Water Said to Be Rising Risk – New York Times

Naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water poses a growing global health risk as large numbers of people unknowingly consume unsafe levels, researchers said on Wednesday.

The problem is bigger than scientists had thought, and it affects nearly 140 million people in more than 70 countries, according to new research presented at the annual Royal Geographical Society meeting in London.

Flood risks from global warming underestimated.

As CO2 levels in the atmosphere increase, plants uptake less water from the soil. Betts’ model indicates that there could be a 6 percentage point increase due to this effect on top of the 11% increase in global water flows due to direct climate effects.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Climate flooding risk ‘misjudged’

Researchers say efforts to calculate flooding risk from climate change do not take into account the effect carbon dioxide (CO2) has on vegetation. Higher atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas reduce the ability of plants to suck water out of the ground and “breathe” out the excess. Plants expel excess water through tiny pores, or stomata, in their leaves. Their reduced ability to release water back into the atmosphere will result in the ground becoming saturated.

Feedbacks, always a problem and hard to predict.

Bush Administration to enshrine destructive coal mining practice

Rule to Expand Mountaintop Coal Mining – New York Times

The Bush administration is set to issue a regulation on Friday that would enshrine the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams.

The journalist who wrote this piece lets some unsupported talking points just slip by. First of all, coal does not solve the US dependence on “foreign oil”. Coal is used for electricity, oil is used for cars, there is little overlap. Secondly, he claims that mountaintop mining is safer. I guess it is safer because it is cheaper to ensure the safety of the miners above ground rather than underground. But, that does not make it inherently safer!

For all the devastating effects of mountaintop removal mining, including death, water pollution, habitat destruction, flooding, landslides, read this grist article from 2006.

The go-to site for activism relating to this issue is IloveMountains. Go see it!

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Lead from toys not the real problem

Here’s what happens when you make a long verbal rant to someone about how the risk of lead exposure from water and air probably exceeds the risk from toys with lead paint, and then don’t blog about it because that means doing an hour or two of research and you don’t find the time… Someone else has the same notion, and actually writes about it AND gets published in a mainstream website!

The lingering danger to children from lead. – By Darshak Sanghavi – Slate Magazine

While tainted toys are in the news now, kids historically have gotten lead from two sources: the atmosphere and house paint. Roughly a quarter-million tons of lead compounds entered the atmosphere annually beginning in 1922, after a General Motors scientist developed a lead-based gasoline additive that prevented auto knocking. Lead’s chemical durability, recognized centuries ago, also made it an attractive paint additive. Toddlers are particularly susceptible to eating lead paint because it has a sugary taste; ancient Romans used lead powder to sweeten wine. By 1980, more than half a million American children—4 percent of all toddlers—had quite toxic blood lead levels from these sources.

Lead is a serious problem in the US, and the bulk of exposure is from crumbling infrastructure, the inability (or unwillingness) to fix and replace decaying lead pipes, and the still ubiquitous presence of lead paint layers in older houses.

The article doesn’t still give you exposure comparisons or numbers, so I guess I still have to do the work.

The real terrorist: Pollution

It is true. A staggering number of people die every year due to lack of access to clean water, air or food. Aggregate statistics like these are a good way to summarize the humongous nature of the problem. While reams and reams of coverage and attention are focused on “terrorists”, people all around the world die of much more mundane causes such as bacteria in water, smog, poverty, starvation, malnourishment, etc.

ScienceDaily: Pollution Causes 40 Percent Of Deaths Worldwide, Study Finds

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.

Water Find to End Darfur War – Well, not so fast!

Beware the dangers of the overhyped press release machine (or sciencedaily, pick your poison). All Farouk El-Baz saw when he did the radar study was a giant depression. It is TBD whether there’s water in them thar holes!’

BBC NEWS | Africa | Ancient Darfur lake is dried up

Alain Gachet, who used satellite images and radar in his research, said the area received too little rain and had the wrong rock types for water storage. But the French geologist said there was enough water elsewhere in Darfur to end the fighting and rebuild the economy.

On Wednesday, Boston Universitys Farouk El-Baz said he had received the backing of Sudans government to begin drilling for water in the newly-discovered lake, in North Darfur.

No wonder they say that water is the 21st century oil. This guy’s going to be drilling for water (also known as well digging!).