Blog Action Day: Following the Water

As part of Blog Action Day, bloggers from across this Pale Blue Dot will be posting about some aspect of water, a timely topic indeed.

Recent reports highlight aquifers running dry, glaciers melting, sea level rise, floods, pollutants in our rivers and streams, upcoming “water wars” for agriculture or energy or between nations, failing infrastructure, and even “Peak Water” in the United States.

Lots of alarming news.

In any case, let’s take a step back.

Start from wherever you are right now

Wherever you are reading this — especially if it’s on a computer plugged into an outlet — you are probably not more than 25 yards (or meters) from a faucet or tap, perhaps in a kitchen or restroom, water fountain or even garden.

From the tap to the pipe — If you follow the connections, that pipe will lead you down through the circulatory system present in almost any building in more developed nations. The fixtures, the valves, and the joints reveal the standardization that guides (and sometimes hamstrings) an industry and facilitates wholesale construction.

From the pipe to the main — Moving into the ground, the pipe leads into a network of conduits that course for miles under roads, houses, and fields. Water seeps from cracks along the way. Water mains run alongside sewage mains and gas and electrical conduits, all part of the invisible infrastructure that serves the population–invisible, that is, except when something breaks down or have to deal with unexpectedly extreme conditions. Likewise, waste treatment plants usually protect waterways from sewage, except when they don’t.

Pipes tell a tale of your town or city’s history and development, even if the pipes just lead to a well in your backyard. The pipes or mains might be decades old, perhaps more than a century old. On the rare occasion, something like a greywater system or bioswales might suggest promising changes in how settlements could be developed. Pipes embody decisions about how we live, now and into the future, and how we plan in relation to nature.

From source to system — The pipes eventually lead to a water source – a river, lake, well, etc. Human communities share water for the whole range of needs: agriculture, energy, industry, drinking water, tourism, comfort. In order to guarantee water quality, treatment plants remove bacteria, sediment, even chemicals that originated in fields and feedlots, storm drains, and bathroom sinks.

We all live both downstream and upstream.

Of course, this source is not the end of the line — just where the hydrological cycle is turned into a “utility.” Physical infrastructure gives way to green infrastructure, upon which we all rely for natural services for our well-being. Land and water interact in the watershed. Here, too, water and wildlife have coexisted for millennia. Water is habitat, water is life. Humanity’s increasing water withdrawals change the balance of life, especially in local ecosystems.

So what?

This may not be news to you. But easy access and the convenience of infrastructure systems can leave us taking local resources (utilities) for granted.

And the great water crises around the globe can be unfathomable, such that we fail to take away any lessons for our own lives, communities, and watersheds.

As the saying goes, think globally, act locally (or bioregionally). There are many things you can do to reduce water use, from improving efficiency in the home to being more thoughtful about purchases of food and goods — which affect water use wherever the food was grown or goods produced. Calculate your water footprint. Take the bioregional quiz. Understand and appreciate water’s role in everyday life.

Things fall apart

Following the industrial revolution, the practices of urban planning and public health grew out of responses to poor sanitary conditions that made burgeoning urban settlements difficult places to live. These efforts to promote the well-being of communities are now faced with even broader problems. Our great successes now push us towards greater challenges, and humanity is straining at planetary limits.

The US is slowly realizing that physical infrastructure is not a “if they build it” proposition. Constant maintenance of bridges, tunnels, and water mains comes with the territory.

Likewise, the human footprint has expanded such that a corollary for natural infrastructure is greater human responsibility for management and stewardship. And that starts with recognizing the “wisdom” embodied in natural systems and then acting accordingly. We can even choose to remove roads to better preserve natural systems, such as protecting wildlife corridors.

I recently watched a web presentation by the Washington Department of Ecology about the future of the Puget Sound. One of the key lessons was that land use planning needs an ecosystem or watershed perspective. There is great utility in rethinking how human communities coexist (perhaps even culturally co-evolve) with natural systems.

Practices change, and our expanding awareness of the need to maintain and foster resilient ecosystems entail different ways of planning – and living with water.

Check out what other blogs are writing about water at Blog Action Day.

Image credit: Xymox (Flickr/CC)

Circumnavigate This! Two Ocean Voyages: One by Land, One by Sea

All Life has its roots in the meeting of earth and water. –TH Watkins

The Blue Marble - NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stöckli

When you look at photos of the Earth from space, what do you see?

Does the ocean frame the land? Or does the land frame the ocean?

This question relates to an aspect of vision called figure-ground perception. You probably have experienced figure-ground questions in visual illusions like this image. As creatures of the land, we’re inclined to consider the land as the primary object, or figure, and the seas as background. The seas seem relatively flat and uneventful, although belying tremendous mountain ranges (more here) and teeming life hidden beneath the surface. Yet from space, Earth is a blue planet. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean.”

What do you look at when you stand at the ocean’s edge?
If you’re like me, when you arrive at a coastline or beach, you’ll look first across the vast expanse of water towards the gentle curve of the horizon. Then your eyes will scan to the right or left and follow the meeting of land and water off into the distance.

The shape of that coastline — whether sandy beach, rocky shores, or precipitous bluffs — reveals a history of interaction between land and water, a relationship uninterrupted for eons. The coastline connects.

I’ve recently come across two ambitious journeys — one by land and one by sea — that are focusing attention on our world of water: how we are affected by the health of our oceans and the potential social and ecological impacts of sea level rise.

Atlantic Rising: A ferry in Guinea

One by land: Atlantic Rising

A trio of young explorers has taken the terrestrial route, basically driving their Land Rover around the Atlantic Ocean to engage students and bring attention to coastal areas, habitats, and livelihoods along the Atlantic that will be affected by sea level rise.

Atlantic Rising explores what will be lost around the Atlantic Ocean if sea levels rise by one metre. Our work in low-lying communities around the ocean rim is journalistic and educational. We are creating a network between 15,000 pupils; enabling them to build friendships, share experience and collaborate on climate change projects. We are also reporting the stories of people whose lives are already being affected by sea level change and providing a platform for marginalised voices.

Sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, Atlantic Rising follows the Atlantic’s potential coastline across 31 countries. The journey so far has taken the trio from London to the West African coast. Along the way, they have encountered threatened wetlands, vulnerable villages, and inspirational conservation efforts. From Ghana, they crossed the Atlantic by container ship to Brazil and will now follow the one-metre contour to North America.

Launch of capsule for the Message in a BottleIn February, Atlantic Rising released Message in a Bottle, a satellite-tracked buoy that contains letters from students living in communities along the Atlantic. Students can follow the buoy’s path to learn about ocean currents, as well as engage with children from other participating schools.

Our project draws upon the historical connections between Atlantic countries to build new relationships around the Atlantic rim. It confronts pupils with the different global experiences of climate change and shows them the realities of sea level change in other Atlantic countries.

While sea level rise will ultimately vary significantly depending upon topography, wind and current, Atlantic Rising’s journey brilliantly highlights the fragility of ecosystems and the interconnected future of all people living by the sea.

The Around the Americas Route

One by sea: Around the Americas

In the tradition of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, Nansen and Amundsen’s Fram, and the HMS Challenger, the crew of the 64′ sailboat Ocean Watch has undertaken a modern voyage of discovery, called Around the Americas. A project of the Pacific Science Center and Sailors for the Sea, Around the Americas is circumnavigating the American continents “with the mission of inspiring, educating, and educating citizens of the Americas to protect our fragile oceans.”

A permanent crew of four highly-experienced “nautical geezers,” led by Captain Mark Schrader, and rotating scientists and educators staff the Ocean Watch on its 25,000 mile (40,200 km) voyage, which launched from Seattle in late May 2009. The crew’s logs make for fascinating reading.

From Baffin Island in the Arctic Sea to the Straits of Magellan near the tip of South America, the Ocean Watch is traversing every possible climatic region of the seas. The crew is conducting science experiments on subjects as varied as polar science,  jellyfish populations, ocean currents, pollution, and underwater ambient sound.

Schrader: “We hope the adventure of the trip will get people’s attention, but then we need to demonstrate with good science that we’re approaching a critical time for the health of our oceans.”

The Ocean Watch is now one of six small boats to make it through the Northwest Passage, west to east. Back in 1982, Captain Schrader circumnavigated the globe. At the time he wanted to sail the Northwest Passage.

But with the Arctic ice pack, it wasn’t possible at the time. In the past 100 years, only about 100 boats have made the passage, most of them Coast Guard ice breakers. Now, the conditions have changed dramatically. We need to make people aware of what’s happening in the oceans before we lose the Arctic ice pack all together, before conditions become irreversible.

Last month, the Ocean Watch was sailing off the shore of Chile between ports of call, when the earthquake hit and tremors raced undersea. The quake and tsunami savaged the land and triggered alerts thousands of miles away; the crew, of course, did not feel a thing. Please read the log entry about Chile.

Seascape, Straits of Magellan

This off-hand comment by one fisheries researcher captures in simple terms the need to understand better the oceans:  “It’s a big black box out there. Things have been wacky.”

Check out David Thoresen’s beautiful photographs on Flickr. And for the latest position of Ocean Watch, look here.

H/T to @eclecticechoes, @geographile for “Mountains in the Sea” link

Credits: “Blue Marble,” NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Atlantic Rising photos, courtesy of Atlantic Rising; Seascape, courtesy of Around the Americas, ©David Thoresen