Drought, Fracking, Coal and Nukes Wreak Havoc on Fresh Water Supplies
For the last few months EcoWatch has been covering what's become the worst drought in the U.S. in more than half a century. More than 3,200 daily high temperature records were set or tied in June, and July is in the books as the warmest month ever recorded in the lower 48 states, according to a report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center.
Besides the discomfort of relentless heat and unmitigated sunshine, the drought has forced us to rethink several issues commonly taken for granted—namely, abundant and affordable food, secure livelihoods for farmers, safety from natural disasters, practical public policy regarding the delegation of crops for food and biofuels, and most importantly, the value of water.
The value of water is inestimable. Without it, as the drought has shown us, uncertainty and chaos quickly enter the picture, throwing superpower economies off kilter and quite literally, imperiling lives.
But that's not all.
The drought of 2012 has more to teach us about the value of water as it lurches on, including the issues surrounding water as an integral component of conventional energy generation.
The undisputed champion of the current U.S. energy debate is hydraulic fracturing or fracking. As conventional oil and gas resources become more difficult to come by, energy companies now have to dig deeper than ever to unearth the rich deposits of fossil fuels still available. In order to fracture shale formations that often exist thousands of feet below the surface, drillers use anywhere from 1 to 8 million gallons of water per frack. A well may be fracked up to 18 times. The water, usually drawn from natural resources such as lakes and rivers, is unrecoverable once it's blasted into the earth, and out of the water cycle for good.
Even if there wasn't a problem with water contamination, deforestation, and noise and air pollution from fracking, the pro-drilling agenda would still be hit hard with an insurmountable roadblock—access to abundant water.
On June 28, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission suspended 37 separately approved water withdrawals for fracking due to localized streamflow levels dropping throughout the Susquehanna Basin in Pennsylvania and New York.
In Kansas, oil and gas drillers are running out of options due to the tenth driest July on record. Companies with dwindling access to water resources are resorting to paying farmers for what water they have left, or more, drilling their own water wells, digging ponds next to streams or trucking in water from places as far way as Pennsylvania, according to CNN Money.
Jeff Gordon, the CEO of Texas Coastal Energy Co. said, "That can cripple a drilling company, as lack of water can basically suspend operations."
Fracking isn't the only dirty energy industry that relies on water for its operations. On Aug. 12, Unit 2 of the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut—which provides half of Connecticut's power and 12 percent of New England's—was shut down because the seawater used to cool the plant was too warm, according to the Hartford Courant.
In its 37-year history of operation, Unit 2 of the Millstone Power Station has never shut down due to excessively warm water. The power station, which draws its water from Long Island Sound, must cool its reactors with water no warmer than 75 degrees F, but following the hottest July on record, the water has been averaging 1.7 degrees F above the limit, according to the Hartford Courant.
According to a River Network report in June, electricity production by coal, nuclear and natural gas power plants is the fastest-growing use of freshwater in the U.S., accounting for more than half of all fresh, surface water withdrawals from rivers. This is more than any other economic sector, including agriculture, and occurs in an era when all other use sectors are reducing water withdrawals.
According to the report, more than a quarter of the water withdrawn by fossil-fuel power plants to cool their generators goes up in steam—the remainder carries pollutants and excess heat into rivers and waterways, causing fish kills and algae blooms.
Put in perspective, for every gallon of water used in an average household, five times more water (40,000 gallons each month) is used to provide that home with electricity via hydropower turbines and fossil fuel power plants.
Creating a sustainable relationship with the world's freshwater resources is the most vital environmental issue facing us today. While scientists continue to work on creative uses of wastewater to stretch our resources farther—such as substitution, regeneration and reduction—a prevailing shift in attitude that values water over profits will ultimately be required to ensure the world's population will have access to safe drinking water.
To better understand the world's water crisis, see the documentary Last Call at the Oasis, which provides insights from well-known experts including rebel consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick, author Robert Glennon, hydrologist James S. Famiglietti and biologist Tyrone Hayes, who studies the effects and pervasiveness of the herbicide Atrazine.
Sweden's reindeer have a problem. In winter, they feed on lichens buried beneath the snow. But the climate crisis is making this difficult. Warmer temperatures mean moisture sometimes falls as rain instead of snow. When the air refreezes, a layer of ice forms between the reindeer and their meal, forcing them to wander further in search of ideal conditions. And sometimes, this means crossing busy roads.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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