Archive for February, 2010

Masters of Arrogance

27 February 2010

Americans tend to think we’ve got a hammerlock on everything–especially smarts and the market. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. In fact, sometimes our naive trust that we are the Masters of the Free Market actually reveals a stunning ignorance and lack of foresight.

Don’t believe me? Read this article from Newsweek:

“Defending against Drones: How Our New Favorite Weapon in the War on Terror Could Soon Be Turned against Us.”

Anyone reading the title should guess the gist of the article.

When something like this turns up in Newsweek, a mainstream, toe-in-the-water, general audience publication that requires perhaps a 10th grade reading level, it’s a safe bet that specialists and researchers have been aware of the problem for a long time.

In this case, the article mentions a study done by the U.S. Air Force that

concluded that similar systems are “an ideal platform” for dirty bombs containing radioactive, chemical, or biological weapons—the type of WMDs that terrorists are most likely to obtain.

Well, duh. This is NOT news, folks.

We’ve been assuming we were the Masters of the Universe for too long. Our hubris had to turn against us. Anyone who thinks our enemies are ignorant bumpkins who couldn’t possibly figure out how to design, build, and use high-tech weapons against us, needs to wake up. The US no longer has a hammerlock on robotics technology or science or much of anything. We’ve outsourced pretty much everything, including our good sense.

Don’t believe me? Read this from the same Newsweek article:

Already a growing number of American defense and technology firms rely on hardware from China and software from India, a clear security concern.

Outsourcing worried me even before the Black Beret incident of 2001. Anyone else remember that one?

You can buy the full military report from Storming Media, a reseller of Pentagon Reports. Or you can read about it here:
“Army Black-Beret Brouhaha Still Simmers”

If you don’t want to bother, here’s the short version: The Pentagon decided to outfit the whole US Army with black berets, and they contracted with China to manufacture them.

Those who set up the contract apparently saw their decision as the way of the free market. The Chinese-made black berets were, like, uh, cheaper. And they, like, uh, looked cool, so why not give them to everyone? Good marketing strategy for recruiters.

Those who had earned their black berets, American made ones at that, were not happy. When the bit about China came out, lots more people were unhappy. The beret contract was eventually pulled, but BUY AMERICAN is not the main point here.

The grim point from the abstract for the 2006 Pentagon report “Black Berets and the Berry Amendment: Politics, Parochialism, and the Press” remains and has become even more significant today:

[I]t shows how this one seminal event caused doubt about the Defense Logistic Agency’s ability to deliver goods in time of war.

Don’t worry about the foreign and homegrown terrorists who may well be building a drone in a garage in Indiana. Think nice thoughts about countries like China and India: the safety of our country may well depend upon their willingness to arm us.

Sleep well.

Cassandra

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Aquifer Depletion and Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”

23 February 2010

I received a lengthy response to “When the Well Is Dry,” my 15 Feb. 2010 post on aquifers.

This comment prompted me to return to the issue of water. I thought most of us know of the plight of the Ogallala and understand it as a well-documented example of how man can–and does–disrupt natural systems of the earth. However, it looks like many are not familiar with aquifers.

Again, I chose the Ogallala aquifer as my example because everyone from scientists to casual observers has concluded the aquifer is being depleted by man. This is simply fact. Everyone who wants to know knows that we started pumping heavily in the 1940s and then pumped like crazy in the 1960s. We are still pumping too much. Nebraska is still doing kinda OK, but Texas is hurting, and so are other many other areas above the aquifer.

Again, I repeat, MAN disrupted a natural cycle. Fact. Like the Ogallala, many of the world’s other aquifers are at or near a tipping point. I thought the links provided in my original post gave substantial, cumulative support for this point.

However, this reader’s response made it clear that some lack experience with or knowledge of aquifer geology and even with the concept of aquifer depletion, something High Plains and Midwest farmers have wrestled with for several decades now.

Again, let me be clear: Those farmers know all too well that PEOPLE CAN, HAVE, AND CONTINUE TO INFLICT SERIOUS, DEVASTATING DAMAGE ON THIS NATURAL SYSTEM.

I further hope my answers below will clarify the situation for the person who commented and asked questions and for others who might not hear about aquifer depletion on a nearly daily basis.

Here are some of the comments and questions, followed by my answers.

THE RESPONDER WROTE: Regarding the aquifer depletion specifically, is that phrase even accurate?

MY ANSWER: Yes, that’s the usual term.

The topic “Aquifer depletion” appears in the Encyclopedia of the Earth. The first line states,

“Scores of countries are overpumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs, including each of the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States.”

Here’s the link again:

http://www.eoearth.org/article/Aquifer_depletion

I hope everyone reads this entry. It’s short and it’s peer reviewed.

(For a definition of peer reviewed, click this link:

http://www.linfo.org/peer_review.html)

THE RESPONDER: The aquifer is rechargeable, it recharges from precipitation.

MY ANSWER: Yes, the aquifer is rechargeable, but you may want to review my original post and the click on the blue links. Many of these feature university level presentations on how recharge rates affect the level of the aquifer. The Ogallala was once filled with water that entered its system THOUSANDS of years ago. Much of the water being extracted is fossil water.

Yes, water is still entering the system from recent precipitation and slowly seeping through its rock formations. Much of the water currently entering the system won’t be available for use by man for years, decades, centuries.

Perhaps a little fable will be helpful to envision what an aquifer does.

Once upon a time there was a magic, antique bathtub hidden under a house. The bathtub’s drain was plugged and it slowly filled from its leaky faucet. Unnoticed, it finally filled up and overflowed. The water escaping from the tub seeped into the ground and continued on its way, finally exiting the ground as a magic spring miles and miles away.

Sometimes the faucet drip would slow or even stop, so the overflow would slow or even stop too, but the magic bathtub stayed full because it was protected, hidden under the house. After a time though, the drip would start again and the tub would overflow once more.

One day, the woman who lived in this old house in the dry plains of Sasnak ventured under her house and discovered the magic bathtub. She realized she could use the water in the bathtub to grow a garden. She planted a few rows of corn. They thrived. So she planted more to sell back east.

All was going well until, hearing of her magic bathtub, her neighbors looked around and many discovered they too had magic bathtubs under their houses. Soon they were all bailing water from their bathtub at a ferocious rate. The level of water in the bathtubs began to sink because they were bailing out more water than the leaky faucets put in.

The falling water level in her bathtub alarmed the first woman, but her corn was almost ready for harvest and people back east were counting on her. After much worry, she bailed out just enough water to get her corn to harvest. She stopped bailing water from her bathtub and waited, hoping her bathtub would refill for the next growing season.

Unfortunately, next spring she discovered there was not even enough water in the bathtub to keep her corn seedlings alive. It was the same for all her neighbors. None of them meant any harm. They thought that since their bathtubs were magic, there was no way they could drain them. They thought they’d just fill up again right away.

They were wrong.

The end.

That’s where we are headed. As the links in my original post show, the water levels in the Ogallala are dropping. I don’t know of a single authority that says otherwise, and I don’t know of a single farmer who denies that people have caused this problem.

For decades, the land brought forth water hungry crops, but we pumped too much. Period.

In fact, in some places the discharge springs have dried up. Here’s support from Texas Parks and Recreation.

THE RESPONDER: If the rate of recharge has dropped, it would be due to a decrease in precipitation for that region, unless you have specific data that verifies a spike in greedy human usage. Otherwise a drop in a recharge rate would be due to drought, a naturally recurring event of which we have no control . . . .

MY ANSWER: The specific data is EVERYWHERE. The links in my original post offer facts and figures on the rate of decline of the Ogallala. It varies from place to place, of course–Nebraska is in much better shape than Texas, for example–but all indicators are going DOWN. If my links don’t convince you, hit Google. Hit a college database if you want the gory details.

For here, I’ll just add a tidbit from the authoritative Water Encyclopedia: Science and Issues:

The Ogallala Aquifer (shaded area) [on a map I’m not including] is in a state of overdraft owing to the current rate of water use. If withdrawals continue unabated, the aquifer could be depleted in only a few decades.

I think one of the sources I used on my original post said that were all the pumping to stop the aquifer would refill in about 35–or was it 38?–years. Does it matter? Is it clear this is a dire situation?

If you don’t want to click the blue Water Encyclopedia link above, here it is again:

http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Oc-Po/Ogallala-Aquifer.html

Man has put the sustainability of the aquifer in doubt.

However, I would not call the over-pumping a result of greed so much as a harmless desire to make an honest living. It’s once again the “Tragedy of the Commons.” When researchers finally realized how severe the over-pumping was, some farmers had been irrigating that way for a long, long time. Remember the aquifer was discovered in 1899.

We are talking unintended consequences, folks. We all need to realize the results of this phenomenon.

Definition here

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

Article here:

http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html

Or here:

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/162/3859/1243.pdf

Back to work on my post on soil erosion.

If nothing else, this revisit led me to a copy of Garrett Hardin’s famous essay. William Catton refers to his theories several times in Overshoot, but I couldn’t remember Hardin’s name. I’m glad that this topic led me to a copy of his essay.

Cassandra

On to Land, Part One: Feed Me

21 February 2010

If we’ve got usable water, which is far from a given, then we can take the next step and figure out how much land is necessary to grow plants and livestock to feed a single person.

I hope most who stumble onto this site will stick with the more detailed explanation, but if you’re an impatient sort, click for a quick presentation by the American Farmland Trust. If you think we have plenty of land on which to grow food, this should disabuse you of that opinion.

If you have time and patience, then wade on to land with me, starting with a recap of the water situation and the world’s water/land ratio.

The earth is roughly 70% water, but only 2.5% of that is drinkable or useful for irrigation. Of that paltry 2.5%, something like 2/3rds is frozen into glaciers. What’s left for use in farming and everything else people do comes mostly from aquifers, underground water and wellsprings—sources that people are depleting rapidly.

The info above comes from Charts Bin, “Surface Area of the Earth.”

(In case you missed them, my posts of 15 Feb. 2010 “When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water” and 17 Feb. 2010 “When the Well Is Dry, Part 2” are on water.)

Now on to land. Charts Bin also breaks land into categories:

• The percentages of earth’s land surface can be divided into different types: 20% covered by snow land, 20% mountains, 20% dry land, 30% good land that can be farmed [emphasis added], 10% land doesn’t have topsoil.

Like most reliable sites, this one has a good list of sources appended, including the redoubtable CIA World Fact Book. Many other sites, such as PhysicalGeography.net, provide similar information.

HOW MUCH OF THE WORLD CAN WE USE FOR AGRICULTURE?

The world is 30% land, and 30% of that is arable. My calculator tells me we have 9% of the world’s surface that’s suitable for farming—and not necessarily top class farming, but now we’re closer to an actual discussion of soil.

However, before that happens, we all need to know some important concepts. And they all involve numbers. {evil laugh} I know that for most people—me included—numbers aren’t enticing, but they are crucial.

I’ve heard too many people toss off figures to show how we have nothing to worry about based on vague or inappropriate starting points. For example, I’ve heard we have nothing to worry about as far as population or pollution because people occupy only one percent of the world’s surface.

What’s that mean? Total surface? Dry surface? Arable surface? Desert, polar, mountaintop? Big differences. So clear, contextualized facts are crucial here.

Since much of the info I found deals with measurements most of the rest of the world uses, here’s a quick set of conversions:

One square kilometer equals 0.3861022 square miles.

One square kilometer equals 100 hectares.

One hectare equals 2.471044 acres.
(For here, saying a hectare is 2.5 acres will do.)

For years, I’ve used Josh Madison’s measurement conversion software Convert It’s for Windows and it’s free. If you’re on a Mac, I hope you can find something similar.

OK. Now on to the meat and potatoes, so to speak.

HOW MUCH ARABLE LAND DO WE NEED TO FEED A SINGLE PERSON?

This sounds like a simple question, but it’s not. First of all, not all arable land is created equal. How deep is the topsoil? How rich is the topsoil? Is the soil level and easily worked? Terraced? How much precipitation does the land receive? Is irrigation water available? How long’s the growing season? Is there a salinity problem with the water supply? On and on and on. Since arable land also includes growing crops for livestock to eat, the questions continue. Is the land irrigated or dryland? What livestock? Chickens? Goats? Cattle? What?

As usual, the closer one looks at a problem, the more complicated and complex it becomes. In searching for answers on how much land it takes to feed one person, I’ve found answers ranging as low as a thousand square feet for a sparse vegetable diet, sometimes called a recipe for slow starvation. Of course, this tiny figure assumes intensive gardening by a master gardener with everything needed readily available and going the right way, every day.

As someone with a little farm and garden experience, let me just say this: Never count on things going right.

I’ve grown personal vegetable gardens ranging from 2500 square feet down to about 120 square feet, and I can tell you that some years I get more off the 120 square feet of raised beds than I did off the bigger garden. I can also tell you farmers live in apprehension. Last summer, when a hail storm turned my flourishing little garden into goo, I flashed back to a family story about my usually stoic Swedish grandfather sobbing as he watched a sudden storm flatten his harvest-ready eighty acres.

Storms and other disasters aside, we need a starting point for amount of land. Here’s one rough guide to how much land a person needs from the website AskMetafilter:

Each person needs —
vegan food — 3000 sq. ft.
a few eggs/week — 3,500 sq. ft.
one chicken/week — 24,300 sq. ft.
one cow/year — 67,300 sq. ft.

Whether this factors in hail storms, cows that bloat and die, and coyotes that find the flaw in the fence and eat all the chickens, I don’t know, but I’m dubious of even the 67,300 square feet. That’s only a little over an acre and a half.

A typical acre and a half in Colorado isn’t going to support anyone wanting a considerable amount of meat. On the other hand, it would where I grew up in Western Washington.

Considering the variables, I’m a bit more comfortable with the amount of land suggested in “Sustainability of Land Use and Food Production,” written by a member of the Toronto Vegetarian Association:

At Toronto’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in 1992, a display presented two contrasting statistics: It takes four football fields of land (about 1.6 hectares) to feed each Canadian and One apple tree produces enough fruit to make 320 pies. If you think about it – a couple of apple trees and a few rows of wheat could produce enough food for one person on a mere fraction of a hectare!

Notice that the author cleverly says “fruit” for these pies, not ingredients? Where’s the sugar and flour coming from? Not so easy figuring all this out, is it?

Then too, most of us in North America are not vegetarians. I suspect many more of us will become so over the next few decades, willingly or not, but for now, it’s reasonable to assume that most of us are still omnivores. To me, that means we’ll need land on the higher end of the range.

Joel E. Cohen’s 1996 How Many People Can the Earth Support? has “Eight Estimates of human Carrying Capacity.

All these are imprecise, imperfect, merely working models. They will, however, provide you with tools for more accurate guesses. Welcome to science!

I’m now moving on to another aspect. Is our food production capacity stable, going up, going down?

Cassandra

Down the Drain

19 February 2010

I’m trying to get myself to move on to the topic of arable land, but, I found myself going over home use of water for the first time since our Great Kitchen/bath Remodel of 2001.

When I was planning it, I remember my joy at having a reason to seek information. I love research so much that sometimes I feel like a dog looking for something to chase. Having such a clear purpose was wonderful, so my memories of the remodel are surprisingly pleasant. Today my nostalgia waxed as I revisited some household water sites.

Here’re some fun stats from the
Lake Oswego Water Treatment Plant

Where Does all the Water Go?

Below is a list of common water uses and the average amount used for each.

Toilet Flush———————–3 to 7 Gallons
Shower—————————-25 to 50 Gallons
Hand Washing——————-2 Gallons (with tap running)
Brushing Teeth——————2 Gallons (with tap running)
Outdoor Watering————–5 to 10 Gallons per Minute
Automatic Dishwashing—-10 Gallons
Dishwashing By Hand———20 Gallons
Tub Bath—————————-36 Gallons

These are pretty rough figures of course, and the 3-7 gallon flush is an obscenely old figure. I can however vouch for the 10 gallons per use for Energy Star dishwashers. Another reason to use a fully stuffed dishwasher! Washing by hand wastes water! Yea!

During our remodel, one of my goals was to cut our water use considerably. I don’t remember this site, but it’s likely I used it:

DrinkTap

And here’s a nifty calculator for anyone who wants to figure out how much water that’s going down the drain:

Water Consumption Calculator

Back in 2001, I had no trouble coming up with a decent 10 gallon per use dishwasher, but finding good information on low water use toilets was more difficult. (If you’re thinking whacko environmentalist, ok, fine, but we also PAY for our utilities.)

In re-researching just now, I ran across a familiar site: “Terry Love’s Consumer Toilet Reports: A Report and Reviews on Low Flow Water Efficient Toilets”. From his comments and a few other review sites, I chose Toto Carlyle toilets.

The sleek design appealed to me because I hate cleaning toilet pedestals. All reviews suggested these 1.6 gallon toilets actually flushed.

Despite my assurances, my traditionalist spouse was dubious, but after nine years he loves them as much as I do. It’s nice to know the model is still on the market.

Back in 2001, no one around here had them, so I ordered from Homeclick. Now we have an independent bigbox here in town that carries the Toto brand.

So why did a buy-local sort of person go through Homeclick instead of switching brands? Easy: Toto struck me as clearly superior. So it was just a matter of finding out where to buy at the best price since they weren’t then available locally.

Accidentally found out why they weren’t available when I asked a Home Depot clerk about Toto. He said they didn’t carry the line because another well known company refused to sell to them AT ALL if they carried Toto. There you go, our free market system at work.

So I had to buy around some obstacles, and I’m pleased to report that research has its rewards. During the last phases of the remodel, the fellow doing our actual construction politely asked how much money we’d invested in the total project–two bathrooms and the kitchen. When I told him, he whistled and said, “I wouldn’t have blinked if you’d said twice that.”

And our household water use is down more than 40%.

Sometimes even my spouse is quite happy that I’m obsessed with research.

Cassandra

Handbasket Report — Baltic Dry Index

18 February 2010

It’s been quite some time since I checked into the Baltic Dry Index, the guide to how bulk shipping contracts are going. So I searched for news.

You’ll be glad to know that the global economy is recovering nicely. Everything is going to be OK.

Just kidding. Here’re some of the headlines and stories I found when I Googled “Baltic Dry Index 2010.”
“Baltic Dry Index Collapses Signal Further Worldwide Economic Weakness In 2010”

That comes from a site called: Before It’s News

I wasn’t familiar with this site, so I immediately sought other sources to cross-reference.

Here’s what I found on India’s Business Line:
“BDI in Choppy Waters”

This site is great. It includes history of the BDI as well as a forecast, in this case “bearish.”

Some reporters explained the downtrend as due to the Chinese New Year, but just sort of mumbled stuff about how the global economy ain’t what it used to be, mentioning Greece, the extra time many ships were now taking around the Horn to avoid the Somali pirates, and so forth.

Want an overview of the index? Here’s a nice one from AdvisorAnalyst.com:
Baltic Dry Index 2005-Present

Finally, here’s a nice comparison of the Greek Stock Market and the Baltic Dry Index from Trader’s Narrative.

Yup. Everything’s just fine now.

View the full BALDRY chart at Wikinvest

Have a nice day.

Cassandra

More on Groundwater

17 February 2010

Here are the first lines of The Encyclopedia of the Earth‘s entry titled “Aquifer Depletion” :

Scores of countries are overpumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs, including each of the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States. These three, along with a number of other countries where water tables are falling, are home to more than half the world’s people.

Should we worry?

Maybe the last lines of the entry provide a hint:

Since the overpumping of aquifers is occurring in many countries more or less simultaneously, the depletion of aquifers and the resulting harvest cutbacks could come at roughly the same time. And the accelerating depletion of aquifers means this day may come soon, creating potentially unmanageable food scarcity.

Cassandra

When the Well Is Dry, Part 2

17 February 2010

I was planning a separate entry on China’s problems with water in comparison to ours, but Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry helped me out in this February 16, 2009 New Scientist article: “Parched China to Slash Water Consumption by 60%.” (Links within this article will take the reader to the news stories from Chinese sources.)

If anyone has any doubts that, like us, China is in trouble because it has more human demand for water than it has water, just go to your favorite search engine, type in “water use china,” and hit the Search button.

The results impressed–ok, scared–me, and I already knew that China, historically the world’s greatest hydrologic culture, was drying up. Here are links to just a couple: “China Vows Efficient Water Usage” from the China Daily of February 15, 2009 and “Beneath Booming Cities, China’s Future Is Drying Up,” from the New York Times of September 28, 2007.

They’re implementing all sorts of measures, of course, with the usual short-term fixes. Dams, conservation, that sort of thing. Now since China’s a totalitarian country, the government has more power to enforce its plans. Care to bet if their measures work in the long term even if they work in the short term, which is in itself open to betting?

I’m putting my money on FAIL. First, China simply has more people than its water supplies can support. Second, there’s the law of unintended consequences, something that William Catton points out so well throughout Overshoot. Every time we act in a way we think is harmless and even helpful, something tends to pop up that complicates the issue. All to often the “answer” turns out to give us just another set of problems.

The comment by Kiran Bhatt posted beneath “China’s Clever Water Use Boosts Food Yields,” a January 29, 2010, article by Yidong Gong, nicely points out a few of the more obvious:

One of the efficient water use measure, as mentioned in the article, is reuse of wastewater for irrigation. However, use of reused wastewater for prolonged time may lead to (1) groundwater contamination by leaching of toxins (2) degradation of Soil texture and (3) possible uptake of toxins by plant (s) itslef.

Bhatt’s point ties in nicely with the arable land post I’ve yet to write.

Cassandra

Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum

16 February 2010

I just searched for updates on William Ruddiman’s hypothesis and found a number of good posts.

Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum is one of the most original and thought-provoking books I’ve read in years.  Ruddiman’s a retired professor, a specialist in the field of paleoclimatology, but I read his book and found it to be a non-technical read despite its subject matter.  Ruddiman takes the general reader through the earth’s natural cycles and concludes that given those regular rhythms we would be entering a new ice age  had man not intervened some 8,000 years ago.

What I love about this book is that Ruddiman expected, wanted, and, after some initial awed acceptance, got the usual scientific arguments churning. His book provides fodder for a full spectrum of opinions. With luck, it’ll inspire considerable research.

Here are some recent discussions, for, against, you name it:

This from the November 9, 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education
“Global Warming before Smokestacks”

This from the Northern Virginia Chapter of Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment on October 15, 2009 — “Humans Began Changing Climate 7,000 Years Ago ‘I’m Really Certain That I’m Right,’ Says Ruddiman” by Will Goldsmith

This from December 19, 2008 on Resilience Science
Evaluating Ruddiman’s Long Anthropocene Hypothesis

A quick Google search for Ruddiman hypothesis 2009 turned up many, many such discussions. And, so far, I’ve just skimmed these but so far I’ve found mostly scientific rather than political discussions–one of my red flags that there’s no science involved.

Happy reading!

Cassandra

“When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water”

15 February 2010

In response to my post titled ““What Does Winter Weather Reveal about Global Warming?” Condemon posted a series of interesting comments and queries. This paragraph captured my attention:

I cannot subscribe to those theories about overpopulation and taxing the ecosystem. . . . . [People occupy only] 1% of the earth’s surface! That would be saying the atmosphere cannot adjust itself and we are not supposed to be here. The earth is in constant motion cleansing, balancing and renewing…that’s what it does, that’s what it was designed to do. As we speak there are new oil reserves in the process of creation, what resources are we in short supply of?

Since there are quite a few issues here, I’m going to spread my answers out over a series of posts. I’ll start with the last question since this one ties in with many of the other issues Condenom brings up.

What resource is in short supply? In actuality, we are short on a number of resources, but one of the most crucial is also one of the last most people think of: WATER. Fresh water. Irrigation water.

We live on the Blue Planet, the Water Planet. In fact, according to just about any decent reference work, such as this earth sciences text book, about 70% of the surface area of the earth is covered by water, almost all of this salt water.

While salt water has traditionally provided a major food bank for many cultures, ours included, in this post I want to discuss only land-based water resources, specifically aquifers, even more specifically the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been extensively for crop irrigation since its discovery in 1899.

If you aren’t familiar with aquifers, here’s a good primer.

(If you don’t have PowerPoint, you can download a free viewer by clicking here.)

The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is a national treasure.

The Ogallala

It covers 174,000 square miles and provides water to between 20% to 27% of the irrigated crop land in the United States. This water represents 30% of the pumped ground water used each year.

In short, without the Ogallala, much of the now productive farm land in the United States will simply dry up. Just a couple of years ago, I started reading about small towns shifting from corn to cotton.

Why are they switching to cotton? Lack of water. The wells aren’t pumping what they used to. The aquifer’s shrinking, even drying up.

Why? The answer is simple. We are pumping water out faster than it can refill itself. This aquifer, which ranges in thickness from a few feet to more than 1000 feet, contains water that entered its system thousands of years ago. Irrigation pumps have been taking it down about a foot a year.

Now the ancient aquifer is a natural system that refills itself. But how fast does it recharge itself?

The answer is not quick enough: Between a third of an inch to a little over three inches a year. Other sources say half an inch on average. I have yet to find any source that says the overall aquifer is stable or recharging in a natural manner. Why? The answer is pretty simple: People and their pumps.

Many good resources are available on this issue. Here are a few university PowerPoint presentations on the topic:

“Exploring the Sustainability of the Ogallala Aquifer” (2001)
[The link I inserted here was not working, so I removed it. I copies the titled and pastes into Google and it’ll come up. This presentation requires at least PowerPoint viewer software.]

The Ogallala Aquifer (2006)

“KU Geological Survey” (2007)

There are many more good studies out there on this subject. Managing–or trying to sustain–the Ogallala represents a major problem for farmers in several states. If they fail to do so, and some have already failed, a good chunk of America’s food supply goes away.

Some places are already reducing the use of overhead irrigation methods under which as much as 80% of the water is lost to evaporation. I’m not going to document this since I live in a state where crop irrigation is a way of life. Everyone except the lawn-watering townies KNOWS this. I know it because we flood irrigate most of our 20 acres about every 30 days during the summer. By the way, it’s backbreaking work tending ditches, but our irrigation water is a treasure. I don’t like to see townies with decorator lawns. They waste water. See my old blog post “Death to Infidel Lawns.”

Water is a requisite for life, and we can’t afford to waste it. Many articles and books have already been devoted to the topic. A good many predict that the wars of the second half of this century will be over water.

Here are a few books I still need to read:

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Soloman

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century by Fred Pearce

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Waterby Maude Barlow

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers

Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It by Robert Glennon

The titles alone tell me I’m not the only one worried. It’s not just pumped water agriculture that’s in danger. Benjamin Franklin said something like this: “When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water.” We can extrapolate from that and say that dry wells aren’t the only problem. Rivers, lakes, streams, not just aquifers are in danger. We also have to deal with contaminants in our water–hormones from birth control pills, pesticides, and industrial waste. The list goes on.

Have you heard about the hermaphrodite fish?

I have to stop.

In an upcoming post, I’ll tackle the next shrinking resource: arable land.

“What Does Winter Weather Reveal about Global Warming?”

12 February 2010

In “What Does Winter Weather Reveal about Global Warming?” Scientific American attempts to straighten out a definitional confusion that pervades our culture:

Ultimately, the storm of blather surrounding recent weather events can largely be blamed on a fundamental misunderstanding. Weather is the day-to-day temperature, humidity and precipitation. Climate is the overall combination of all these events over a long period of time. No single weather event—heat wave, hurricane or blizzard—tells us much about climate.

Repeat after me, class.

WEATHER is day-to-day.
CLIMATE is long term.

WEATHER is day-to-day.
CLIMATE is long term.

WEATHER is day-to-day.
CLIMATE is long term.

WEATHER is day-to-day.
CLIMATE is long term.

Cassandra