Tag Archives: water resources

January 2018 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Larry Summers says we have a better than even chance of recession in the next three years. Sounds bad, but I wonder what that stat would look like for any randomly chosen three year period in modern history.
  • The United States is involved in at least seven wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan. Nuclear deterrence may not actually the work.
  • Cape Town, South Africa is in imminent danger of running out of water. Longer term, there are serious concerns about snowpack-dependent water supplies serving large urban populations in Asia and western North America.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

drought and snowpack

At the same time we are experiencing drought and groundwater depletion in populous, food growing regions, there is concern about long-term declines in snowpack. Here are a few papers on the situation – two about the western United States and one about Asia.

Large near-term projected snowpack loss over the western United States

Peak runoff in streams and rivers of the western United States is strongly influenced by melting of accumulated mountain snowpack. A significant decline in this resource has a direct connection to streamflow, with substantial economic and societal impacts. Observations and reanalyses indicate that between the 1980s and 2000s, there was a 10–20% loss in the annual maximum amount of water contained in the region’s snowpack. Here we show that this loss is consistent with results from a large ensemble of climate simulations forced with natural and anthropogenic changes, but is inconsistent with simulations forced by natural changes alone. A further loss of up to 60% is projected within the next 30 years. Uncertainties in loss estimates depend on the size and the rate of response to continued anthropogenic forcing and the magnitude and phasing of internal decadal variability. The projected losses have serious implications for the hydropower, municipal and agricultural sectors in the region.

The twenty-first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future

Between 2000 and 2014, annual Colorado River flows averaged 19% below the 1906–1999 average, the worst 15-year drought on record. At least one-sixth to one-half (average at one-third) of this loss is due to unprecedented temperatures (0.9°C above the 1906–1999 average), confirming model-based analysis that continued warming will likely further reduce flows. Whereas it is virtually certain that warming will continue with additional emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, there has been no observed trend toward greater precipitation in the Colorado Basin, nor are climate models in agreement that there should be a trend. Moreover, there is a significant risk of decadal and multidecadal drought in the coming century, indicating that any increase in mean precipitation will likely be offset during periods of prolonged drought. Recently published estimates of Colorado River flow sensitivity to temperature combined with a large number of recent climate model-based temperature projections indicate that continued business-as-usual warming will drive temperature-induced declines in river flow, conservatively −20% by midcentury and −35% by end-century, with support for losses exceeding −30% at midcentury and −55% at end-century. Precipitation increases may moderate these declines somewhat, but to date no such increases are evident and there is no model agreement on future precipitation changes. These results, combined with the increasing likelihood of prolonged drought in the river basin, suggest that future climate change impacts on the Colorado River flows will be much more serious than currently assumed, especially if substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions do not occur.

Changes in seasonal snow water equivalent distribution in High Mountain Asia (1987 to 2009)

Snow meltwaters account for most of the yearly water budgets of many catchments in High Mountain Asia (HMA). We examine trends in snow water equivalent (SWE) using passive microwave data (1987 to 2009). We find an overall decrease in SWE in HMA, despite regions of increased SWE in the Pamir, Kunlun Shan, Eastern Himalaya, and Eastern Tien Shan. Although the average decline in annual SWE across HMA (contributing area, 2641 × 103 km2) is low (average, −0.3%), annual SWE losses conceal distinct seasonal and spatial heterogeneities across the study region. For example, the Tien Shan has seen both strong increases in winter SWE and sharp declines in spring and summer SWE. In the majority of catchments, the most negative SWE trends are found in mid-elevation zones, which often correspond to the regions of highest snow-water storage and are somewhat distinct from glaciated areas. Negative changes in SWE storage in these mid-elevation zones have strong implications for downstream water availability.

freshwater salinization syndrome

The National Academy of Sciences has a new study out on “freshwater salinization syndrome“. If I understand it correctly, it goes something like this: Air pollution and acid rain leach minerals like calcium out of all the concrete we use for pavement and buildings. All the road salt we apply leaches minerals like calcium out of soil and replaces it with sodium. The result is a lot more minerals like calcium in freshwater, which changes its alkalinity, or in high school science terms, its pH and ability to resist changes in pH.

Salt pollution and human-accelerated weathering are shifting the chemical composition of major ions in fresh water and increasing salinization and alkalinization across North America. We propose a concept, the freshwater salinization syndrome, which links salinization and alkalinization processes. This syndrome manifests as concurrent trends in specific conductance, pH, alkalinity, and base cations. Although individual trends can vary in strength, changes in salinization and alkalinization have affected 37% and 90%, respectively, of the drainage area of the contiguous United States over the past century. Across 232 United States Geological Survey (USGS) monitoring sites, 66% of stream and river sites showed a statistical increase in pH, which often began decades before acid rain regulations. The syndrome is most prominent in the densely populated eastern and midwestern United States, where salinity and alkalinity have increased most rapidly. The syndrome is caused by salt pollution (e.g., road deicers, irrigation runoff, sewage, potash), accelerated weathering and soil cation exchange, mining and resource extraction, and the presence of easily weathered minerals used in agriculture (lime) and urbanization (concrete). Increasing salts with strong bases and carbonates elevate acid neutralizing capacity and pH, and increasing sodium from salt pollution eventually displaces base cations on soil exchange sites, which further increases pH and alkalinization. Symptoms of the syndrome can include: infrastructure corrosion, contaminant mobilization, and variations in coastal ocean acidification caused by increasingly alkaline river inputs. Unless regulated and managed, the freshwater salinization syndrome can have significant impacts on ecosystem services such as safe drinking water, contaminant retention, and biodiversity.

It’s a little ironic that this is happening to fresh water at the same time we are worried about ocean acidification. There is also a larger context to me though – even if our waters meet numerical standards we set for water quality, they just don’t have the same chemistry, biology, or links to the land that they used to. This would still happen even if we were able to eliminate all pollution that is directly toxic to aquatic life.

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

evaporation energy

There is a lot of energy in evaporation, and there are technologies that theoretically could harvest it for human use.

About 50% of the solar energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface drives evaporation, fueling the water cycle that affects various renewable energy resources, such as wind and hydropower. Recent advances demonstrate our nascent ability to convert evaporation energy into work, yet there is little understanding about the potential of this resource. Here we study the energy available from natural evaporation to predict the potential of this ubiquitous resource. We find that natural evaporation from open water surfaces could provide power densities comparable to current wind and solar technologies while cutting evaporative water losses by nearly half. We estimate up to 325 GW of power is potentially available in the United States. Strikingly, water’s large heat capacity is sufficient to control power output by storing excess energy when demand is low, thus reducing intermittency and improving reliability. Our findings motivate the improvement of materials and devices that convert energy from evaporation.

This is interesting. Cutting evaporation losses in half could be a good thing in some situations, like reservoirs and swimming pools in arid regions. Cut too much evaporation elsewhere, and you could imagine a science fiction scenario where you have a full reservoir but nearby ecosystems or farmland turn into deserts. Or you end up pumping that reservoir and using it for irrigation using the energy you have harvested, in the end using technology to efficiently recreate the hydrologic cycle and ecosystem services nature used to provide for free.

“Cities Swimming in Raw Sewage as Hurricanes Overwhelm Systems”

That headline sounds bad, but it’s actually bad journalism. Sewers and wastewater treatment plants are not designed to function correctly during a hurricane the size of Harey or Irma. In that situation, the concern is protecting life and property. Sewage treatment can take a temporary back seat, and generally be brought back online pretty quickly after the extreme event is over.

Millions of gallons of poorly treated wastewater and raw sewage flowed into the bays, canals and city streets of Florida from facilities serving some of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. More than 9 million gallons of releases tied to Irma have been reported as of late Tuesday as inundated plants were submerged, forced to bypass treatment or lost power.

The article goes on to suggest that the sewage released during a hurricane has something to do with aging, poorly maintained infrastructure that is not doing what it is supposed to do in normal weather.

Such overflows, which can spread disease-causing pathogens, are happening more often, as population shifts and increasingly strong storms strain the capacity of plants and decades-old infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated last year that $271 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s wastewater pipes, treatment plants and associated infrastructure…

Wastewater treatment facilities are especially vulnerable to flooding because they are traditionally built in low-lying areas, near whatever river or waterway they discharge into.  That approach works in normal conditions, but coastal treatment plants increasingly are outmatched during intense downpours and fierce storms, especially amid rising sea levels.

“Any time there is a large event — any kind of flood — they get overwhelmed and you have these raw sewage discharges,” said Ken Kopocis, who served as the top official in the EPA’s water office under President Barack Obama.

This is all true. We do need to spend money on our water quality infrastructure, and states and the federal government need to help fix problems that were caused long before anyone alive today was born. And we need to consider climate change and sea level rise when we do all that. But we also need to demand a bit more from our science reporters.

June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

water-related risks to economic growth

From Water Resources Research:

Water and growth: An econometric analysis of climate and policy impacts

Water-related hazards such as floods, droughts and disease cause damage to an economy through the destruction of physical capital including property and infrastructure, the loss of human capital and the interruption of economic activities, like trade and education. The question for policy makers is whether the impacts of water-related risk accrue to manifest as a drag on economic growth at a scale suggesting policy intervention. In this study, the average drag on economic growth from water-related hazards faced by society at a global level is estimated. We use panel regressions with various specifications to investigate the relationship between economic growth and hydroclimatic variables at the country-river basin level. In doing so, we make use of surface water runoff variables never used before. The analysis of the climate variables shows that water availability and water hazards have significant effects on economic growth, providing further evidence beyond earlier studies finding that precipitation extremes were at least as important or likely more important than temperature effects. We then incorporate a broad set of variables representing the areas of infrastructure, institutions and information to identify the characteristics of a region that determine its vulnerability to water-related risks. The results identify water scarcity, governance and agricultural intensity as the most relevant measures affecting vulnerabilities to climate variability effects.

reproducible research in hydrology

This October 2016 article in Water Resources Research on reproducible research got some attention.

Hutton, C., T. Wagener, J. Freer, D. Han, C. Duffy, and B. Arheimer (2016), Most computational hydrology is not reproducible, so is it really science?, Water Resour. Res., 52, 7548–7555, doi:10.1002/2016WR019285.

Reproducibility is a foundational principle in scientific research. Yet in computational hydrology the code and data that actually produces published results are not regularly made available, inhibiting the ability of the community to reproduce and verify previous findings. In order to overcome this problem we recommend that reuseable code and formal workflows, which unambiguously reproduce published scientific results, are made available for the community alongside data, so that we can verify previous findings, and build directly from previous work. In cases where reproducing large-scale hydrologic studies is computationally very expensive and time-consuming, new processes are required to ensure scientific rigor. Such changes will strongly improve the transparency of hydrological research, and thus provide a more credible foundation for scientific advancement and policy support.