Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A few things you may not know about water

"Water Study" will lead participants through a "scientific experiment" in campus creeks.

By Carol Clark

Chances are you haven’t thought much about water lately. Unless you are a rancher in drought-stricken Texas, and you just relocated your cattle out of state because nothing is left for them to eat. Or if you are a young girl in rural Kenya, facing a miles-long walk to fetch water for the family, and a return trip bearing the heavy load.

We tend to take water for granted in lush Atlanta. But it’s moving front and center at Emory this year, through a series of events that will draw from science, art, the environment and the imaginations of all those who want to dive into the experience.

You can fall in behind dancers in haz-mat suits, as they lead people through a “scientific experiment” along the creek in Baker Woodlands. The interactive performance, called “Water Study,” takes place every evening from Oct. 15 to 19. And you can join a line of people accumulating across campus at noon on Oct. 18, to pour water from vessel to vessel until the last drop vanishes.

More water-related surprises are on the way in November, and in the spring. To prime the pump, so to speak, here are a few random facts about water.

Two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, and all of that water came from space after the planet cooled down. One theory is that the water came from meteorites. The Herschel telescope, however, recently zeroed in on the properties of a comet, and learned it has water with the same deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio as Earth’s oceans.

Texas is experiencing its most severe one-year drought ever. Drier than normal conditions are expected to continue at least for months, and possibly until 2020, according to a state climatologist. The National Weather Service reports that livestock and agriculture losses have topped $5.2 billion. During the past 11 months, more than 6,000 square miles have burned across the state, an area larger than the state of Connecticut.

Comet McNaught shoots over the Pacific Ocean off Chili. Comets are like icy time capsules that may hold clues to our solar system’s evolution, including the source of Earth’s water. Credit: European Southern Observatory.

Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase during the last century, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2025, the FAO projects that two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions of water scarcity.

Globally, diarrhea is the leading cause of illness and death, and 88 percent of these deaths are due to a lack of sanitation facilities and safe water for drinking and hygiene, according to the United Nations. More than one in six people worldwide don’t have access to safe water.

Environmentalist and author Janisse Ray, on the banks of the Altamaha River. Photo by Carol Clark.

Georgia’s Altamaha River flows 135 miles across the bottom third of the state. Its banks are mostly wetland wilderness, and it is one of the few almost entirely undammed rivers in the United States. Environmentalist Janisse Ray describes the river in her new book Drifting into Darien: “The Altamaha’s size and nature have led it to be called Georgia’s Little Amazon, the most powerful river east of the Mississippi. Despite this distinction, most people remain unaware of it, which prompted Reg Murphy in his National Geographic article to call it 'the river almost nobody knows.'"

Now is a great time of year to paddle the Altamaha.

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