Just as poet can see the universe in a grain of sand, a scientist can see all of creation in a drop of water. The first chapter of Water starts by examining what water is actually composed of, and where better to start than with a single drop, and since the formation of our planet no two drops of water have ever been the same! Whilst the Earth revolves around the Sun, human life, in more ways than we can imagine, revolves around water. Ever wondered why water feels wet, why the ocean appears blue? Chapter 1 answers all these questions and more... We explore the multitude of varying forms water can take, from the ice in your drink to the snowflakes that form in the atmosphere. Few would know, for instance, that under certain conditions water can freeze as it heats up. The chapter finishes by focusing on water vapour, abundant in our universe and playing a critical yet invisible role in the functioning of our atmosphere.
The universe is a big place, and water is the most abundant solid material in it.
In the second chapter of Water we explore water’s origins... The vast molecular clouds of gas that span the breadth of the cosmos, which condense near stars such as our own to give rise to water ice.
We explore the potential water worlds of our own solar system, from the sleek billiard ball like Europa, home to a massive, potentially life supporting ocean beneath its icy exterior, to the gaseous ‘ice giants’ of Neptune and Uranus.
But of all the planets and moons of our watery solar system, none can compare to Earth, the only planet to possess water in all three of its states, and whilst in astronomical terms, the water on the surface of Earth is just sufficient to wet its surface, it is the decisive factor in shaping the planet.
Water on Earth
Chapter 3 starts by examining the mysterious origins of water on our planet, exploring popular theories such as its arrival via comets (highlighted in the media by the recent European Space Agency Rosetta mission).
We dive into the world’s primordial oceans, at one time covering the whole of the planet in a real life ‘Waterworld’’ and the origin of present day life on Earth. We look at how continental drift will eventually again lead us back to one giant global ocean and supercontinent.
As the chapter concludes, we also peer far into the future and examine the ultimate fate of water on Earth, and whilst it will be 7 billion years before all the water currently on Earth naturally escapes into space, our gradually heating up Sun will put an end to things far sooner than that.
In Chapter 4 we look at the ‘aerial ocean’ that is our atmosphere, the thin sliver of gas that is all that stands between us and the vastness of space.
Whilst water only composes a relatively small portion of the atmosphere, it is in perpetual motion, dwarfing any other mass transport on Earth. Without water induced heat transport, our planet would be a mix of unpleasantly hot equatorial regions and unbearably cold temperate regions. We explore the world of clouds, as water vapor is lighter than air it rises and forms clouds, and yet over a million cloud droplets are needed to create a single raindrop. It is perhaps little wonder that most clouds do not produce any rain.
We also examine in depth what rain and snow is made of, since almost all freshwater on Earth falls from the sky in one of these two forms and over 10% of the surface of the Earth is covered in snow.
We start Chapter 5 by looking at the World Ocean, the massive interconnecting mass of individual oceans and seas that accounts for over 97% of all water on our planet.
Of the five oceans that compromise the World Ocean, none is bigger, deeper or older than the Pacific Ocean. A major contributor to the World economy, the Pacific provides sea transportation between East and West, extensive fishing grounds (some 60% of the World’s fish catch comes from it) as well as abundant mineral and gas resources.
We explore its far younger sibling, the Atlantic Ocean, born only 150 million years ago through continental drift, yet also rich in natural resources. We visit the comparatively calm, warm waters of the Indian Ocean and also head to the poles whose frigid waters lie largely untouched by man. We examine the skin of the ocean, its top 1mm representing the largest eco-system on Earth.
Finally, we dive deep beneath the surface to explore the deep, dark blue sea, a world perhaps more akin to outer space than the environments humans can survive in, little wonder then that less than 10% of deep water has been explored by man.
Rivers are one of the most powerful agents in shaping the course of our planet. From mountain tops to the seashore, the frequently changing and diverse landforms and riparian wetlands that rivers create, provide a diversity of habitats and host a multitude of wildlife. Thus, rivers act as high-speed freeways along which many organisms, not least ourselves, may conquer the surrounding scenery.
Chapter 6 takes us on journey down the great rivers of the world, starting with the majestic Amazon, sometimes referred to as the river sea, that feeds the lungs of the world by carrying more water than the next nine rivers combined. We visit the sandy shores of the Nile in Egypt, a river that since long before the time of the Pharaohs has played a pivotal role in the development of human civilization. We explore China’s winding Yangtze River, one of the most scenic and busiest waterways in the world.
Finally, we look at the many challenges facing modern day rivers as humanity diverts water for agricultural, industrial and domestic use and in return feeds back often contaminated and polluted water. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that few rivers flow freely anymore, and an increasing number no longer end up reaching their ultimate destination, the ocean.
Lakes come in all shapes and sizes, the country of Finland alone is home to over 188 000 lakes and over the course of history possibly a trillion lakes have graced the Earth’s surface. Indeed, some bodies of water that we call seas, such as the Caspian Sea, are in fact, lakes. Nor are lakes limited to the surface of the Earth, some of the oldest lakes known to man lie buried kilometers beneath the Antarctic ice.
Chapter 7 takes us on an exploration of some of the most fascinating lakes on Earth, starting with one of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Lakes of North America that hold over 1/5th of Earth’s surface fresh water. The book explores the ‘Blue Eye of Siberia’… Lake Baikal the most voluminous lake on Earth, thousands of times older than most other lakes and famed for it’s remarkably clear waters. We also explore Australia’s famous ‘dry lake’, Lake Eyre, whose rare floods bring life and spectacular vistas to an otherwise parched land.
Being particularly sensitive to climate change, the chapter finishes with a look at the plight of our wetlands that 100 years ago covered 1/8th of the planet’s land surface and today, thanks to human interference, cover less than half of that.
We are all well aware of the intimate relationship between water, climate, and life on the surface of our planet, but what lies beneath the surface?
A great deal of the water on which our very life and well-being depends is invisible, hidden out of view, in pores in the ground below our feet. From aquifers to underground rivers, underground water provides 95% of the freshwater of the United States.
Chapter 8 explores the vast quantities of water that reside in the crust and mantle of our planet. Did you know, for instance, that nearly all volcanic eruptions consist of water vapor?
Closer to the surface, we examine soil, the Earth’s living skin, populated by uncountable micro- and macro-organisms. Just as a glowing complexion testifies to the internal health of a person, the products of a soil bear witness to its health, and the key to the life supporting quality of soil is water.
Kingdom of ice
If all the ice in Antarctica were to melt it would cover every continent on the planet under 200m of water.
Climatically, we are living in an ‘icehouse’ age of the Earth. At present, perhaps for the first time in the history of our planet, there are two distinct well-developed polar regions, Antarctica, sitting over a continent, and the Arctic, centered in a land-locked sea.
In Chapter 9 we travel to the icy cliffs of Antarctica that serve as a birthplace for the ocean’s icebergs, sometimes so large they are referred to as ‘ice islands’, and made infamous in the tragic tale of the RMS Titanic. We explore Earth’s glaciers, the slow-moving rivers of ice at the forefront of the effects of climate change, and we examine Earth’s vast permafrost, the frozen wetlands, relics of the last ice age, that cover 1/4th of all land.
Finally, we explore how Earth’s frozen regions can give us a glimpse into the past, allowing us to unlock the secrets of climates from former ages and giving us invaluable clues as to how the future of the Earth may unfold.
Water and people
From ancient water Gods in Sumerian stone tablets, to the common deluge myths found throughout the world’s cultures, water has played the central role in the development of human civilization.
In Chapter 10, we examine the role of water in shaping history, where the need to cultivate meager water supplies in many areas of the world actually led to the creation of complex social structures and fostered the rise of the organization of states and nations. We look at how qantas, aqueducts and dams allowed civilizations to flourish across the globe and the incredible strain agriculture and modern industry places on water resources.
Finally, we look at the challenges that remain, with inadequate access to clean drinking water affecting more than 1 billion people around the globe and causing more than 2 million deaths a year.
In Chapter 11 we examine the various potential water-related issues facing humanity. When it comes to water, both too much and too little of a good thing can be a problem... From floods to drought, water can have a drastic impact on the landscape and the creatures that inhabit it.
Beyond natural calamities, however, it is man himself who can present the greatest danger to our fragile planet, as pollution and over-development lead to widespread ecological and environmental consequences across the world.
We look at the devastating effect of salinization on agriculture as well as the impact of global warming on low-lying areas of the globe. We also focus on the increased pressure that population growth places on our planet, for whilst climate change accounts for 20% of the global increase in water scarcity, it’s population growth that accounts for the other 80%.
With water management increasingly at the forefront of environmental policy, in Chapter 12 we examine in detail the wide spectrum of potential solutions to providing humanity with an increased supply of clean water.
From iceberg towing to providing impoverished communities with water rollers that give them the ability to cart water to their homes, we look at the full range of potential solutions.
Did you know, for instance, that atmospheric ionizers have the potential to provide rainfall on demand, or that in some areas of the world families could comfortably live off water collected from fogs with little more than a simple net?
Our water problems may be varied, but our ingenuity in solving them truly knows no bounds.
The final chapter of Water starts by looking at some of the grandiose mega-projects recently completed or currently underway around the world related to water, such as the controversial Three Gorges Dam in China. With the scale and ambition of some of these projects being truly daunting, Water poses the questions if more effort should be spent on conservation as opposed to trying to change the course of nature?
The chapter looks at how water savings can be made in the future, in particular by amending the wasteful ways of agriculture and industry. We explore the tremendous potential of the oceans to provide a sustainable source of food and resources, but only if managed with care to avoid contamination and over cultivation of biological stocks.
Finally, we finish by looking above us to the stars, as humanity’s future lies beyond the cradle of the Earth, we look at what form that may ultimately take.