A UNIVERSE OF WATER—JUST NOT WHERE WE NEED IT
Two important revelations occurred recently as it relates to water in our solar system—the identification of flowing, briny water on Mars and the reported discovery of a diurnal water cycle on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
Spectral data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was used to find evidence of hydrated salts from four locations on Mars where recurring slope lineae—narrow, relatively dark-toned features that form on steep slopes in the southernhemisphere1—occur.2
On comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, researcher Maria Cristina De Sanctis of Rome’s Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali noted: “We found a mechanism that replenishes the surface of the comet with fresh ice at every rotation: this keeps the comet ‘alive’… We saw the tell-tale signature of water ice in the spectra of the study region but only when certain portions were cast in shadow. Conversely, when the Sun was shining on these regions, the ice was gone. This indicates a cyclical behavior of water ice during each comet rotation.”3
LET’S MAKE SOME WATER
Water is abundant in the universe. In fact, “water is the main constituent of the mantles on grains found in the low-density medium that fills the space between stars.”4 And while water is simply a molecule of hydrogen and oxygen, making water requires stellar pressures and temperatures.
Hydrogen, the most ubiquitous element in the universe, was initially formed within the first 3 minutes of the Big Bang. Over time, density and gravity brought masses of gaseous hydrogen together to form the first stars. In these solar furnaces, heavier elements were formed as massive pressures and temperatures fused nuclei together in a process known as nucleosynthesis.
As these stars exhausted their readily available fuels, some exploded as novae and supernovae, releasing heavier elements into space. Oxygen, passing through these energetic gas clouds—where temperatures can soar to several thousand degrees—can undergo a chemical reaction favoring production of water molecules: H2O. These water molecules coalesce on dust and other particles and ultimately are delivered to planetary systems like Earth through accretion or by collision with interplanetary bodies such as comets and asteroids.
“Earth is thought to have formed dry owing to its location inside the ‘snow line’, which is the distance from the Sun within which it was too warm for water vapor in the nascent Solar System to condense as ice and be swept up into forming planetessimals. Therefore, the water that now fills our oceans and makes life itself possible must have been delivered to Earth from outside the snow line, perhaps by impacting asteroids and comets. The abundance of the hydrogen isotope deuterium in hydrated minerals found in certain meteorites is similar to the deuterium content of ocean water, suggesting that outer mainbelt asteroids are the most likely source of that water.”6
THE SUPER MOLECULE: H2O
This seemingly simple compound of hydrogen and oxygen, water, has unique properties that contributed to the possibility of life. Water remains in a liquid state across a wide range of temperatures allowing us to have liquid water across the world; it exhibits a low vapor pressure which ensures it remains liquid at normal atmospheric pressures; it exists as a vapor, liquid and solid at normal ranges of temperatures and pressure which ensures we are not subject to rapid phase changes; water reaches its maximum density at 4°C which ensures that our lakes freeze from the top down; the list goes on.
The Earth’s “Goldilocks position”, which offers moderate temperatures and solar radiation, and the protection of the van Allen radiation belts which prevent our atmosphere being stripped into space, we have an abundance of liquid water, and a self-regulating water cycle.
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE, NOR ANY DROP TO DRINK8
So what does this mean to us? From the presence of water in the universe, we are in good shape. One could even say that we are fine from the perspective of the solar system—although there are significant other concerns if we consider the rather severe water delivery mechanism associated with comets and asteroids. Globally, however, as we drill down from the Goldilocks perspective to our human scale, we suffer from the fact that water is increasingly not where we need it, when we need it, or at the right quality.
While the earth is tremendously efficient at cycling the water contained in its biosphere, humans have some trouble with the intractable timescales that this cycling can take. Our engineered, supply-side management systems are a response to that: allowing us to get water where we need, when we need it and at the right quality.
As our water resources become increasingly volatile, our engineered systems are beginning to fail to maintain a sustainable water future. The financial and environmental costs of new water—desalination, direct-to-potable recycled water, massive reservoir or pumping/canal works—and the current and projected revenue shortfalls for utilities means that we must continue to find ways of using less water, and improving utility performance.
Adopting a data-driven revenue assurance program and coordinated customer engagement program like FATHOM MDM (meter data management) and FATHOM U2You, respectively, utilities can move their customers to a sustainable future, with 10-15 percent increases in revenue, all while conserving water. Using a normalized data structure and improving access to information from all systems to all stakeholders, we can ensure that our utilities meet our water needs today and well into the future—without relying on extraterrestrial water deliveries.
2Lujendra Ojha, Mary Beth Wilhelm, Scott L. Murchie, Alfred S. McEwen, James J. Wray, Jennifer Hanley, Marion Massé & Matt Chojnacki, Spectral evidence for hydrated salts in recurring slope lineae on Mars, Nature Geoscience (2015) doi:10.1038/ngeo2546 28 September 2015
3Paul Gilster, Off on a Comet, September 30, 2015 http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=34166&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+centauri-dreams%2Feepu+%28Centauri+Dreams%29
4Rachel Akeson, “Watery Disks,” Science 334, 21 October 2011
6Henry H. Hsieh, “A Frosty Finding,” Nature 464, 29 April 2010
8Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834)