Antarctica’s Lake Vostok–and its potential scientific findings–remains cut off from the outside world for yet another year. Russian scientists spent the Antarctic summer drilling towards the water in the frozen-over Antarctic lake, but plummeting temperatures forced them to leave earlier this week, as their airplane’s hydraulic fluid was in danger of freezing.
The Russians may have flown off, but they left some controversy behind. To keep the 12,300-foot-deep borehole from filling with ice the researchers loaded it full of kerosene, and some Antarctic experts are worried that the chemicals will contaminate an otherwise pristine place.
The 6,200-square-mile lake is important for scientists because the iced-over waters have been isolated for over 14 million years. Biologists are excited to see whether it holds ancient microbes; climatologists are interested in the record held in its sediments; and geologists want to learn how such an isolated sub-glacial lake forms. And despite this year’s setback, researchers are surprisingly unfazed:
Up to 16.6 million people in the United States may be drinking water laced with a chemical found in rocket propellants and fireworks. It’s called perchlorate, and although the Bush administration decided against regulating it, the Obama administration’s EPA has reversed course and announced plans to set a limit for the amount of perchlorate drinking water can contain.
Research by the Food and Drug Administration, among others, found perchlorate contamination in food and water in 45 states, and a small study in the Boston area found perchlorate in the breast milk of nursing mothers. [Los Angeles Times]
While the chemical is found nationwide, it’s particularly a problem in California, near the state’s old manufacturing sites and military bases. Before companies wised up, it used to be common practice to dump perchlorate into unlined pits which–surprise!–leads to the chemical seeping into groundwater. This water eventually finds its way into many places, including public drinking water supplies and irrigation systems.
Because that water irrigates crops and rangeland, perchlorate also taints a variety of foods. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration study of raw and prepared foods in 2006 found elevated perchlorate levels in everything from ice cream and chocolate bars to raisins and spinach…. Its presence in baby cereal and formula — and breast milk — is particularly worrisome given perchlorate’s impacts on the thyroid gland. Chronic exposure to perchlorate can dampen the thyroid’s ability to absorb iodide and produce hormones. That, in turn, can disrupt metabolic functions in adults and impede physical and mental development in unborn children and infants. [San Francisco Chronicle]
The Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada border can be appreciated from a variety of perspectives: Some people focus on the stunningly beautiful alpine lake nestled in the Sierra Nevada range, while others see it as a mecca for skiers and winter sports enthusiasts. When climate scientists look around, though, they see change. Two recent studies suggest that global warming is already altering that beloved ecosystem.
The first report (pdf), produced by researchers at the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, predicts that snowpack melts over the next century will have a drastic impact on both winter tourism and the water supply.
The average snowpack in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains that ring the lake on the California-Nevada border will decline by 40 to 60 percent by 2100 “under the most optimistic projections,” says the report from three researchers at the University of California, Davis.
Under less optimistic models, the melt-off could be accelerated. By the end of the century, precipitation in the region “could be all rain and no snow,” and peak snowmelt in the Upper Truckee River — which is the largest tributary flowing into Lake Tahoe — could occur four to six weeks earlier by 2100, the report says. [New York Times]
The Martian rovers and orbiters have sent so much data back to Earth in the last few years that discoveries about Mars’ wet and active past come left and right. Yesterday we covered the story that the stuck Spirit rover may have found evidence of recent water right under its tracks. And another study this week, out in Nature Geoscience, pinpoints a spot by a Mars volcano that could contain evidence of a watery system more than 3 billion years old—and perhaps even life, too.
The finding came after the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed a mineral called hydrated silica sitting on the flank of the extinct Syrtis Major volcano.
The mineral is transported and then concentrated by hot water or steam, suggesting the deposits were laid down in what was once a hydrothermal environment. Groundwater may have been heated by magma from the erupting volcano and vented to the surface as steam, says John Mustard of Brown University in Rhode Island, a member of the team that identified the mineral. [New Scientist]
Remember one year ago, when NASA’s LCROSS mission (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) blasted the moon to kick up a plume of debris? The satellite’s first look at that plume saw that, yes, there was water ice there, much to DISCOVER’s delight. One year later, scientists have published an in-depth analysis of the LCROSS plume and found that there might be even more water than they first thought: In certain places, the moon could be twice as wet as the Sahara Desert.
“It’s really wet,” said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water. [Wall Street Journal]
OK, Mars wins this contest for bragging rights. The photo above shows the Melas Chasma on Mars, which reaches a depth of 5.6 miles; it’s part of the staggering the Valles Marineris rift valley, which stretches almost 2,500 miles across the surface of the red planet. For comparison’s sake, our earthly Grand Canyon is 1.1 miles deep and 277 miles long.
This remarkable image was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. In addition to giving us something neat to gawk at, the image also reveals evidence of Mars’s watery past.
Part of the canyon wall collapsed in multiple landslides in the distant past, with debris fanning out into the valley below. Scientists analyzing the texture of the rocks deposited by the landslides say they were transported by liquid water, water ice, or mud. [ScienceNOW]
80beats: NASA’s New Mars Mission: To Study the Mystery of the Missing Atmosphere
80beats: It’s Alive! NASA Test-Drives Its New Hulking Mars Rover, Curiosity
80beats: Vast Ocean May Have Covered One-Third of Primordial Mars
80beats: Mars Rover Sets Endurance Record: Photos From Opportunity’s 6 Years On-Planet
Image: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
Earlier this week we brought you news of water woes in the American southwest, where reservoir levels have dropped dangerously low, and in China, where the government is spending $60 billion to route water to parched cites like Beijing. Now comes news of just how widespread the world’s water problems really are. A study in Nature reports that nearly 80 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where the fresh water supply isn’t secure. And while industrialized nations have made massive investments in infrastructure to keep the faucets flowing, those projects have taken a toll on the environment.
[The researchers] say that in western countries, conserving water for people through reservoirs and dams works for people, but not nature. They urge developing countries not to follow the same path. Instead, they say governments should to invest in water management strategies that combine infrastructure with “natural” options such as safeguarding watersheds, wetlands and flood plains. [BBC News]
80beats: Water Woes: The Southwest’s Supply Dwindles; China’s Behemoth Plumbing Project Goes On
80beats: Saudi to Use Plentiful Resource (Sunlight) to Produce Scarce Resource (Fresh Water)
80beats: From 300 Miles Up, Satellites See Water Crisis in India’s Future
DISCOVER: How Big Is Your Water Footprint?
DISCOVER: Dams, From Hoover to Three Gorges to the Crumbling Ones
Images: Nature / C. J. Vörösmarty et al.
Worrying about water (and fighting over it, and creatively diverting it) is a way of life in the arid American West. However, according to reports out this week, the ever-precarious water level is nearing a breaking point where the states of the West might have to put emergency plans into place.
Lake Mead, the giant reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas Nevada, is fast approaching its all-time low level of 1,083 feet set more than half a century ago. Should the level dip below 1,075, things will get serious.
That will set in motion a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the seven states with claims to the river and by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be reduced. This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks. California, which has first call on the Colorado River flows in the lower basin, would not be affected. [The New York Times]
Illness-inducing bacteria, meet nano-engineered cotton–and a quick death. Researchers have created a new “filter” that zaps bacteria with electric fields to clean drinking water. They say their system may find use in developing countries since it requires only a small amount of voltage (a couple of car batteries, a stationary bike, or a solar panel could do the job) and cleans water an estimated 80,000 times faster than traditional devices.
Instead of trapping bacteria in small pores like many slow-going traditional filters, the cotton and silver nanowire combo uses small electric currents running through the nanowires to kill the bacteria outright. In a paper to appear in the journal Nano Letters researchers say that 20 volts and 2.5 inches worth of the material killed 98 percent of Escherichia coli in the water they tested in their lab setup.
Mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel, zinc—they’re all getting into the waters of northern Canada in dangerous amounts because of mining in the oil sands, according to a study coming out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Canada‘s oil sands hold an estimated 13 percent of the proven oil reserves in the world, and the United States grows increasingly reliant upon them to meet our petroleum needs. However, the process of extracting and refining the oil is energy-intensive, and dirty. An industry-led group called Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) oversees the pollution coming from oil sands exploration, and it has maintained that elevated levels of toxins in the nearby Athabasca River system come from natural oil seepage. However, the University of Alberta’s Erin Kelly and David Schindler say in their study that no, it’s the oil exploration that’s increasing the concentration of these elements in the water.