That’s what more than 300,000 West Virginians are being told, for the fourth day in a row, as I write this. Charleston, the state’s capital and largest city, is at a stand still. A highly toxic chemical used in coal production has leaked into the Elk River, just one mile upstream from the intake of the region’s municipal water system. The situation is on everyone’s minds, and stories from the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times paint a grim picture.
West Virginia public radio has regular bulletins alerting people in nine counties to only use their tap water for flushing toilets and putting out fires. Online photos of people standing in lines to fill buckets and gallon jugs with potable water illicits feelings of compassion for neighbors in a hopeless situation. I don’t say this lightly: fortunately, I’m doing ok. The water my family relies on comes from a well many miles away. Yet this type of accident could happen in countless watersheds around the country. Add to that the amount of drilling due to the natural gas boom, and one can’t help but realize: water quality should never be taken for granted.
Oh, but is it ever.
This is not the water story I planned for 2014’s first blog. The original story was one of global fresh water resources and modern technology. It spoke of humanity’s greatest effort to date to study, analyze and monitor precipitation via a new system of satellites known as Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM).
However, what’s happening locally tends to bring global concepts into perspective.
So why is water so important? Well, let’s get personal. The human body requires it to survive. Up to 60% of our bodies are made of the stuff. We can’t properly digest our food, pump our blood, or walk around the block without it. Every second of life we fight dehydration – the simple act of breathing chips away at our body’s water reserves. That’s why after a few days of not taking in water, to put it bluntly, we’ll die. But this is not an all-or-nothing scenario. Many Americans live in a constant state of moderate dehydration. And it’s not just due to a long run in the sun or an extra fun New Year’s party. The symptoms abound in daily life – head aches, dry skin, grogginess and compromised immune systems – all from simply not drinking the recommended 80-100 ounces of water a day.
One would think that our illustrious position as citizens of the solar system’s water planet would make the task of drinking enough water a no-brainer. Which brings me to the water content of our planet. 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. Of that water, 97.5 percent is salt water. No thanks. Only 2.5 percent of the water remaining is “fresh water”, drinkable, in other words. Over two-thirds of that amount is locked up in glaciers and ice caps – which makes it a little hard to get to, and melting glaciers just to quench our thirst is not the best idea. The other third of fresh water is mostly ground water, leaving a tiny 1.2 percent of all fresh water available on Earth residing at the actual surface in lakes or rivers. And this tiny amount is what most of humanity shares.
So here we are, full circle, back to the contaminated Elk River in West Virginia. For a moment, imagine that you relied on that tiny portion of Earth’s fresh water for your daily needs. Visualize turning on your tap and looking wearily at the flow of water, wondering when it will be safe to drink. However, as the Elk continues its flow, the chemical concentration will slowly loosen its grip. As rain and snow falls, the river will run faster, deeper, wider. The contamination will ultimately be diluted to the point of safety – of drinkability. The Water Cycle will prevail. While I recognize that this particular water crisis is only one of many happening right now, it’s close to home and serves to illuminate our tenuous and inescapable relationship with fresh water.
This reality is what makes the upcoming launch of the GPM mission so exciting. Imagine knowing how much rain and snow is falling on the entire planet, subsequently growing our ability to monitor and predict hurricanes, floods, landslides and droughts. Our increased understanding of Earth’s precious fresh water resources will also enable us to better grasp the potential links to climate change and its consequences.
The team at Verglas Media is excited to be a part of the brand new Science On a Sphere movie introducing the mission to the world. Check out our webpage for the trailer and many associated links.
To learn more about this international satellite mission, visit NASA’s webpage.
Oh, and go drink a glass of water. On second thought, make that two.