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December 13, 2013 12:44 AM   Subscribe

Huge reserves of freshwater lie beneath the ocean floor. There is mounting evidence. "The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we've extracted from the Earth's sub-surface in the past century since 1900".
posted by stbalbach (49 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Remove the water, carry the water
Remove the water from the bottom of the ocean
And all I can think about is how much it will eff things up once we start draining this super ancient aquifer*. There's no if with humanity, is there?



*I am going nuts trying to remember the term for truly geologically old water reserves we've been draining but it's four am and I need to go back to sleep
posted by tilde at 1:10 AM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


tilde: "*I am going nuts trying to remember the term for truly geologically old water reserves we've been draining but it's four am and I need to go back to sleep"

Fossil water.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:17 AM on December 13, 2013


Drill baby drill!
posted by m450n at 1:17 AM on December 13, 2013


Why take it out when we could just live in it.

Goodbye idiot sun and dickhead weather.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:18 AM on December 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


"The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we've extracted from the Earth's sub-surface in the past century since 1900"

So the obvious move is to spend the next few hundred years depleting it at an ever-increasing rate so that we can really firmly establish a dependence on it and set up our descendants for a truly horrible crisis when it starts to run dry.

EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES 4 EVA

LIVING WITHIN OUR ECOLOGICAL MEANS, JUST SAY NO
posted by flabdablet at 1:25 AM on December 13, 2013 [19 favorites]


This might be a better candidate for a government cover-up.
posted by aniola at 1:56 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The plow let us live beyond our ecological means.
posted by efalk at 2:11 AM on December 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


Why take it out when we could just live in it.

Goodbye idiot sun and dickhead weather.


That's just the Elder Thing programming talking. It sounds like a good idea, but then you realize you were created as an experimental byproduct or a joke. After that, there are shoggoths.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:24 AM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


The plow let us live beyond our ecological means.

Yes it did. And we've just kind of drifted into doing that very thing until anthropogenic global warming is a thing, and so are deforestation and desertification and overfishing and the Internet and cheap contraception and feminism. So perhaps it's time to shift our goals toward making life easier for all on a sustainable basis rather than simply more numerous, and get a little judicious about which technologies we decide to base our economic activity on.

Can ≠ must.
posted by flabdablet at 2:38 AM on December 13, 2013 [17 favorites]


What are we all standing around for? LET'S START RUINING IT.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:57 AM on December 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


I saw the movie and know there are giant, ancient piranhas down there. How stupid do you think I am?
posted by Literaryhero at 3:35 AM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


That map in the second link is pretty interesting, both for the places that have this water and for the places that don't. I wonder if the absence of marked deposits along the west coast of North America is because no one has looked for them there yet, or if it's a real lack.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:39 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, I'm sure hollowing out the very earth underneath the planet's deepest oceans will have no unexpected consequences.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 3:48 AM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Didn't Stephen Baxter write this already? Never read Flood, as just the synopsis makes my blood curdle.
posted by dragoon at 3:56 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey hey it's okay, I've got an idea. All we need to do is fill up all the space where the water is with carbon, and then later we can siphon out all the diamonds, too!
posted by Mizu at 3:57 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I wonder if the absence of marked deposits along the west coast of North America is because no one has looked for them there yet, or if it's a real lack.

I think it might be a real lack. The east coast has a wide relatively flat continental shelf. Large swaths of that shelf (like maybe 200 miles further east of the current coast) were exposed above sea level during the last ice age. So if you went back in time 20,000 years ago, there would have been the edge of a large ice sheet at present day Nantucket, Block Island, Long Island. Then extending south and east of that ice sheet would have been a broad flat plain with braided streams carrying sand and gravel to the ocean which was about 200 miles further south and east. That plain allowed fresh water from rain and melting ice to drain into the subsurface forming fresh groundwater. As global climate warmed, sea level increased and eventually covered the shelf, depositing more sediment, and protecting the fresh water below. The west coast doesn't have a broad continental shelf. So that large drop in sea level 20,000 years ago wouldn't have exposed huge portions of the seafloor, reducing the area available for fresh water infiltration. I think.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:11 AM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Perfect. WE'LL BLOW UP THE OCEAN!
posted by ignignokt at 4:15 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Dr Post also warns that these water reserves are non-renewable: "We should use them carefully -- once gone, they won't be replenished until the sea level drops again, which is not likely to happen for a very long time."

Yeah, yeah non-renewable we'll be careful. Oh, wait — they'll be replenished when seas level drops again? So, they could be replenishable you're saying? OK, got it. We can renew the bonus water once we solve the global warnings which we're totes working on right now!

Sweet, let's go get us some. Thanks, Nerdlinger! [shoves past scientist while he sputters reiterations, waves over other industry bros to start gorging, unhinges jaw, extends foul-fluid-coated drill from esophagus]
posted by ignignokt at 4:31 AM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


I like how the researcher went from listing the discovery of these reserves to talking about how they could be tapped (though, in fairness, I haven't been able to access the Nature article yet, so that could be poor reporting). That's depressing.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:36 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Water dissolving...and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Carry the water at the bottom of the ocean
Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean!
posted by smoothvirus at 4:46 AM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


That's just the Elder Thing programming talking. It sounds like a good idea, but then you realize you were created as an experimental byproduct or a joke. After that, there are shoggoths.

What? That's crazy talk. There's nothing wrong with billions of teeming meat humans deciding that their flesh would be much more comfortable resting in the maw of great mother Ocean. It'll be cozy! I bet there's even ancient sunken cities around ready for you to move right in.
posted by FatherDagon at 4:59 AM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oh, man! I can't WAIT until we fuck this up!
posted by dirtdirt at 5:17 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, the good news is, when the rigging breaks up, the spill will be clean.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:25 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I saw the movie and know there are giant, ancient piranhas down there. How stupid do you think I am?

Anyone who watched that movie is dumber for the experience.

Gods, it was fun though.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:38 AM on December 13, 2013


Every time we have a choice of using existing resources wisely or extracting new sources unsustainably, we make the saddest and most predictable choice.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:51 AM on December 13, 2013


Goodbye idiot sun and dickhead weather.

Little known fact: Before "No Gods Or Kings, Only Man," this was the Rapture motto.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:59 AM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Post added that humanity needs to be careful not to contaminate these aquifers while drilling for oil or disposing of carbon dioxide as suggested in some carbon capture and storage proposals.

Somewhere, a cola executive is ordering a Nehru jacket and a white cat.
posted by condour75 at 6:02 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Please tell me you didn't just blame human rights for global warming.
posted by odinsdream at 6:15 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey hey it's okay, I've got an idea. All we need to do is fill up all the space where the water is with carbon, and then later we can siphon out all the diamonds, too!

No fill it with dinosaurs so we can get more petroleum. Maybe those flying modern bird ones we keep killing with deforestation.

Fossil water. Thank you, Joakim Ziegler. :)

I think the tectonics people are citing with regards to North America are right; if things had shifted differently, aside from California as we know it not being there, there'd be a deposit under there. And it may all have been a site of flood waters before given some of the landscape of the North American Western states.

I wonder how schoolbooks will be rewritten with regards to Pangea and its movements based on this and other new deep tectonic information?
posted by tilde at 6:15 AM on December 13, 2013


Nature wants 32 bucks for that article. Which of the other links might be in the ballpark of reliable?
posted by bukvich at 6:22 AM on December 13, 2013


so, how much water are we talking here? 100x what we've used in the past 100 years, right? So, in theory, it'd be good for the next 250 years? Does anyone honestly expect us to live even that long?
posted by rebent at 6:22 AM on December 13, 2013


Wouldn't pumping this water to the surface be extraordinarily energy intensive?
posted by Tabs at 6:23 AM on December 13, 2013


Wouldn't pumping this water to the surface be extraordinarily energy intensive?

not when bottled water sells at $10. Once the fracking industry takes care of poisoning all the easily accessible ground water Nestle's stock should rise quite nicely.
posted by any major dude at 6:30 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


What? That's crazy talk. There's nothing wrong with billions of teeming meat humans deciding that their flesh would be much more comfortable resting in the maw of great mother Ocean. It'll be cozy! I bet there's even ancient sunken cities around ready for you to move right in.
posted by FatherDagon


You would say that.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:37 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


...you were created as an experimental byproduct or a joke...
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:24 AM on December 13


More and more, I believe this is true.
posted by SPUTNIK at 6:46 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The plow let us live beyond our ecological means.

It took human hands to construct those plows and utilize them. So human hands have allowed us to live beyond our ecological means.

Further, it took human brains to figure out how to construct those plows with those hands. So human brains have allowed us to live beyond our ecological means.

Questions are: how did we get here, and if survival has anything to do with it (which in all likelihood it does), what parts of the survival methodology/strategy/whatchacallit can we utilize to live sustainably into the future?

On the topic of the FPP: there's of course pros and cons with these discoveries, and as the articles note, assessments will have to be executed to see if it is worth the time and effort and cost to extract the water. It's hard to tell, at least immediately, if there's going to be a rush to get this water out.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 7:41 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it'd be better if we just lived in our ecological means the way Mother Earth intended. You know, just let 95% of current humans starve to death.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the main thing this means is there's an interesting alternative to energy-hungry desalinization plants for some coastal communities. I'd think even the most die-hard ecohippy would think that's a good thing.
posted by Nelson at 8:06 AM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


assessments will have to be executed to see if it is worth the time and effort and cost to extract the water.

Here's the fundamental pattern I believe should apply to all such assessments.

Is the resource concerned something that existing processes continuously replenish?

If so: what is the maximum rate at which we can divert it for our own purposes without screwing up those processes? Is that rate higher than expected demand, given expected population size? If so: fund research and development.

If not: are there alternative resources that are continuously replenished at rates that could eventually meet expected demand indefinitely? If so: fund research into and development of those alternatives instead.

If not: is the resource concerned something we can invent new processes to replenish indefinitely? If so: fund research and development.

If not: leave it the fuck alone and continue to live without it.

Oh yes: ploughs suck. Seed drills ftw.

the main thing this means is there's an interesting alternative to energy-hungry desalinization plants for some coastal communities. I'd think even the most die-hard ecohippy would think that's a good thing.

Sustainable desalination for coastal communities is a solved problem.
posted by flabdablet at 8:21 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


At some point in the future, we will drill for water in the same way we are now drilling for oil.
posted by flippant at 8:22 AM on December 13, 2013


Only if we're incredibly stupid.
posted by flabdablet at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2013


What does sustainable desalination look like? What happens to the saltwater environments where the saltwater came from and what do they do with the byproducts? Is this where all that sea salt I've been seeing in the stores comes from?
posted by aniola at 8:50 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also please explain what you mean by "solved problem". Because your link points to what looks like a startup with a few test deployments.
posted by Nelson at 9:00 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was reading the Nature paper earlier today. I'm not an expert on this, but a few things are worth mentioning. One is that the gizmag and scinews posts have the paper wrong - again - it's a review of existing recent literature not a new discovery per se. The authors do have a crack at calculating the known offshore water reserve (1.5x10^5 to 1 x 10^6 cubic kilometres), which seems to be around 30 to 225 years of total human off take of water from the surface of the earth at 1990 levels although I gave up trying to find more recent estimates.

The paper is actually fairly circumspect about the implications of extraction, pointing out that it already happens as part of a lot of oil extraction (sometimes with consequences, sometimes not - "Large offshore groundwater abstraction for oil and gas production in Gippsland [SE Australia], for instance, has seen a considerable drawdown of onshore water tables"); that there are pilot projects looking at extracting the water and replacing it with human-produced CO2 (which can be plausible) and that the alternative is likely to be intensification of RO desalination, with its attendant energy costs and brine disposal problems.

What's striking about the distribution of VMGRs is that so far there have been none within easy piping distance of much of the Sahel or the Horn of Africa, where the case for extraction is perhaps strongest.
posted by cromagnon at 9:23 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't Stephen Baxter write this already? Never read Flood, as just the synopsis makes my blood curdle.

It was exactly what I thought of when I first saw the headline about massive undersea water reserves. A chilling "end of the world" scenario to consider though far less plausible than Barnes' Mother of Storms which is looking more and more prescient every day. Ok, that one isn't apocalyptic like Flood, just "things get really shitty really fast", but they feel similar.

I'm not sure I'd call Flood a great book but I thought it worth reading.
posted by Justinian at 12:13 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So we're talking about emptying out voids under a kajillion tonnes of ocean?

Massive sinkholes. Massive tsunamis.

Maybe just take shorter showers instead, yeah?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:59 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


What does sustainable desalination look like?

Done well: rain.

What happens to the saltwater environments where the saltwater came from

Nothing at all to completely fucked up, depending on the design of the brine discharge outlet. Given the stated motivation of the design team I'd be expecting them to design something closer to the "nothing at all" option, but given that in most cases somebody else will actually be building the greenhouses, this is definitely an issue that local regulators would need to be keeping an eye on.

and what do they do with the byproducts?

Sell them.

Is this where all that sea salt I've been seeing in the stores comes from?

Probably not.


please explain what you mean by "solved problem"

A problem to which a solution has been found? Not sure what you're getting at here.

I posted the seawater greenhouse link in response to your point about sub-ocean freshwater mining being "an interesting alternative to energy-hungry desalinization plants for some coastal communities", in order to point out that desal plants for coastal communities needn't be the typical stupidity-enhanced fossil fuel guzzlers we've seen to date.

It seems to me that problems due to use of existing resources beyond their renewal rate are not best solved by committing large amounts of research and effort to doing exactly the same kind of thing again. I'm for learning from past mistakes.
posted by flabdablet at 7:19 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe just take shorter showers instead, yeah?

Because we have done so well with energy efficiency so far.

It's okay, under all this fresh water will be some sort of hydrocarbon resource we can use to pollute all the water rather than bringing it to the surface.
posted by Mezentian at 1:59 PM on December 14, 2013


I was reading your comment, flabadablet, that says sustainable desalination looks like rain. And I think you're right, but the way I picture it, the sky is doing the desalination.

I appreciate those links, thanks! (It's interesting to know that sea salt isn't vegan, that hadn't occurred to me.) The brine discharge outlet link reminded me of all the other resources that we've overused in the past and then been surprised when they started running out, like old growth. And of what we have done to the ocean already. Here's a direct quote from that article that seems salient:
No one knows if we’re instigating another ice age. But what we do know is that the tropical ocean is saltier than it was 40 years ago, and the polar ocean fresher. Furthermore, this salinity differential accelerates the earth’s freshwater cycle—creating faster rates of evaporation and precipitation, which release more water vapor into the atmosphere, thereby increasing the greenhouse effect and invigorating the global warming that caused the whole problem in the first place.
Given the astonishing variety of ways to date we have managed to destroy the ocean - by taking what we like and dumping what we don't want - I'm disinclined to think taking the very ocean out of the ocean, dissecting it, and discarding what we don't want is going to have any better of a track record, even if we think we're being very careful.

I'm more inclined to think we need to learn to live within our means. The stated motivation of the design team is safe water supplies. They themselves refer to agricultural water shortage as unsustainable. Agricultural water shortages? Solved problem. But then I'm not quite sure why, if they acknowledge that current agricultural practices are unsustainable, they're in the business of supporting those practices. The ocean is not an infinite resource and given what I understand to date, I would consider desalination an unacceptable solution.
posted by aniola at 2:11 AM on December 15, 2013


To be fair, I don't think anybody is talking about using greenhouses - saline or otherwise - to grow animal feed. I can't see how that could conceivably ever become cheap enough to do. The seawater greenhouse folks are providing a way to do horticulture in places where it isn't otherwise feasible.

I'm disinclined to think taking the very ocean out of the ocean, dissecting it, and discarding what we don't want is going to have any better of a track record

Unintended consequences are absolutely worth keeping a lookout for, and early indications that things might move in that direction are absolutely worth taking seriously. But in this particular case I do think you need to do a quick proportionality check before becoming too worried.

It is already the case in the undisturbed ocean that surface water is both warmer and more saline than deep water. This follows naturally from the fact that the sky is doing a vast amount of desalination.

So it ought to be possible to design seawater greenhouses in such a way that their intakes come from deep cool less-saline water and their discharge (assuming the brine doesn't all just get retained for mineral mining purposes) closely matches the salinity and temperature of the surface water it's fed out into. As long as the volumes of water moved around in this way remain small compared to that flowing in the local sea currents, which they very likely would because sea currents move vast volumes, then the chance of it screwing anything up does indeed strike me as likely to be lower than that involved in returning fossil water to the hydrological cycle.

I'm more inclined to think we need to learn to live within our means.

I think we need to do that as well as avoiding inherently unsustainable solutions to present-day problems, and I think the single most significant contribution any of us can make individually toward that desirable goal is to avoid reproducing and to argue for reproduction avoidance in a world of anything more than about two billion people as normal, natural, appropriate and responsible.

If we don't take collective control of our collective numbers, but simply keep on growing as fast as our ability to work around present-day constraints on our ability to do so will let us, then the overwhelming majority of us will continue to experience lives far shorter and shittier than we should be able to arrange, and our descendants will at some point find themselves engulfed in some horrible global version of Easter Island Meets Rwanda.
posted by flabdablet at 4:04 AM on December 15, 2013


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