World Water Day: connecting us to nature and outlining the changes we need today

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The world’s waters are in peril and I wrote this post to share my experiences of today in celebration of World Water Day. Today I had the amazing opportunity to attend World Water Day at my university. I even got a fancy name tag and everything. Overall, it was a great day of learning about the amazing water research my colleagues are doing and to share new innovative ideas on how to deal with the world’s water crisis.

The day began with The Water Song interpreted by UW’s Indigenous Students’ Society. This song represents the cultural importance of water to Indigenous communities in Canada. For Indigenous peoples, water is seen as a living thing, a spiritual entity that emits “life-giving” forces. With this, comes the duty and responsibility of its protection and respect by all. This song resonated with the crowd throughout the day, to remind everyone that water scarcity and pollution are not solely ecological and health issues but are merely small parts of the broader holistic perspective recognizing that everyone and everything on Earth are deeply and fundamentally connected and interrelated.

The Water Song fit extremely well into the theme of the day, The Answer is in Nature, A2_POSTER_WWD2018_EN-01which is all about utilizing natural solutions to help solve the world’s water crises. The Keynote speakers,  Tyler and Alex MifflinThey are the stars of their own TV show The Water Brothers, which looks at various environmental issues through the lens of water, aiming to increase the accessibility and understanding of these issues.

With 60 percent of the world’s lakes and 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, Canada is among the most water-abundant countries in the world. Such a fortune, comes immense responsibility that should be followed by examples of protection, preservation, conservation and care. However, Canada is one of the world’s biggest water wasters, consumers and polluters. This was described by Mifflin as The Myth of Abundance which is the idea that we have so much water, we do not need to worry about its quantity or quality, when actually the opposite is true.

In Canada, we may seem very far removed from the current water crisis in Cape Town, however the reality is that it could happen anywhere. Many human activities have disrupted the stability of the Earth’s water cycle to the point of creating a “preferred” water economy, wherein water use and consumption has little to do with natural cycles, but actually has a lot to do with the way humans have modified local ecosystems to meet demand for their desired activities. Water management in Capetown was based on the  more stable climatic conditions of the past, however, human induced climate change has fundamentally altered the water cycle to the point where Capetown’s water management systems simply do not work anymore.

This brings me to my main point, why should we, as Canadians, in the country with such abundant freshwater sources, focus on water issues?

Water is in everything we eat, drink, wear and consume. Our eating and consumption habits connect us to the water challenges all around the world. The water on Earth today has been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. We share the the water on Earth with all other life forms on the planet now and in those in past and future generations. We are not “running out of water,” per se. With so many people and other living things on the planet, we are running out of ways to provide everyone with the water that they need to live and thrive.

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.” – Sylvia Earle

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California is facing many issues with water scarcity due to periodic droughts related to climate change and the destabilized water cycle. Canadians have high dependence on California for winter produce, therefore, much of what goes on down there, affects us up here. To mitigate the water crisis, Californians were told that the best course of action was to take individual actions such as taking shorter showers and watering their grass less etc. These are all good things, that definitely have a positive impact on water conservation, however, the agricultural industry is actually responsible for 70 percent of freshwater consumption. It was those agricultural lobbyists that were encouraging other people to use less water so that they don’t have to.

The truth is that the water crisis is global issue that implicates everybody. To ensure availability and sustainable water management and sanitation for everyone on the planet, we have to think bigger than just taking a shorter shower. For instance, think about your own food choices, eating 10 hamburgers consumes the same amount of water as taking 365 showers. By eating less meat you are inherently are saving more water. We must take these individual actions, but we also must put pressure on governments to put adaptive and sustainable water conservation policies in place. These have capacity to make even bigger differences on even larger scales. When people raise their voices, that’s when changes are made. This is why the Mifflins are so passionate about using use their TV show and media presence to engage and educate people who care and have potential to work toward making the changes that are needed in the world.

 

Photos of the Week (December 26th)

Tropique Nord 2017 (Montréal).

I am sorry for the late post! I wish you all a very happy holiday.

Bringing Back the Woolly Mammoth

The de-extinction of the woolly mammoth is an interesting topic came up in class last week, and it was difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to spend so much time and so many resources on this. It seems like a lost cause right? It’s been gone for 10,000 years, is it even possible? Why bother bringing them back when the world is so different now and their habitat (the mammoth steppe) is completely gone?

The reason that the tundra is the desolate and relatively un-vegetated land that it is, is because the grazers that used to inhabit the land are gone. Grazers are key to maintaining grassland because they stimulate the growth of the plants and turn and fertilize the soil. The woolly mammoths were a major contribution to the grazing of the mammoth steppe and the general balance of the ecosystem at the time. Without them, the ecosystem underwent great changes, eventually reaching a new equilibrium. This is just a small example of the dynamic equilibrium of the Earth, everything is interconnected and things are always changing.

Research shows that even after being extinct for 10,000 years, re-introducing the woolly mammoth to the Tundra will convert it to the grassland/steppe that it was during the Pleistocene (the time of the woolly mammoth). Why would we want to change this landscape? If the Earth is always changing and reaching new equilibriums, why would we disrupt this? To answer this, is not simple, and involves some background explanation.

It is commonly accepted that we have entered the geologic period known as the Anthropocene, defined as “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” The main issue facing the tundra is permafrost thawing and is most likely human-driven. It is a simple feedback (when isolated): increased CO2 in the atmosphere increases surface temperatures which increases permafrost thawing. This permafrost contains CO2 that has been frozen in the soils for many years from the decaying of plant material. Therefore, thawing permafrost will release more CO2 into the atmosphere, increasing surface temperatures, thawing more permafrost and so on.

The third (current) phase of the Anthropocene is defined as humans realizing the damage they have done to Earth System, and are in a panic trying to find the quickest ways to repair the damage. At the onset of global fossil fuel use, the true effects of the intensive exploitation of these resources were not known. However, science has advanced greatly since then, and we have begun to notice trends in certain things such as the massive rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 and surface temperatures. Once these damages were realized, a sudden urgency has overcome the population to try and reverse these damages however possible. The possibilities of what we do next are as follows:

  • Business as usual, continuing on, developing at the same rate and not making any changes to our way of life to reduce environmental impact;
  • Mitigation, which consists of taking drastic measures to prevent any further damage to the Earth by developing alternative (greener) sources of energy and changing our consumption patterns, acting in a more sustainable manner;
  • Geo-engineering, that is, developing intensive methods of reversing the damage we have caused. This is basically further manipulation of the Earth System to undo the damages we have caused by manipulating the system.

The re-introduction of woolly mammoths to the tundra is an example of geo-engineering. It involves modifying the balance of an entire ecosystem to reverse the damage that we have caused to it. As crazy as it may seem, it could actually work. It involves producing new, genetically diverse and fertile mammoths from tissues that are tens of thousands of years old. Bioengineers have been focusing on modifying the genome of Asian elephants to match that of the woolly mammoth. The adaptations that it will acquire include extra fat and fur to enable it to survive in the cold tundra climate, essentially turning it into a modern-day woolly mammoth.

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Changes to the Asian elephant to become a wolly mammoth

What exactly could bringing back the mammoth steppe of the Pleistocene do? Quite a bit actually. Mammoths are said to be the keystone species of the ecosystem trying to be revived, meaning that it is an organism that plays a crucial role in how an ecosystem functions. When using an ecosystem approach, we can recall that aspects of an ecosystem are interconnected and everything affects everything. Putting mammoths in the tundra is not JUST putting mammoths in the tundra. As mentioned previously, the re-introduction of grazers to the tundra will convert it to grassland (the mammoth steppe). The grass will insulate the permafrost, decreasing the rate of thawing, and thus the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. In addition, all the new vegetation will remove CO2 from the atmosphere. More vegetation also means more life and higher biodiversity. Increasing biodiversity increases resilience in ecosystems, decreasing the likelihood of future extinctions and drastic changes from catastrophic events.

Not considering any of the ethics behind the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth, it is sounding like a pretty good idea right now. From a more realistic perspective, it is perhaps not the greatest and most practical idea.  It requires a tremendous amount of research, money and resources, going toward something that may not even work. There has been no actual success in de-extinction so far, the closest example to a success being the Pyrenean Ibex in 2009 that died after 7 minutes from lung defects. All this effort could be going to saving many other species from extinction or ecosystem restoration, which has a much higher success rate and could be more useful.

This leaves us with the main question, is it really worth it? In theory, bringing back the woolly mammoth is not a terrible idea at all, and if it is possible, it has potential to do great things. There is also a large chance of complete failure and tremendous uncertainty to the chain of effects. Whether it is really worth it or not, at this point, just seems to be a matter of opinion.