Mike Magee

In our first two sessions of Healthy Waters, we have covered the basics of water and where it fits into planetary science; water geography, storage, movement and interconnectedness; water uses and sharing; the impact of dietary choices on changing dietary patterns around the world; and water issues created by carbonization of our atmosphere and associated weather disruption.

In Session III, we focus on the Anthropocene Epoch – “the period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age.” As the journal Nature delicately stated in 2004, “Most scientists agree that humans have had a hand in warming Earth’s climate since the industrial revolution – some even argue that we are living in a new geological epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene.” Today there is little doubt, and we will share the latest evidence.

While most of Session III deals with current events, the Anthropocene must be viewed in the context of concerns of our Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 1, printed on October 27, 1787, suggested that the ultimate judgement of their efforts in establishing this new Democracy was  “…to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” When it comes to water and the health of our planet, this clearly remains an open question.

National Geographic laid down its moral stake in 1996 writing, “The most notorious effect of the Anthropocene is global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.”

They went on to state, “… Its consequence, climate change, manifests itself with increasingly intense and frequent phenomena, such as the thawing of glaciers and polar ice, whose most immediate effects would be the increase in the level of the seas, with serious damage to coastal and island populations, which would cause massive migrations with waves of climate refugees. Another of its consequences would be the desertification of soils, with acute shortage of drinking water for human use and for animals in areas affected by droughts. Increased heat would intensify vegetation fires and increase their frequency and damage. Floods would be catastrophic in some places. Hurricanes would come with greater destruction capacity and would be increasingly frequent. The destruction of coral reefs… Mass extinctions of species would have a strong impact on biodiversity and trophic or food chains. Due to the effect of droughts and floods there would be serious crop losses and famines.”

That was 1996, and was treated with some skepticism at the time, but not today, since we’ve witnessed already what was then predicted. The leading academic voice back then was born on December 3,1933 in Amsterdam. His mother, Anna, was a cook, and his father, Josef, a waiter. At the age of 7, his homeland was invaded by the Germans. He had just entered elementary school at the time. The war resulted in breaks in his early education, with the worse conditions occurring in the winter of 1944 and 1945 – a period known in the Netherlands as the “Hongerwinter.”

At the time, the Germans blockaded all food and fuel shipments  to the area in reprisal for civilian resistance. 4.5 million, including the 11 year old boy, were affected.  22,000 died of hunger and exposure. Later in his life, as a grown man, he would blame his small stature on the hardship of that winter. As he himself, he documented, “ There was a severe lack of food and heating fuels. Also water for drinking, cooking and washing was available only in limited quantities for a few hours per day, causing poor hygienic conditions. Many died of hunger and disease, including several of my schoolmates.”

He survived to enter “Hogere Burgerschool” (Higher Citizens School) in 1946, quickly becoming fluent in French, English and German. Despite his aptitude, his personal horizons were modest at the time. He later blamed a poor performance in college entry exams on a high fever the day of the exam. He entered a technical school, did military service, landed a job in construction, and later took time out for a short vacation. As he later recorded, “In the meanwhile, on a vacation trip in Switzerland, I met a sweet girl, Terttu Soininen, a student of Finnish history and literature at the University of Helsinki. A few years later I was able to entice her to marry me. What a great choice I made!” They were married in February, 1958 and together they would have two daughters, Ilona and Sylvia. They were at his side when he died on January 28, 2021 at the age of 87.

By all accounts, it was Terttu who lit a fire under Paul Crutzan, encouraging him to answer an ad in the Copenhagen paper, Daggers Nyheter, for a data analyst at the Institute of Meterology at Stockholm University. He got the job and they moved to Stockholm. By luck and happenstance, the new head of the Institute, which was at the forefront of meteorologic research at the time, was Dr. Bert Bolin, the discoverer of “acid rain” and future director of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Besides this incredible human asset, the Institute also had the fastest computers in the world at the time.

His academic course from that point on is self-reported in his 1994 biography constructed when he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It reads, “By 1963 I could thus fulfill the requirement for the filosofie kandidat (corresponding to a Master of Science) degree, combining the subjects mathematics, mathematical statistics, and meteorology. Unfortunately, I could include neither physics nor chemistry in my formal education, because this would have required my participation in time consuming laboratory exercises. In this way I became a pure theoretician.”

Probably the only recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry who never took a chemistry course, his award was for a meteorologic and environmental breakthrough. As the award read, “The atmosphere around our earth contains small amounts of ozone; molecules made from three oxygen atoms. Ozone has played a major role in absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which would otherwise negatively impact life on earth. In 1970, Crutzen demonstrated that nitric oxide accelerates a chemical reaction in which ozone is transformed into regular oxygen (containing two oxygen atoms). In later work, Crutzen contributed a theory that an increased thinning of the ozone layer at the poles could be explained by the emission of industrial gases.”

Before the Nobel Prize, Crutzan was already a well-known name in science education, having coined the term “Nuclear Winter” in 1984 to describe the long term planetary impact of a nuclear war. Amplified by Carl Sagan in a Parade article (read by 10 million Americans), the article outlined “previously unexpected consequences of nuclear war.” These included dust laden fallout, a rapid decline in the planet’s temperatures, crop failure and famine. As Crutzan had suggested, and Sagan intoned, ”In a nuclear ‘exchange,’ more than a billion people would instantly be killed. But the long-term consequences could be much worse…”

Such achievements, by a short-statured, initially under-achieving, and largely under-stated Dutch scientist would be enough for any great global leader. And yet these are not the achievements that Dr. Crutzan in largely remembered for today. Rather, it is for a few words uttered out loud, sitting next to his long time colleague and friend, Bert Bolin, at a meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program in May, 2000 at Cuernavaca, Mexico. In the middle of a dry lecture, Paul apparently had heard the term “Holocene Epoch” one too many times.

The Holocene Epoch is described as “the name given to the last 11,700 years of the Earth’s history — the time since the end of the last major glacial epoch, or “ice age….” In modern times, this geologic term was viewed as a safe operation space for human society, that period of time when humans evolved, and (at least until recently) lived in relative harmony with their planet and other life forms. But increasingly the term was an affront to Crutzan’s knowledge and intelligence when it came to our planetary health. So with live mic’s on the panel, he uttered audibly in frustration, “Let’s stop it. We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.” Others remember, “The room went quiet.”

By any archeologic measure, the Holocene Epoch was viewed by Earth scientists as a mere speck of time in Earth’s 4.6 billion year history. The periods of our planetary history – Archean, Proterozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic – and their various sub-divisions or Epochs (including the infinitely short Holocene) achieved naming status only after years of rigorous geologic research, documentation, and consensus-building. Suggesting that recent human behaviors could in a brief few decades alter the survival of the planet Earth was a meteorologic shot across the bow. Such “great acceleration” would certainly require hard science validation.

Crutzan’s utterance was somewhat less than spontaneous that day. He later admitted that “What I hope is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.” And indeed, he succeeded. Within a year or two of that meeting, the term “Anthropocene” became common titling in numerous academic peer-review journals, and popular magazines. 

But more importantly, coming out of the meeting, he and Bert Bolin organized two tracks for further action and inquiry. The first was the establishment of an “Anthropocene Working Group” which included Bolin and Crutzen. Its initial charge would be to define a number of “planetary boundaries” and associated measures to guide and monitor the planet’s ongoing health. The second was a formalized search by the international Earth scientists for what geologists call the “Golden Spike.”

That popular term references the more formal Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Points (GSSP) under the control of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Official recognition of this new epoch would require proof – etched literally in stone. The perfect core soil sample would contain a record of human and planetary history, or as the GDSSP wrote: “The boundary MUST be defined by an observable, unambiguous change in the physical properties or fossil content of the strata, for example the first appearance datum of a fossil species.”

This is not as easy as digging a hole in the ground. Decay and dissolution, over time, can obliterate records of human existence. Cities and civilizations come and go, leaving not trace. Documenting movement of species, and Earth changing human events, requires the skills not only of scientists, but also detectives, historians, philosophers, and engineers. But beginning in 2000, the search for the perfect site to raise a core sample began. A call for proposals, put out in 2019, helped limit the selection to a dozen or so sites including a peat bog in Poland’s Sudeten Mountains;  Searsville Lake, in California; Crawford Lake, in Ontario; a seafloor in the Baltic Sea;  a bay in Japan;  a water-filled volcanic crater in China; an ice core drilled from the Antarctic Peninsula; and two coral reefs, in Australia and the Gulf of Mexico.”

 On July 11, 2023, a news conference during the Max Planck Society Conference for a Sustainable Anthropocene in Berlin, Germany announced the winner – tiny Crawford Lake in Ontario, Canada, a meromictic lake – that is a lake where the layers between surface and floor of the lake do not mix. Normally, these lake’s basins are steep sided, and the lower layers are much denser and contain more salinity than the upper layers.

Why Crawford Lake? Turns out this “humble little lake” has a very rare geochemical mix including a depth to surface area mix that prevents top and bottom layer mixing, and prominent oxygen levels within its bottom layer. The fact that it is a “meromictic” makes it unique in all of North America. Over the years, as material settled to the lake bottom it was sealed by distinct couplets of calcite deposits that market summer and winter. This allowed core samples to be accurately dated. For example, in 1970, corn pollen found in one of the layers was able to be accurately dated by stratigraphers to the Middle Ages.

What the Earth scientists were looking for in the soil and stone were concrete markers.  According to published reports, dry ice frozen core samples were able to be dated back over 1000 years. More relevant to the Anthropocene, “By 1950 or so, a rapid, dramatic increase of carbon-based particles shows up from industrial processes, including coal-fired steel-making in a nearby Hamilton foundry, as well as a rapid rise in plutonium from nuclear testing, a change in nitrogen isotopes from fertilizer use, and the chemical fallout from acid rain.” 

These, and other findings, allowed 75 local scientists to champion Crawford Lakes candidacy with Francine McCarthy, a geologist at Brock University in the lead. She stated, “If people see that stratigraphers, a conservative bunch of geologists, are willing to put a line on the timescale and call it by the name that recognizes — that admits — the role of humans as a causal agency, then that’s mammoth.”

Were Paul Crutzen alive, he would surely agree that the announcement of the 39th Epoch in our 4.6 billion year planetary history was not a call for celebration, but rather a call to action. The challenge for human and planetary survival is now scientifically linked, and no less urgent than was Paul’s own childhood survival in 1944 if we are to avoid a “hongerwinter” of our own.

Earth scientists are as much detectives as they are data-driven academicians. Take the case of the wild boar mystery. For decades, Earth scientists have been puzzling over the persistence of high radioactive levels in wild board as far away as Germany. This is quite a distance from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986 in Russia. 

Continuously since then scientists have been monitoring Cesium 137  levels in wild animals within range of the fallout throughout Eastern Europe. Cesium 137 levels from the disaster have a half life of 30 years, and as expected, levels have declined markedly in all animals (notably deer) in the past decade – except one, wild boars. This defied explanation for years. Why did the wild boars remain radioactive.

Climate science sleuths this year solved the mystery. While taking soil samples 20 to 40 cm down in the ground, they encountered deer truffles that nearly vibrated with radioactivity. Deer truffles are a misnomer since deer hate and avoid them. But for wild boar, who endlessly search and rut them out, the truffles are a delicacy. When the truffles were analyzed, they were found to be very high in Cesium, but not Cesium 137 whose irradiating capability should have by now faded. Instead they were Cesium 135, with a 1/2 life of 1.3 million years. Their presence, this deeply buried suggested their source must have been decades before Chernobyl. The mystery was solved when investigators uncovered that Soviet nuclear testing in August, 1949 at their Semipalatinsk test site created large amounts of Cesium 135 in their fallout.

Why would Earth scientists be interested in solving this mystery? Because radioactivity in core soil samples can be accurately detected, identified, dated, and tracked to human events. For example, the Crawford Lake soil samples contained radioactive tracers of Plutonium 239 (1/2 life 21,700 years) released from the Los Altos atomic bomb test site in 1945. All 11 of the other test sites, including ice cores in Antartica, also had Plutonium.

The day of the announcement, the Washington Post reported, “In addition to nuclear fallout, the lake holds signs of industrial pollution, species extinctions and global climate change. Tiny black particles called fly-ash — a byproduct of burning fossil fuels — are laced throughout the sediments. Shifts in the types of buried tree pollen show how the surrounding forest responded to steadily rising temperatures.”

In the report, Jürgen Renn, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, stated, “It’s not just about climate change. It’s not just biodiversity loss. It’s not just the sediments that humans are moving. It’s all of this together. We have to address them as a phenomenon that is multiply connected. And we have to make an effort to understand it and adapt our societies accordingly.”

During the years leading up to this announcement, a war of words raged over when and why the Anthropocene period began. Paleoclimatologist Williman Ruddiman was quite certain it was 8000 years ago with the invention of agriculture which spurred deforestation. Crutzen favored the late 18th century with the invention of the steam engine. Others looked toward the middle of the 20th century including the population explosion and related massive production and consumption of goods. But in the end, consensus was that July 16, 1945, with the first testing of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos was the game changer.

In our own lifetimes, there has been no limit to the number of human induced environmental disasters. Their names are seared in our memories. 

Bhopal, India: The official announcement – “In 1984, an accident at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released a deadly gas into the air. At least 8,000 people died within days. Hundreds of thousands more were permanently injured.”

Prince William Island, Alaska: On March 24, 1989, the EXXON Valdez, a single hull super-tanker carrying 1.26 million barrels of oil went aground spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil, and yielding horrifying images of environmental degradation, and endless facts, such as the loss of 250,000 sea birds. Well-known, was that the final settlement against Exxon was $507 million. Less appreciated was that, after $30 million in repairs, the boat was renamed the EXXON Mediterranean, and ultimately sold to a Hong Kong firm, renamed the Oriental Nicety, and finally scraped for iron in 2012.

Next comes a meteorological name that will live in infamy – Katrina. The August 23, 2005 hurricane ultimately caused 1,392 fatalities, $70 billion in damages, days of real-time television coverage documenting immense incompetence induced suffering, and the incongruous comment of President George W. Bush to his FEMA Administrator Michael D. Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!”

 As bad as that was, a year earlier, the vulnerable coastline in Indonesia suffered a much greater calamity costing 227,898 human lives. An Indian Ocean earthquake in Sumatra-Andaman caused a tsunami, releasing energy equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. There were no early warning detectors or emergency notification systems in place at the time. 

More recently, global warming induced changes on land, sea, and air, combined with human negligence resulted in 98 deaths from raging wildfires on August 8, 2023 in Maui, Hawaii. As summarized already on the Britannica website:

 “…some evidence suggests that sparks produced by a downed power line may have touched off at least one of the fires.” 

“Meteorologists and climate researchers noted that the fires were likely to have been the product of several intersecting factors. 

  1. The fires occurred at the height of Hawaii’s dry season (which lasts from April to October). 
  2. Their severity was exacerbated by the presence of El Niño—that is, the development of unusually warm ocean waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean
  3. El Niño brings increased rainfall to South America’s west coast but brings drought conditions to the Hawaiian Islands. 
  4. As the drought increased in severity, it dried vegetation, much of it made up of large tracts of fire-prone invasive shrubs and grasses.
  5. In addition, the pool of warm water in the tropical Pacific kept fueling Hurricane Dora, a powerful tropical cyclone …a substantial difference in atmospheric pressure between the storm and a high-pressure system … drew high winds southward and funneled them into the centre of the tropical cyclone, which helped intensify and spread the wildfires.
  6. In addition, the replacement of native vegetation with crops over the last century has affected local climate conditions…including near sections of coastline and in Maui’s central valley—the sites of the island’s wildfires.”

It is increasingly difficult to deny that where humans come in contact with their environment, the planet suffers. Dr. John Holgren, White House Science Adviser 

said as much in 2023; “The reality is that our power to transform the environment has far exceeded our understanding of the consequences and our capacity to change course.” 

Naomi Orestes PhD, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard placed our predicament in context when she said, “If you know your Greek tragedies you know power, hubris, and tragedy go hand in hand. If we don’t address the harmful aspects of human activities, most obviously disruptive climate change, we are headed for tragedy.”

By the time Paul Crutzan died in 2021, the work of the Anthropocene Workgroup was well established. They had identified 9 environmental issues that were indicators of planetary well being. They called these “Planetary Boundaries” and included Climate Change, Ozone Levels, Fresh Water Supply, Ocean Temperature and Acidity Levels, Nitogen and Phosphorous Chemical Levels in soil and water, Particulate Matter in the Atmosphere, Manmade Toxic Chemicals (including hormone disrupters and plastics), and Status of Biosphere Integrity and Diversity. For 6 of the 9 measures, they were able to define measures for three color-coded levels: green (acceptable), yellow (danger), red (unacceptable.)

We’ll discuss these in greater detail in Session IV. But for now, let’s focus on Global Warming, an issue environmental scientists describe as “intersectional.” A thorough discussion of this one issue generally fills one semester, if not two. Look at the University of Exeter’s course description covering: 

Causes and effects

Social, economic and political impacts

Environmental impacts and the threat to ecosystem services

Modelling and prediction

Adaptation and mitigation of catastrophic events

Management of water resources and rainfall changes

Renewable energy technologies and policies for a low carbon society

Climate tipping points

Covering those topics, they say, will consume 23 (2) hour sessions and 150 total module hours. Clearly that is beyond the scope of our sessions.  

But let’s at least begin with a bit of history that I know you will recall. It was 1993, in his first year of office as Vice President, that Al Gore warned that carbonization of the environment from fossil fuels would soon send planetary temperatures soaring.

Nine years later he created the film, slide show, and book titled “An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It.” One memorable scene during his country wide tour with his large screen slide show included the now ex-Vice President mounting a hydrolic lift to track speed and course of an impossibly steep slope line for projected increase in atmospheric CO2 and temperatures.

Now 17 years later, as a global community, with rare exceptions, we are no longer trying to convince skeptics, but rather struggling still for solutions. We are in general agreement that the vast amount of carbon in the atmosphere derives from the burning of fossil fuels. Al Gore’s “tipping point” was 450 parts per million (ppm). Our latest measure in 2023 is that we stand at 419 ppm. “Tipping point” suggest a point of no return. Why? Because global warming reinforces itself and can also trigger other changes that are mutually self-destructive to weather cycles, food security, disaster management, coastal infrastructure and more.

The reason is chemistry. Carbon Dioxide or CO2 makes up 80% of the greenhouse gases. By absorbing and reflecting ultraviolet rays, the molecule generates heat. Most of the carbon in our atmosphere historically has been absorbed by ocean waters, eventually sinking to the ocean bottom. This is the so called “Ocean Sink.” But along the way, carbon dioxide combines with water (H2O) to create Carbonic Acid (H2CO3). The net effect is to lower pH, which as dropped to 8.1 and is projected to decline to 7.8 by 2010. Warm, acidic oceans are harmful to coral reefs, which are critical in supporting hundreds of thousands aquatic species. including 25% of all ocean fish. As a result of greenhouse gases, 70% of coral reefs could be gone by 2045. 

Also of note is methane, produced as a byproduct of agricultural support of livestock. Methane gas (CH4) when combined with O2 produces CO2 and H2O. While methane constitutes only 17% of our greenhouse gases, it is 30 times more harmful in its net effect on both the environment and all life forms than CO2.

Global warming from greenhouse gas effects is the grand-daddy of all Planetary Boundaries because it is “intersectional” – it touches everything humans hold dear.

The gases lower surface water density, expanding volume and sea level heights on coastal plains. They also increase surface water energy, creating tumultuous seas whose turbulence disrupts carbon resting on the ocean floor, further raising the concentration of carbon, acid and heat in surface waters. These multiplying effects lead to excessive evaporation of water into the atmosphere, and historically violent storms. The net effect includes historic coastal flooding with damage and loss of life. 

Global warming is also subject to certain “complicators.” Consider the Clean Air Act of 1970 which successfully removed 80% of the sulfur dioxide (SO2) induced SMOG (Smoke & Fog) that covered NYC and other major metropolitan areas around the globe in the 1960s. One unintended consequence was increased global warming, as explained in a recent New York Times article. “…we are reaping the results of what the climate scientist James Hansen calls our ‘Faustian bargain’ with air pollution. For decades, air pollution from sulfur dioxide and other hazardous substances in fossil fuels has had a strong temporary cooling effect on our climate. But as countries around the world have begun to clean up the air, the cooling effect provided by these aerosols has fallen by around 30 percent since 2000. Aerosols have fallen even more in the past three years, after a decision to largely phase out sulfur in marine fuels in 2020. These reductions in pollution on top of continued increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations mean that we are encountering some of the unvarnished force of climate change for the first time.”

The speed and size of the accumulation of water in the atmosphere has created literal rivers floating within our outer upper atmosphere. This eventually leads to “atmospheric rivers” responsible for dumping months of water on vulnerable citizens below, all in just a few hours, These events overwhelm infrastructure engineered to handle much less severe conditions. Concentrating so much precipitation in one location means that neighboring locations can be left not with feast, but famine. Where they used to be able to rely on regular, calming rains, they increasingly must deal with the impact of desertification, and with it the loss of livelihood in coastal plains, starvation, and forced migration.

Heated oceans occupy more space and encroach on coastal populations and major urban areas, already stressed. The heat also melts polar ice, further raising sea levels, and disrupting traditional coastal currents, which have supported historic weather patterns, and responsive infrastructure, across the globe. 40% of the Antartica ice shelves have shrunk in the past 25 years. Storms and high water also push salty water farther up fresh water river tributaries which normally run down into the ocean rather than act as receptacles for toxic briny water pushed by raising seas into the tributaries. This interferes with upriver water purification plants, irrigation and fresh water supply far inland as has occurred with the Mississippi River where in empties into the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans.

Flooding and turbulent weather also means tremendous sediment disruption and runoff of farmland contaminate with nitrogen and phosphorous chemicals. Runoff equals pollution and microbes. Once dumped in coastal waters, these chemicals induce growth in harmful algae that push out other life forms, and starve the ocean waters of their oxygen. The unseasonal heat also has a role not only in triggering blooms, by also accelerating fresh water evaporation as rivers, lakes and streams shrink dramatically. Finally, coastal power plants with turbines, that rely on water to cool their engines, may find the water too warm to be effective. Equally dams designed to support hydropower, increasingly fail under the weight of sudden downpours, disrupting energy support and threatening lives downstream.

All along the southern and eastern seaboard, matters are made worse by the fact that coastal land is literally sinking before our eyes. This is primarily the result of unsustainable drawing of ground water for agriculture in these regions.

Water and energy are critically interdependent, and essential for progress in the underdeveloped nations on the globe. 2 billion citizens currently live without electricity in their homes worldwide. An additional 1 billion live with just batteries and candles for lighting. Satellite views disclose large areas of Africa and South America which essentially live in the dark when the sun goes down. This creates special hardship for women and girls in developing nations, who are preoccupied with securing and transporting water from long distances by hand during the day  to keep their families alive and healthy, and have only the nighttime hours for education and self-development. Absent electricity, this is often impossible.

Hydropower is also an essential source of electric power in over 150 countries worldwide, providing 16% of our entire global energy needs. This includes massive dams and enormous turbines, as well as low-tech small but ingenuous manmade systems that trap energy from moving water in remote streams. On the plus side, hydropower is relatively clean energy with minimal greenhouse gas emissions. 1 Terawatt of hydro energy generates 1 million fewer tons of CO2 than the burning of fossil fuel.

On the down side, large scale dam projects radically alter the local environment, displacing humans and animals, and altering plant environments. The dams can fail, and fail dramatically as two dams did recently in Libya, causing massive flooding and loss of life with little or no warning. Watching even a small dam give way reminds us that power of water, laced with crumbling steel and concrete is terrifying. 

Hydropower projects can also have long-term unintended consequences. The poster child for these was an historic blunder 60 years ago by the Russians which targeted the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. As part of Soviet development project, the region’s two major rivers, fed by snowmelt and precipitation from surrounding mountain peaks, were diverted to historic dry areas to allow the region to develop as a major cotton producer. The water did indeed make those areas bloom, but at the same time cut off the Aral Sea, collapsing the communities and their fisheries, exploding salinity and fertilizer laced pollution of the fresh waters, and triggering a massive public health crisis. Within a few years, the former verdant area had turned to desert. And despite decades of attempts to reverse the damaging decision, the Aral Sea and its community has never fully recovered. The polluted sandy beds have literally blown with the wind to remote locations like the peaks of Mount Everest.

These, and other similar environmental missteps have led to the expansion of drylands which currently occupy 40% of Earths solid surfaces and support 2 billion people. The loss of large bodies of water, like the Aral Sea, which used to be a moderating influence on local weather cycles, have led to colder winters and drier summers.

Whether, due to hydro-energy programs ill-conceived, or clear-cutting of forests for grazing or agriculture, or pesticide and antibiotic reliant factory farming, or pollution untreated and dumped by manufacturers into neighboring rivers or streams, in general, where men have gone, water has suffered  – from desertification, fish kill, red tide algae blooms, bleached coral beds, or rivers flowing with deadly chemical foam.

In Session III, focused on the Anthropocene Epoch, we have concentrated on one Planetary Boundary, Global Warming. But because of its interdependent nature, we’ve touched briefly on six others including Ozone Levels, Freshwater Supply, Ocean Temperature and Acidity, Preservation of Undeveloped Land, Nitogen and Phosphorous Chemicals, and Particulate Mater in the Atmosphere, as with SMOG. 

In our final Session IV, we’ll briefly touch on the remaining two Planetary Boundaries, Novel Chemical Toxins (including Forever Chemicals, Radioactive Material, and Plastics), and threats to Biosphere Integrity and Diversity. We’ll then turn our attention to current and future solutions to assure global access to clean pure water. Next week: Session IV – The Future of Water.