Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Horror

Happy Halloween everybody. Greetings from the Vancouver International Airport, October 31, 2006 at about 6 AM.

I have a very scary story for you today kiddies, as I’m off on another sojourn into the deepest, darkest nether regions of America. That’s right, for the second time this autumn I’m off to Orlando.

And, as if the prospect of returning to this bastion of Disneydom, frightenly situated in the center of the Floridian jungle, isn’t terrifying enough in its own right, it appears as if I’m going to spend my day today surrounded by airline and airport staff dressed up in Halloween regalia. Oooh, isn’t that scary kiddies? Ha! You have no idea.

It started with the ticket agent, dressed up as an overly helpful, flamingly gay fellow who was sure to touch each passenger tenderly on the shoulder. Next came the gruff disposition and jangly jowls of a middle aged man posing as a US customs official. I’m still shaking from that encounter. Soon afterwards I was confronted by a large group of East Indians dressed in black, posing as security agents. They weren’t very convincing, however, as they seemed far more interested in laughing together about Diwalli than acting in character. Hell, they forgot to make me take my shoes off, which had the guy behind me (pretending to be a businessman) particularly chuffed. Most recently, I encountered the best costumes so far, a gang of crazily efficient, loudly chattering Asian women in Starbucks uniforms. That was particularly unsettling; as everyone knows that Starbucks only hires young kids with lots of facial hardware.

So there you have it. 6:44 AM, the dawn only beginning to lighten the eastern sky, and my brain is on fright alert sensory overload. Either that or the venti quad latte is kicking in!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Job Satisfaction?

"Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so?
There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar."
--Drew Carey

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

But Don't Take My Word For It...

Movie star jumps into clean-water effort

LOS ANGELES — Movie star and Oscar winner Matt Damon wants to help bring clean water to Africa, according to an October 17 Associated Press story from MSNBC.
Damon has created a charity, H20Africa, along with the filmmakers of "Running the Sahara," a documentary narrated by Damon that focuses on three men attempting to run across the Sahara; the documentary will also feature the actor's upcoming mission to Africa, according to the story. The goal of H2OAfrica is to raise awareness and support for clean-water programs, the story said.
During a trip to Africa, Damon said in the article, he "saw firsthand the effects of one of the largest public health issues of our time — the world water crisis which is at its worst in Africa."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What I Do

A friend sent me an article today that described how many of the world’s major cities are sinking due to pumping of water from the ground under them. He asked if this was related to the work I do. This got me thinking. I wonder how many of my friends actually know what I do, or what a hydrogeologist does? So, I’ve posted my response to him in hopes of shedding a little light on the subject.
(For those of you that I know through work, please feel free to ignore this and head over to the Comedy Central site to watch video clips from the Daily Show.)

Subsidence is only a symptom of a much greater problem. The world today is facing a shortage of fresh water, and we as humans aren't going about addressing this crisis in a very intelligent fashion.
The above photo is from the San Joaquin Valley in California, and is quite famous amongst we hydrogeology types. It shows the elevation of the valley surface at various times over the last century. It's an incredible change to the area's topography in a very short time period.
The reason for this rapid subsidence is groundwater pumping. Downhole water pumps were only invented a little over a century ago. Before that, our choices were to lower a bucket down a well, or use surface water. As a result, we tended to live and farm where there was plenty of surface water.
Downhole pumps revolutionized how we manage (or mismanage) our water resources. They were initially used for agricultural irrigation, enabling crops to be grown in previously unsuitable locations. (I've got a great idea. Let's grow cotton in the desert!) The volume of pumping carried out far surpasses the natural recharge and we end up with dropping water tables.
That's the story of the inland valleys in California. They have pumped down the water table so far that the ground compacts, thus subsidence like in the picture above. Imagine that kind of subsidence in an urban area, and you see how various cities around the world are "sinking". It's potentially devastating, because the subsidence tends to be very uneven, resulting in buildings toppling over and so on.
Now, groundwater pumping isn't necessarily responsible for all of the "sinking cities" discussed in the article. Many of those cities are coastal, and are at least partially built on mud flats. For example, New Orleans was sinking while they were building it. (Who would build a city on a muddy delta below sea level anyway?) And Venice has been sinking for centuries, long before we knew how to get water out of the ground with anything but a bucket.
However, in many cases subsidence is still a striking indication of how our use of fresh water is out of balance. We're using far more than nature can replenish.
And, there's a lot more to it than just pumping of groundwater. Man has created other complicating issues, only one of which is dams. In feeding our ever increasing energy needs, dams have been constructed on almost every major waterway in the world. Dams prevent flooding and restrict water flow; both crucial to the natural recharge process. Dams, water rights and groundwater pumping are why today the rivers in Los Angeles are made of sand.
The bottom line is simply that there's not enough fresh water for the earth's population unless we drastically change our way of doing things. Even Canada isn't safe. Our water is primarily surface water that comes from glacial run off. Last I checked, the glaciers aren't going to be around for much longer. What then?
The US is experiencing a major population shift as more and more people move to the southwest. But how sustainable is that? There are no rivers to speak of in any of the southwestern states, and the supply of groundwater is diminishing at a rate that resembles George W's popularity rating. Yet, the southwest boasts the 5th largest population center in the US (Phoenix), and the fastest growing city in the US (Las Vegas). Both are located in the middle of the desert for crying out loud! So, not only do we have a shortage of water, but we're further complicating the problem by setting up shop in places where there really is no water in the first place.
From sinking cities to population shifts and global warming - it's all connected to fresh water, our most precious resource. Trying to manage the world's water is an incredibly complicated task. But hey, if it wasn't complicated, I wouldn't have a job!