Future Earth

So much water but only a drop to drink

0 Comments 13 June 2012

As everyone who has read The Human Race knows I love stats and facts and recently came across a really interesting take by the US Geological Survey on how to represent the amount of water on the planet.

What I liked about their approach is that they present it in a way that you can really grasp the scale of our water resources or, rather, lack of them:

– About 3,100 mi3 (12,900 km3) of water, mostly in the form of water vapour, is in the atmosphere at any one time. If it all fell as precipitation at once, the Earth would be covered with just 1 inch of water.

–  Of the freshwater on Earth, much more is stored in the ground than is available in lakes and rivers. More than 2,000,000 mi3 (8,400,000 km3) of freshwater is stored in the Earth, most within one-half mile of the surface.

– However if, if you really want to find freshwater, the most is stored in the 7,000,000 mi3 (29,200,000 km3) of water found in glaciers and icecaps, mainly in the polar regions and in Greenland.

But perhaps their cleverest take was the three globes they used to represent all the water on the planet which would look something like the image on the right.

What first struck me was how tiny they all were in relation to the earth:

– The first and largest droplet represents all the Earth’s water (oceans, icecaps and glaciers, lakes, rivers, groundwater, and water in the atmosphere) which would have a diameter of about 860 miles (about 1,385 kilometers), a bit less than the distance between London and Rome.

– The smaller sphere over Kentucky represents Earth’s liquid fresh water in groundwater, swamp water, rivers, and lakes. The volume of this sphere would be about 2,551,000 mi3 (10,633,450 km3) and form a sphere about 169.5 miles (272.8 kilometers) in diameter. Yes, all of this water is fresh water, which we all need every day, but much of it is deep in the ground, unavailable to humans.

– Look really carefully and there is a third globe, a tiny blue pin prick below the second which represents fresh water in all the lakes and rivers on the planet – this is the bit that we mainly rely on. In relation to the size of the earth and its seven billion inhabitants it’s tiny even though the diameter is about 34.9 miles (56.2 kilometers).

So there you have it. Another amazing fact to show how tenuous our grip on this planet it. A blob of water measuring 22,339 mi3.  It throws Rio20+ into stark relief and its emphasis on managing our scarce resources.

Image Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.

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Charles Heaton British thriller writer O.C. Heaton, author of The Human Race, is fascinated by the past, present and future of human evolution. (Image credit: Ross Parry Agency) Read More>>

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The BeachThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeLife of PiOuter DarkThe FirmAlexander 3: The Ends of the Earth: A Novel

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