Dear EarthTalk: If the world is running out of fresh water, why aren’t we desalinating more ocean water?
— H. Smith, Providence, RI
The protagonist of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 lyrical ballad “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” proclaims: “Water water everywhere / nor any drop to drink” as his ship drifts through Antarctic seas with no land or fresh water in sight and the crew slowly dying of thirst. A fitting allegory for our modern age.
Indeed, we’re in that same boat today given that salty oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface while freshwater becomes increasingly scarcer due to human overpopulation and climate change. Globally some 700 million people lack access to clean water while droughts are the norm in many regions.
Stepping up desalination — that is, filtering salt out of seawater to make it potable — seems like an obvious solution. But the two most common techniques — reverse osmosis, pushing seawater through membranes to separate the salt, and distillation, boiling seawater and collecting the resulting salt-free water vapor — both require costly amounts of energy and infrastructure. They also create a lot of potentially toxic “brine” as waste that can kill crops and other vegetation and render groundwater too saline to drink, not to mention negatively alter the chemistry of the ocean. Currently the world’s 18,000+ desalination plants pump 140 billion liters of brine into terrestrial holding pits or back into the ocean every day.
Ngai Yin Yip and his team of environmental engineers at Columbia University think their alternative method — “temperature swing solvent extraction” (TSSE) — can fix the problems of leftover brine, in turn making the desalination process cleaner and more efficient. TSSE uses a solvent that reacts to inexpensive low-grade heat to extract freshwater as efficiently as RO or distillation, at a fraction of the cost.
Another promising alternative as pioneered by Penn State engineer Bruce Logan and colleagues is called battery electrode deionization (BDI), in which salty water is routed into channels with electrodes designed to capture salt ions and divert freshwater and salt accordingly. BDI is still in the research and development phase, but researchers hope it can eventually become a useful alternative to reverse osmosis or distillation.
But even these alternatives may be less desirable than leaving ocean water alone and focusing instead on conservation and recycling of existing fresh water supplies. The non-profit Pacific Institute reports that stepping up conservation and efficiency measures already in place in water-wise regions like California could reduce annual water use in urban areas by as much as 57 percent. Meanwhile, recycling (and treating) freshwater and making a bigger effort to capture stormwater run-off could produce enough drinking water to quench Los Angeles’ thirst two times over.
Given the magnitude of the problem, we need to embrace all forms of increasing our supplies of freshwater, whether they involve old-school methods like recycling or new-fangled approaches like technology enabled desalination.
Contacts: Temperature Swing Solvent Extraction, engineering.columbia.edu/press-releases/ngai-yin-yip-radical-desalination; “New desalination method offers low energy alternative to purify salty water,”
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180102171113.htm; Pacific Institute, www.pacinst.org.
Dear EarthTalk: I was appalled to find out on a recent backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park that I could get three bars of service on my cell phone. What about getting away from it all? — James P., Seattle, WA
Cell service in national parks has become a flashpoint in recent years as cellular providers compete to blanket the U.S. with coverage — even in remote, traditionally off-grid areas. On one side of this most modern of environmental debates stand wilderness buffs, who liken letting cell towers into national parks as no different from letting other forms of industrial development into these most sacred of wild and natural places. On the other side are those who say cell coverage in otherwise off-grid areas will help attract a new generation of (screen-addicted) young people to our parks and wildlands while also making it easier for first responders to save the lives of those who get into trouble in the backcountry.
“Cell phone towers have sprouted up in national parks across the country because the National Park Service (NPS) lacks any coherent policy and instead lets telecommunications companies decide where and how many towers will be constructed,” says Jeff Ruch of the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has been leading the charge against expanding cell service on public lands. “As a result, the incessant chirp of the cell phone can be heard in the wild backcountry as well as at iconic places like Old Faithful.”
To date, only four out of 401 national park units (Golden Gate, Rock Creek Park, Lake Mead, and Yellowstone) have adopted a plan for cell towers or wireless communication within their boundaries. At Yellowstone, the first national park in the U.S. system and the second largest in the Lower 48, park managers have recommended a moratorium on the installation of new wireless infrastructure and reducing or relocating some cellular installations that are visible to park visitors. The CellularMaps.com website reports that NPS has restricted any new or relocated facilities to “provide no more cellular coverage than is already available and no service can be expanded into designated wilderness areas.”
But elsewhere, NPS has been quietly working with cellular providers to greatly expand “connectivity” inside park boundaries — not just at visitor centers but along park roads and at trailheads. “This stealth scheme to wire our national park system has advanced without public involvement,” reports Ruch. “It will mean more ugly cell towers marring park vistas and ‘spill-over’ coverage in wilderness and backcountry.”
“Part of the point of wilderness is the ability to be disconnected and feel alone, but if somebody on the same trail can order a pizza, or sell stock or chase Pokemon, that takes away from the visitor experience,” he says. While some cellular providers have expressed interest in directing their signals away from backcountry areas, PEER and others consider it to be too little, too late — and would instead prefer binding legislation that forces parks and companies to work together to make sure at least the wildest and remotest areas are free of cell signals.
“Parks should remain unplugged from the modern world,” says Ruch. “Experiencing the wonders of nature should not require a smartphone.”
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve noticed more and more air traffic over my house in Seattle and I’m getting a little sick of all the noise. Is there anything I can do to force the airlines to disperse their routes more widely or, even better, cut back on their number of flights? — Bill G., Seattle, WA
As we all fly more and more these days, the airlines have responded by packing the friendly skies full of flights. If you live or work near a major airport, chances are air traffic noise is your constant companion throughout the day and even oftentimes overnight. But with noise exposure linked to reduced worker efficiency, increased hypertension and cardiovascular disease and impaired cognitive performance in school children, maybe it’s time we reconsider what’s tolerable in terms of air traffic noise.
Some cities (and their airports) have started Fly Quiet programs to encourage airlines to use more modern, quieter planes and schedule their take-offs and landings to minimize or spread out noise pollution. For instance, San Francisco’s SFO airport bestows its own “Fly Quiet Award” annually to the airlines that operate the quietest on their comings and goings to this Bay Area hub. Seattle, Oakland, Chicago and several other major airports across the U.S. have followed suit with similar programs. Some of the airlines to garner Fly Quiet honors for noise abatement include Southwest, Spirit, SkyWest, Virgin Atlantic, Interjet and Air China. Individuals can encourage these Fly Quiet efforts by patronizing only airlines like these that are taking steps to quiet their fleets. And if your local airport doesn’t already have its own Fly Quiet program, be the squeaky wheel to help get one started.
Of course, the issue could be moot if Stephen Barrett’s team of aeronautics researchers at MIT have their way. The successful maiden voyage of their quiet lithium-ion powered plane last November sent a silent shock wave through the industry. The futuristic prototype uses electricity to lift and propel the plane via “electro-aerodynamic propulsion,” essentially by creating an “ionic wind” through dispersal of positively and negatively charged electrodes underneath the wing.
And while we may be years away from everyday commercial airplanes powered by electro-aerodynamic propulsion, the technology could have near-term applications in quieting down drones. “The near-term advantage is probably in noise, especially if you think that perhaps in 10 years, we might have urban areas that are filled with drones doing things like monitoring traffic, monitoring air pollution, or maybe other services we’re yet to imagine,” Barrett tells MIT Technology Review. “Drones today are quite noisy and irritating.”
Of course, quiet drones (or planes) aren’t exactly what some environmentalists consider a solution. Gordon Hempton is defending a single square inch of untrammeled temperate rainforest deep in the middle of Washington State’s Olympic National Park from human noise pollution of any kind. Since the spot in question is in a wilderness more than three miles from the nearest building or road, the only sounds of human machinery that can break the otherwise otherworldly natural soundscape is an airplane engine. So Hempton has been fighting with the airlines and the U.S. Navy to get them to stop flying over at least the center of Olympic National Park in order to preserve at least one square inch from the auditory incursions of humankind.
Dear EarthTalk: I was never keen on tent camping, but I hear that the new “glamping” trend takes some of the discomfort out of spending the night in nature. Where are some “glamping” hotspots across the United States? — Jon Rubinstein, Albany, NY
While traditional campgrounds are great, they don’t always feel like an escape to nature, especially given the dog-eat-dog aspect of scoring a site and the fact that you’ll be living right next to your neighbors. And while the price may be right — you can score a tent site in most state parks for less than $30/night — maybe you’d be willing to pay more for privacy and some creature comforts? If you’re one of the millions of Americans yearning for more outdoors time but don’t want to deal with campgrounds, “glamping” (short for “glamorous camping”) might be just your speed.
Indeed, glamping is one of the hottest trends in the hospitality sector these days and several travel start-ups have risen to this challenge. To wit, Roam Beyond tows eco-friendly, solar-powered, off-grid camping trailers (made in the USA by its sister company Homegrown Trailers) onto various sites in or near different iconic natural areas around the West. Their first two sites are in Washington State (on the Pacific coast and in the Cascade foothills) but the company has new sites in the works at Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, Sedona, Moab, Zion and the Grand Canyon.
Meanwhile, California-based AutoCamp offers guests the opportunity to spend the night in a tricked-out customized Airstream camping trailer in Yosemite, Sonoma or Santa Barbara. While AutoCamp originally sourced and rehabbed older trailers, now it works in partnership with Airstream in the production of hundreds of new customized ones. The company recently raised $115 million in venture capital to expand to several new locations in California and on the East Coast.
New York City isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think glamping, but Collective Retreats is trying to change all of that with its new platform-tent resort there on Governors Island. Yes, you’ll be sleeping in a tent, but inside you’ll have all the amenities you’d expect at a five-star hotel, including plush beds with high thread count linens, bathrooms with luxury amenities, and chef-prepared “farm-to-table” meals. You can also indulge in the Collective Retreats experience at their other properties in Upstate New York’s Hudson Valley on a working organic farm as well as in the Texas Hill Country and at Yellowstone and Vail.
Yet another option is Under Canvas, which operates safari-style canvas tent resorts in eight locations across the country including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Moab, Glacier, Zion, Mt. Rushmore, Tucson and the Great Smokies. You’ll hardly be roughing it in one of Under Canvas’s tents given the en suite bathrooms, king size beds, daily housekeeping and wood-burning stoves.
Of course, these start-ups didn’t invent glamping, and there are still many ways to glamp at one-off resorts and sites across the country. In fact, a quick search for glamping spots in the United States on GlampingHub.com turns up 20,000 listings. And many state parks and private campgrounds are devoting more space to yurts, tipis and even overnight lodging made out of refurbished shipping containers.