Geology for Global Development

Water and Sanitation

What is happening after the Fuego eruption in Guatemala? Is climate migration a bad thing? This and more in Jesse Zondervan’s June 2018 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

What is happening after the Fuego eruption in Guatemala? Is climate migration a bad thing? This and more in Jesse Zondervan’s June 2018 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

Everything about the Fuego eruption

At the start of this month, Guatemala’s Fuego volcano erupted explosively, costing many lives and destroying properties and infrastructure.

Professor Handley from Macquarie University explains why the eruption was so disastrous, while Professor Little notes the recovery efforts Guatemalans make on their own, without much government input. Sophie Brockmann delves into history and recovers the cultural significance and political intricacies of Guatemalan dealings with volcanoes.

Climate migration: is it a bad thing?

While the world wakes up to the magnitude of climate migration, a key question we will need to ask is: does climate migration pose a problem or an opportunity to climate adaptation? As always, knowledge is power: a team of New York scientists has modelled future migration due to sea level rise in Bangladesh.

Drought: South Africa out, India in

Drought seems to be a trendy topic this month. South Africa has moved out of the national state of drought disaster and is moving on to resilience. At the same time, India is approaching a long term water crisis and a map of desertification by the EU Joint Research Centre shows building pressures on the world’s resources.

Somewhat reassuring is the opportunity for mitigation that MIT researchers give us. They conclude that climate action can limit Asia’s growing water shortages.

This month a lot was written on climate change adaptation, but as well as disaster risk reduction and sustainability. I would like to highlight this one question: What’s the right goal – resilience, well-being or transformation?

Go ahead and explore:

The Fuego Volcano Eruption and Adaptation

Fuego volcano: the deadly pyroclastic flows that have killed dozens in Guatemala at The Conversation

How Guatemala has dealt with volcanoes over the centuries by Sophie Brockmann at The Conversation

From Kilauea to Fuego: three things you should know about volcano risk by Heather Handley at The Conversation

After volcano eruption, Guatemalans lead their own disaster recovery by Walter E. Little at The Conversation

Migration due to Climate Change and Natural Hazards

Problem to opportunity: migration in times of climate change by Arthur Wyns at The Ecologist

World wakes up to climate migration by Harjeet Singh at India Climate Dialogue

Universal migration predicts human movements under climate change by Simon Davies at Physics World

How Will People Move as Climate Changes? At State of the Planet

Droughts

India faces worst long term water crisis in its history -government think tank at Thomson Reuters Foundation

National state of the drought disaster expires at South Africa news

Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated at The Conversation

New World Atlas of Desertification shows unprecedented pressure on planet’s resources at the European Commission Joint Research Centre

Climate action can limit Asia’s growing water shortages at ScienceDaily

Sustainability

Science migrations hold the stage at èStoria, Gorizia at The World Academy of Sciences

What’s the right goal – resilience, well-being or transformation? By Laurie Goering at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Climate Change Adaptation

Alien apocalypse: Can any civilization make it through climate change? At ScienceDaily

Economic models significantly underestimate climate change risks at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Better be safe than sorry: Economic optimization risks tipping of Earth system elements at ScienceDaily

 

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev& Facebook.

Demonstrating the Importance of Geoscience in the Transformation Towards Sustainable and Resilient Societies

Next week the UN Annual Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will discuss the science required for “transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies”. Discussions will focus on SDGs 6 (water and sanitation), 7 (energy), 11 (sustainable cities), 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 15 (life on land).  

This forum will bring together member states, civil society, the private sector, the scientific community, and United Nations entities. It aims to facilitate interactions, networks and partnerships to identify and examine needs and gaps in technologies, scientific cooperation, innovation and capacity-building to support the SDGs. We believe it is critical that the global geoscience community is represented, and will therefore attend and ensure a clear voice for geoscience at the heart of global development decision-making.

The natural environment is a key pillar of sustainable development. Research, innovation and improved communication and use of geological science (or ‘geoscience’) is therefore essential to delivering sustainable and resilient societies. For example,

  • Mapping and Understanding the Sub-Surface. In a sustainable and resilient society, interactions between the surface and sub-surface are understood and integrated into urban planning to ensure that development is safe, hazards are mitigated against, and environmental impact is minimised. Geological maps, geophysical surveys, and the integration of geoscience data to develop ground models can generate an understanding of the sub-surface and support effective urban planning.
  • Resource Management. In a sustainable and resilient society, everyone has sufficient and reliable access to energy, clean water, and the materials required for sustainable, resilient cities. This requires the identification and careful management of natural resources, including water, minerals, and building aggregates. The transition to renewable energies, such as solar panels and wind turbines, and electric transport will require a wide range of minerals, such as cadmium, lithium, molybdenum, selenium, and tellurium, as well as rare earth elements.
  • Waste Management. In a sustainable and resilient society, less pollutants are generated, and those that are generated are better managed to reduce the environmental impact of society. Pollutants can take many forms, and these can impact both the surface and sub-surface. For example, while mining may be necessary to supply the materials needed for green technologies, this can generate large amounts of waste which needs to be managed carefully to avoid chemicals leaching into groundwater.
  • Reducing Disaster Risk. In a sustainable and resilient society, the focus is on reducing risk (and preventing disasters), rather than accepting or increasing risk (and responding to disasters). Resilient communities, water supplies, energy infrastructure, and terrestrial ecosystems require effective disaster risk reduction. Research on the processes and potential impacts of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, subsidence, and other geological hazards can help stakeholders to understand and reduce risk.

Sustainable and resilient societies, therefore, depend on access to geoscience information and the expertise to interpret this, as well as meaningful engagement by the geoscience community. The networks and partnerships being developed at the UN next week, to identify how scientific cooperation and innovation can support the SDGs, need to include geoscientists working across a broad array of specialisms.

Since the SDGs were agreed in 2015, we have been at the forefront of mobilising and equipping the geological science community to engage and help deliver this vision. We are proud to continue our international leadership on this topic, and will be a champion of the geosciences next week at the UN Headquarters.

Follow updates on Twitter – #GfGDatUNHQ

Read more about this event: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/18157Forum_Concept_Note_April_26_draft.pdf

Read more about Geology and the Sustainable Development Goals: http://www.episodes.org/view/1835

Saltwater intrusion: causes, impacts and mitigation

In many countries, access to clean and safe to drink water is often taken for granted: the simple act of turning a tap gives us access to a precious resource. In today’s post,Bárbara Zambelli Azevedo, discusses how over population of coastal areas and a changing climate is putting ready access to freshwater supplies under threat. 

Water is always moving downwards, finding its way until it gets to the sea. The same happens with groundwater. In coastal areas, where fresh groundwater from inland meets saline groundwater an interesting dynamic occurs. As salt water is slightly denser than freshwater, it intrudes into aquifers, forming a saline wedge below the freshwater. This boundary is not fixed, it shows seasonal variations and daily tidal fluctuations. It means that this interface of mixed salinity can shift inland during dry periods, when the freshwater supply decreases, or seaward during wetter months, when the contrary happens.

Freshwater and saltwater interaction. Credit: The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEEF).

Once saline groundwater is found where fresh groundwater was previously, a process known as saltwater intrusion or saline intrusion happens. Even though it is a natural process, it can be influenced by human activities. Moreover, it can become an issue if saltwater gets far enough inland that it reaches freshwater resources, such as wells.

According to the UN report, about 40% of world’s population live within 100km from the coastline or in deltaic areas. A common source of drinking water for those coastal communities is pumped groundwater. If the demand for water is higher than its supply, as can often occur in densely populated coastal areas, the water pumped will have an increased salt content. As a result of overpumping, the groundwater source gets contaminated with too much saltwater, being improper for human consumption.

With climate change, according to the IPCC Assesment Reports, we can expect  sea-level to rise, more frequent extreme weather events, coastal erosion, changing precipitation patterns and warmer temperatures. All of these factors combined with the a increased demand for freshwater, as a result of global population growth, could boost the risk of saltwater intrusion.

Shanghai – an example of densely-populated coastal city. By Urashimataro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ],via Wikimedia Commons.

Although small quantities of salt are important for regulating the fluid balance of the human body, WHO advises that consuming higher quantities of salt than recommended can be associated with adverse health effects, such as hypertension and stroke. In this manner, reducing salt consumption can have a positive effect in public health, helping to achieve SDG 3.

With the aim of preserving fresh groundwater resources for coastal communities at present and in the future, dealing with the threat of saline intrusion is becoming more and more important.

Therefore, to be able to mitigate the problem, first of all, it needs to be better understood. This can be done by characterising, modelling and monitoring aquifers, assessing the impact and then drawing solutions. Currently there are many mitigation strategies being designed worldwide. In Canada, for example, the adaptation options rely on monitoring and assessment, regulation and engineering. In the UK, on the other hand, the simpler solution adopted is reducing or rearranging the patterns of groundwater abstraction according to the season. In Lebanon, a fresh-keeper well was developed as an efficient, feasible, profitable and economically attractive way to provide localised solution for salination.

Every case should be analysed according to its own characteristics and key management strategies adopted to ensure that everyone has access to clean and safe water until 2030 – SDG6.

Robert Emberson: Microplastic – Too Important to Ignore

Anyone lucky enough to catch any of the BBC’s recent new series Blue Planet II will have noticed that each episode devotes a portion of the time to the impact humans have on the oceans. A breathtaking series of shots from a recent episode detailed the heart-wrenching demise of a baby whale, possibly poisoned by its mother’s milk due to toxins from plastic pollution. Vast quantities of plastic now cover the surface of the ocean, a point the series makes well. We’re now increasingly aware of the risks this plastic introduces, but there’s one part of the problem that scientists have only recently begun to appreciate – so called ‘microplastic’.

Toothpaste is a notorious source of ‘microbeads’.

Microplastic is simply defined as those bits of plastic waste smaller in length than 5mm. This famously includes ‘microbeads’ used in some cosmetics and toothpastes, but there’s also contribution from artificial fabric fibres and degraded bits of larger plastic waste. Because we often can’t see the microplastic with our naked eyes, it goes much more unheralded in contrast to the floating islands of waste bottles and packaging, but that invisibility makes it a more insidious monster.

We still don’t know much about the sources and pollutant pathways associated with microplastic. The United Nations Environment program suggest that cosmetic sources of microbeads have been a pollutant for at least the last 50 years but since then it has often been forgotten as a potential pollutant. In recent years researchers have observed river and ocean sediments in a number of global locations with high levels of microplastic accumulation, while a collaborative investigation between journalists and scientists has revealed that a significant proportion of tapwater in a wide range of urban settings contains measurable microplastic. It seems, then, that this is a problem of growing importance.

The impact for biology is also an emerging subject of study. Microplastic can accumulate either physically in organisms or the toxins generated as it breaks down can poison creatures all across the food chains. Ecologists regularly note the potential for pollutants and toxins to become more concentrated in species further up the food chain, and this is just as true for microplastics. In addition, the plastic compounds have the potential to adsorb other toxins and contaminants onto their surfaces; this mechanism of pollution delivery is poorly understood but considering that the smaller the plastic fragments the greater the proportion of surface area that could be utilised in this way, it could well play a role.

From a sustainability perspective, these plastic fragments could be a timebomb. Not only do they pollute water systems and potentially contribute to poisoning aquatic species, but the impacts could grow for years to come. Even if in the future we shift to a more sustainable model of consumption and production, and recycle the majority of the plastic we use, we will still have to deal with a microplastic legacy of our current plastic use. At present, we have only recycled or incinerated around 20% of our plastic waste meaning that the remaining 80% could disintegrate into fragments over time. It’s clear that understanding how this material enters our water systems and ecosystems is thus of paramount importance.

Microplastic particles on a beach. Image credit: NOAA

And here’s where geologists can play a role. River systems are a topic of interest and study for so many earth scientists, whether geochemists, hydrologists, or geomorphologists. Many geologists routinely sample rivers to analyse the amount of sediment within, or the chemical fluxes. Microplastic fits within the same areas of study; it has been described as a “structural” rather than chemical pollutant – which essentially means it forms part of the solid load of a river – just like regular sediment. Naturally, the physical properties of the plastic differ to sand or clay (the difference in density is particularly important), but the methods we could use to calibrate our microplastic models would be similar to those used to assess suspended or bedload in rivers.

Some scientists are already using these techniques, but much more work needs to be done to effectively understand the long term evolution of the fragments in natural waters. How, for example, do storms and floods affect the storage or mobilisation of microplastic in river sediments? Using hydrological tools to fingerprint the sources of microplastic might also help form a better picture of where exactly these pollutants enter the water systems, which still in many locations remains a mystery. Hydrological models incorporating microplastic transport would certainly help ecologists plan for the impact pollutants would have on aquatic species, and this is exactly what hydrologists could bring to the table.

The adsorption of chemicals to the surface of plastic is similar to other particles in the water flow – particularly colloids. Recent studies have shown that microplastic can adsorb heavy metals (another key set of pollutants) onto their surfaces, and thus deliver these pollutants to a range of species that might ingest the plastic. These are processes well understood by geochemists, offering a chance for the geochemistry community to collaborate with ecologists and conservation researchers.

As with a number of the issues standing in the way of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing microplastic pollution will require extensive cooperation between scientists of different stripes, policy makers, and polluters. A recent study suggests both that plastics from road wear by cars are the biggest contributor in parts of Europe and that sewage treatment efficiency is an important variable. Resolving these kind of complex infrastructure and ecological problems should certainly engage a cross-section of researchers.

Geologists can find their role in solving this problem as scientists, but importantly as regular citizens too. Limiting plastic use and advocating for recycling are already part of the arsenal of tools we can use to improve the sustainability of our lives; geologists shouldn’t forget that they can contribute in these ways too. Research is still ongoing to understand the range of products and plastics that either contain or form microplastic pollution, but we should all keep track of this research to ascertain how we can minimise our microplastic footprint. We need drinking water more than any other resource, and keeping it unpolluted by tiny plastic particles is an imperative.

Robert Emberson is a science writer, currently based in Victoria, Canada. He can be contacted via Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com).