Friday, August 29, 2014

63 Trillion Gallons of Groundwater Lost In Drought

The ongoing drought in the western United States has caused so much loss of groundwater that the Earth, on average, has lifted up about 0.16 inches over the last 18 months, according to a new study. The situation was even worse in the snow-starved mountains of California, where the Earth rose up to 0.6 inches.
Researchers from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the groundwater loss from the start of 2013 to be 63 trillion gallons — the equivalent of flooding four inches of water across the United States west of the Rocky Mountains.

The study, published online Thursday by the journal Science, offers a grim accounting of the drought’s toll.  “We found that it’s most severe in California, particularly in the Sierras,” said coauthor Duncan Agnew, professor of geophysics at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It’s predominantly in the Coast Ranges and the Sierras showing the most uplift, and hence, that’s where we believe is the largest water loss.”
A pre-dawn glow illuminates a narrow, shallow meandering stream flowing in San Gabriel River's East Fork in the Angeles National Forest, which reveal the effects of the prolonged drought March 12, 2014.

That’s also about how much ice is lost from the Greenland ice cap every year from global warming. Scientists came to this conclusion by studying data collected from hundreds of GPS sensors across the western United States, installed primarily to detect small changes in the ground due to earthquakes.

But the GPS data can also be used to show very small changes in elevation. Groundwater is very heavy, and its weight depresses the Earth's upper crust. Remove the weight, and the crust springs upward — and GPS sensors can detect how much higher the land has risen as a result of loss of groundwater. 
Severe drought conditions are evident as a lone houseboat is dwarfed by steep banks that show the water level down 160 feet from the high water mark at Lake Oroville on June 21, 2014. Receding water levels are revealing prehistoric and historic artifacts such as bedrock mortars and projectile
The highest uplift of the Earth occurred in California’s mountains because there is so much water underneath them, Agnew said. The uplift was less in Nevada and the Great Basin.

“You can only lose water where there’s water to lose,” Agnew said. According to the study, data showed the period of land lifting up as beginning in 2013, and continues to this day.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Drinking Water Out of Thin Air

One Warka Water tower can supply more than 25 gallons of water throughout the course of a day.
In some parts of Ethiopia, finding potable water is a six-hour journey.
People in the region spend 40 billion hours a year trying to find and collect water, says a group called the Water Project. And even when they find it, the water is often not safe, collected from ponds or lakes teeming with infectious bacteria, contaminated with animal waste or other harmful substances.

The water scarcity issue—which affects nearly 1 billion people in Africa alone—has drawn the attention of big-name philanthropists like actor and co-founder Matt Damon and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who, through their respective nonprofits, have poured millions of dollars into research and solutions, coming up with things like a system that converts toilet water to drinking water and a "Re-invent the Toilet Challenge," among others.
Critics, however, have their doubts about integrating such complex technologies in remote villages that don't even have access to a local repairman. Costs and maintenance could render many of these ideas impractical. "If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything," wrote one critic, Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe, in a New York Times editorial, "it's that complicated, imported solutions do not work." Other low-tech inventions, like this life straw, aren't as complicated, but still rely on users to find a water source.

It was this dilemma—supplying drinking water in a way that's both practical and convenient—that served as the impetus for a new product called Warka Water, an inexpensive, easily-assembled structure that extracts gallons of fresh water from the air.
The invention from Arturo Vittori, an industrial designer, and his colleague Andreas Vogler doesn't involve complicated gadgetry or feats of engineering, but instead relies on basic elements like shape and material and the ways in which they work together. At first glance, the 30-foot-tall, vase-shaped towers, named after a fig tree native to Ethiopia, have the look and feel of a showy art installation. But every detail, from carefully-placed curves to unique materials, has a functional purpose.

The rigid outer housing of each tower is comprised of lightweight and elastic juncus stalks, woven in a pattern that offers stability in the face of strong wind gusts while still allowing air to flow through. A mesh net made of nylon or  polypropylene, which calls to mind a large Chinese lantern, hangs inside, collecting droplets of dew that form along the surface. As cold air condenses, the droplets roll down into a container at the bottom of the tower. The water in the container then passes through a tube that functions as a faucet, carrying the water to those waiting on the ground.
Using mesh to facilitate clean drinking water isn't an entirely new concept. A few years back, an MIT student designed a fog-harvesting device with the material. But Vittori's invention yields more water, at a lower cost, than some other concepts that came before it.

"[In Ethiopia], public infrastructures do not exist and building [something like] a well is not easy," Vittori says of the country. "To find water, you need to drill in the ground very deep, often as much as 1,600 feet.  So it's technically difficult and expensive. Moreover, pumps need electricity to run as well as access to spare parts in case the pump breaks down."

So how would Warka Water's low-tech design hold up in remote sub-Saharan villages? Internal field tests have shown that one Warka Water tower can supply more than 25 gallons of water throughout the course of a day, Vittori claims. He says because the most important factor in collecting condensation is the difference in temperature between nightfall and daybreak, the towers are proving successful even in the desert, where temperatures, in that time, can differ as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The structures, made from biodegradable materials, are easy to clean and can be erected without mechanical tools in less than a week. Plus, he says, "once locals have the necessary know-how, they will be able to teach other villages and communities to build the Warka."

In all, it costs about $500 to set up a tower—less than a quarter of the cost of something like the Gates toilet, which costs about $2,200 to install and more to maintain. If the tower is mass produced, the price would be even lower, Vittori says. His team hopes to install two Warka Towers in Ethiopia by next year and is currently searching for investors who may be interested in scaling the water harvesting technology across the region.
"It's not just illnesses that we're trying to address. Many Ethiopian children from rural villages spend several hours every day to fetch water, time they could invest for more productive activities and education," he says. "If we can give people something that lets them be more independent, they can free themselves from this cycle."

Building Skin Developed That Could Cool Our Cities

© Harunori Noda
The urban heat island effect - the hot, overwhelming temperatures that a city’s concrete produces – has a huge impact on livability and comfort within the city. Now, an elegant cooling system has been designed that not only reduces energy usage, but – should it be installed on multiple buildings – could even lower the overall temperature of a city itself. Learn more, after the break.

Designed by Nikken Sekkei, The Sony City Osaki Building, which recently won the 2014 Tall Building Innovation Award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), features an innovative new cooling system: a skin of water-filled ceramic pipes known as BioSkin. BioSkin reduces the surface temperature of a building up to 12°C, and can even lower the micro-climate surrounding the building 2°C. The CTBUH explains how:

“The simplicity of the system is elegant. The BioSkin tubes are made of extruded aluminum cores, with a highly water-retentive terra-cotta shell attached to the aluminum core using an elastic adhesive. When rainwater collects on the rooftop, it is then drained to a subsurface storage tank, where it is filtered and sterilized. This water is then pumped up and circulated through the pipes, which in the live test case were incorporated as balcony railings on a Tokyo office building, reminiscent of the horizontal screens seen throughout Japan and known as sudare. Rainwater penetrates outward through the porous ceramic, evaporating from the pipe’s surface, cooling the surrounding air. Excess water is then drained down to the soil of the premises to the extent possible, normalizing the water cycle and reducing the load on sewage infrastructure.”

 Cite: Galloway, Andrew. "Building Skin Developed That Could Cool Our Cities" 21 Jul 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 11 Aug 2014. <>

The World Without Landscape Architects!

Lush vegetative planting at the Floating Gardens; credit: Turenscape
Alan Reisman’s gripping book “The World Without Us” details what would occur after a sudden vanishing of human life from the Earth. Nature would reclaim the built environment through processes that would begin within hours of the end of human intervention. But what if there were a world without “us,” as in those of us who guide change in the landscape, both throughout history and going forward? Here we will explore how things would have been different, as well as potential consequences going forward if the world was without landscape architects!

Urban Design

The idea of a “central park” is not unique to New York City. Many other cities of all shapes and sizes have developed around a communal green space that provides people with an area of respite away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Without landscape architects, what would have taken the place of parks? Government centers, massive transit hubs, and superstructures may have become the centerpieces to urban form. Without parks and public spaces as integral parts of daily life, perhaps people would have fled cities altogether in search of less claustrophobic surroundings.

Access to Nature

Landscape architects have played a crucial role in the planning of hiking trails, bikeways, and jogging paths that provide humans with a means of connectivity and recreation. Given the option, many people have opted to make a scenic bike ride to work a relaxing part of their day. On a larger scale, design has allowed for a wider audience to experience wonders of nature that were previously off limits or difficult to get to. By creating environmentally sensitive plans for state and national parks and other natural areas of interest, there is now incredible accessibility for all to take in the sights and sounds of the world’s most pristine places.


The development of urban, rural, and suburban areas has reduced biodiversity at varying levels, but would have been much worse without ecologically minded people as part of the design team. By selecting native plantings and advocating for the removal of invasive species, we have prevented the total destruction of many of the Earth’s unique ecosystems. Just the existence of plants in cities helps filter air pollution and maintains a healthy air quality for urban inhabitants. On the fringes, strategic preservation and planting have saved species of plants and animals alike from extinction. Many of these are essential parts of biological cycles that provide food and medicine that we rely on heavily.

The erosion of riverbanks and cliffs is a natural process, but the rate at which it occurs has been accelerated by human activities. Many rivers were dammed, widened, and dredged, leading to higher volumes of water. Although the speed of the water was slowed, the new barriers were not nearly as durable as the previous, naturally occurring edge conditions. Because of this, a large portion of landscape architectural work over the past century has been to stabilize riparian zones to prevent rivers from becoming too wide and subjecting developed areas to constant flooding.


Stormwater management has been the hot button sustainability issue of late, but without the less flashy water solutions of the past, we would be in some serious trouble. Flooding would be rampant in areas with no natural drainage solutions, where we would have to rely on retention and detention ponds designed to function in different storm events. The loss of wetlands reduces the amount of absorbent surface in the landscape. Incorporating floodable marshes and riverside buffers into master plans has prevented overflow and instituted diverse ecosystems. In the city, bio swales and rain gardens are assisting and replacing crumbling sewer infrastructure. If these sustainable methods of water catchment were to suddenly disappear, the rise in global urbanization would quickly overwhelm existing systems.

Granted, landscape architects weren’t the only ones involved in these innovations. Ecologists, horticulturalists, civil engineers, and architects have all played a role in the process. We have certainly taken the lead on bringing everyone to the table, and should continue to so. Can you think of other situations that would be very different without the presence of landscape architects?

Article written by Peter Salmon