We pack water around everywhere we go. We are veritable bota bags of water. We humans are roughly sixty to seventy percent water. Since learning these factoids, people have been fond of comparing our water mass to that of our planet, which is about 70 percent water. It’s a nice correlation, sure, but vanishes when we contemplate drinkable water. Only about two-and-a-half percent of the water adhering to our oblate spheroid is fresh and drinkable. The rest of it is saltier than the glass rim of a Bloody Mary. And there is probably another ocean’s worth of water in the mantle of the planet. It all adds up to something like 326 million trillion gallons that we live above, below, and around. That’s a number with eighteen zeros. When I attempt to comprehend a number like that I feel like a hamster trying to comprehend quantum theory.
Let’s go back to the water we can drink for a minute. We Americans take it for granted, yes? Much of the two-and-a-half percent that is fresh water is locked up in the polar ice caps. The arithmetic, then, says we have less than one percent of all the water on earth to hydrate us land creatures, including the plants with whom we share the land. That’s still a lot of water but it’s a useful perspective to have when thinking about human population and the survival of life as we know it. In the United States, the aquifer levels have been depleted by a volume equal to two Lake Eries. And that trend continues unabated. Perhaps all the people with their heads stuck in the sand should look for potable water while they’re down there.
When water shows up where it’s not wanted, it is mind-bogglingly powerful. Just ask Midwest folks or the people living in New Orleans. Last year alone, flood damage ran to seventeen billion dollars. We can redirect water, block it behind a levee or a dam, but when containment fails it will go wherever it wants with no respect for any of us, fitting exactly whatever container it fills, be it a glass, a bowl, a house, or a city.
The characteristic of water that has always fascinated me is its surface tension. It’s why drops are round, water striders can dance across the surface of a stream, needles can float, beads form on your kitchen counter, and kids can delight in the magic of soap bubbles floating on the breeze. It also serves to help your eyeballs (cornea) stay moist. How cool is that?
Yep. Aside from being essential to life, water is the universal solvent, the patient carver of rock into spectacular landscapes, the carrier of rich nutrients onto farm land, and the enabler for me to sit here thinking about it.