When rain becomes a killer…

Acid rain is hugely destructive to stone monuments. Photo source: Wkimedia Commons.

Today, something I didn’t know much about (luckily not a huge problem in little old NZ), but I was interested to learn more.

Read on if you too are curious about acid rain, what it really does, and what can be done about it.

What is acid rain?

Acid rain is a mixture of wet (rain fog and snow) and dry (dust and smoke) materials, which contains above average amounts of nitric and sulfuric acid.

These acids form in the atmosphere when emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) react with water and oxygen.

What causes acid rain?

 There are natural emitters of the chemicals released, such as rotting vegetation and volcanic eruptions, however most of it can be attributed to anthropogenic (manmade) activities.

The biggest contributor to atmospheric SO2 and NOx is fossil fuel combustion. Countries that produce energy by burning coal (such as China and the U.S) have elevated atmospheric SO2 and NOx. As measures have been taken to decrease this, vehicle emissions are making up a greater percentage of acid rain producing emissions.

What does it do?

Acid rain can kill forest ecosystems, as can be seen in this forest in the Czech Republic.

The most harmful effect of acid rain is its impact on our waterways. Prolonged and persistent acid rain can change the pH of water from a healthy 6-7 to an acidic 5-6.

Acidic runoff releases aluminum from the soil, increasing toxic runoff into waterways, which is harmful to aquatic ecosystems. When pH falls to 5, many fish eggs are unable to hatch, and the population may decline. At a pH lower than 5, adult fish may die.

Acid rain can also be harmful to terrestrial ecosystems. It can damage forests, and the released aluminum in the soil retards water and nutrient uptake by plants. The lack of nutrients can kill leaves, and increases the trees vulnerability to other harmful processes, such as climate extremes.

 It is not only the natural world that acid rain harms. Acid rain can erode paint on cars, and dissolve limestone and marble buildings.

The cost to paint a car using acid resistant paint is $5 higher per car than to paint it using non acid resistant paint. In the U.S this adds up to $61 million per year.

On the bright side, there is no direct adverse effect on humans who are exposed to acid rain.

However, the particles of pollutant in the atmosphere that cause acid rain do have a negative impact peoples lungs, and are related to asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.

There may be a positive side effect of acid rain. Researchers have found that acid rain may reduce the amount of methane (a powerful green house gas) produced by wetlands. This is due to competition between bacteria that live in the wetlands. Acid rain boosts the number of the bacteria which thrive on sulfur, which in turn reduces the number of methane producing bacteria, therefore methane emissions.

Acid rain in China

After withstanding the elements for 1000 years, the Leshan Giant Buddha in China is being slowly destroyed by acid rain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

China is the third largest acid rain region (behind Europe and the U.S), and burns over 3 billion tons of coal per annum.

In 2011 it was reported that 258 Chinese cities experienced acid rain according to official statistics.

The Leshan Giant Buddha, is an ancient statue carved from a cliff, is 1000 years old, and the largest Buddha in the world (standing 71 meters high). Sadly, the Buddha has been badly affected by the acid rain. Its nose is turning black, it hair is eroding, and its reddish body is becoming a charred grey colour.

However, there is hope.

Between 2006 and 2009 Chinas SO2 emissions decreased by 13%, despite construction of new coal fired power plants. This may be explained by the closure if hundreds of old, small inefficient coal fired power plants by the government, and the introduction of a requirement for air filters and monitoring of emissions,

 What can be done?

The best way of limiting the effects of acid rain is by limiting the causes of it. Reducing burning of fossil fuels, using less energy, or finding alternative energy sources are the most effective ways to combat acid rain.

In October 2007, American Electric Power (AEP) settled a lawsuit for failing to take the necessary steps to mitigate the impact of acid rain, brought against it by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Despite denying any wrongdoing, AEP settled the case by promising to spend $1.6 billion to upgrade its coal powered plants.

With continuing legal challenges, public pressure, and sound legislation, such as the EPA’s Acid Rain Program, we can hope there is an end in sight for acid rain.

Furthermore, as coal fired plants and vehicle emissions also contribute to the enhanced greenhouse effect (global warming action on one can only have positive effects on the other, effectively killing two very environmentally destructive birds with one stone.



National Geographic

BBC News

The Indian Express

Yale Environment 360


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Bottled water is bad, right?

…but how bad is it really? Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Roughly 894 million people do no have access to safe, fresh water. After a disaster, when water services are out, there may be no other safe option. For these people bottled water can literally be a lifesaver.

 But what about those people who do have the option of drinking fresh, clean, and safe water from the tap. Why do they turn to bottled water?

 I was going to leave that a rhetorical question, but then I found this, which really explains it all….

So you have seen the pros, what are the cons?

 A big one is the amount of oil that goes into making the bottle:

  • Oil used to make all the bottles of water sold each year in the United States would keep a million cars going for twelve months.
  • Another way of thinking about that is that the amount of oil it takes to make each bottle would fill each bottle approximately a quarter of the way.

 What happens to the bottle after is been used?

  •  Only one in six bottles are recycled. That makes a whole lot of wasted oil, and extra trash.
  • Of the bottles recycled by environmentally conscious Americans, 40% were exported to be recycled offshore, consuming even more fossil fuels.


  • Bottled water can cost between 240 and 10,000 times more than tap water.
  • Some brands of bottled water costs more than petrol.
  • Globally, $100 billion is spent each year on bottled water.

 Also, I was surprised to find that of the water bottled and sold, 40% begins its life as tap water!

5/6 bottles of water end their life here, discarded as trash.

So how do we stack up?

 Globally, on average, Italians drink the most bottled water (155 litres per person per year) or the equivalent of two glasses of bottled water per day. Other heavy drinkers are France (146 L), Belgium (117 L), Switzerland (111 L) and Germany (109 L).

The USA lags a little behind (47 L), while the UK (25 L), Australia (17 L) and Japan (10.4L) are all well below the global average of 54 litres per person per year.

And little old New Zealand? For once we should be glad to be at the back of the pack, consuming on average only 5 litres of bottled water per person per year.

Ethics and Bottled water

 Fiji Water is a popular brand of bottled water, owned by Americans and extracting water from a deep aquifer in Fiji.

 In 2010 sent its workers home and threatened to shut down its factory, (a move which would have cost 400 jobs to the local Fijians) after the government announced plans to raise the tax on water taken.

When I say raise it, I mean raise it from 0.003 Fijian cents per litre to 15 Fijian cents per litre (about 10 New Zealand cents). Considering Fiji water retails for $3- $4 US, and their marketing budget alone is $10 million US, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request. This money would be able to be used to upgrade the local sanitation infrastructure.

This investment is much needed, as ironically Fiji has one of the highest rates of typhoid fever in the world. Typhoid fever is associated with contaminated water and poor sanitation.  This situation becomes more ludicrus as people are advised not to drink the local water, and instead buy bottled water.

Fortunately for the Fijians, the Fiji Water’s threats came to nothing, and they later accepted the price hike, and continued extracting Fiji’s water.

Its not hard to see why, when Fiji water is …

 Far from pollution. Far from acid rain. Far from industrial waste. The island nation of Fiji is a cluster of green jewels set in the endless blue of the Pacific. In fact, the very name “Fiji” has become an icon of beauty, nature, simplicity, and remoteness – and when it comes to drinking water, “remoteness” is a critical blessing. In this isolated and idyllic setting, FIJI Water is drawn from an artesian aquifer that lies hundreds of feet below the edges of a primitive rainforest. That distance and isolation is part of what makes FIJI Water so much purer and richer in taste than other bottled waters. (Fiji Water website)

 It sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

I find it ridiculous that Fiji Water is able to extract water from the pure clean aquifer, while local Fijians are drinking contaminated water which makes them ill.

Furthermore, Fiji water claims to be “the first major beverage brand to give a carbon negative commitment”. This would suggest by buying Fiji water you are actually reducing your carbon footprint. However, I would argue consumption always has an environmental cost.  Read this article for more on the true environmental cost of Fiji water.

 The solution to our bottled water problem?

Buy a drink bottle.

If you are worried about particulates in your water, invest in a filter. If you don’t like its taste, squeeze some lemon in it.

For those in NZ who don’t like your water, its worth remembering that Claridges (a luxury hotel in London) sells 420 Volcanic, a spring water from New Zealand for 21 pound per bottle.

 So think again before you pick up that bottle off the shelf. What did it take to get here? What will happen when you are finished with it? Do you really need it?


 National Geographic Website

 The Earth Policy Institute

 Global stats from Nation Master

 Fiji Water Website





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Not for those with delicate stomachs…

A common method of extracting the Guinea Worm from the skin. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

If you woke up this morning feeling like life was getting you down, that it was too cold, or too hot, annoyed that the internet wasn’t working, or upset because your flat mate drunk the last of your milk, reading this article may just make you feel a bit better about your situation.

 Guinea Worm Disease (aka Dracunculiasis) occurs in individuals who have become home to the roundworm Dracunculus medinensis.

 It is contracted by drinking stagnant water which contains water fleas (copepods) infected by Guinea Worm larvae.

 The Guinea Worm larvae mate inside the human host. Females may grow up to 1 metre long during the time they spend maturing inside the body, and be ‘as thick as a spaghetti noodle’. After mating, the male dies, and, after a year of incubation, the female emerges through blisters in the skin. This is an incredibly painful process, and often the sufferer will immerse their limbs in drinking water, stimulating the emerging worm to release eggs into the waterway, continuing the cycle.

 Symptoms of Guinea worm disease include fever, chills nausea and a lack of energy, before the formation of the blister which the worm emerges from.

It takes at least ten days for the worm to fully exit the wound, and commonly the worm is wrapped around a stick, and pulled a little every day. There are no vaccinations or treatments for Guinea Worm Disease.

 For a photo essay on the fight against Guinea Worm disease by Time Magazine, click here.


 As humans are the only host for the disease, it is hoped that this will be the first disease eradicated without the use of vaccines or medical treatment. If those who contract the disease can be prevented from infecting waterways, then the cycle can be stopped.

 From the other end, filtration of drinking water inhibits the ingestion of the water fleas which are host to the Guinea Worm larvae.

 The Carter Centre, a charity founded in 1982 by former US President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, has been instrumental in the fight to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease.

Together with the U.S Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), the Carter Centre launched a global eradication campaign in 1988. The campaign aimed to educate villagers, and provided access to safe drinking water.

So far, the Carter Centre has had outstanding success. In 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases across 21 different countries, while in 2011, there were only 1060 cases reported, with 97% of these occurring in South Sudan. For more on the Carter Centre’s work, watch the video below.

 All in all, this makes me feel very lucky to live in a house where fresh, clean, and safe drinking water flows from a tap.

I greatly admire those who have turned Guinea Worm Disease eradication into their personal fight, and hope that you all can take some inspiration from this story.


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Africa… not as dry as you thought

Okavango delta is home to 650 species of of birds, including the whte fronted bee eater. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Okavango Delta is top on my list of must see places.

For those of you who don’t know anything about Okavango, it is the worlds largest inland delta at 15 000 km2, and is located in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.

The water flowing into the Delta first falls in Angola, and travels through Namibia before reaching the delta, and forming an enormous wetland.

The amazing thing about the delta is the seasonal flood from the Okavango River, which increases the delta to three times its usual area, and leads to a wildlife explosion.

This usually occurs between the months of March and June, and is driven by summer rainfall in the Angola highlands.

Eventually the floodwater is lost to transpiration (by plants), and evaporation, with a small amount percolating through the soil, and flowing into Lake Ngami. None of the water reaches the sea.

The seasonal flood provides food for everyone... Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Animals of Okavango

The Okavango comes alive with migratory animals when the river floods.

An estimated 200,000 large mammals live seasonally in the delta, made up of 32 different species. These include the African bush elephant, African buffalo, hippopotamus, wildebeest, giraffe, Nile crocodile, lion, cheetah, leopard, hyenas, both black and white rhinoceros, zebras, warthogs, and the endangered African wild dog.

Additionally, the Okavango delta is home to 71 fish species, including the 1.4 m Sharptooth catfish, and 650 species of bird.


In 1994, Botswana, Angola and Namibia signed the OKACOM Agreement, which commits them to promote environmentally sustainable water resource developments, while addressing their national social and economic needs.

Fortunately, the near pristine environment draws many eco tourists, with tourism being the second largest economic input for Botswana. These tourist dollars rely on the protection of the wetlands.

Okavango delta is a RAMSAR site (a recognized wetland of international significance), and this has been ratified by both Namibia and Botswana.

The Okavango basin covers three countries, Angola, Namibia, and Botswana.

Threats to the Okavango

Unfortunately, the Okavango River is the only “exploitable perennial” river which flows through Namibia and Botswana, and over one million people live in the Okavango Basin. This has led to the extraction of water by the Namibian government to support the growing population, and plans for construction of a hydropower station upstream of the delta

Other threats include the intrusion of fishing further into the Delta region, poaching, and as the National Geographic  tells us, there are even suggestions of extracting oil from the underlying rock formations.

And, on a slightly less serious note…

So, I hope this opened your eyes to one of the lesser discussed, yet totally incomparable places in our world. Who knows, maybe you’l put it on your bucket list too…

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Water as Art

Marbled paper has been used as book covers for hundred of years. This book dates from 1829, and is from a copy of Plutarch's Moralische Schriften (Moralia). Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Something a little different today.

Motivated by Dr Jenny Rock, lecturing on the link between science and art, and a friend who gave me Masaru Emoto’s best selling book, The Hidden Messages in Water, today I’m going discuss how water can transcend the perceived barrier between science and art. 

Water Crystal Photography

Masaru Emoto is a Doctor of Alternative Medicine, and has sold over 2 million books, including The Hidden Messages in Water, a New York Times Bestseller.  Emoto is best known for his claims that exposing water to loving and positive words and thoughts (such as love, peace, harmony) create attractive water crystals, while those exposed to negative words or thoughts (Hitler, hate, war) would form dirty and muddled crystals.

Emoto is not a scientist, and his ideas are controversial in the Western scientific community, but one thing that cannot be argued is that he is a skilled artist who effectively uses nature as a canvas.

Below you can watch one of Emoto’s clips of ice crystals growing while being exposed to the American National Anthem.

Emoto’s ideas are very popular, and a simple Google Search will give you many examples if you are interested in finding out more.

Paper Marbling

Another type of water art that I discovered was Turkish paper marbling or ebru. This technique has links to Persia, China, Japan, and Mughal India.

Paper marbling is done by filling a shallow tray with water, and dripping ink on it. These colours float on the surface of the water, and can be carefully manipulated into different shapes (it reminded me a little of coffee art when you get a skilled barista).  The art piece is then carefully transferred to a paper or fabric canvas.

I find these methods both hugely skillful and beautiful, and would love to hear more about them from anyone who has used these techniques, or has other examples where water is used as art.

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Fracking Confusion

Should we listen to this guy...

...or this one? (Photo source: Green Party).

In 2008, residents of Pavillion, Wyoming began to complain to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about adverse tastes and smells from their drinking water, drawn from nearby wells.

The EPA went to investigate the water quality and found that the aquifer that they were drawing water from contained “compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing” from nearby gas fields.

The water quality tests found:

  • Methane (from below surface origins)
  • Foaming agent
  • Gasoline
  • Diesel fuel
  • Benzene (a carcinogen), toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene
  • Naphthalene
  • Isopropanol
  • Synthetic chemicals

All these ‘enes and ‘nols can be found in fracking fluid. The EPA found that frack pits (surface holding pits for fracking fluid pumped from underground) were a source of shallow ground water contamination. You can read the draft report here.

As a result of this, residents were warned not to drink their water, and to ventilate their homes while showering or washing clothes to prevent an explosion from the methane.

However, EnCana, the major oil and gas exploration company in the area refutes EPA’s findings.

“We have and continue to work extensively with Wyoming regulators and independent laboratories to determine whether natural gas development is affecting the community’s water quality. To date, all studies found no connection. We care about the impacts of energy development on the environment and we are committed to working to ensure our operations do not impact groundwater,”

On the flipside, fracking is carried out in many places in a way that does not contaminate groundwater. Here in New Zealand, our Minister for the Environment Phil Heatley claims hydraulic fracturing has been used in Taranaki for twenty years, and the Taranaki Regional Council say there have been no instances of groundwater contamination relating to fracking.

Again, Gareth Hughes of the Green Party disagrees:

“A Shell Todd Oil report from 2011 found that discharge of fracking fluids in Taranaki resulted in groundwater contamination that was unsuitable for drinking or stock use, or for irrigation.”

Fracking has been banned in several countries, including France and Belgium, and in many states in the US and in Québec, Canada.

Currently in New Zealand, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is investigating the risks that fracking may have, focusing on water contamination, storage of fracking fluids, whether fracking triggers earthquakes, and air pollution as a result of methane gas emissions.

 This is a highly debated topic, both within New Zealand and around the world. I look forward to the Commissioners report, and hope that (for me) it will shed some light on an issue that is surrounded by controversy and confusion.

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What the Frack?

The fracking process. Picture source: Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, today I am going to talk about the hottest current event. The great fracking debate. This controversial mining technique has been linked to pollution, groundwater contamination, radioactive pollution, and earthquakes.

Only yesterday New Zealand’s Energy and Resources Minister, Phil Heatley declared he had “no concerns” about the use of fracking in New Zealand, despite the process currently being investigated by the Commissioner for the Environment.

Heatley told TV ONE’s Q+A program that expanding oil and gas exploration (using fracking) could pay for schools hospitals, and extended paid parental leave in NZ. Click here for the full interview transcript.

However, not all of our parliamentarians are as keen on fracking as Heatley. The Energy spokesman for the Green Party, Gareth Hughes yesterday said: “Given there are so many concerns, given there are so many unanswered questions, we think the most responsible thing the Government could do is put a moratorium in place until investigations can assure Kiwis it’s safe.”

Furthermore, last week Christchurch City Council, became the latest council in NZ to declare their area a ‘Fracking Free Zone’. The Clean Country Coalition lists other NZ Local Authorities positions/decisions on their webpage.

I’m going to put aside the obvious environmental debate about oil and gas drilling in the seas around New Zealand, and explore the controversial issue of fracking.

So what is it anyhow?

Fracking, aka Hydraulic Fracturing is done to increase the rate of extraction in natural oil and gas reservoirs, by creating conductive fissures through the rock for oil and gas to flow. This is done by pumping fluids (most often water and chemical additives) into deep geological formations, hundreds of meters below ground.

The pressure of the fluids exceeds the strength of the rocks, and creates or enlarges large cracks throughout the formation. A proppant agent, such as sand or ceramic is then pumped onto the cracks to keep them from closing when pressure is released.

How does this affect our water?

Fracking fluid typically contains water, proppants, and chemical additives. If not removed properly, the deep ground pressure forces the fracking fluids to rise to the surface along with any contaminants that it contains. In some cases they may end up in a groundwater aquifer.

Chimicals commonly used in the fracking fluid. Picture source: American Petroleum Institute.

Its not very nice to think of any of these things coming out of our taps.

However, my next blog will present a case study of a community in the USA who did find harmful contaminants in their water due to poor fracking techniques at a nearby oil field.

Until then, here’s a little light relief for you all.

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