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On World Oceans Day, Small Changes Make a World of Difference

posted: 06/06/15
by: Danny Clemens
South Right Whale breaking the surface of the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic Ocean
Getty Images

Standing on the shores of the world's oceans and gazing out into the endless sea of blue, it's easy to forget that water is a finite natural resource. The United States Geological Survey estimates that there are 332,500,000 cubic miles of water on our planet. Of that, freshwater (which we drink and use in our everyday lives) comprises only 2,551,100 cubic miles.

It's also easy to lose sight of the fact that we are consuming water at frightening rates: although figures vary heavily, the USGS estimates that the average person in the developed world uses 80-100 gallons of water per day. If usage continues at current rates, our need for fresh water could outpace the supply as early as 2030, according to a recent report.

In 2013, however, researchers from Flinders University announced the discovery of a vast, untapped supply of freshwater, large enough to temporarily stave off the world's looming water security crisis:

"The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we've extracted from the Earth's sub-surface in the past century since 1900," said Dr Vincent Post, of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, who penned a study in the journal Nature detailing the find.

There's only one problem: the water is buried beneath the world's oceans.

Researchers believe that the water tables formed over over hundreds of thousands of years, when sea levels were much lower than current levels. Land that is now at the bottom of the sea was once exposed to the elements, particularly rainwater. As the rain fell, the water was absorbed into the ground, forming the massive water tables.

As the next thousands of years elapsed, climates shifted, ice caps melted, and the ocean slowly but surely rose to current levels. As the sea crept up, the water tables were protected by thick layers of sediment and and clay that exist to this day.

Accessing the subsurface water table is no easy task. Drilling beneath the ocean is costly, and could have devastating ecological impacts if not done carefully. Furthermore, Post warns that existing oil drilling operations could have contaminated portions of the water with salt:

"Sometimes boreholes are drilled into the aquifers for oil and gas exploration or production, or aquifers are targeted for carbon dioxide disposal. These activities can threaten the quality of the water," he explains.

Perhaps most importantly, the water table is a non-renewable resource. Once we use it, it's gone for good.

The only real solution to the looming water crisis is to make long-term, sustainable changes to the way that we consume water.

A major contributor to our water crisis is industrial production, particularly of consumer goods. According to GRACE Communications Foundation, it takes 24 gallons of water to produce one pound of plastic. That's right - it takes more water to manufacture a disposable water bottle than will ever fill the bottle. In a frightening cycle, much of that plastic waste eventually ends up floating in the world's oceans, posting major risks to marine wildlife.

By reducing consumption of materials like plastic, glass and steel, reusing consumer goods and ultimately recycling whenever possible, you can have a tremendous impact on the health of our planet.

Click here to learn about more ways that you can impact the health of the oceans from Oceana, Discovery's official conservation partner.

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