A New Water Source That Could Make Drought a Thing of the Past.
Oceans of water are beneath our feet, and new technologies are extracting it economically without ecological damage.
Lack of fresh water is now a global crisis. Water shortages mean food shortages, with hunger creating death tolls substantially exceeding those of the current Covid-19 crisis. According to the United Nations, some 800 million people are without clean water, and 40% of the world’s population is impacted by drought. By one measure, almost 100 percent of the Western United States is currently in drought, setting an all-time 122-year record. Meanwhile, local “water wars” rage, with states, cities and whole countries battling each other for scarce water resources.
The ideal solution would be new water flows to add to the hydrologic cycle, and promising new scientific discoveries and technologies are holding out that possibility. But mainstream geologists have long contended that water is a fixed, non-renewable resource —and vested interests are happy to profit from that limiting proposition. Declaring water “the new oil,” an investor class of “Water Barons” —including wealthy billionaire tycoons, megabanks, mega-funds and investment powerhouses — has cornered the market by buying up water rights and water infrastructure everywhere. As Jo-Shing Yang, author of “Solving Global Water Crises,” wrote in a 2012 article titled “The New ‘Water Barons’: Wall Street Mega-Banks are Buying up the World’s Water”:
Facing offers of millions of dollars in cash from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, UBS, and other elite banks for their utilities and other infrastructure and municipal services, cities and states will find it extremely difficult to refuse these privatization offers.
For developing countries, the World Bank has in some cases made water privatization a condition of getting a loan.
Geologists say that all of the water on Earth, including the atmosphere, oceans, surface water and groundwater, participates in the natural system called the “hydrologic cycle,” a closed circuit in which water moves from the surface to the atmosphere and back again. Rainwater falls, becoming groundwater which collects in aquifers (underground layers of porous rock or sand), emerging as rivers and lakes, and evaporating into clouds to again become rain. New water called “juvenile water” may be added through volcanic activities, but this addition is considered to be negligible.
The most widely held theory is that water arrived on the planet from comets or asteroids, since any water on Earth when it was first formed would have evaporated in the intense heat of its early atmosphere. One problem with that theory is that comet water is different from Earth water. It has a higher ratio of deuterium (“heavy water” with an extra neutron in it). Asteroids, too, are not a good fit for Earth’s water.
A more likely theory gaining new attention is that Earth’s water comes largely from within. Minerals containing hydrogen and oxygen outgas water vapor (H2O) under intense pressure and heat from the lower mantle (the layer between Earth’s thin crust and its hot core). Water emerges as steam and seeps outward under the centrifugal force of the spinning earth toward the crust, where it cools and seeps up through the fractured rock formations of the crust and the upper mantle.
Studies over the past two decades have found evidence of several oceans’ worth of water locked up in rock as far down as 1,000 kilometers, challenging the assumption that water arrived from space after Earth’s formation. A study reported in January 2017 based on isotopes from meteorites and the mantle found that water is unlikely to have arrived on icy comets after Earth formed.
Another study, reported in New Scientist the same month, showed that Earth’s huge store of water may have originated via chemical reactions in the mantle rather than coming from space. The researchers ran a computer simulation of reactions between liquid hydrogen and quartz in Earth’s upper mantle. The simulation showed that water forms within quartz but then cannot escape, so the pressure builds up – to such high levels that it could induce deep earthquakes. Rather than hydrogen bonding into the quartz crystal structure, as the researchers expected, it was found to disrupt the structure by bonding with oxygen. When the rock melts under intense heat, the water is released, forming water-rich regions below Earth’s surface. The researchers said that water formed in the mantle could reach the surface in various ways — for example via magma in the form of volcanic activity — and that water could still be being created deep inside the Earth today. If so, that means water is a renewable resource.
New Technological Solutions
The challenge is drawing this deep water to the surface, but there are many verified cases of mountaintop wells that have gushed water for decades in arid lands. This water, which could not have come from the rainwater of the conventional hydrologic cycle, is variously called “deep-seated,” “juvenile” or “primary” water. It is now being located and tapped by enterprising hydrogeologists using technological innovations like those used in other extractive industries – but without their destructive impact on the environment.
According to Mark Burr, CEO of Primary Water Technologies, these innovations include mapping techniques using GIS layering and 3-D modeling, satellite imagery and other sophisticated geophysical data collection; radiometrics, passive seismics, advanced resistivity and even quantum physics. A video capturing one of his successful drills at Chekshani Cliffs, Utah, and the innovative techniques used to pinpoint where to drill, can be seen here.
Burr comments that locating “primary water” does not require drilling down thousands of feet. He says that globally, thousands of primary water wells have been successfully drilled; and for most of them, flowing water was tapped at less than 400 feet. It is forced up from below through fissures in the Earth. What is new are the innovative technologies now being used to pinpoint where those fissures are.
The developments, he says, mirror those in the U.S. oil and gas industry, which went from cries of “Peak Oil” deficiency to an oil and gas glut in less than a decade. Dominated for 40 years by a foreign OPEC cartel, the oil industry was disrupted through a combination of scientific advancements (including recognition of abiotic oil and gas formations), technological innovation, and regulatory modernization. The same transformation is under way in water exploration and production.