Strange Tidings: Salt Water’s Not Salty, Fresh Water’s Not Fresh

We live in strange times. That’s becoming my new mantra.

With the Mississippi River breaking a 92-year flood level record, and the Corps of Engineers being forced to dump fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico for more than 100 consecutive days to prevent widespread flooding, we are reaching the point of no return along the shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Two-Fold Menace:  Algae Blooms and Desalinization

Our salt water is rapidly reaching the point where it is no longer salty enough to sustain the kind of aquatic life we want – the kind we eat – while promoting the growth of the kind of aquatic life we don’t want….the toxic blue-green algae that is forcing cities along the Gulf Coast to ban swimming and warn against the consumption of seafood harvested from the area. Both the east and west coasts of Florida are being similarly affected. as are other parts of the country.

Between the widely debated but effectively horrific melting of the ice caps at both the North and South Poles, along with the liquefaction of glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and other winter wonderlands, we are rapidly reaching the point where neither we – nor the sea life upon which ten percent  of the human race relies for its survival – can’t go into the water any more.

While the blue-green algae blooms along the coastline are the most visible manifestation of the lowering of the salinity of the oceans, they are merely a symptom. The algae is a warning because the algae blooms that we are seeing all along our coastlines result from the nutrient rich runoff from farms and gardens. Those nitrogen based nutrients are like candy is to tooth decay, the perfect environment in which algae like to flourish.

If the runoff that is now clogging our rivers and flowing into the oceans were not rich with nutrients, we would still have a long-term problem with respect to the desalinization of the planets oceans, but the algae presents a more urgent problem in terms  of food stocks because, where algae prospers, sea food doesn’t

The Runoff Problem

The causes are varied, and include clear cutting of forests that once captured and held much of the rainwater that now pouring into the rivers that feed the oceans, to the dumping of fresh water in Boston Harbor, the very obvious but never considered side effect of the massive sewer project that virtually murdered Boston Harbor with a combination of effluent discharges and the dumping of fresh water into the harbor.

The consequences are ominous. Decreasing levels of salinity threatens virtually all sea life, which is adapted to living in water with a salinity level of between 35 and 36 parts per thousand of Sodium Chloride in sea water.

At risk are the Great Barrier Reefs, and all the other reefs around the world, which provide breeding grounds for the micro-organisms that all of the higher level sea creatures depend either directly or indirectly for their sustenance. (They also mitigate the effects of floods and storm surges upon shorelines.

Some ten percent of the world’s population is entirely dependent upon seafood for their protein. Another 4.3 billion people depend on seafood for up to 15 percent of their protein requirements, according to The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. 

According to The Food Aid Foundation,  more than 11 percent of the planet’s population lives at or below the hunger line, which is where starvation starts.

Put those two statistics together, and you get a crisis in the making. With 11 percent of the planet already at the hunger line and another 10 percent being 100% reliant upon seafood for their protein requirements, we have more than 20 percent of the population at severe risk of death by starvation if the desalination of the seas continues.

Like many of the other problems we talk about, there are no good solutions to this impending disaster. In fact, there aren’t any solutions at all. Salt is a valuable commodity. We can’t live without it, but we simply can’t dump enough dry land salt into the oceans to restore the salinity.

Why not? Well, it works like this:

The oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface and 96.5 percent of that water is sea water. There are 1.332 billion cubic kilometers of water on this plant, of which 1.29 billion cubic kilometers (96.5 percent) is SUPPOSED to be salt water. ]

ONE cubic kilometer of water is equal to  1,000,000,000,000,000 grams of water which, in case you don’t like long strings of zeros, is one quadrillion grams.

In order to raise the salinity level of one cubic kilometer of seawater by just one part per thousand, we would need 1,000,000,000,000 grams of salt which, as you can see, is one trillion grams of salt, or 100,000,0000 (one hundred million) kilograms or 2,205,000,000 pounds of salt.  (All of these numbers were extracted from the US Geological Survey data.)

Morton’s Kosher Salt (hey, let’s go first class, right?) is $2.49 per pound at retail.  Okay, that’s ridiculous. One ton of rock salt will run you around $280 (delivery is extra).  Therefore the cost to raise the salinity level by one gram per thousand would be around (drum roll) $308,700,000. (Could I be off by a decimal point?)

If it would cost $308 million to re-salinate ONE cubic kilometer of seawater by just one gram per cubic kilometer, it would cost $398,223,000,000,000,000 (that’s $398 QUADRILLIONS in case you’re keeping score) to raise the salinity level of all the salt water on the planet by just one gram per 1,0000 grams of water. (Granted, salinity levels vary from ocean to ocean, from the Dead Sea, where nothing lives, to the Great Salt Lake, which ran out of water a million years ago or there about.)

That’s obviously more money than there is in the world…but what happened to all of the salt that used to be in the water?

IT’S STILL THERE, of course. We aren’t losing salt; we are gaining water from the melting of ice caps and the inability of the land to hold onto rainwater that used to be absorbed into the ground, but now flows into rivers and then into the oceans.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we’re running out of salt. We have literal mountains of salt all over the world. We have salt mines that go miles deep into the earth, and salt domes all over the Himalayas. The problem isn’t that we have no salt. The problem is that salt is easy to find, but difficult to move around. Most of the cost of the salt you buy in the store isn’t related to the cost of digging the salt out of the ground, or evaporating it out of sea water. The cost is buried in the packaging and shipping of the salt, not in the acquisition. Salt is difficult to ship because it is corrosive and soluble in water.

There’s no quick fix for the salinity levels of the oceans. In fact, there’s no fix at all, just in case you needed something else to worry about.

Don’t hate me. I’m just the messenger.