Wednesday, 23 January 2013 11:00

Rising Sea Levels and Sustainable Desalination

Written by  Jessie
A water drop A water drop Sven Hoppe/CC BY-SA 3.0

Depending on where in the world you live, it might be easy to forget that the environment is more than just the air we breathe or the land under our feet.  It’s important to keep in mind that the oceans also are being affected radically by climate change.  The oceanic problems are too numerous to list.  However, this week we are taking a closer look at one issue that people in different parts of the planet face, rising oceans as the polar ice caps melt and more saltwater.

Those of us that live in the United States might not be aware how rich we are in freshwater sources as say countries in the Middle East that are very arid environments.  Obviously those countries have other resources that we lack, but water is essential to life.  Our planet may be covered in a great deal of water, but much of it is unusable to humans in its natural state because of the high salt content. 

Did you know that salt is expelled from seawater when it freezes?  Although some brine is trapped, the overall salinity of sea ice is much lower than seawater.  So the seas are rising as previously permanently frozen parts of the planet melt.  This means that not only is there more water, but it’s becoming salty as it melts.

Desalination is any of several processes that remove some amount of salt and other minerals from saline water.  Unfortunately, it is quite an energy intensive process.  Last week, a new renewable energy desalination project was announced in Masdar, Abu Dhabi, which is in the United Arab Emirates.  The project seeks to transform seawater into useable, freshwater on land by building a commercially viable and renewable energy-powered desalination plant by 2020.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region of the Middle East is comprised of the Arabian Peninsula countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman.  The GCC formed in 1981 and uses about half the world’s desalinated water. 

Of course, accessing renewable energy is not the only impediment to sustainable desalination.  Another effect of global warming is oceanic acidification that contributes to massive algae blooms.  These algae blooms can shut down a desalination plant.  There are other unwanted components that might be present in seawater such as radioactive material from warships and nuclear power plants which would need to be removed before the water could be used safely.

Despite other lingering issues, it is still worth asking the question, “Can these enormous desalination plants powered by renewable energy help mitigate some of the issues we face from rising sea levels?”  The answer is, “Every bit helps.”  But don’t start thinking it’s a magic bullet since none exists.  We still all need to do our parts in reducing our carbon emissions and footprints.  However, it is good news that desalination can be a sustainable and environmentally responsible industrial solution and worth noting that low cost, low impact renewable energy technologies do exist.

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