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Rediscovering Gaia’s Riches

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The American Interest

The Malthusians of the world are always right until they’re wrong. They’ll warn of impending resource depletion until they’re blue in the face, but time and again human ingenuity (and natural providence) has made fools of them.

What a week it’s been for resource exploration! The Washington Post has a story about an new, exciting potential new aquifer in drought-stricken California:

Stanford researchers have found that drought-ravaged California is sitting on top of a vast and previously unrecognized water resource, in the form of deep groundwater, residing at depths between 1,000 and nearly 10,000 feet below the surface of the state’s always thirsty Central Valley.

The resource amounts to 2,700 billion tons of freshwater, mostly less than about 3,250 feet deep, according to the paper published Monday in the influential Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And there is even more fresh or moderately salty water at more extreme depths than this that could potentially be retrieved and desalinized someday for drinking water, or for use in agriculture.

As one of the researchers put it, “[t]here’s a lot more fresh groundwater in California than people know.” The breakthrough here involved searching for water deeper underground than aquifers designated for human consumption typically lie. The drawback (there’s always a drawback) is that the deeper water tends to be more brackish, and is naturally more difficult and costly to extract. Moreover, the deeper one drills for water, the closer one gets to oil and gas drilling (typically thousands of feet of rock layers separate hydrocarbons from groundwater tapped for consumption), and the greater the chance there is of contamination. All of that being said, this remains a remarkable find for the parched state.

Halfway across the world a different group of scientists employing a novel new detection technique found an enormous new supply of helium gas—an increasingly scarce element that’s critically important for advanced scientific research and medical technologies—in Tanzania. The University of Oxford reports:

[A] research group from Oxford and Durham universities, working with Norway-headquartered helium exploration company Helium One, has developed a brand new exploration approach. The first use of this method has resulted in the discovery of a world-class helium gas field in Tanzania. […]

Professor Chris Ballentine, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, said: ‘We sampled helium gas (and nitrogen) just bubbling out of the ground in the Tanzanian East African Rift valley. By combining our understanding of helium geochemistry with seismic images of gas trapping structures, independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 Billion Cubic Feet (BCf) in just one part of the rift valley. This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners. To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf. Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf. This is a game changer for the future security of society’s helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away.’

In addition to making your voice squeaky or your kids’ birthday balloons float, helium helps keep high-tech gadgets like MRI machines or the Large Hadron Collider cool. As Durham University’s professor Jon Gluyas, one of the researchers, told the BBC, “Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe but it’s exceedingly rare on Earth.” Helium prices have quintupled since 2000 as supplies have started to dwindle. You can understand, then, why this discovery is being described as a “game changer,” and not just for the fact of this specific supply alone, either: this was the first place these scientists employed their new surveying technique. They’re batting 1.000, and could now apply this technique in areas with similar geology in different parts of the world.

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