Tag Archives: water

Georgia’s quest for a sip of the Tennessee river

State lines bring out natural rivalries. New Yorkers like to pick on New Jersey, and when I lived in Indiana, Kentucky seemed to be the butt of most regional jokes. But here in Tennessee the foe is Georgia, and the scuffle may go to court. Over water.

Not just any water, mind you. We’re talking about the mighty Tennessee river, the waterway that writhes its way through the center of Chattanooga, my fair city. The state of Georgia is prepared to sue Tennessee for a chance to tap the river for Atlanta just 100 miles southeast.

It’s not a new idea, and Georgia is already in a longstanding legal feud with Alabama and Florida  for related reasons.

Creeks and streams in North Georgia feed in to the Tennessee river watershed, but the river itself skirts the boundaries of the Peach State, barely missing its northwest corner before dipping south into Alabama and even a tiny corner of Mississippi before turning north toward the Ohio River. (Eastern water rights mean that they can’t tap it because it doesn’t flow through the state.) I can see why Georgia lawmakers might think that the river is taunting them. Continue reading Georgia’s quest for a sip of the Tennessee river

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Snow: the marvel of frozen water

Credit: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture

From my unplowed street in New York City last week, two feet of beautiful fluffy white stuff morphed into frustration if you actually needed to leave the house. But secretly snow still reduces me to an 8-year-old child every time I see a few flakes. I grew up in Florida where I rarely saw a few pellets and never made a snowman or snowangels until sometime in college. Nor did I have to shovel  the disappointing aftermath, gray ice-slush hunks of industrialism on asphalt.

Snowflakes form six-sided moments of magic that come and then waft away, forcing us to slow down, whether we want to or not.

I’m not the only one who got swept away with the snow this week.

For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall—that, buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever more strange and complex patterns, until, at last, like us, they touch earth. Then, like us, they melt.

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Molecule of the Week: Water

Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli
Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

It’s been a rainy week in New York City, and my office next to our front porch and my container garden has me thinking about that ubiquitous wetness. It’s been soaking my plants, and after a quick errand on Friday afternoon, its dampness lurked for hours on the hem of my jeans.

It’s easy to take the wonder of water for granted because it’s everywhere, but its physical properties are anything but ordinary. Almost all solids of any substance are more dense than their liquid counterparts. But if ice were more dense than liquid water, ice cubes wouldn’t float in cool drinks on a summer day. Ice wouldn’t freeze at the tops of cold lakes (no ice skating), and polar ice caps would be more like suboceanic ice cushions. If water were a normal liquid, the Earth would look really weird.

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka
Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

The molecule itself is bent, lending hexagonal elegance to snowflakes. In a liquid the molecules glom to each other, not quite like superglue. But that watched pot (that seemingly never boils) needs lots of energy to release water into steam.

For those of us who’ve built molecules for a living, water is often our enemy, something that can get in the way and keep the right components from getting together. But Nature incorporates water beautifully, using the molecule as a structural tool and as a critical player in the reactions that make life work. Forced to take some tricks from Nature in my own graduate work (my highly charged molecules wouldn’t dissolve in any other solvent), working in water was like learning a related foreign language. I learned some basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluency of water chemistry is a challenge beyond the synthetic lab. By Nature’s standards, I was, perhaps, third rate.

I missed the AMNH’s exhibit on Water when it was in NYC (but I think it’s still touring, check your local science museum). As climates change, ice melts, sea levels rise, more intense storms brew in the oceans, water sits at the heart of the environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to healthy, sanitized drinking water supplies.

Three atoms hooked together connect to the inner workings of life, health, the environment and public policy.

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