2013: The Year in Watery Places

2013 was mostly a pretty quiet year around Porous Places. Aside from a lone neurobiology post in February, things were pretty dead until I managed to commit to a twice-monthly (or so) schedule in August. Unlike my poor, neglected blog, however, my twitter and RSS feeds were full of remarkable stuff when it came to the porous and the waterlogged. For this final post of 2013, I present a roundup of the year in watery places.


Groundwater consumption and subsidence
This 1977 photo documents almost 28 feet of subsidence that occurred over the course of 52 years of groundwater consumption in the San Joaquin Valley, CA. Photo courtesy of the US Geological Survey. Click to enlarge.

At the very beginning of the year, the USGS tweeted this astonishing photo of almost 28 feet of subsidence caused by groundwater consumption in California’s Central Valley from 1925 to 1977.

On a related note, environmental historian Merle Massie made this lovely observation in a blog post on “water stories”:

If water was part of our everyday chores, responsibility, and routine (instead of an unthinking part of our day managed by someone else, delivered to our taps and whisked away when we’re done with it), water would once again be worth its weight. And its value would be true.

As the USGS photo at right reminds us, irrigated agriculture is an enormous source of water consumption globally. Commander Chris Hadfield (whose social-media savviness has perhaps done more for popular enthusiasm about space than anything else in a long while) tweeted a stunning photograph of the border between Egypt and Israel-Palestine. The stark contrast between irrigated and unirrigated landscapes reveals what would normally be an invisible line on the Earth.

Hadfield, Egypt and Israel-Palestine, 2013
What would normally be an invisible national border between Egypt (on the left) and Israel-Palestine is revealed by the stark contrast in irrigation. Photo courtesy of NASA, 2013. Click to enlarge.

Speaking of agriculture, who knew that marijuana cultivation was just another environmentally destructive agribusiness? A New York Times story from June reveals some of the serious ecological problems associated with water and pesticide-intensive industrial weed farms in northern California. Of particular interest here are the contradictions of a crop typically associated with hippies and environmentalists.

It’s a bit of a cheat for a post about 2013, but at the very end of 2012, Vice Magazine gave us a phenomenal set of satellite images depicting production of two precious, extremely water-intensive commodities: beef and oil.

Vice, Beef, 2013
A cattle feedlot in Arizona. According to Vice, if you include the growing of feed and grass for grazing, one pound of beef requires about 2,500 gallons of water to produce. Check out the rest of the images.

Water and Petroleum

Speaking of oil, the relationship between petroleum and water is a messy one to say the least. Oil drilling itself demands enormous quantities of water, but natural-gas hydraulic fracturing takes the cake. And of course there are the spectacularly worrisome groundwater impacts we hear about. But hydraulic fracturing doesn’t just produce toxic physical environments, it also poisons the social fabric of natural-gas boomtowns. In January, the New York Times ran a story about the ways fracking permeates these formerly sleepy North Dakota communities to produce some horrific, profoundly gendered social consequences.

Ok, so sure, the fracking article has almost nothing to do with oil and water (at least directly), but you’ll forgive my digression after checking out this piece on Samuel James’s photographs of the swampy oil trade in the Niger delta. Beautiful, troubling images illuminate a black market full of enormous legal and health risks set amidst a soggy landscape.

Samuel James, Oil in the Niger Delta
One of Samuel James’s stunning images of the Niger Delta and its black-market oil trade. See more at the New York Times and at James’s website.

Finally, Charles C. Mann wrote a profoundly upsetting piece about the next aquatic frontier in fossil-fuel extraction: methane hydrate. A crystalline form of natural gas that forms under the sea floor, methane hydrate is getting increased attention from the petroleum industries of Japan, China, India, Korea, Taiwan, Norway, and even the tar-sands and fracking-besotted nations of Canada and the US. Mann poses the nightmarish question: what if we never run out of oil?


The world’s oceans had a lot of other fascinating watery stuff to offer in 2013 besides methane hydrate, though. In March, The Big Picture photo blog curated a beautiful series about the shoreline.

In May, Cassandra Brooks created this gorgeous, engagingly narrated timelapse shot over two months aboard an icebreaker in Antarctica’s Ross Sea:

Also in May, Nicola Twilley (one of my favorite bloggers around food, nature, and society) wrote a lovely piece about eels, their amazing migratory habits, and potential ways humans might change (or at least rethink) our relationship with the wriggly creatures. Incidentally, Graham Swift’s Waterland is my go-to for lyrical stories about eels, mud, and muck.

Twilley revealed another one of my favorite water stories from 2013 when she reported on a team of ecologists in using restaurant menus in Hawaii’s to reconstruct historical changes in fishery populations. Apparently there was a 45-year gap in the state’s early twentieth century records and these menus hit the spot.

Also in Hawai’i, a marine mammal murder mystery told a fascinating story about indigenous politics, wildlife conservation, and the specter of big government.

And lastly on the ocean front, it turns out that there are whole communities of deep-sea creatures that are only found on sunken driftwood. Let me rephrase that: all sorts of critters at the bottom of the ocean live only on land-based plants.

Watery Bodies

The folks at BoingBoing dug up this amazing image from a 1962 issue of Life magazine in which the human digestive system is reimagined as a watershed (or is it the other way around?).

Life, "How Food Becomes Fuel: The Phenomenal Digestive Journey of a Sandwich."
An amazing reimagination of the human digestive system from a 1962 LIFE magazine article entitled “How Food Becomes Fuel: The Phenomenal Digestive Journey of a Sandwich.” Click to enlarge.

But metaphors aside, it’s actually sometimes useful to think of bodies as “watery landscapes.” Not only are we largely composed of water, but it pays to remember that fluids are constantly flowing in and out of us and entangling our permeable bodies with the world in all sorts of complicated ways. Scientific American, for example, reported on the enormous quantities of human-excreted and discarded pharmaceuticals that end up in the environment even after wastewater treatment.

Although not at all as directly related to water, Michael Pollan gave us a sometimes disgusting, always fascinating way into thinking about our permeable bodies with a characteristically entertaining piece on the micro-ecologies of our guts.

Melting Ice

But to get back to the much more literal watery landscapes….

National Geographic created some titillating apocalypse porn with this interactive map depicting the world’s coastlines after all the ice on the planet has melted… some 5,000 or so years from now.

Meanwhile, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG (and a frequent Nicola Twilley collaborator) wrote a fantastic post on the ways melting ice is profoundly impacting archaeology and cultural heritage preservation.

Hurricane Sandy

Although much more uncertainly related to climate change than melting ice, Hurricane Sandy had her anniversary in October of this year and the event inspired a ton of fascinating writing. You can check out both my roundup and the superior one over at Urban Omnibus. Two Sandy anniversary stories stood out in particular, though.

First, it turns out that Sandy watermarks are being preserved in various ways throughout New York City and Long Island. Whether they’re badges of survival, memorials, or some complicated mixture of the two, they immediately brought to mind some of the wrought-iron reproductions of the Hurricane Katrina x-codes I’ve seen on some buildings in New Orleans.

Jimmy Stamp’s photograph of one the many “x mark” sculptures that have popped up on New Orleans buildings since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

Second, the Atlantic Cities blog reported on “an unexpected gift from Hurricane Sandy” in the form of a new inlet blasted across Fire Island and into Great South Bay. By better reconnecting a stagnant part of the bay with the Atlantic Ocean, the inlet seems to have improved water quality and helped restore marine animal populations. It’s not an unambiguous development, however. Some residents fear that the inlet will just exacerbate future storm surges.


Much more unambiguously disastrous, though, were the sinkholes we saw develop in 2013 as water wrought havoc on unstable geologies. The Atlantic curated a fantastic photo series of sinkholes from around the world.

Down in southern Louisiana, the Bayou Corne sinkhole is an ongoing disaster that began over a year and half ago when a salt dome near the town of Bayou Corne began collapsing and filling with water. The story started getting a lot more attention in August with this footage of trees being swallowed up.

Back in August, Mother Jones described it as “the biggest ongoing industrial disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of,” but the New York Times and several other media outlets have since picked up the story. It’s also worth following the #bayoucorne hashtag on Twitter.

On a somewhat sink-hole related note, Slate published an excellent story on the perilous state of the Dead Sea thanks to sinkholes, excessive water usage, and very complicated regional politics.  There’s some hope, however, as the BBC just reported on December 9th that Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan have signed a new pact aimed at conservation.

Water and Territory

Also set in the region was a provocative New York Times opinion piece about the possible combined opportunities for conservation and peace in a polluted Jerusalem stream.

As far as watery territorial disputes go, however, there was no better story than the Times’s amazing, multi-media account of the vexing international tension brewing in the South China Sea. It’s long, but truly worth your time. Seriously. Bookmark that thing.

And one more on the subject of territory: Gizmodo published a great little piece about natural disasters and novel geographies after this year’s devastating earthquake in Pakistan created a new island in the Arabian Sea. In fact, there’s a long history of nature messing with our carefully drawn maps, from the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, to the property conflicts at Blackbird Bend that emerged thanks in part to a shift in the course of the Missouri River.

Historical Curiosities

I have just one last category of cool stories about watery places from 2013. It’s sort of a grab-bag, but I’m calling them historical curiosities.

Louis Helbig exhibited his Sunken Villages project through November of this year. In July of 1958, the newly created St. Lawrence Seaway flooded an area of Ontario that had previously been home to 7,500 people. Since 2009, Helbig has been taking aerial photos of the communities and infrastructure submerged over fifty years before. They’re fantastic images and Helbig pairs them on his website with interviews from people directly affected by the inundation.

Simon Dixon is a physical geographer that studies rivers and riparian landforms (i.e., a fluvial geomorphologist). Back in May he wrote a fantastic blog post about using John Constable’s nineteenth-century paintings of the English landscape as historical records of environmental degradation.

Simon Dixon and John Constable
An example of Simon Dixon’s fluvial-geomorphological analysis of John Constable’s nineteenth-century landscape paintings. Click through for Dixon’s fascinating post.

Finally, Keli Rylance, both a friend and the director of Tulane’s Southeastern Architectural Archive, runs a very cool blog based on her findings in the SEAA’s archives. Just in November she posted about “Polder Pontchartrain,” a (thankfully) abandoned scheme to enclose Lake Pontchartrain with levees in order to drain it and develop the resulting reclaimed land. Talk about bad ideas….

Thanks for reading, folks. Here’s to the watery landscapes of 2014.

1 Comment

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Heather Rosenfeldreply
February 11, 2015 at 09:02 PM

Hey Adam,

I was searching for photos of the Israel/Palestine border to talk about conflicts over water in the class I’m teaching, and was led to your blog and the NASA photo. Thanks for posting it!

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