Where There Are No Rivers

Cenote at Chichen Itza in Yucatán

Even Los Angeles has a river. Never mind that its banks are mostly of concrete and that it runs dry most of the year. There are some parts of the world in which rain sometimes falls in great profusion, but where there are no rivers to be seen. The operative phrase here is “to be seen.”

The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which I plan to visit next winter, is a solid block of limestone into which the rainfall seeps. There is quite a bit of water in Yucatán, but almost all of it is below sea level. Thanks to the giant meteor which caused the Cretaceous Extinction some 66 million years ago, numerous holes were punched through the surface of the limestone causing waterholes (usually referred to as cenotes). Many of these cenotes are interconnected through extensive subterranean caves.

Many of these cenotes make for excellent swimming holes in the subtropical climate of the peninsula, and they are a steady source of water for drinking and washing to the local population.

Where matters get more complicated is in the region known as the Puuc Hills, which rise several hundred feet above sea level, yet which sustained a large Maya population in ancient times. During rainy season, water is collected in stone cisterns called chultunes. During the dry season, these sources tend to dry up, and the local Maya must go hundreds of feet down to get at the subterranean rivers and wells. There is a famous illustration by Frederick Catherwood (around 1840) that shows the descent of hundreds of feet at the well in Bolonchen (see below). Shown here is only a portion of the descent to the wells, which continue for several hundred feet from the base of the stairs.

The Log Stairway at the Wells of Bolonchen (Representing Just Part of the Journey to Get Water)

Many place names in Yucatán contain the particle chen, which means well. In addition to Bolonchen, there is Chichen Itza, which, translated, means “The Mouth of the Well of the Itzaés.” A quick glance at a detailed map of this part of Mexico will turn up hundreds of other examples.


Water, Water Everywhere?

But Wait, Doesn’t It Cover 70% of the Earth’s Surface?

But Wait, Doesn’t It Cover 70% of the Earth’s Surface?

The following item comes from the Astronomy Picture of the Day website, and it sets me to thinking. Even in drought-stricken California, we take water for granted. The picture above takes all the known water on earth and positions it as a single mega-drop over the arid Great Basin of the United States.

According to the text that accompanies it:

How much of planet Earth is made of water? Very little, actually. Although oceans of water cover about 70 percent of Earth’s surface, these oceans are shallow compared to the Earth’s radius. The featured illustration shows what would happen if all of the water on or near the surface of the Earth were bunched up into a ball. The radius of this ball would be only about 700 kilometers, less than half the radius of the Earth’s Moon, but slightly larger than Saturn’s moon Rhea which, like many moons in our outer Solar System, is mostly water ice. How even this much water came to be on the Earth and whether any significant amount is trapped far beneath Earth’s surface remain topics of research.

I’d hate to think that the moonlets around some of the outer planets of our solar system contain more drinking water than Planet Earth.

As the most interesting man on Earth has been known to say, “Stay thirsty, my friends!”

Beware of Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)

DHMO Can Be Found Virtually Everywhere!

DHMO Can Be Found Virtually Everywhere!

I don’t usually do this, but I am hijacking a hilarious post from the Today I Found Out website in its entirety. If I can’t improve on the material or the wording, I’m not going to try and pretend. Enjoy!

A major component of acid rain, an accelerator of corrosion and the rusting of metals, found in the tumors of cancer patients, a contributor to the greenhouse effect, fatal if inhaled, and capable of causing serious burns in the right circumstances, colorless, odorless and tasteless dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is responsible for thousands of deaths each year.

An exercise in perspective, by focusing simply on the negative, we can easily be tricked into thinking just about anything is bad, even something as necessary to life as water, made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, hence dihydrogen monoxide. And thanks to a few precocious people, at different times over the last few decades, that is precisely what happened.

One of the earliest dihydrogen monoxide hoaxes was printed on April 1, 1983, in the Durand Express, a weekly newspaper in Shiawassee County, Michigan. The article warned the populace that inhaling the chemical “nearly always results in death,” and its “vapors … cause severe blistering of the skin which can be fatal if extensive.” By the end of the article, however, it was revealed that the dangerous chemical was, in fact, just water.

So Simple, and Yet So Potentially Deadly!

So Simple, and Yet So Potentially Deadly!

With the dawn of the internet, the chemically savvy continued to prey on the ignorant, and by 1994, internet jokers pretended to have serious conversations about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. One of the earliest fake organizations, eventually called the Coalition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide, was formed by students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1989.

Early claims included: “Millions of gallons of the stuff are sprayed on fruits and vegetables. Do you want your children eating that stuff?” It was an “invisible killer” that was “found in almost every stream, lake and reservoir in America,” and that the U.S. Navy was “designing multi-billion dollar devices to control and utilize it during warfare situations [and even that] research facilities receive tons of it through a highly sophisticated underground distribution network.”

These early sites also noted that this “hazardous chemical” was used “as an industrial solvent and coolant . . . in many forms of animal research . . . in the distribution of deadly pesticides . . . [and] as an integral part of the operation of nuclear power plants.” They also claimed that although it could damage concrete, erode natural landscapes and interfere with the operation of automobile brakes, it was still used “as a fire retardant” and “an additive in certain junk foods and other food products.”

Funny now, at the time, some people were truly deceived. In fact, one hoax in 1997 was so convincing, its four teenage masterminds were arrested and nearly faced criminal charges.

The young men, aged 14 to 16, distributed fliers in the Wylie Heights neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that carried warnings that dihydrogen monoxide was responsible for “severe hydration, frequent urination and possible death.” They included an 800 number on the flier (that directed the caller to a telephone sex business) and listed the name of the father of a classmate as a “county health inspector.” After the “health inspector” received several calls from distraught people, some of whom got mad at him, he called the police. The teens were eventually identified when they blabbed to his son, their classmate. Although they were not ultimately charged, they were forced to go door-to-door to apologize.

Also in 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High in Idaho Falls, Idaho, as part of a science project called “How Gullible Are We?” warned 50 of his classmates of the “dangers” of DHMO and asked them to join his effort to ban DHMO. He was able to get 43 to sign his petition.

Besides average citizens and middle school students, sometimes even public officials have been fooled. In March 2004, the City Council of Aliso Viejo, California, had planned to take up a ban on foam cups because of “environmental concerns . . . [of] the danger posed by dihydrogen monoxide, described as a chemical used in production of the [foam cups] that can threaten human health and safety.” Blaming the initiative on “a paralegal who did bad research,” the city’s manager pulled the proposed law from the agenda prior to any vote.