Water, Salt, Time, and Us, Part I

“How old is the water?”

“I just bought it the day before we left.”
“I don’t mean the bottled water; how old is all water, the water in the Missouri River we just crossed? How old is all the water on the earth?”
One of the things that make long road trips fun is detailed conversations that flow from random comments about inane ideas. The age of water was just one. We had just crossed into Kansas on the latest Old Guys’ Road Trip. My two travelling companions are reluctantly retired motorcyclists who drove their bikes to every state in the continental United States. I met them through our wine club and started making automobile road trips with them six years ago. We started out camping but our backs let us know just how old we were, so we migrated to motels along less traveled roads; this trip was mainly on US Highway 50, known as the Lfireoneliest Road. Our destination was Moab, Utah, where Tom’s son Matt was a pilot for Redtail Aviation. Five years ago when Matt was the founding owner of Desert Highlights, he was our guide in a
camping trip that included Arches National Park, Canyon Lands, learning to repel and a spectacular meander through the back country of southern Utah to the Navaho Reservation and Monument Valley. Imbedded in my memory is a vision of Matt juggling flaming pins with the sun setting behind the Monument Valley Mittens. We hope he could give us an aerial view of some places we explored five years ago.men

As we drove through Kansas the question about the age of water did not generate an ans
wer, although I had read that a lot of what we drink was dinosaur pee. We had a hundred -mile discussion about how bad it was that our species was using the substance essential for all life as a waste transportation vehicle to move our collective waste out of view. We were using our most precious substance to hide and dilute human, industrial and agricultural byproducts to the point of making fellow humans sick. We talked about how plastic bags and bottles fouled up our lakes and rivers; even the Pacific Ocean has a floating plastic island.
Eventually my cell phone revealed that the water on Earth is older than our sun formed in outer space as ice that was part of the sun’s protoplanetary disk that became the planets, moons and comets of our solar system. Just as our discussion of water was moving into an esoteric mode we discovered Roys Hickory Pit BBQ in Hutchinson, Kansas. Dave, our navigator and route planner had hoped to have some famous Kansas City BBQ, but we arrived in KC much too late. Roys was an excellent substitute, the kind of small, locally owned food dispensary that had become a trademark of our adventures. The food was great, prepared by a mom and her son, served in tiny rooms to tables packed with mostly guys and want-to-be guys.
We left Hutchinson and Roys, and passed over the Ark-kansas River not the River of the State of Arkansas; we were on our way to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, salt ponds used for centuries first by Native Americans and then early settlers as hunting ground. Railroads made it possible for commercial hunters to ship car loads of waterfowl to eastern restaurants. After that, the ponds and marshes became hunting clubs, which actually were the first selfish effort to improve the habitat for the migrating birds. Today, Quivira provides sand prairies and salt ponds where over 300 species of birds pause on their spring and summer migrations.
I was in heaven spotting everything from a white striped common Black Hawk to thousands of sandpipers and smaller water birds that I was unable to identify, when Dave said, “We got to get going.” Tom and I were, “Let’s see what is over there.” Dave made the plan and tried to stay on schedule. We headed south on a dirt park road toward an exit to Highway 50, when we were stopped by a car driven by one of the chief rangers, who said, “You guys are in luck we have two early Whooping cranes resting on Little Salt Marsh just after the bridge; they’re on the opposite side of the pond. You will need scopes to get a good view.” After much searching, we finally spotted the two huge birds on a little beach about a mile away. We were really excited. Tom wished he had packed his spotting scope. With full zoom and leaning up against a post, I was able to get a few pictures, which the ranger at the exit verified as the Whoopers, two of the less than 400 wild Whoopers that still make the trip to and from the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, and the Texas coast.

Cool Storks

Seventy eight years ago when I was born, there were less than twenty Whooping Cranes migrating. The five-foot birds made great shooting targets. In a little over 100 years of hunting and loss of habitat, Homo sapiens, us, had decimated the number of Whoopers from thousands to just dozens; they were near extinction. Whoopers like the Bison and Passenger Pigeons, suffered from their seeming overabundance. The importance of wilderness and wildlife gradually was stimulated by efforts of John Muir and Racial Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” until efforts began to save threatened species. Without the heroic efforts of these dedicated people, today the only Whooping Cranes would be in zoos.
As we headed west on highway 50, I asked, “Where did all the salt come from?” A Ranger at Quivira had said in an offhanded way that much of the great flat plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado had subterranean layers of salt, limestone, and sand left behind when shallow seas that covered much of what was our contienntrained and evaporated over and over for hundreds of millions of years. Ultimately these sediments turned into today’s grass lands.
The question was how salt got into water in the first place. The Internet gave an indication of an explanation. Water older than the sun formed oceans early as the earth solidified. Volcanic activity set the stage for the release of the sodium- chlorine, the components of salt. Also acidic rain dissolved the early land releasing more of minerals that became salt. In the first billion years those warm, salty, shallow seas were a perfect environment for life to form.
This enormous time scale is very hard to grasp. We think in terms of summer and winter time, youth and old age, meal time and bed time. Our lifetimes seem long to us but are miniscule when viewed in terms of the 4.5 billion year life span of the earth and water that is even older. The anthropologist Richard Leakey compared the age of the earth to a one thousand page book. Each page would cover 4.5 million years. Dinosaurs would show up on page 728. All of mankind’s recorded history would be covered on the last line of the last page. All the written ramblings of Homo sapiens, us, would fit in the last line on the last page.

-Jack Riordan

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