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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Atacama and the camanchaca

First Parish began its church year with the traditional Water Communion, in which members and friends pour water representing summer travels into a common vessel. The collected water is used in rituals throughout the coming year. Nothing is universal to all UU congregations, but the Water Communion comes close; it is anticipated throughout the summer by UUs of all ages.
In keeping with the water theme, Rev. Ed Hardy delivered a sermon about the preciousness of water, and began with a geographic explanation of how something so essential could be both abundant and scarce at the same time. Though 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water, most of it is not available for direct human use. As Rev. Ed noted, 97 percent of the planet's water is salty (as the oceans gradually accumulate salt from the continents, and never give any back) and a further 2 percent is in the form of ice.

This is not to say that the water in oceans and ice caps is not useful; in both forms, water helps to regulate the climate through a complex set of processes of energy and material circulation. Climate change and the melting of ice will not help with the supply of fresh water, by the way, as melting glaciers and ice sheets become ocean water.

Rev. Ed also correctly pointed out that the 1 percent of the Earth's water that is both fresh and liquid is poorly distributed with respect to human needs. As an example, he mentioned the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the driest place on Earth. The average rainfall is just a millimeter per year (we get 1200 times more rain on average), and in some parts rainfall is measured in years between events, rather than annual totals. In some places, rain has never been recorded by humans.

The Atacama serves as a reminder of the importance of geography and of the extreme variability of conditions on the planet. It also provides a number of intriguing examples of how things are not always as we would expect them to be. In the case of the Atacama, what is most fascinating is the adaptability of both humans -- one million of whom live there -- and its plants and animals. In the Atacama, the best examples of human ingenuity are really just humans having the wisdom to mimic natural adaptations. National Geographic's  The Driest Place on Earth describes how both humans and plants capture the moisture of the region's abundant fog, known as the camanchaca. After all, this place may be the driest on the planet, but it is adjacent to the largest ocean!

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