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To Desalinate or Not To Desalinate?

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With incidents of severe water scarcity expected to rise substantially as the global population grows and fresh water supplies diminish, scientists are scrambling to come up with effective solutions to the pressing problem of increasingly limited fresh drinking water.


Over the past few decades, desalination has been all the rage. The most common method of desalination utilized today is reverse osmosis. Salt water is filtered through a semipermeable plastic membrane, which separates the ion particles (like salt) from the water, leaving potable water flowing out the other side. The problem is, reverse osmosis is costly and presents environmental concerns of its own—namely, what do you do with the leftover salt created during the process?


If you release the salt back into the water, you risk disrupting delicate aquatic ecosystems because of increased salinity. You could bury the leftover salt, but that's not a great idea, either. And while desalination plants produce fresh water, we have to burn a lot of energy to reap those rewards.

As part of a series of reports on global water issues, National Geographic explores some possible answers to these problems. Although modern desalination techniques are more energy efficient than older ones (boiling massive quantities of salt water and harvesting the steam for fresh water wasted tremendous amounts of energy), better solutions remain undiscovered. The article presents three potential alternatives to reverse osmosis, but a panacea eludes modern science.

With 1.8 billion people expected to live in areas of extreme water scarcity by 2025, and desalination plants expected to double their rate of output by 2016, we're on our way to figuring this out, but need to redouble our efforts nonetheless. Anyone have any groundbreaking ideas? Let's put this issue to bed.

Evidence suggests there is water on Mars. Maybe we can just zip up there and grab some?

Image credit: James Grellier

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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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