Society and the Environment: Water Challenges

Safe water is a basic human necessity for cleaning, cooking, and drinking. At least one in eight people worldwide do not have access to a safe and reliable water supply.

In the United States and other developed countries it is easy to get clean water. These countries have systems to deliver water to distant places. They also have effective laws and management to preserve the water supply and have good waste collection and treatment systems. In much of the world, this is not the case. Access to clean water is one of the world’s biggest health challenges. For example, in many African countries, there is not enough water. In places where there is plenty of water, it often is contaminated with human wastes or pollutants. Thousands of people die every day from diarrhea caused by drinking unsafe water.

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Society and the Environment: Solar Living

solar decathlon

The solar panels on each house use energy from the sun to produce electricity that is used to power appliances, lights, mechanical systems, and electronics.

What is it like to live in a house powered entirely by the sun’s energy? You might expect the house to lack some modern comforts—perhaps it would be cramped, unattractive, too cold during the winter, too hot during the summer, or dimly lit at night. And it’s sure to be expensive, right? These things are not always true, and none of these issues are the case if the house is a successful entry in the Solar Decathlon.

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Society and the Environment: Gold from Ghana

Geologists and miners inspect core samples at an underground gold mine in Obuasi, Ghana.The world market price of gold rose from $260 to $1,730 per ounce between 2001 and 2012. Most people don’t think about it, but the environmental and social consequences of this price increase have been substantial. This is especially true in countries where many people live in poverty. The situation in Ghana illustrates the complex interplay of societal and environmental processes that can lead to local crises or, alternatively, show cause for …hope.

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Society and the Environment: Killer Smog

killer smog

This historical photo captures the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, as it is enveloped in smog at noon on Saturday, October 28, 1948.

For the residents of the small Monongahela Valley town of Donora, Pennsylvania, living with the smoke that billowed from the local zinc smelter was an everyday occurrence— until October 26, 1948. On that night, a temperature inversion and an absence of wind began to trap a deadly mixture of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and metal dust that would hang in the valley air for five days. Over that period of time, 20 residents lost their lives and 7,000 other residents—about half of the town’s population—suffered some form of respiratory problems.

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Society and the Environment: Lost Populations: What Happened?

Easter Island stone figure

These large stone figures found on Easter Island were made by a civilization that has disappeared.

At various points in human history, entire populations have disappeared and left mysterious remains such as the Egyptian pyramids and the Anasazi pueblos in the southwestern United States. Why did these people and their civilizations disappear? Archeologists sometimes find evidence that environmental destruction was one of the reasons the populations disappeared.

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Society and the Environment: Conserving Top Predators


Successful reintroduction of wild wolves in the American West has led to significant changes in the ecosystem.

Return of Wolves
By the early 1900s wolves had been virtually eliminated from most of their native range in the United States. They were hunted vigorously because they killed livestock. In Yellowstone National Park, wolves were hunted to extinction.

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Society and the Environment: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

New Orleans

Over 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged by floodwater when Hurricane Katrina struck in August, 2005.

The city of New Orleans was built on the Mississippi River Delta, about 160 kilometers upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. This city is vulnerable to flooding from the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain to the north, and heavy rainfall from tropical storms. In addition, hurricanes that pass over the coast can create storm surges—waves up to 9 meters.

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Society and the Environment: Changing Seas

catching fish

Overfishing from higher trophic levels means commercial fishers must harvest from lower trophic levels to meet demand.

Most of the food we eat comes from agriculture and farming, but we also rely on the fishing industry. About 15% of the animal protein consumed in the world comes from fish and other marine and aquatic organisms. But many fish species have been overharvested. The swordfish and cod fisheries of the North Atlantic and the salmon fishery off the northwestern coast of the United States are examples of depleted fisheries. In many parts of the world, sharks are disappearing rapidly because of the demand for shark fin soup. Some fisheries now contain so few fish that harvesting them is not economical. And the size of some of the harvested fish that remain are now smaller because they don’t survive long enough to grow.

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Society and the Environment: Ocean Currents

rubber duckie

A shipment of rubber ducks lost at sea helped scientists study ocean current movements.

Ocean currents are important in transporting heat, water, nutrients, pollutants, and organisms around the world. Even though they are important, ocean currents have been hard to study. Scientists used to drop labeled bottles in the oceans in different places and then recorded where they were picked up. Now, oceanographers attach transmitters to drifters. These transmitters send their position to satellites overhead, providing scientists with information that is helpful in a variety of ways, from protecting endangered species to making important decisions with far-reaching effects.

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Society and the Environment: Bats and Bridges

Congress Avenue bridge bats

Mexican free-tailed bats leave their roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, to hunt for insects.

A large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats lives under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas. These bats eat millions of insects a night, so they are welcome neighbors. Communities around the country and around the world have learned of the bats and have asked Austin for help in building bat-friendly bridges. But all that the people of Austin knew was that the bats appeared after the Congress Avenue Bridge was rebuilt in the 1980s. What attracted the bats? The people of Austin had to do a little research.

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