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Worried AI Is Taking Jobs? It’s Also Taking Water

September 17, 2023

Poem Written by Libyan Predicted the Disaster That Killed Him

A prophetic poem written by a man from Derna, Libya, just days before catastrophe struck his country last week, has gone viral. His poem warned of a failed state—and rain as a “a sign of goodness, a promise of help, an alarm bell.” Tragically, the poet, Mustafa al-Trabelsi, was himself a victim of the flooding in Libya, which left more than 11,000 people dead and 10,000 missing. The Guardian reports that shortly before the deluge, he attended a meeting to discuss the condition of two dams and flood risk. 

On 10 September 2023, heavy rains caused by Storm Daniel flooded many cities in eastern Libya, with the city of Derna being the worst hit.  |  Credit: European Union, Copernicus Emergency Management Service data

In just 24 hours, the area, which is generally very dry, received more rain than what typically falls in a year, from Storm Daniel in the Mediterranean, similar to a hurricane and called a “medicane.”  The dams above Derna failed, releasing a 23-foot wave of water that hit the city of about 100,000 people. The dams were likely not maintained and were not constructed to proper standards. What was a narrow channel in the city of Derna turned into a 100-meter-wide scar on the landscape, where everything including people, buildings, and cars was washed away toward the sea. CNN reports that about 40,000 residents in eastern Libya have been displaced by the storm.

Earlier, the storm caused record-breaking rainfall in Greece, which had its hottest summer ever. Storm Daniel then moved south, intensifying over the sea and hitting Libya’s coast and its second-largest city, Benghazi. Survivors could be seen at the seashore looking for dead relatives whose bodies may have washed up.

The cause of the extreme rain will not be known with certainty until after research, but climate change makes oceans warmer and gives storms more energy.  Plus, a hotter atmosphere holds more water, which can supercharge precipitation.

Nature magazine spoke to researchers who said that climate change along with the effects of Libya’s civil war and crisis of governance worsened the disaster in that country.  Libya has two opposing governments, and the economy is struggling.  Experts say this disaster sadly demonstrates the effects of extreme weather on vulnerable populations, who have difficulty in preparing adequately. The head of the World Meteorological Organization said that most of the disaster could have been avoided if the country had a functioning meteorological service.

It’s Not Just the Ocean. Rivers Are Running Out of Breath Too

The world’s oceans are heating up because of the climate crisis, which is leading to ice-melting, sea-level rise, and marine heatwaves. Perhaps less talked about though, is that warmer temperatures are also reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen the seas can hold, causing more dead zones where marine life can’t survive. However, these low-oxygen areas aren’t confined to the ocean. According to new research led by Penn State, thanks to global warming we could one day have dead zones in rivers where the process is happening faster.

Bruneau River, Idaho  |  Credit: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

The finding was surprising to the researchers who expected that, because rivers are shallow and fast-moving, the water can absorb oxygen directly from the air more rapidly than standing water. Also, rivers contain plants that make oxygen. However, their analysis, which used AI to collect data about 580 rivers in the U.S. and 216 rivers in Central Europe, found otherwise. They determined that 87 percent of the waterways have been getting warmer in the past four decades and 70 percent were losing oxygen.

They also found that urban rivers are warming up most rapidly, while rural ones near agricultural areas are losing oxygen faster, perhaps because of fertilizer runoff, which can fuel algal blooms that also deplete oxygen. Writing in The Conversation, lead author Li Li (李黎) said this could be partly due to nutrient pollution, which combines with warmer waters to fuel large algal blooms because, when the algae die and decompose, they deplete dissolved oxygen in the water.

Reduced oxygen in rivers can lead to fish die-offs and threaten aquatic diversity. An added concern is that deoxygenation could promote chemical reactions that would release toxic metals from river sediments as well as greenhouse gases like methane, furthering the climate crisis in a feedback loop.

The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Artificial Intelligence Is Slurping Up Text, Images, Video—and Water

Last week, the Senate began the first of several meetings with tech leaders about regulating artificial intelligence, or AI. While there’s much concern that the technology could eliminate jobs and spread disinformation, another risk perhaps less acknowledged is that AI is thirsty—not just for knowledge but also for water.

Data processing centers consume water by using electricity from steam generating power plants and by using on-site chillers to keep their servers cool.  |  Credit: Evan Fields/UCR

In generative AI—the machine-learning model behind popular apps like ChatGPT and Bard—supercomputers gobble up volumes of text, images, video, and other content to train themselves to respond like a human to user prompts, such as requests to help write an essay, compose music, or plan a vacation. All that computing that happens in racks of servers in warehouse-sized data centers can generate a lot of heat, so volumes of fresh water are required to keep equipment cool. How much? In its latest sustainability report Microsoft disclosed that its global water consumption spiked by more than 30 percent from 2021 to 2022 to nearly 1.7 billion gallons—the equivalent of 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools—and experts say it’s mostly to do with AI.

One of those experts is Shaolei Ren at the University of California, Riverside, who has been studying the environmental impact of generative AI products. He says ChatGPT gulps down roughly a half-liter (around 17 ounces) of water every time it responds to between 20 and 50 prompts.

One place that AI is driving water consumption is in Iowa, where Microsoft has an advanced AI data center. As the Associated Press reports, much of the year the weather is cool enough to offset the heat, but in the summer, the facility needs water and draws from the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, consuming about six percent of all the water used in the district, which also supplies the city’s residents.

Microsoft is not alone in guzzling water. According to Ren and his team, Google’s data centers in the U.S. alone consumed an estimated 12.7 billion liters of fresh water in 2021 to keep their servers cool—a 20 percent increase from the previous year, which Ren attributes mostly to AI.

Ren told H2O Radio that it’s important for people to understand consumption versus use. Data centers consume water to cool equipment by using electricity from steam generating power plants and by using on-site chillers to keep their servers cool. People use water, for example in households, but it eventually goes down the drain to a treatment facility where it is cleaned and returned to a watershed.

Ren confirmed to H2O Radio by email that one way to lower the water footprint of AI is to schedule the time computers spend training to nighttime, when it’s cooler.

Transit Riders May Be Saying “Gimme Shelter”—Just Not a Bus Shelter

If you take outside public transit in the middle of summer, you might find yourself looking for some shade from the sun, but don’t assume that a bus shelter will help. It could actually make you hotter. That’s what an investigation by Houston Public Media revealed in what may be a first-of-its-kind examination into the dangers of waiting for a bus as the climate warms.

Credit: Gail Delaughter/Houston Public Media

This summer was one of the hottest on record in Houston with temperatures above 100 for weeks.  So, two journalists wanted to learn about how it affects bus riders. Their study, conducted with the guidance of a professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, showed that almost three-quarters of the bus shelters reached temperatures at which people were at extreme risk for heat illness such as heatstroke or heat exhaustion. And in close to 20 percent of the shelters, the heat was worse than standing in direct sunlight.

One bus rider told the team that they look for shade nearby and don’t go in the shelters because it feels steamy and the numbers bore that out. Inside bus shelters the temperatures were often above the high heat stress mark, while the protection offered by nearby trees was much better than the shelters and was rarely as high.  All tree-shade readings were nearly six degrees cooler than direct sun. While three-sided plexiglass shelters did offer some protection from direct sunlight, if the sun was shining in a shelter, the temperature was almost four degrees higher than outside of it.  

The study used Wet Bulb Globe Temperatures (WBGT)  that measure solar radiation, air temperature, humidity, wind speed, and cloud coverage.  A WBGT above 90 is a very high heat stress day, according to a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The Houston METRO bus authority told the reporters that shelters are tested for how they handle rain—but not heat.