Passwords — Wonderful Water: Amazing and sustaining

Because water is so fundamental to life and because we tend to take it for granted during our everyday busy lives, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to re-emphasize what a strange and wonderful thing water is. Water is life. Without water we don’t exist – with it we do. And it is the magical qualities of water that make it what it is so we can live where it is.

The familiar formula of water, H2O, portrays the chemical makeup of common water – two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen. Hydrogen has an atomic number of 1 (one proton in its nucleus), an atomic weight of 1.008, and it becomes a liquid at -422.9 degrees F. Oxygen has an atomic number of 8 (eight protons in its nucleus), an atomic weight of 15.999, and it becomes a liquid at -297.4 degrees F.

Dick Gray, founder of
the Freshwater Society
has written the
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Together these two elements sire that strange bedfellow, water, which does not follow the usual organized system of behavior of its “sister” chemicals. If water stayed “in step” with usual chemical behavior, it should freeze at -148 degrees F. and boil at -132 degrees F. with that narrow span of only 16 degrees F. separating boiling and freezing at extremely cold temperatures. Instead, water normally freezes at the familiar 32 degrees F. and boils at 212 degrees F. Why? Because that’s the way it is.

Water is strange in many ways, and it’s lucky for us. It has an “anomalous behavior”– most unusual among known liquids – in which it weighs the most at 39.2 degrees F., becoming lighter as it cools below and lighter as it warms above that temperature. Much of the essence of life revolves around this phenomenon.

The purification of bodies of water depends so much upon water sinking and rising periodically as the water cools and warms, circulating within itself because of the relative differences in weights as the water temperatures change.

Fish and bacterial decomposition depend upon dissolved oxygen in the water; currents are established by the unequal weights of water masses; and water’s capacity to absorb and retain heat, thereby affecting climates – all involve the temperature-change factor.

More unusual qualities of water: Water is rare in having a “triple point,” not only within the living capabilities of humans but in having one at all. H2O is regularly present in three forms at one time: solid, liquid and gas. To be stable and yet present in these thee forms at one time is possible for water when the temperature is precisely 0.0100 degrees C. at a pressure of exactly 4.579 millimeters of mercury. Only water, gallium and bismuth expand their volume on melting, and water has a “temperature of fusion” of 32 degrees F. where a solid and a liquid can co-exist. This temperature is where the temperature of a solid cannot be raised above its melting point until all of the solid is melted.
Hydrogen and oxygen readily combine to form H2O, and when they do, a tremendous amount of energy is released. One experiment states that the reaction of creating 10 pounds of water releases enough energy to light a light bulb for 325 hours.

When the dirigible Hindenburg exploded on landing at Lakehurst, N.J., years ago, the chemical reaction of the dirigible’s hydrogen combining with the air’s oxygen produced not only the violent explosion as the energy of combination was released, but also vast amounts of water.

Kitchen steam that accumulates during cooking with gas is partly manufactured water created from hydrogen in the gas combining with oxygen in the air to form the water. The kitchen does get warmer in the process. Chemical reactions that occur while burning wood in a fireplace include the manufacturing of water. It is estimated the compounds formed during fire burning equal or exceed the weight of the wood burned. It is also estimated that the amount of water created is more than enough to extinguish the fire if collected and poured back on it.

Water as a liquid rules our lives. The human body averages 65 percent of its weight in water, blood 83 percent, bone 22 percent, brain and muscle 75 percent.

We die if we lose up to 15 percent of this 65 percent.

Our bodily water carries essential salts and oxygen though the body. It is the main ingredient for blood circulation. It controls muscle movements and removes body wastes to eliminate the buildup of poisons.

On the average, a man carries about 100 pounds of water within his body and needs to replace about 2.5 quarts a day to maintain the watery balance. Some he gets by drinking, some by food that is eaten (watermelon is 95 percent water, corn 70 percent) and some from the body’s metabolism of food.

The body sweats, the eyes produce tears and the kidneys cleanse 2,000 quarts of watery blood daily to remove impurities from the blood. There are limitations. Seawater with more than 3 percent concentration of salts will kill a human from dehydration because the kidneys can only handle a salt concentration of a little more than 2 percent. To handle more than that, the kidneys call on excess body fluids to flush the salts which causes the dehydration.

Water as a liquid influences our lives. The rains, rivers, streams, brooks and springs, the lakes and ponds, the mighty oceans are essential liquid masses we travel across, play in and on, and fish from. Yet of all the water in the world only about one-fifth of 1 percent of it is in our freshwater lakes, streams and rivers, and about five-eighths of 1 percent is in groundwater and subsoil moisture. Over 97 percent of the world’s water is in oceans, “polluted” with salt. A little over 2.12 percent is locked in glaciers and polar caps of ice or in the atmosphere.

The magic of water creates many moods for a man to enjoy, or to combat, or to curse, or to be thankful to for the stuff of life. However, man can drown in the liquid or die an agonizing death without it. He can fall through the solid stuff to a watery grave or be scalded to death from the hot searing gaseous steam.

But those are the chances man must take to live with this precious compound. Without it we are nothing. We must preserve it, respect it, cherish it, husband it. It is our master, and we should be intelligent enough to realize that. Although we may think water serves us, in reality we must serve water. Most of the time we don’t remember that.

This column, first published in August 1980, is reprinted from Dick Gray’s book Open Season.