How Fog Could Help Solve California’s Drought (And Make Delicious Vodka)
As Robert Redford’s character in All Is Lost proved, in dire situations, water can be teased out of thin air. In the movie, Redford collects condensation from a makeshift seawater desalination system he rigs up in his lifeboat. In California, it’s being harvested from the fog that rolls in off the Pacific. Images from a drought-stricken California shocked the rest of the country when they circulated last year: dry and cracked riverbeds, brown golf courses, shriveled crops. The drought that has plagued the state since 2011 is showing signs of easing up thanks to the relief brought by El Niño, but it’s far from over. As Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told NPR, because California grows so much of the nation’s food, which requires vast amounts of water, it’s likely to continue suffering “chronic water scarcity.”
Might there be a solution right beneath our noses? Or, rather, hanging above our heads? Fog, the atmospheric phenomenon that makes San Francisco such a picturesque—if damp—place to live, is essentially low-lying clouds made up of countless water droplets. A Canadian nonprofit called FogQuest is working with local researchers to test fog harvesting systems in key areas across the state. The Bay Area, now has several fog catchers designed to capture moisture from the ever-present mist. Erected in strategic locations, they are made up of large plastic mesh sheets that collect the water droplets in the air, which then drip down into a tank.
In the past decade, FogQuest has installed fog catchers in such places as Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Chile’s Atacama Desert, parts of which get little more than a millimeter of rainfall per year. The contraptions require no electricity and collected an average of half a gallon per square yard of mesh in a Bay Area trial run. The water can be used for drinking, cooking, washing, gardening. In Chile, there is even a beer brewed with fog water. In California, it’s now being used to make artisanal vodka.
Alameda-based Hangar 1 is launching Fog Point Vodka, distilled from a local biodynamic wine and brought down to proof with water collected from FogQuest fog catchers. The result is a spirit that shows elegant minerality—the winemaker and a local FogQuest volunteer disagree about whether that gentle salinity comes from the wine or the fog water, which could be influenced by the sea. In any case, it isn’t just a gimmick, insists head distiller Caley Shoemaker. The hope is that it will shine a light on this simple, technology.
“We work with a lot of local farmers,” says Shoemaker, who sources fresh citrus for macerating into the brand’s flavored vodkas locally.“The drought is something they’re all dealing with.” She had been mulling just how she could address the concerns of local farmers when she learned that it was possible to turn mist into usable water. FogQuest ended up providing her with 330 gallons of fog water.
“It could be a great resource for local farmers or vineyards,” says FogQuest’s cofounder and executive director, Robert Schemenauer, adding that several are researching the technology and have already bought mesh from FogQuest. “Over the years, fog water has been used for a variety of purposes, including agriculture and reforestation, in various countries.”
The concept of collecting water from fog is nothing new, he explains. Some 2,000 years ago, the Romans who colonized the African coastal islands found that they could collect water from the trees after a fog drifted in. In the 19th century, California scientists noticed that Redwood trees were getting watered without rain.
Today, says Schemenauer, small farmers in California could use the technology to reduce their water usage. But, he warns, harvesting fog takes time and results can vary greatly depending on the fog catcher’s location. Naturally, certain spots get more fog than others. He’s optimistic about the technology’s potential but stresses that “it’s definitely not the only answer to this crisis.”
Daniel Fernandez, a FogQuest collaborator and professor at California State University, Monterey Bay, now has dozens of fog-catching sites along central and northern California. As he collects moisture, his ultimate goal is to gather data on the technology’s potential. He says fog water has been used to grow vegetable gardens in Latin America; he even grew a little potted chard watered by the steady drip of a small fog collector on the roof of a building on campus. But he believes the technology’s greatest benefit to Californians may be as a teaching tool.
“The technology is more successful when we don’t expect it to provide the levels of water that the average person in the U.S. uses,” he says. “[But] implementing fog technology may make farmers grow wiser in terms of limiting water use.”
In a TEDx talk he gave in 2011, Fernandez showed a film clip of a Buddhist temple in Nepal, where a man described in precise detail how every liter of fog water collected was used—so many liters for cooking and tea, so many for washing. Perhaps, Fernandez muses, collecting moisture in such a painstaking way, droplet by droplet plucked from low-lying clouds, could inspire us to become more conscious of our own water consumption.
Read the original article at vogue.com