2023-07-24 8 min read

Notes, 2023-07-24

Notes, 2023-07-24
The Museo de Aguas de Alicante, or the water museum of Alicante, uplifts the role of water (and water scarcity) in shaping the form and history of the Spanish coastal city. Photo by author.

I entered the Museo de Aguas de Alicante fifteen minutes before closing. Outside, the streets had emptied in the heat of the afternoon. To my left were traditional high-ceilinged galleries with polished concrete floors and plaques describing the city of Alicante’s hydrological history; to my right was a dark, low corridor with rough arched walls and ceiling that looked hewn out of the cliffside. I chose the wilder path to the right, and found myself in a converted well: the entry room of a system of rain-catching cisterns called the Garrigós wells, carved into the stony slopes of Mount Benacantil in the 19th century.

The wells now make up a chain of oval-shaped galleries in the museum maintained by Alicante’s municipal water provider. Originally, they were built to collect water during torrential rainfall, mitigating the destruction flash floods and landslides caused in the surrounding neighborhoods, and saving the freshwater for the more frequent periods of water scarcity. Later, after more modern municipal water infrastructure was built, the cavernous spaces offered safety to Alicantinos sheltering from air raids during the Spanish Civil War.  When I visited, the galleries held an exhibit of photographs, depicting skyscrapers, powerlines, concrete columns, and paved waterways, often in contrast to natural backgrounds or foregrounds: rocky mountainsides, verdant forests, and blue ocean, appearing somehow undisturbed.

The striking juxtaposition of the glossy photos with the rocky surrounds was a reminder of the relationship between the social and economic processes of urbanization and their below-ground counterparts. Layers of subterranean infrastructure and geochemistry support various facets of life and development. Underneath cities are quarries, catacombs, or active channels transporting people, heat, energy, and sewage. Urban heat islands are mirrored underground. The ground is where oil comes from, where food comes from, and where, in landfills, the evidence of our gargantuan churn of fossil energy into petrochemical products lies stored. And though heat and water might travel more slowly underground, geological conditions are globally interlinked: minerals and microbes from the dust in one country can bring rain to faraway deserts in another.

-Natasha Balwit-Cheung

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~12% of opens) was a rather steampunk firefighting helmet. In the Members' Slack, we've scheduled our next #community-AMA with food engineer Larissa Zhou, on 2023-08-10. She is currently finishing her PhD at Harvard, where she’s been developing a technology for cooking food in a liquid medium in space.

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Calling to mind a city skyline, I mostly picture the sky, with high-rise buildings and landmarks all pointing up. But tall and heavy buildings, like trees, extend further under the ground than people often realize. Over time, in dense urban settings where buildings are constructed and demolished in cycles, land values, and architectural trends incentivize owners to rebuild taller and shinier. The deep foundations necessary to support large buildings may be left in the ground, alongside old utility infrastructure, transit tunnels, and whatever else is down there. Ground congestion on sites, complicated by earlier construction, poses a problem for geotechnical engineers trying to design sufficient foundations for new buildings, as well as for the workers tasked with the maintenance and repair of critical underground infrastructure.

The UK recently launched an early version of its National Underground Asset Register, intended to become a united and comprehensive map of the nation’s underground gas and electricity lines, water pipes, and sewers. Press coverage has included some choice quotes and impressive figures, such as “there’s enough pipe and cable buried in the UK to wrap around the planet about 35 times” and “over 4 million holes are dug in the UK each year–many in the wrong place."


A gigantic deposit of phosphate rock has been announced in Norway. Norge Mining claims to have identified reserves equivalent to 70 billion tons. For perspective, the rest of the world’s previously known deposits (70% of which are in Morocco) amount to 71 billion tons. Most mined phosphate rock is used in agriculture, most commonly as fertilizer. Phosphorus can be found in smaller doses in your bones and teeth, on the tips of strike-anywhere matches, and cycling along the food production chain before winding up in wastewater. But phosphorus is also a critical component of lithium-ion batteries and solar cells. Entry into the market of such a large new source could help avert future “food vs. cars” conflict as industries compete for a necessary resource. It will also certainly shift the global balance of power over phosphorus: China, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Jordan topped the list of producers in 2022, and the only other European country in the top 20 was Finland.

Most phosphorus refinement takes place in China, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan. The traditional refinement process is highly emissions-intensive: both energy-intensive, as it requires heating the ingredients (phosphate rock and carbon coke) to a high reaction temperature, and greenhouse gas-heavy, as it releases CO2 as a byproduct of the chemical reaction. As Norway aspires to develop this boon into “the world’s most sustainable mineral industry,” it will be interesting to watch how they approach contradictions like this.


Solar grazing is the practice of grazing sheep on land that is also used for ground-mounted solar panels. Its advocates cite benefits to farmers – the opportunity to increase and diversify revenues through solar leases while keeping cropland in food production – and to solar farm operators, by eliminating the need for mowing and reducing associated costs and emissions. According to the American Solar Grazing Association, “sheep are naturally suited to the job”:

They enjoy the shade of the solar panels on hot days, napping and grazing where humans would struggle to reach. They are resourceful foragers, walking to search for vegetation that might otherwise become a shady nuisance for the solar company.

But hold your horses: “For the safety of the existing, low-mount solar arrays, goats, cows, pigs, and horses are not recommended.”


If you like your geopolitical analysis of mineral supply chains with a side of human interest, you might also be enraptured by Nick Bowlin’s long-form reportage in The Drift from the 2023 convention of the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada. PDAC is the largest annual mining conference in the world and proves a rich vein of insight.

The mining industry, formerly cowed by mid-2010s lows in precious metal prices (marked by sparser attendance, “far less prime rib,” and more chips and salsa at the 2015 convention), has roared back into optimism, handing out prime rib on one platter and promises of deliverance from climate change on the next. Minerals like lithium, manganese, and cobalt are critical for the production of renewable energy and battery technologies: the desirable future of electric transport and solar panels comes with significant demands. Global decarbonization will require large volumes of mineral resources, and the industry anticipates the pleasure of looking good for once, as well as making trillions of dollars.

Bowlin starts by dipping a toe in the waters at PDAC, but the reader is quickly immersed in the broader sea of international investment, colonial exploitation, techno-optimism, and environmental contradiction in which the mining industry is awash. I learned about the landscapes behind the rise of left-wing and socialist governments in South America’s “lithium triangle;” about China’s relationship with the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and that, according to at least one speculative miner, “a mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing on the edge.”

Bowlin mentions that in some parts of Canada, staking a mining claim still means marking out the territory by pounding in wooden stakes with a mallet. I dug into this passing remark in the essay and learned that this method of staking out a mineral claim is called free entry, and it is contentious. In jurisdictions where free entry prevails, any claim that can be demonstrated is legally defensible. It clearly comes into conflict with Indigenous land ownership systems and undermines First Nations land rights. Some say that it “thwarts sensible land use planning and elevates miners to a form of extraordinary privilege” at the expense of landowners, communities, and government budgets.

The concept of free entry is legally derived from historical tin mining practices in the UK. The 19th-century tin, copper, and arsenic mining industry, centered in Cornwall and Devon, fed Britain’s Industrial Revolution, supplied the American and Australian gold rushes with experienced hard rock miners, and made local rivers run red into the sea. The story of Cornish tin mining is full of invention and tragedy. As surface tin resources were depleted, miners probed deeper along underground lodes: near-vertical sheets of tin ore and other minerals. Following the lodes was challenging and dangerous, and necessity led to the development of skills and machinery, like the Cornish high-pressure steam engine, that would become global exports.

In common usage, the word lode still refers to a vein of metal ore or a dense deposit of something valuable. But cycling across Wicken Fen a few weeks ago, I passed through and over several lodes of a different kind. The Cambridgeshire Lodes contain water instead of metals or minerals. In these saturated fenlands, ‘lode’ described waterways built between Roman and medieval times to facilitate the transport of supplies to remote villages that were not reliably accessible over solid ground.


My brother and several of my cousins have worked as wildland firefighters in the West. During the grim and much written-about weeks when smoke from Canadian wildfires darkened New York City, my cousin remarked on the public response and the little resurgence of N95s: “Do they know that the people fighting the fire are just out there breathing it in?” Wildland firefighters don’t really wear masks. On the frontlines of a fire, the need for crystal clear communication trumps almost everything else, and anything that obscures the face and muffles voices can be felt as an intolerable inconvenience. Bandanas, which are light and easy to take on and off, are the most commonly worn bit of filtration kit but have been shown to have “negligible benefits.”


I liked Alexis Madrigal's playful description of too-thickly-planted carrots as a “living map of the underground, a tangle of beings growing in and around each other, impossibly delicate curves and organic knots of root seeking down.”

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks to Jonas Neubert in the SoW Slack for the solar grazing link, and to Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic for making the Sunday I drafted most of this newsletter way too exciting.

Love, Natasha

p.s. - I’m reading The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. The protagonist, aware that “responsiveness in youth is no guarantee against later dispassion,” describes his father as a caution. In him, “an intense, original lode of high feeling had been depleted: he was working, now, from a keen memory of authentic emotion.” This is probably why the word ‘lode’ stays stuck in my head.

p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

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