For eons human beings have considered water magical. Clearly it was understood that rain filled the oceans, rivers and the lakes. Snow and ice in the mountains would melt and feed creeks that would join with rivers. But where did the water come from that seeped straight out of the ground? Why was it that some wells ran dry while others didn’t? Where did the water deep in the ground come from?
Water offered humanity deep mysteries, and to explain them all required mixing practical wisdom with the supernatural – which means there were water spirits mixed with thought leaders. Paracelsus knew about that mix, he was a Swiss German Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist who lived in Europe during the early 1500’s. He was a contemporary of Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther and founded the discipline of toxicology. He was a revolutionary and today we would probably call him a wildcrafter because he insisted upon using observations within nature, rather than looking only to the texts supported by institutions, which represented an open and radical defiance of the medical practice of his day.
He spent a great deal of his life studying the mysteries associated with water and in his alchemical writings he created a term called “undines” or “ondines” which he described as a category of elemental beings associated with water.
Paracelsus believed that each of the four classical elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire – is inhabited by different categories of elemental spirits, liminal creatures that share our world: gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders respectively. He describes these elementals as the "invisible, spiritual counterparts of visible Nature ... many resembling human beings in shape, and inhabiting worlds of their own, unknown to man because his undeveloped senses were incapable of functioning beyond the limitations of the grosser elements."
Undines as the elemental beings of water, are almost invariably depicted as being female, which is consistent with the ancient idea that water is a female element. They are usually found in forest pools and waterfalls, and their beautiful singing voices are sometimes heard over the sound of water. The group contains many species, including nereides, limoniades, naiades and mermaids. Although resembling humans in form they lack a human soul, so to achieve immortality they must acquire one by marrying a human. Such a union is not without risk for the man, because if he is unfaithful he is fated to die.
The offspring of a union between an undine and a man are human with a soul, but have some kind of aquatic characteristic, a watermark or perhaps a close and intimate connection with water.
Perhaps these offspring of the undine became messengers, telling us about the sacredness of water? Perhaps they taught us about the water deities and how they were connected to various bodies of water. Water deities are common in beliefs everywhere and were connected to the sea or ocean, or a great river. They brought awareness of sacred springs or holy wells. They became instruments of a spiritual commitment to protect sacred waters – a commitment that would last for generations.
To this day, water continues to be a mystery to us, but instead of celebrating our spiritual connection to water and how it supports life, we celebrate its function. For many of us, water has become simply an instrument for us to consume; but for a few, water remains mysterious and sacred because it holds certain secrets – like that long standing question - where does it come from?
This question has moved to the forefront of Earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?
The answer is likely "both," according to researchers at The Ohio State University -- and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.
At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Dec.17, 2014 they reported the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.
In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted Earth and deposited water on the surface.
Wendy Panero, associate professor of Earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.
Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn't the mantle have run out of water by now?
Because there's no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.
"When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we're really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?" Panero said. "In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We're also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that's part of what makes Earth habitable."
Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water -- in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.
Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet's total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.
In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell -- a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser -- to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals' crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals' relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface -- a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.
In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth's water supply.
Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found -- a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the "transition zone" -- as the most likely region that can hold a planet's worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.
One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?
For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier -- a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.
If this scenario is accurate, Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said -- an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.
"One way to look at this research is that we're putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there," Pigott added.
Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water "one of the great mysteries in the geosciences." But this new study supports researchers' growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth's water cycle.
"If all of the Earth's water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years," she said. "But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet's water has to be billions of years."
There is much that we have come to understand about water, which is a good thing because demand already exceeds supply in many parts of the world, and many more areas are expected to experience this imbalance in the near future. Climate change will have significant impacts on water resources around the world because of the close connections between the climate and hydrologic cycle. Due to the expanding human population, competition for water is growing such that many of the worlds major aquifers are becoming depleted.
Many pollutants threaten water supplies, and now hydraulic fracturing is becoming widespread, and is now being considered another threat to aquifers. So as we come to believe that we understand water, the more of it we seem to use. At his point Paracelsus would be seeking advice from the undine’s so that we could better understand the secrets of waters spirit. Perhaps the final last words on this topic should be stated by the Scottish poet George Macdonald who was a pioneer figure in the field of fantasy literature.
“There is no water in oxygen, no water in hydrogen: it comes bubbling fresh from the imagination of the living God, rushing from under the great white throne of the glacier. The very thought of it makes one gasp with an elemental joy no metaphysician can analyze. The water itself, that dances, and sings, and slakes the wonderful thirst--symbol and picture of that draught for which the woman of Samaria made her prayer to Jesus--this lovely thing itself, whose very wetness is a delight to every inch of the human body in its embrace--this live thing which, if I might, I would have running through my room, yea, babbling along my table--this water is its own self its own truth, and is therein a truth of God.”