Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Scientists Want More Research into Internet Use and Water

When scientists at Imperial College London claimed that downloading a single gigabyte of data could waste up to 200 litres of water, their claims generated one of two reactions. Those who follow such things were visibly shocked while those who do not went on with their lives completely unaffected. Little has changed a year later; not that anything should have.

According to the BBC, the Imperial College London researchers calculated that the 200 litres of water per gigabyte of data is probably used in keeping data centres cool and actually generating the power needed to operate them, but 'probably' is the operative word here. The researchers could not conclusively say how water was being wasted, nor did they provide any concrete evidence that their estimate of 200 litres per gigabyte was accurate.

Bora Ristic, one of the researchers involved in the project, told the BBC that there was quite a bit of uncertainty in the figures. He said water usage could be ‘as low as 1 litre per gigabyte’ rather than 200. What is important, Ristic said, is that their report highlighted the fact that water consumption in relation to internet usage has not been well researched.

A Crisis Where None Exists?

If there is a country in the ever-shrinking world that is cognisant of its responsibility toward the environment, it is the UK. We have been leaders in environmental issues since the Thatcher days, having spear-headed research into global warming and renewable energy. We know a thing or two about protecting the environment, both now and in the future. But are the concerns over water consumption and internet use legitimate? Are researchers creating a crisis where none exists?

Water used to cool data centres is not wasted as researchers contend. Some of that water can be recycled and sent back through the system for continued cooling; what is not recycled gets sent out to be treated before being released. As far as the water used to generate power, it is not wasted either. It evaporates as steam to become part of the natural water cycle.

The earth's water cycle is key to understanding this whole issue. The reality is that water consumption does not equal waste. Water that is consumed by living organisms is eventually transferred back to the atmosphere through respiration and perspiration, once again taking its place in the water cycle. Water that is not consumed (e.g. for data centre cooling) is also returned to the water cycle when released following treatment.

It is true that land masses can experience drought from insufficient rainfall, but the total volume of water on the planet is never diminished. Unless a particular area is suffering a drought, the issue of using water to cool data centres and generate power to run those data centres is really a non-issue after all. Let's research it if scientists want the data, but let us not put out alarming statistics that are likely invalid and irrelevant.

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