The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments

By Claude A. Piantadosi | Go to book overview

6
Water That Makes Men Mad

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the words, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798, the dangers of drinking seawater had been known for thousands of years. Seawater does indeed make men mad. Historical evidence indicates the ancient Egyptians knew seawater was not potable, but the earliest realization that it was unsafe to drink has been lost to antiquity. In pre-Columbian times the greatest fear of venturing too far from land on the ocean was not falling off the surface of the Earth but lack of fresh drinking water. From a human perspective the oceans, which cover 70% of Earth's surface, are still the most extensive and unique desert wildernesses on the planet. Saltwater constitutes 97% of Earth's water, and of the 3% that is fresh, two-thirds is frozen in glaciers and polar ice. Thus, a mere 1% of all the water on the planet (in lakes and rivers, groundwater, and the atmosphere) is fresh and can be used by terrestrial plants and animals.

For a mariner adrift at sea, the most common causes of death are hypothermia and dehydration, and the castaway's fate depends to a great extent on water temperature. Hypothermia is the survival-limiting problem more than 30° N or S of the equator; this safe temperature zone shrinks to 20° N or S in winter. Dehydration is the major problem on the oceans between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and in lifeboats and rafts is an important cause of death at all temperate latitudes.

-54-

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The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xi
  • 1: The Human Environment 1
  • 2: Survival and Adaptation 10
  • 3: Cross-Acclimation 21
  • 4: Food for Thought 29
  • 5: Water and Salt 41
  • 6: Water That Makes Men Mad 54
  • 7: Tolerance to Heat 63
  • 8: Endless Oceans of Sand 78
  • 9: Hypothermia 89
  • 10: Life and Death on the Crystal Desert 99
  • 11: Survival in Cold Water 119
  • 12: Air as Good as We Deserve 129
  • 13: Bends and Rapture of the Deep 140
  • 14: Sunken Submarines 152
  • 15: Climbing Higher 164
  • 16: Into the Wild Blue Yonder 181
  • 17: G Whiz 193
  • 18: The Gravity of Microgravity 203
  • 19: Weapons of Mass Destruction 212
  • 20: Human Prospects for Colonizing Space 227
  • Bibliography and Supplemental Reading 247
  • Index 255
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