Previous: The Universe’s Second, Bigger Bang
Next: The Weirdest Kinds of Lightning You've Never Heard Of



View count:4,766
Last sync:2024-06-08 17:30


Citation formatting is not guaranteed to be accurate.
MLA Full: "We Discovered a New Natural Cycle!" YouTube, uploaded by SciShow, 8 June 2024,
MLA Inline: (SciShow, 2024)
APA Full: SciShow. (2024, June 8). We Discovered a New Natural Cycle! [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (SciShow, 2024)
Chicago Full: SciShow, "We Discovered a New Natural Cycle!", June 8, 2024, YouTube, 06:56,
So we all know about the carbon cycle, and the water cycle, and maybe even the nitrogen cycle. But new research has figured out there's a salt cycle, too. Problem is, that same research has found that we already broke it. Here's what that means and how we can fix our broken salt cycle!

Hosted by: Savannah Geary (they/them)
Support SciShow by becoming a patron on Patreon:
Huge thanks go to the following Patreon supporters for helping us keep SciShow free for everyone forever: Adam Brainard, Alex Hackman, Ash, Benjamin Carleski, Bryan Cloer, charles george, Chris Mackey, Chris Peters, Christoph Schwanke, Christopher R Boucher, DrakoEsper, Eric Jensen, Friso, Garrett Galloway, Harrison Mills, J. Copen, Jaap Westera, Jason A Saslow, Jeffrey Mckishen, Jeremy Mattern, Kenny Wilson, Kevin Bealer, Kevin Knupp, Lyndsay Brown, Matt Curls, Michelle Dove, Piya Shedden, Rizwan Kassim, Sam Lutfi
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?
SciShow Tangents Podcast:

#SciShow #science #education #learning #complexly
Nature loves to do things in cycles.

You probably learned about some of  them in school, like the water cycle, maybe the carbon cycle, and heck,  maybe even the nitrogen cycle. What you probably can’t picture as a poster on your classroom wall is the salt cycle.

And that’s because we’ve just discovered it. And we’ve also already broken it. Yay.

In fact, humans are breaking the  natural flow of salt by… a lot. And in order for us to understand what  we’re breaking before we can fix it, let’s take a look at what the salt  cycle even is, and why it matters. [♪ INTRO] First of all, we are not just talking  about the salt on your kitchen table. Table salt, AKA sodium chloride,  is just one kind of salt out there.

See, in chemistry, salts are  combinations of a positive ion and a negative ion that come  together to form a neutral compound. So for instance, your positive sodium  ion meets a negative chlorine ion, and they pair up and make the  salt on your potato chips. But you can also pair up two  sodium ions with one sulfate ion, since that’s got a charge of minus two.

Or maybe that chlorine is more interested in doubling up and pairing with a magnesium ion. Point is, as long as the charges balance  out, there are a bunch of different ways to group up some ions to form a salt. But when we’re talking about the salt  cycle, the main players we’re interested in are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium,  chloride, bicarbonate, and sulfate.

That being said, those ions  won’t stick together forever. Throw them into some water  and the polar water molecules pull the ions apart again, at least until  they dry out and get stuck back together. So it makes sense that salt can go through  natural cycles, if you think about it.

Salt can erode out of rocks, dissolve  in water, and get washed out to sea. And once it’s there, it  doesn’t have to stay there; salt can be blown back to  land by the wind or deposited on the seafloor where it can  eventually be lifted back up and out. There’s a bit more to it than that, but the general idea is that salt  is pretty much always on the move.

Which actually makes it surprising that  scientists didn’t think of it that way, at least not until pretty recently. Apparently the people who  study salt levels in the soil and the people who study salt levels in  freshwater don’t, like, talk to each other. And if you look at everything in isolation  like that, you can miss big trends in how things are moving from place to  place, and how that might be changing.

So in a 2023 paper, researchers  connected those dots and made the case that the salt cycle  belongs with the water cycle and all the other cycles we think about  for how stuff moves around the planet. They also determined that  like so many cycles before it, humans have screwed it up. We’re basically moving salts  all around the cycle faster and at higher quantities than the  natural processes can cope with, and the amount of stuff we actually  use salts for is kinda staggering.

Consider mining – not just rock salt,  but also stuff like potash that gets used for fertilizer, and  materials for cement and concrete. And when we mine them out  of environments, they’re… not there any more to erode out over  time and slowly wash downstream. And then when that cement and concrete weathers, it erodes all those salts into the water and soil, but much faster than would  have happened naturally.

Same with the fertilizer that we chuck into fields and then runs off into the environment. Salts are even used in cleaning  supplies, like detergents, and they enter the environment via wastewater. Another big one is road salt.

We’re mining out rock salt,  scattering it all over our roads, and never really cleaning it all up. Here in the US, it doesn’t  seem like anyone bothers to limit how much road salt you use. At best they make polite suggestions.

That road salt can either get  washed away by melting snow and ice, or just kind of sit there where it is  and slowly soaks down into the soil. All of this essentially  takes that weathering process and puts it on ultra fast-forward. So maybe you’re thinking,  but Earth is surely very big.

And we humans are very small. Can we really be disrupting  the salt cycle so much? Yes.

Yes we can. Estimates suggest that in the United  States, just shy of 200 megatonnes of salt are washed into rivers and streams every year from natural, non-human related sources. But just road deicing alone produces  37.8 megatonnes of salt runoff.

Add in other sources like agriculture  and you end up with 80-ish megatonnes of anthropogenic salts  entering the freshwater system, so 40% of what Mother Nature was doing on her own. Asking the natural salt cycle to deal  with that much salt is asking a lot. It’s not like we can just stop  doing some of these things.

Food needs fertilizer, and  I dare you to get anywhere here in Missoula in January without road salt. And before all you locals say that  they don’t salt the road in Missoula. Yes, we do.

That is a myth. But it is worth understanding their  impacts, including on ourselves. Salts blown by the wind can wreck soil fertility.

And since the wind can carry things a long way, the effects aren’t localized to  whoever’s fault it was to start with. For example, a lake in Kazakhstan  called the Aral Sea started drying up in the 1960’s, and by now  it’s almost completely gone. Now, winds carry salt from  the dried-up lake bed up to 500 kilometers away into neighboring  Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

That has negative consequences  for crops, wildlife, and human health all along the way. Or consider the effect on freshwater  lakes, where a spike in chloride – especially from road salt – can  signal a die-off of zooplankton and a corresponding algal bloom. That has negative consequences  for commercial fishing, as well as the overall health  of the lake’s ecosystem.

In 2022, researchers warned that current  limits on chloride across North America and Europe aren’t strict enough  to prevent this from happening. And we humans are not immune to  the consequences of our actions. For instance, a lot of that salt  ends up in our drinking water, and we can’t always filter all of it out.

And when we’re talking about sodium in particular, that can lead to high blood pressure,  especially in pregnant folks. Saltier groundwater can even  encourage radioactive elements to leach into the aquifers where we  get our water… and I don’t think I have to explain to you why you don’t  want radium in your drinking water. So, what can we do?

Well, it’s pretty early days for this  research, like, it’s literally the same group of researchers in the same paper  saying “There is a salt cycle!” and also “we broke it.” According to those researchers, we need  a clearer understanding of human effects on salt transport so we can  figure out what effective limits would be for curbing our salt use. It’s also vitally important to understand  just how much salt we’re pumping into fresh water, because we… need that stuff. And we need more information on, and experts from, the global south to make sure we go  about making change in an equitable way.

But I think it’s sort of cool  that we’re still discovering big, planet-wide phenomena like this. I mean, there’s a whole global  salt cycle and we just noticed? What else do we just not know about yet?

Hopefully, next time we discover a  whole system about how our world works, we do so before we break the  whole thing, and not after. [♪ OUTRO]