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Planetary Science, Landscape Architecture and the Future of Swimming Pools

“Robyn’s piece goes to show that a global perspective on how we use the earth’s vital resources isn’t enough—you need to travel to the planets to get the big picture”.

Dr. Anthony F. Aveni, Colgate University Professor of Astronomy and Professor of Anthropology

Much of the talk today is about going to Mars and I’ve recently been on a message board discussing how the experience of swimming in a pool on Mars would be different because of the lower gravity – Mars has only a little over 1/3 of the gravitational pull of the Earth. It’s an interesting discussion because the actual swimming would be pretty much the same, however diving in, jumping out, wave motion and splashing would be very noticeably different!

But as a kid growing up in the 1950’s, the planet Venus was often the focus of discussion. Venus is the third brightest object in our sky, right after the sun and the moon. Venus has frequently been referred to as “Earth’s twin” because it’s very close to being the same size as our planet, has about the same mass, and is our closest planetary neighbor, roughly twice as close to the Earth than Mars.

Venus (and Mars) also formed out of the same stuff and at the same time that the Earth was formed around 4.5 billion years ago and some of that stuff was water. Recently, NASA released a study suggesting that for the first 2 billion years of its existence, Venus was a blue planet with a water ocean and land masses similar to Earth’s. (See illustration 1 – courtesy NASA)

NASA’s image of what Venus might have looked like 3 billion years ago (Courtesy NASA)
Illustration 1 – NASA’s image of what Venus might have looked like 3 billion years ago (Courtesy NASA)

Today it has been well established that Venus has become a hellish place. Its atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth’s, with the pressure at the Venusian surface approximately the equivalent of being 3000 feet underwater on the Earth, and the atmosphere is made up of CO2 and sulfuric acid that also falls as rain. Additionally, the temperature at the surface is around 870F, which is hot enough to melt lead. Being crushed by the weight of the atmosphere while being seared with heat and dissolved by sulfuric acid rain is not much of an invitation to go swimming. We certainly won’t be designing any landscapes or building any pools on Venus.

A Lesson from Earth’s Twin

In 1960, the now famous late astronomer Carl Sagan published his thesis that Venus had become a hellish place because of a runaway greenhouse gas effect. Venus is a bit closer to the sun than the Earth and although it started out with about the same amount of water and carbon as the Earth, the slightly warmer proximity to the sun resulted in slightly more carbonates vaporizing from the rock into CO2. This CO2 increase in the Venusian atmosphere was part of a vicious cycle that warmed the oceans and caused more water vapor to enter the atmosphere (water vapor is also a greenhouse gas that causes warming), which in turn resulted in more carbonates vaporizing from the rock into CO2. And that resulted in more ocean evaporation which increased the water vapor, which increased the CO2 levels, and so forth, and the planet’s temperature began to spiral up.

Sagan demonstrated that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere would result in a runaway greenhouse effect and given some time, this devolved into the hot mess that we see on the surface of Venus today. None of the spacecraft that have landed on Venus have survived for more than about 2 hours and we haven’t bothered to land on Venus since the early 1980’s.

Twenty years after he published his Ph.D. thesis, in his now famous 1980 book “Cosmos”, Carl Sagan wrote:

“The principal energy sources of our present industrial civilization are the so-called fossil fuels. We burn wood and oil, coal and natural gas, and, in the process, release waste gases, principally CO2, into the air. Consequently, the carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing dramatically. The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two- degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. Like Venus, our stratosphere even now has a substantial mist of tiny sulfuric acid droplets……The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.”

1980 book “Cosmos”, Carl Sagan

How prescient was his warning from back in 1980! Today it is universally accepted in the scientific community that global warming, also known as climate change, is a reality. According to data from NASA and other scientific surveys, since 1980 the Earth’s global temperature has increased by 0.72 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit). Since 1880, the 10 warmest years on Earth have all occurred since 2000 and the warmest ever was in 2016! (See illustrations 2 and 3 – courtesy NASA)

Graph of Global temperature increase over time
Graph of Global temperature increase over time

Warmer Weather Is Better For Swimming Pools But A Cooked Planet Is Worthless

So, what does this mean for landscape architects and swimming pools? In North America rising temperatures will likely increase the desirability for residential pool ownership and the demand for access to public pools; existing pools may be maintained and not allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. That’s all good for our businesses!

However, will the public recognize that continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere is not sustainable and is actually suicidal?

Graph of Global CO2 levels from 2006 to 2018
Increasing Global CO2 levels from 2006 to 2018

What will we do about this problem? In November of 2016, the renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said that we only have 1,000 years left on this planet before we’ll need to find somewhere else to live. Given that the pyramids were built 4,500 years ago, that doesn’t sound like much time. Last May, he revised his prediction to 100 years. Let’s hope that he’s very, very wrong.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that if we do nothing, we’re cooked; and even if we do something we still might be cooked. I certainly hope not, but it is entirely possible that we’ve passed the tipping point already. Time will tell. But the inexorable scientific truth is that adding CO2 to the atmosphere will warm the planet. We must at least abate the rate of increase ASAP.

A Tax On Carbon Will Have An Economic Impact

The most probable attempt at a solution will come from government in the form of some sort of a carbon tax. Several European countries have already enacted a carbon tax. These countries are Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. Finland was the first to implement a carbon tax back in 1990. Finland was the first to wake up because after all, they’ve had a ringside seat to seeing our planet warming up.

A carbon tax will probably be paid at the source of extracting the carbon from the Earth. Oil, gas and coal producers will be taxed at a rate based on how many tons of carbon they are removing from the Earth. Those tons will wind up as CO2 in the atmosphere. They will certainly pass on these taxes to their customers which will result in significantly higher prices for all carbon-intensive energy products (electricity, gasoline, etc.) and carbon-intensive energy-derived products, as well as costs for transportation.

Consumers who shun the use of carbon-taxed products, e.g., electricity from carbon-based power plants, carbon-intensive fuel and products burdened with heavy carbon-based transportation costs, will save money. Being a consumer who is mindful of energy consumption will have strong economic motivation – far more than what we’re seeing today.

For the pool industry, we can expect an increasing demand from the public for energy-efficient pumps and motors. We can introduce better, more efficient hydraulic designs for pools and pool filters and we can expect that electrical devices like salt chlorine generators, ozone generators and ionizers, will need to be evaluated in light of their electrical cost/benefit.

Costs for pool chemicals will similarly be affected due to the increased costs associated with the manufacturing and transportation of the products. For example, the costs of production will increase due to the extra costs associated with extraction of the raw materials from the ground, the transportation of those raw materials to a factory, the costs of conversion of the raw materials into usable pool chemicals (chlorines, algicides, pH buffers and adjusters, water clarifiers, chelating agents, borates, phosphate removers, etc.), the packaging and labeling of the chemicals, transportation of the chemicals to distribution centers and finally to retail stores where homeowners ultimately simply dissolve them in their pool water. (see illustration 4 – courtesy BioNova® Natural Pools)

Traditional Pool Chemical Life Cycle
Traditional Pool Chemical Life Cycle

Today, most pool buyers are only slightly concerned about the operational cost of ownership of a swimming pool and they pay absolutely no attention to life cycle costs (although many pool owners are already cognizant of the operational costs of ownership). And that will continue to evolve in the coming years because there will be both an economic motivation to minimize the energy and chemical costs of operation as well as an environmental motivation; because our planet will continue to get noticeably warmer.

Natural Swimming Pools, Public Pools, And Politics

Natural swimming pools offer the ability to own a swimming pool with the lowest possible life cycle costs. Because natural swimming pools use no chemicals and the circulation systems are not pressurized, they can run at lower head pressures and flow rates; the electrical consumption for a natural swimming pool is far less than for a traditional, chemical pool. A natural swimming pool provides the smallest possible carbon footprint (no chemicals and low electrical consumption) for a swimming pool and hence is the most sustainable and most environmentally responsible investment. And we get to grow plants in the water!

In Europe today, public pool installations in need of renovation are more and more frequently converted into natural swimming pools because the impetus to remain as a traditional chemical pool is mitigated by the political will for economic, social and environmental responsibility. European landscape architects have been promoting this concept for years.

In the USA, my firm worked with the City of Minneapolis to convert a public pool at Webber Park into a natural swimming pool that opened in the summer of 2015. The City of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has begun construction of a public natural swimming pool at their Borden Park facility and the City of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, is undergoing a Feasibility Study with my firm to build a public natural swimming pool at their Centennial Park. Other cities are beginning to make inquiries. (See photo – courtesy Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Webber Park public natural swimming pool
Minneapolis’ Webber Park 21,000 sq.ft. swimming zone – the 16,000 sq.ft. regeneration zone is separated and not visible in this photo. Designed in conjunction with landscape architects from Landform Professional Services, LLC and the Minneapolis Park Board.

Venus And Mars Are Alright Tonight – Paul McCartney may have been wrong

We’ve seen a significant increase in the demand for natural swimming pools in the last ten years and we believe that the economic and environmental factors discussed above are setting the stage for an accelerating rate of demand. In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, approximately 17% of all new residential swimming pools are natural swimming pools.

In North America today, natural swimming pools are being purchased by homeowners who, like the buyer for the Tesla electric car, are looking to acquire a luxury product that is socially and environmentally responsible – the cost of acquisition is not the motivating factor – health, environmental, social and ecological sensibilities are the principle decision issues. The personal set of values associated with homeowners who are sensitive to these decision issues, are exactly in line with the basic precepts of landscape architecture, i.e., truly green.

Additionally, as the cost of carbon-intensive energy escalates, financial considerations will also foster the growth of the natural swimming pool alternative to the chemical pool.

After all, with increasing costs for energy and energy-intensive products, a warming climate will increase the desire of families to vacation in their own backyards, which has always been the primary motivating reason for people to buy pools. And it’s our job in the landscape design and pool industry to work to provide families with the most environmentally-responsible options for enjoying the benefits of pool ownership.

A BioNova® Natural Pool installation in Princeton, NJ by Rin Robyn Pools designed in conjunction with landscape architect Brian Meneghin
A BioNova® Natural Pool installation in Princeton, NJ by Rin Robyn Pools designed in conjunction with landscape architect Brian Meneghin
the first public natural swimming pool in North America Designed and constructed utilizing BioNova® equipment in conjunction with Landform Professional Service, LLC landscape architects Brady Halverson and Darren Lazan and Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board landscape architect Jon Duesman
Webber Park, Minneapolis, MN – the first public natural swimming pool in North America Designed and constructed utilizing BioNova® equipment in conjunction with Landform Professional Service, LLC landscape architects Brady Halverson and Darren Lazan and Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board landscape architect Jon Duesman
A BioNova® Natural Pool installation in Newtown, CT by Freddy’s Landscape Company designed by landscape architect Tara Vincenta of Artemis Landscape Architects
A BioNova™ Natural Pool installation in Newtown, CT by Freddy’s Landscape Company designed by landscape architect Tara Vincenta of Artemis Landscape Architects

About the Author

James Robyn is the Founder and CEO of BioNova® Natural Pools in North America, drawing on over 40 years of watershapes experience in the swimming pool industry. James designs and consults on chemical-free Natural Swimming Pools (NSPs) throughout the Americas, focusing on both aesthetic design elements and on the technology of the constructed wetlands that clarify and purify the bathing water. His work won a prestigious Aqua Magazine CHOICE Award in 2012 for a natural pool project in Princeton, NJ. In addition to providing support for a network of design / build professionals promoting residential Natural Swimming Pools throughout North America, Robyn has been a leader involved in the design, planning, installation and maintenance of the first public natural swimming pool in North America at the City of Minneapolis’ Webber Park.

Mr. Robyn lectures frequently throughout North America and has addressed groups at the World Aquatic Health Conference, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, the Rutgers University School of Environmental Studies and the University of Colorado School of Design, the NY Botanical Gardens and other botanical garden venues, as well as numerous American Society of Landscape Architect’s state chapters and the ASLA Annual Meeting.  He has authored articles for WaterShapes and Aqua magazine and his work has been featured in many other publications. James is an Instructor for the American Society of Landscape Architects Continuing Education System on natural swimming pools, he is on the faculty of the Genesis 3 University as an instructor in natural swimming pool engineering and he is the founder and president of the Association for Swimming Ponds and Natural Swimming Pools, a non-profit association dedicated to the NSP industry.

An instrument rated private pilot, Robyn has flown a circumnavigation of the Hawaiian Islands, he has actually landed at Chicago’s Meigs Field (well known from the original Microsoft Flight Simulator), overflown the Grand Canyon, been cleared for a low approach “buzz” of the Space Shuttle Landing Runway at Cape Canaveral and flown through the Bermuda Triangle and survived. A graduate of Colgate University with a degree in Astrogeophysics, Robyn also holds an MBA in International Management with a concentration in German, from the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

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