Water quality is an important topic, since we all drink quantities of water over our lifetimes. Even if we drink only minimally, we still want top water quality.
So what about the water quality of glaciers – do we want it? Is the water quality of glaciers really pristine, as we are led to believe?
Glaciers Store About 75% of the World's Freshwater
Freshwater contains very minimal amounts of dissolved salts, especially sodium chloride. It is found only in lakes, streams, and rivers – never in oceans or seas. Glaciers have, therefore, potentially good water quality. Is that water quality pristine, though?
Glacier Bottled Water
Several water bottlers have chosen a glacier as a symbol of purity. Some use the words "glacier" and "virgin" in labeling or advertising. But water quality does not always match the symbol. According to government and industry estimates, 25 to 40 percent of all bottled water is actually bottled tap water – despite pictures of glaciers!
Before recent FDA intervention, the label on one brand of bottled water read: "Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water From the Last Unpolluted Frontier, Bacteria Free". Why was that bad if water quality in those bottles was so high? The water apparently flowed into the bottles from Public Water System # 111241 in Juneau, Alaska, not from glaciers.
Some bottlers imply top water quality by referring to their water's origins as streams flowing from glaciers, or glacier-fed lakes, but in Alaska, such word is forbidden.
"If it says 'glacier water,' it's got to be right from the glacier without the influence of any other surface sources," says Mike Gentry, program coordinator for the Alaska State Department of Environmental Conservation's Food Safety and Sanitation Program. He added that if it's a blend, direct glacier water could have been mixed with other water from a stream or a lake fed by glacier.
If the label will read "pure glacier water," the bottler must use water taken right from the glacier. He may not add or remove minerals, but even glacier water quality can be changed by filtering and treatments.
The label on another brand of "Alaskan" bottled water (unchanged at the time of writing) boasted of high water quality:
"Mother Nature recycles all water. Get it from a river, get it from a spring, get it from a well, seven years ago that water was used by someone (or something) else, unless … the Eklutna Glacier, for 23,000 years. "
The implication here is that glacier water quality is unsurpassed since it has been stored away for so many years. One can almost imagine a glacier with an airtight, liquid-tight seal for ultimate protection!
The True Water Quality of Glaciers
Because of their frozen state, glaciers may have lower levels of contaminants and bacteria, but how low?
One FDA investigator noted that, as from marketability, glaciers are a rather imperfect water source, since animals traipse across them all the time, contaminating contaminants and lower water quality.
I am not an expert on glaciers, but I do know that when Eklutna Glacier formed, though many years ago, its ice was not pure. Yes, its original snow was free of much contamination such as we know, but its snow was never chemically pure.
1. Each flake of glacial snow began as a small droplet of water or ice crystal that formed around a nucleus. The water needed a tiny particle around which it could condense. It may have used a microscopic salt crystal released into the air by an ocean wave. It may have used a particle of ash from a forest fire. It might have condensed around ash from a volcanic eruption, but each snowflake had to have that microscopic bit of material. Glacial water quality is affected by billions of old salt and ash particles.
2. Each flake of glacial snow helped scrub acids from the atmosphere. Acid rain is not new – only industrial acid rain. The atmosphere contains about 350 ppm CO2, and ancient volcanic eruptions filled the atmosphere rapidly with more CO2. When our glacial snowflakes fell, they dissolved some of that CO2, and made carbonic acid snow. Glacial water quality is affected by "acid rain".
3. Each flake of ancient glacial snow was further contaminated by animals. You have unduly heard of wooly mammoths. You have heard, too, of migratory humans who reasonably hunted wooly mammoths. Can we believe that neither the ancient animals nor the hunters that stalked them ever walked on the glacier from which we are now prompted to drink? As your parents may have told you, "Never eat yellow snow." Glacial water quality is affected by "yellow snow".
Glacial Water Quality in a High School Lab
As a former high school teacher and principal, I would have to say that any high school science lab with a distillation apparatus could supply better water quality than that found in a glacier. So do I want the water quality of glaciers? I think I'll pass.