A new graphic of the water cycle is suitable for science education and humanity

A few months ago I had the equivalent of a “mini-rant” about science education Forbes. I thought about the K-12 lessons on the water cycle and the glaring omission in all of them. If you are old enough to read this article, you have probably been taught about water or the hydrological cycle in a very unrealistic way. There were no human impacts in it. This month, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) fixed that by unveiling a new diagram of the water cycle with people in it.

In my previous essay from May I noted, “I was sitting in a meeting yesterday watching extremely high levels of precipitation from an unnamed tropical system moving through Georgia. As the rain hit the parking lot, some of it rushed into the drain while parts of it pooled on the surface. At that moment, more than two decades of my research on rainfall and flooding flashed before my eyes. As I stared out the window at the rain pouring across the paved lot, it was clear to me that the water cycle that most K-12 students were studying was not representative of what was actually happening to the people around them.

Earlier this month, the USGS announced a new water cycle diagram. Their press release reads: “The revised version replaces the one used by hundreds of thousands of educators and students internationally every year since 2000… This image brings humans into the picture, showing the water cycle as a complex interaction of small, interconnected cycles that people interact with and influence, not one big circle.”

The new chart (chart above) includes increased runoff associated with urban impervious surfaces, human water use (industrial, municipal, domestic, grazing or agricultural) and human-constructed reservoirs. This is an amazing upgrade and I encourage educators to immediately adopt it for their water cycle lessons.

As lovely as the new graphics are, the scientist in me wondered what was missing. Here is a list of additional things that could be included:

By the way, these omissions are not a complaint. I am excited about the new USGS chart. They are simply a reflection of modern research at the intersection of human processes and the water cycle. I agree with USGS Director David Applegate who said, “This updated water cycle diagram will set a new international standard for how we visualize and communicate the complex journey of water on Earth, with the potential to better inform our next generation of scientists, managers of natural resources and policymakers as they address the growing challenge of sustainable water management.” It also reflects something I realized as a scientist and scientist years ago. The connection of human and natural systems is inevitable and requires that we teach it this way.

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