One of the greatest difficulties in climate education is convincing people that climate change is really happening, and that it has an effect on them. Basic human rationality says that people won’t invest much in something unless they believe it is in their best interest. Though it may be hard for the average non-climate-expert to notice changes to the ozone layer or to global temperatures, water is one way we can all see how climate change is affecting the planet right now.
Climate change causes torrential downpours and droughts. It seems almost silly to say that since those two things are so opposite from one another. However, increasing temperatures due to climate change allow the air to be able to hold up to 7% more water. This causes longer periods of time without rain, but heavy, damaging downpours when the rain does come.
Some of these droughts have been quite long, deep, and hot. They have caused not only water shortages, but also wildfires. Drought has led to fires in California, Brazil, and Moscow, some of these responsible for more than 55,000 deaths. In addition to being a safety hazards to humans, these fires and droughts have caused crop damage, which has had its effect on national and global economies.
And thanks to climate change, when it rains, it actually does pour a little bit harder now. Increases in the atmosphere’s water vapor capacity are responsible for tropical storms, torrential downpours, and mudslides. Recently, these heavy downpours caused a “1 in 1,000 year” flood in South Carolina. Further, heavy downpours increase agricultural runoff, pushing more phosphorus into our water supply. This has lead to algal blooms off the coast of Lake Erie, restricting thousands of people from drinkable water.
Climate change has already caused devastating effects to our global water systems, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that these trends will continue and probably get worse, affecting the water cycle in all seasons. High temperatures cause snow to melt earlier in the spring. This leads to more spring flooding, but less water in the soil later in the summer. Further, I have hardly even mentioned the most drastic, water-related climate change effect of all: the rising sea level that is already flooding some coastal areas.
Through water, we have already seen the effects of climate change. Though the looming impacts of climate change are dangerous, perhaps some of the events that have happened thus far can give the world’s citizens a wake-up call for the imminence of climate change’s negative effects. We are always told that the first step to solving a problem is admitting we have one, and water is one way for all of us to see that the effects of climate change are already starting to arrive!
*Special credits to the Intergovernmental Governmental Panel on Climate Change and a Seminar by Dr. Elizabeth Queathem at Grinnell College on October 2, 2015.