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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2019

Human domination of the global water cycle absent from depictions and perceptions

Abbott, Benjamin W.; Bishop, Kevin; Zarnetske, Jay P.; Minaudo, Camille; Chapin, F. S., III; Krause, Stefan; Hannah, David M.; Conner, Lafe; Ellison, David; Godsey, Sarah E.; Plont, Stephen; Marcais, Jean; Kolbe, Tamara; Huebner, Amanda; Frei, Rebecca J.; Hampton, Tyler; Gu, Sen; Buhman, Madeline; Sayedi, Sayedeh Sara; Ursache, Ovidiu;
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Human water use, climate change and land conversion have created a water crisis for billions of individuals and many ecosystems worldwide. Global water stocks and fluxes are estimated empirically and with computer models, but this information is conveyed to policymakers and researchers through water cycle diagrams. Here we compiled a synthesis of the global water cycle, which we compared with 464 water cycle diagrams from around the world. Although human freshwater appropriation now equals half of global river discharge, only 15% of the water cycle diagrams depicted human interaction with water. Only 2% of the diagrams showed climate change or water pollution-two of the central causes of the global water crisis-which effectively conveys a false sense of water security. A single catchment was depicted in 95% of the diagrams, which precludes the representation of teleconnections such as ocean-land interactions and continental moisture recycling. These inaccuracies correspond with specific dimensions of water mismanagement, which suggest that flaws in water diagrams reflect and reinforce the misunderstanding of global hydrology by policymakers, researchers and the public. Correct depictions of the water cycle will not solve the global water crisis, but reconceiving this symbol is an important step towards equitable water governance, sustainable development and planetary thinking in the Anthropocene.

Published in

Nature Geoscience
2019, volume: 12, number: 7, pages: 533-540

Authors' information

Abbott, Benjamin W.
Brigham Young University
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Aquatic Sciences and Assessment
Zarnetske, Jay P.
Michigan State University
Minaudo, Camille
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
Chapin, F. S.
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Krause, Stefan
University of Birmingham
Hannah, David M.
University of Birmingham
Conner, Lafe
Amer Preparatory Acad Salem Campus
Ellison Consulting
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Resource Management
Godsey, Sarah E.
Idaho State University
Plont, Stephen
Michigan State University
Marcais, Jean
University of Paris Diderot
Kolbe, Tamara
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Aquatic Sciences and Assessment
Kolbe, Tamara
Freiberg University of Mining and Technology
Huebner, Amanda
Brigham Young University
Frei, Rebecca J.
Brigham Young University
Hampton, Tyler
University of Waterloo
Gu, Sen
Universite de Rennes 1
Buhman, Madeline
Brigham Young University
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Sustainable Development Goals

SDG3 Good health and well-being
SDG6 Clean water and sanitation
SDG12 Responsible consumption and production
SDG13 Climate action

UKÄ Subject classification

Oceanography, Hydrology, Water Resources

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