As I write this in early summer, Tropical Storm Debby is in the process of dropping as much as 25 inches of rain on Florida; last week Duluth, Minnesota, broke its old rainfall record by 25 percent, and the resulting flood swept the seal from the zoo down the main street.
Meanwhile, the most destructive fires in Colorado history are raging, as record temperatures drive humidity down almost to zero. This cycle of record drought and flood has whipsawed the planet for the last few years, making all of us think about water in ways both new and scary. We’ve built our civilization around water these last ten thousand years—our cities along the sea and rivers, our farms in places that could count on reasonable rain. But all those assumptions are now being tested, being broken.
Global warming is the prime mover here. We’ve raised the temperature of the planet about a degree, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, we’ve made the atmosphere about 4 percent wetter in the last 40 years—an astonishing change in a basic physical parameter, and a change that loads the dice for both drought and flood. Those dice loaded, one place after another is throwing snake-eyes: Pakistan in 2010, with flooding so bad 20 million were forced from their homes; Texas in 2011, with drought so bad half a billion trees may have died.
Or, of course, sweet Vermont, this time last year, when Hurricane Irene dumped more water than this state had ever seen—when its gentle rivers swelled to the point that covered bridges washed downstream and roads crumbled into the torrents.
But the kind of change we’ve kicked off has other results as well: the oceans are not only rising steadily as ice melts, they’re also turning steadily more acidic. Reefs—which feed hundreds of millions of people and shelter fantastic quantities of the planet’s DNA—are dying quickly. River systems are drying up in places like the Middle East where water has always been a political sore point.
As Alex Prud’homme ’84 chillingly details in his book The Ripple Effect, this means that we’ve lost the luxury of ignoring water, of taking it for granted. Every one of us faces the prospect of not only too much or too little, but also too dirty. And that means that some of the best minds of our time must be deployed to try and figure out how to keep us wet enough and dry enough and with access to clean water.
It’s a critical task, one that students and scholars around the world are taking up with gusto. (Look no further than the Middlebury environmental studies class that helped build state legislative policy to address arsenic contamination in Vermont well water.) But all of us need to pay attention. And maybe not just to the trouble and the trauma.
Maybe to the glory, too. One problem with taking water for granted is that we’ve spent too little time appreciating its power, its beauty, its meaning. We’re water-based creatures on a planet that’s mostly covered with water. Knowing that—knowing it deep down, and celebrating it—is going to be key to our survival.