A water cycle for the Anthropocene

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


  • Benjamin W. Abbott
  • Kevin Bishop
  • Jay P. Zarnetske
  • Rebecca J. Frei
  • Camille Minaudo
  • III F.S. Chapin
  • Lafe Conner
  • David Ellison
  • Sarah E. Godsey
  • Stephen Plont
  • Jean Marçais
  • Tamara Kolbe
  • Amanda Huebner
  • Tyler Hampton
  • Sen Gu
  • Madeline Buhman
  • Sayedeh Sara Sayedi
  • Ovidiu Ursache
  • Melissa Chapin
  • Kathryn D. Henderson


Humour us for a minute and do an online image search of the water cycle. How many diagrams do you have to scroll through before seeing any sign of humans? What about water pollution or climate change—two of the main drivers of the global water crisis? In a recent analysis of more than 450 water cycle diagrams, we found that 85% showed no human interaction with the water cycle and 98% omitted any sign of climate change or water pollution (Abbott et al., 2019). Additionally, 92% of diagrams depicted verdant, temperate ecosystems with abundant freshwater, and 95% showed only a single river basin. It did not matter if the diagrams came from textbooks, scientific articles, or the internet, nor if they were old or new; most showed an undisturbed water cycle, free from human interference. These depictions contrast starkly with the state of the water cycle in the Anthropocene, when land conversion, human water use, and climate change affect nearly every water pool and flux (Falkenmark, Wang‐Erlandsson, & Rockström, 2019; Wine & Davison, 2019; Wurtsbaugh et al., 2017). The dimensions and scale of human interference with water are manifest in failing fossil aquifers in the world's great agricultural regions (Famiglietti, 2014), accelerating ice discharge from the Arctic (Box et al., 2018), and instability in atmospheric rivers that support continental rainfall (Paul et al., 2016). We believe that incorrect water cycle diagrams are a symptom of a much deeper and widespread problem about how humanity relates to water on Earth. Society does not understand how the water cycle works nor how humans fit into it (Abbott et al., 2019; Attari, 2014; Linton, 2014). In response to this crisis of understanding, we call on researchers, educators, journalists, lawyers, and policy makers to change how we conceptualize and present the global water cycle. Specifically, we must teach where water comes from, what determines its availability, and how many individuals and ecosystems are in crisis because of water mismanagement, climate change, and land conversion. Because the drivers of the global water crisis are truly global, ensuring adequate water for humans and ecosystems will require coordinated efforts that extend beyond geopolitical borders and outlast the tenure of individual administrations (Adler, 2019; Keys, Wang‐Erlandsson, Gordon, Galaz, & Ebbesson, 2017). This level of coordination and holistic thinking requires widespread understanding of the water cycle and the global water crisis. Making the causes and consequences of the water crisis visible in our diagrams is a tractable and important step towards the goal of a sustainable relationship with water that includes ecosystems and society.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3046-3052
Number of pages7
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number23
Early online date29 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019