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The water cycle is ‘nothing like the cartoon’ we learn in school. So BYU modernized it

Some water jugs parked under the community fountain at Artesian Well Park in Salt Lake City, Nov. 23, 2022.
Brian Albers
/
KUER
Some water jugs parked under the community fountain at Artesian Well Park in Salt Lake City, Nov. 23, 2022.

The water cycle diagram commonly used in K-12 classrooms shows water rising and falling to the earth in a simple circle. It’s often over a picturesque landscape that shows no evidence of human life.

This “natural water cycle” doesn’t reflect what happens in the real world, said Brigham Young University ecology professor Ben Abbott, and doesn’t exist anymore. Why? The simplistic diagrams miss a key part of the modern water cycle: humans.

Abbott led a 2019 study that found 85% of current water cycle diagrams didn’t include human interaction.

“We regularly underestimate how much we’ve modified the earth system, myself included,” Abbott said.

That’s why BYU professors, researchers and illustrators created a new modern water cycle that shows water moving in a world with cities, human life and farming. It shows major water pools, natural water fluxes and where water is directly impacted by humans, like pollution. The diagram doesn’t show water cycling in a clean, simple circle. Instead, it’s complicated and moves in multiple directions.

BYU worked with the United States Geological Survey on the project. The agency has since adopted the modern water cycle resource and promoted it.

The traditional water cycle moves in a simple circle and doesn't account for human activity.
Courtesy NASA Global Precipitation Measurement
The traditional water cycle moves in a simple circle and doesn't account for human activity.

Idaho eighth grade teacher and former BYU postdoctoral researcher Sophie Hill led the project. As a teacher, she used the traditional cycle that she said focuses more on vocabulary and arrows rather than who’s using the water.

Hill thinks humans were left out of the equation for so long because people were trying to standardize and distill the complex water cycle into something generic that would be applicable everywhere. The movement of water, Hill said, looks different in Utah as opposed to Vermont.

“As a result, we weren’t really talking about anywhere. We were just talking about these pretend landscapes that don’t really actually exist.”

BYU’s updated water cycle includes different diagrams that show water moving in urban, coastal, suburban, deserts, farmland and forest areas. All of the diagrams include evidence of human existence, like pictures of homes.

This past school year, Hill started using the BYU diagram in her classroom and found it was easier for students to relate to.

“Honestly, it was less teaching and more conversation, less formal lecture.”

For example, students who grew up on farms were able to understand how water moved there or how water moved at the golf course near their house, Hill said. Her students were particularly interested in the idea of how their indoor water related to outdoor water.

Based on this work, she is also working on a research paper that shows “that just by using these images that include humans, our students are better able to understand their role in the water cycle and also think about humans as solutions to some of the water issues that we have.”

Water impacts human health and life, so she said it’s a “very important” topic for students to understand accurately.

Abbott said teaching about water is complicated and teachers shouldn’t be expected to be hydrologists. Even the question of “where does rain come from” doesn’t have a very simple answer. The goal is to support educators and make the information accessible.

Still, Abbott said he’s not looking for one diagram to rule them all. BYU’s water cycle is a resource that’s open to the public and he hopes this is just the beginning.

One of the modern water cycle graphic developed at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Brigham Young University
/
CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
One of the modern water cycle graphic developed at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

To David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, the traditional water cycle makes sense to at least introduce basic concepts. He didn’t work on BYU’s project but agrees with their team that “at the end of the day, the water cycle looks nothing like the cartoon that we learn about in elementary school.”

What’s often not clear in the simple water cycle diagrams, Sedlak said, is that “humans control the flow of most of the rivers on earth” and also as humans use water, they add things to it.

“I think it’s a wonderful teaching tool for K-12,” he said of BYU’s update that includes humanity.

The addition of humans “starts a conversation with young people about the role that we can play in being stewards of the water cycle.”

“If humans are going to take control of the water cycle by building dams and reservoirs and moving water, we have to realize that we have a role to play in making sure that that water is shared equitably and that we take our jobs as stewards seriously,” Sedlak said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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