Many Water Cycle Diagrams Promote Misconceptions

Many Water Cycle Diagrams Promote Misconceptions

As school kids, we all learned about how the water cycle works – water falls from the sky as rain where it either runs into surface water bodies or infiltrates into groundwater. Wash rinse, repeat.

New research has shown that the majority of water cycle diagrams are flawed, which is bad news for students, educators and policy makers who rely on water cycle diagrams to accurately represent how water moves around the planet.

Benjamin Abbott, an ecosystem ecologist at Brigham Young University, and his colleagues looked at over 450 water cycle diagrams from as early as the 1940s, and they realized that humans and their influence on water are missing from almost all of the diagrams they reviewed.

In depictions of water cycling through, on and above the Earth, the researchers found that 85 percent of the diagrams failed to show any effect of humans. This is unfortunate, because, as we’ve all seen recently, people have a profound effect on the planet’s water resources in growing and producing food, making energy and manufacturing consumer goods.

According to Abbott, “Humans have changed the distribution of vegetation…That’s actually affecting the land-to-atmosphere flux of water and also what happens to precipitation after it falls.”

In addition, the diagrams often were presented with visual bias and failed to show the impacts of pollution and climate change, both of which are major drivers of water crises.