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New diagrams from BYU illustrate human impact on water

Posted at 7:49 AM, Jul 10, 2024

PROVO, Utah — Brigham Young University recently received a $120,00 grant to help improve how students learn about the human footprint in our water cycle.

Dr. Ryan Nixon, an associate professor at the university, helped turn an old United States Geological Survey diagram into 20 new, modern graphics.

A few years ago, Nixon realized there was no common tool to help teach about humans’ impact on the delicate water cycle.

So he and his team in the science education department combined with art students to create about 20 different new diagrams.

Now, the U.S. Geological Survey has adopted the new diagrams for ubiquitous use.

“In our efforts to support teachers, I think one thing we really can do is to provide better quality resources for them that have accurate science [and] are accessible,” Dr. Nixon said. “But also that allows them some freedom to use them.”

Nixon explained how humans can have a big impact on the water cycle, with even the clothes we wear.

“Making something like a shirt takes a lot of water,” he said. “Scientists refer to that as virtual water, but something like a shirt represents a lot of water use, even though it's currently not wet, you could really get into the weeds on this.”

Some of these ideas may be well known but not well taught.

“You put a Walmart parking lot over a farm field, and that really changes how water flows in that area,” Dr. Nixon said in part. “So, humans have a big impact."

Nixon believes a scientist’s job is not to tell others what to think about human impact on the environment.

“My hesitation is to put a value judgment on it,” he reflected. “I'm not sure that it's necessarily good or bad. But it does change, what would have been happening anyway.”

Nixon hopes that with the new diagrams, children can see themselves as part of the water cycle and see their potential for impacting the environment.