Water, Not Just Fire, Can be Apocalyptic

From a Washington Post column by Peter Gleick headlined “The ancients had it right: Water, not just fire, can be apocalyptic”

Apocalyptic visions are dominated by fire. The Bible prophesies sinners being cast into a lake of flame. Nostradamus predicted fire from the sky. Manhattan Project scientists worried that the atomic bomb would set the entire atmosphere ablaze.

But this year has been a devastating reminder of the power and menace of water. Water scientists have a saying that if climate change is a shark, water will be the teeth. Now the world is being bitten, with news every day of extreme storms and killer floods.

The storm that burst dams and killed thousands in Libya this week also submerged a quarter of the farmland in Greece, dumping more than a year’s rain in hours. Last month, Juneau, Alaska, was flooded by the rapid release of water from melting glaciers. Last winter, Tulare Lake in California’s Central Valley — which dried up a century ago when water was diverted for irrigation — reappeared when the state was hit by a series of atmospheric river storms bearing moisture from the Pacific.

In between, so many areas have been deluged. Unprecedented rains and flooding have struck Turkey, Bulgaria, Spain, Vietnam, Brazil, South Korea, Beijing, Hong Kong, Germany, the northeastern United States, Las Vegas — and the list goes on.

All this is because water lies at the heart of the climate system we’re disrupting. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, helping keep Earth from being a frozen ball. Our atmosphere constantly moves water from one place to another, evaporating it from the oceans and land, and forming clouds and storms that drop water back to the surface to refill rivers, wetlands and groundwater in a never-ending cycle.

Parts of the globe — such as the Indian state of Meghalaya or the mountains of Kauai — can see tens of feet of rain in a year; other regions, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile, might have no rainfall for years. These extremes are the natural consequence of how the climate moves water. Mess around with any part of it, and you mess with the consequences.

Those of us who work on water have warned for decades that climate change would intensify and amplify extreme weather. The basics are simple: More greenhouse gases heat the planet, more water evaporates, and more water and energy in the atmosphere mean more rain and fiercer storms. What is surprising is the speed, intensity and scope of recent disasters, with catastrophic floods and drought everywhere, all at once.

While the world must continue to adapt to worsening heat, increasingly intense wildfires, the acidification and warming of the oceans, and other climate threats, the flooding of 2023 is a wake-up call to focus on water.

We have to stop building, and living, in harm’s way. Infrastructure and communities designed decades or even centuries ago for a climate that no longer exists must be redesigned. After new flood maps showed hundreds of homes at risk in Lincoln, Neb., the city rerouted major roadways, removed private property in the flood plain, built new parks and trails, and restored a major waterway. That’s more like it.

Public insurance programs can account for the new risks and stop encouraging construction and rebuilding in flood zones. In Bangladesh, an innovative approach to flood insurance based on satellite data helps protect farmers and encourages them to plant crops that are more flood-resistant.

In areas we cannot afford to protect, governments can expand programs to help relocate people at risk. Between 1989 to 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded more than 43,600 voluntary buyouts of flood-prone properties across 49 states. Indonesia is moving its capital from Jakarta because up to one-third of the city is at serious risk of flooding.

We have the ingenuity to manage growing flood risks, but it will require humility.

For hundreds of thousands of years, our success as a species has depended on our ability to survive and manage the extremes of water. But we got overconfident. In the naive belief we had tamed nature, we built dams and levees for flood protection, and then built cities in flood plains, putting hundreds of millions of people and trillions of dollars of property at risk. We pumped groundwater as though it was unlimited.

Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the ancient stories of civilization-ending floods — think Noah, Gilgamesh or the Babylonian myth of Atrahasis. Legends from China relate how Yu the Great battled rising floodwaters on the Yellow River about 4,000 years ago to save the young Chinese civilization. Flood narratives are carved in 4,000-year-old Egyptian tombs, in ancient Hindu texts from 3,000 years ago, and in the writings of Greek and Latin historians where the god Zeus (or Jupiter) unleashes the world’s waters upon humanity.

These tales of a different kind of apocalypse were warnings: We ignore water at our peril.

Peter Gleick is a climate and water scientist, co-founder of the Pacific Institute and author of “The Three Ages of Water.”

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