On the south end of Puget Sound, where I lived for a number of years, water surrounds Olympia: Black Lake, Budd Bay, Capitol Lake, inlets, rivers, and creeks. It’s part of the picturesque scenery that I enjoyed daily, until I saw a half-submerged SUV at an intersection. The storms of 2007 flooded some streets, not to mention covering I-5 just south in Centralia. Water had become an unexpected hazard.
We can expect even more heavy storms and major floods, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, as the climate changes. Floods that were once seen every 20 years are projected to happen as much as every 4 to 6 years by the end of this century. Greater precipitation and shifts in snowfall are some of the more visible results of global warming.
In coastal cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Miami, new kinds of flooding occur as sea levels rise. Washington State University landscape architect Hope Hui Rising and her students are tackling some of the challenges facing those cities, helping create and facilitate plans to mitigate the ocean seeping into the streets.
The opposite problem occurs around the world, though, as drought dries up landscapes in our new reality of climate variability. Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of people globally, a very personal fact for WSU Tri-Cities engineer Yonas Demissie. He grew up in Ethiopia, where many of his fellow Ethiopians dealt with drought year after year. It inspired Demissie to study water, and his research ranges from evaluating climate effects on U.S. Department of Defense facilities to determining allocations of water from the Nile River.
Other WSU researchers examine drought from the plant and soil angle. Grain expert Kevin Murphy and his graduate students take quinoa seeds to Malawi and Ecuador, and return to the Palouse with pieces of genetic diversity that could strengthen plants and crops against climatic stresses. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs tests ways to reduce soil acidification, a problem in both Washington state and Africa.
Back on the “wet” side of the state, Puget Sound seems pristine, but the waters that flow into the nation’s second-largest estuary pick up pollutants from streets and cities. It’s all hands on deck to protect the Sound, including WSU stormwater researchers, Extension educators, and volunteers on the beaches and waterways.
We’re water creatures, with 60 percent of most adult bodies made of the substance. Yet we are also in thrall to its power, and without adapting ourselves, water—or lack of it—could overwhelm us.