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Climate change

Most of us will first experience climate change through water

That's the premise of our newest magazine issue on climate change. We will flood. Or burn. Or both.

December 23, 2021
Mat Honan
Mat Honan
Robyn Kessler

As we were closing this issue, I came across a video on Twitter of a highway just outside Vancouver, submerged in water. It wasn’t the only one. The densely populated urban heart of British Columbia was cut off from the rest of Canada by flooding and mudslides after an atmospheric river barreled through. The country’s busiest port lost access to rail service, stranding containers. Hundreds of motorists had to be rescued from slide-isolated highways on military helicopters. The only way to get to the rest of the country by road was to detour through the United States. 

The deluge followed a hot, dry summer that saw the numerous cities throughout the region blast through long-standing temperature records as a heat dome blanketed much of the Pacific Northwest. By the end of August, drought had settled in across the province. Vancouver Island, home to old-growth temperate rainforests, hit level 5 drought conditions, British Columbia’s most severe categorization. Hundreds of wildfires left the region covered in ash and the city itself choking in smoke. The charred landscape left by the summer’s drought made the fall’s floods that much worse. Watching that video of a highway covered in brown, muddy water, it occurred to me that I was viewing a sad microcosm of the premise of this issue: The way very many of us will initially experience climate change will be through water—either too much of it or not enough. We will flood. Or burn. Or both. This issue brings you stories of the way changes to the water cycle are playing out all over the world as we begin to experience climate change.

MIT Technology Review senior editor James Temple tackles the complexity and uncertainty of this change in his feature story on how warming waters are disrupting the Atlantic currents, and the scientists who are attempting to understand what may be coming next. It may not be The Day After Tomorrow—but, well, it ain’t gonna be great. 

Other stories look at a parched American West. Mark Arax takes us on a beautiful if heartbreaking tour of California, where people spent much of the past 150 years capturing water and piping it to support farms and cities, only to have the well run dry. Casey Crownhart traveled to El Paso, Texas, the “drought- proof city,” where she found burst pipes and empty reservoirs side by side with desalination plants. 

Changes to water and climate affect all of us, and sometimes in surprising ways. Kendra Pierre-Louis exposes rising groundwater, an often overlooked threat in coastal areas that’s intricately linked to sea levels. It could have devastating consequences for our infrastructure, from sewers and gas lines to seawalls themselves. 

For her book on water and climate change, Devi Lockwood spoke to more than 1,000 people in 20 countries about the ways they are experiencing change firsthand; she explains why it’s important for the scientific community to listen to those voices. It’s also why you’ll find stories from Cape Town, Mexico City, the Volga River, Zimbabwe, and Karachi in this issue. 

From the outset, we didn’t want this issue to be a paean to doomerism. Erica Gies went to China to meet with Yu Kongjian, the influential landscape architect whose vision for “sponge cities” would restore the ebb and flow of the water cycle to urban areas. Maria Gallucci takes us to space, where satellites are measuring water in the Congo River basin. And Megan Tatum has the details on Singapore’s ambitious plans for water independence

Finally, in this issue’s fiction, Robin Sloan takes on the question of how it’s all going to work out. I’ll leave it up to you to interpret his ending. 

As always, I appreciate your feedback. You can reach me at mat.honan@technologyreview.com or on Twitter, where I am @mat.

Thank you for reading. 

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