Water, water everywhere

Ed Maurer has a well-earned reputation as an expert on sustainable water resources development. This year, add to that honors as a Google Fellow and Fulbright Fellow.

Water, water everywhere
Warming trend: The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, as seen in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, has steadily lost ice mass during the past several decades.

When Civil Engineering Professor Ed Maurer wonders about global warming, he isn’t wondering whether, or why, or even when. His questions are much more specific: Will it mean more rainfall in Santa Clara, Calif., or less? Will it mean flooding in Santiago, Chile, or drought? But whenever he gives a public talk before a lay audience, it seems that someone in the audience has a different question altogether: “Is global warming real?”

“I could give them a drab science answer,” he says, “but scientific answers to these questions don’t often work. I think skeptics need something that gets to the core of where their doubt is coming from.”

Five years ago, pollsters at the Pew Research Center found that 79 percent of Americans believed there is solid evidence that Earth is warming. Today, only 59 percent do. Google hopes that pairing smart young scientists with training and technology will help them talk about climate change in a way that pushes the numbers in the other direction and counteracts the media misinformation that Maurer feels is both confusing and compelling.

“If someone on TV says, ‘You don’t have to do anything differently, don’t worry about it,’ that’s really attractive,” he points out. The task of Communication Fellows like him will be talking about global warming in a way that people “get it and they aren’t threatened by the information.” The scientists were chosen based on their gift of gab and their history of explaining their work to the public.

Maurer’s research examines how climate change will affect water resources on the small scale, spotlighting where change might mean smaller stream flow, earlier snow melt, drought, or flooding. While his research highlights future trouble spots, his goal is to help governments and utilities be prepared rather than panicked. “We need to build systems that can be resilient,” he explains. “Systems that can work if it gets 20 percent drier or if it gets 20 percent wetter.”

In July, he’ll begin a six-month stint as a Fulbright Scholar in Chile, applying his watershed modeling techniques to a landscape he says is “a more extreme version of California.” One key difference: Chile relies on hydropower for some 70 percent of its energy needs. So climate change that affects snow pack and water flow has immediate and profound implications there.

As someone who predicts what the landscape may look like 50 years from now, Maurer figures part of his task as a Google Communications Fellow is to help people embrace a future that doesn’t rely on fossil fuel. As proof, he’s riding his bike to the Google campus for the training workshop, a 20-plus-mile round-trip. The ride will be both flat and scenic—Maurer is looking forward to it.

“We’re going to have to live differently,” he says. “But I think we can make a case that it’s going to be nice.” Dashka Slater

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