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'Water Planet' class is a thirst-quencher

December 05, 2013

Life as we know it on Earth would not be possible without water.

We use it to keep our lawns green, to wash our cars and to cool off on a hot summer day. We use it to cook, clean and quench our thirst.

Our bodies use it to carry out many of the complex chemical reactions necessary to sustaining life.

But the desert by definition has a limited water supply. Look around – there are no towering redwoods or lush tropical plants. The plants are sparse and the ground baked by the sun.

So how does Phoenix, the 12th-largest metro area in the U.S., support the water needs of its 4.2 million residents? And what would happen if the water ran out?

GLG 108 Water Planet, a class created by professors Kelin Whipple and Arjun Heimsath in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, answers these questions and dives more deeply into how climate change could affect the world’s already strained water supply.

“Water is precious, limited and can be severely impacted by both climate change and humans,” Heimsath said.

The introductory level course is broken into a two-day-a-week lecture and an online lab.

During the first half of the semester, students learn the basic science behind how the climate system, hydrologic cycle and watersheds work.

The second half of the semester is spent examining the management and resource allocation problems that society faces today. This includes droughts, groundwater contamination, water wars and the effects of global climate change on future water supply.

“I honestly can't think of many more important classes for Arizona or other Southwest U.S. natives,” Whipple said. “This is a time of growing population and ongoing climate change that is likely to make fairly severe drought the ‘new normal’ while we face increased water demand.”

The class satisfies quantitative natural science (SQ) course requirements, but has no prerequisites. The use of mathematics in the class is restricted to algebra, with more emphasis being placed on how science is done and data collected.

“We try to keep lectures fun and lively, and always include some discussion breaks,” Whipple said.

Students who take the class gain a better appreciation of where their water comes from and what they can do to conserve it, Heimsath said.

“I love seeing the light bulbs go off in students' heads,” he said. “Their expressions change from being puzzled to being delighted at their newfound understanding of a cool and important topic.”

Written by Kristen Hwang.