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Laurence C. Smith - Four way interview

Image © Nick Dentamaro/Brown University
Laurence C. Smith is a pioneering hydrologist, whose scientific research merges the latest technology with extreme field work to uncover the pace and processes of our Earth’s changing hydrosphere. He is currently tracking changing rivers in the Arctic and on the world’s great ice sheets. He is the John Atwater and Diana Nelson University Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. In 2012 his book The World in 2050 won the Walter P. Kistler Book Award and was a Nature Editor's Pick. He has worked on issues from climate change to Arctic development with the National Science Foundation, NASA, the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. His new book is Rivers of Power.

Why geography?
Geography is an unusual discipline in that it values the study of human processes equally with those of the natural world, leading to very different perspectives than say, a biologist or geologist focused on nature versus a social scientist or historian focused on people.  The tools geographers use have changed over the years - for example from cartographic mapmaking centuries ago to satellite remote sensing and geospatial modeling today, but geography's fundamental quest to understand how humans make the Earth their home remains as fascinating and important as ever.

Why this book?
My hope for Rivers of Power is that it will inspire people to look at rivers - a seemingly mundane feature seen but ignored in their everyday life - in a totally fresh and different way.  Did you know that most of the Earth's land surface looks the way it does because of rivers, or that we live where do because of rivers, or that the origins of science, engineering and law trace to rivers, or that they jolt our politics and demography is surprising ways?  Those are just a few of the many ways these remarkable natural features shape human civilization. 

First, I hope readers will come to view rivers differently and appreciate their existential importance to human civilization. Second, I hope readers gain further appreciation of how reliant our societies are on a habitable planet – we simply cannot survive a divorce from nature. Third, I hope to inspire readers to pass a few moments outside daily, for their own personal wellbeing. Fourth, I hope to demonstrate how intractable problems prompt great opportunities for cooperation (indeed rivers offer many amazingly successful examples of this, from neighbouring property owners to international relations between nations).

What's next?
After the COVID-19 travel restrictions lift I plan to return to Greenland, where climate change is causing the expansion of rushing blue meltwater rivers on top of the Greenland Ice Sheet.  Since 2012 my students and I have been studying these extreme features using satellites and field work (for spectacular video footage search on "Greenland is melting away" in the New York Times).  Did you know that flows in the Colorado River are already 20 per cent below their long-term average, and that by 2100, they could fall to less than half of what they are today?   Or that climate change will cause most glacier-fed rivers to experience “peak water” as glaciers melt, thus releasing their long-stored water, and then shrivel?  Peak water has already arrived in the Brahmaputra River and is projected to occur around 2050 in the Ganges River and around 2070 in the Indus River, threatening the food security of 60 million people.  There is much work to be done getting ready for these changes.

What's exciting you at this moment?
At this moment, I am excited by the possibility that the COVID-19 lockdown might be encouraging more people to rediscover the mental health and wellbeing benefits of spending time outdoors.  Some remarkable science backs up these public health benefits, and I even penned an Op-Ed about it while trapped in my home.


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