Water, drought and flooding: A half-century at the environmental forefront

Friday, Aug 7, 2020
by Molly Sharlach

Water is the most elemental ingredient of life; its regular availability is essential to our economies and to civilization itself. Yet billions of people yearly confront water-related stress, including devastating droughts, destructive flooding and toxic contamination. Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe has dedicated his career to understanding this critical resource so humanity can better manage it, and in his view, there is a remarkably capable teacher in our midst: plants.

“They don’t know when the rain will arrive, and they don’t know how much rain will come,” he said. Yet plants are attuned to their environment and work within the ecosystem to make the most of what water there is. “That’s the life of plants, and they survive.”

Rodriguez-Iturbe, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Emeritus, is among the founders of ecohydrology, a discipline that examines the roles of landscapes, plants and soil in the water cycle. A professor at Princeton for 17 years, in 2002 Rodriguez-Iturbe won the Stockholm Water Prize, known informally as the “Nobel Prize of water.”

He is one of several Princeton faculty members who have tackled critical environmental problems involving water. Their tools and discoveries contribute to cleaning up watersheds and inform policies to plan for water scarcity and flooding around the globe.

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