Climate change is throwing the water cycle into chaos across the U.S.

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The water cycle that shuttles Earth’s most vital resource around in an unending, life-giving loop is in trouble. Climate change has disrupted that cycle’s delicate balance, upsetting how water circulates between the ground, oceans and atmosphere.

The events of 2023 show how significant these disruptions have become. From extreme precipitation and flooding to drought and contaminated water supplies, almost every part of the U.S. faced some consequence of climate change and the shifting availability of water.

The water cycle controls every aspect of Earth’s climate system, which means that as the climate changes, so too does nearly every step of water’s movement on the planet. In some places, the availability of water is becoming increasingly scarce, while in others, climate change is intensifying rainfall, floods and other extreme weather events.

As the planet continues to warm, this cycle is expected to be increasingly stretched, warped and broken.

The water cycle — a staple of elementary school science classes describes the constant movement of water in all its phases (solid, liquid and gas) on the ground, inside the ground and up in the air. Powered by the sun and fueled by changes in temperature, the water cycle forms the invisible link between Earth’s glaciers, snowpack, oceans, lakes, rivers, plants, trees, clouds and rain.

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