Water reveals a lot of information about our environment in many different ways. Humans have been reading the signs of water for centuries. Water can tell us about the conditions of the environment, it can reveal the presence of objects our eyes can’t see and forecast weather that is on its way. Cluing into these water signs can help us feel more connected and aware of our environment and what is going on around us. So what are these water guides? Let's get into it!
Have you ever seen a pond that is covered in green? Microscopic algae and small plants like duckweed are commonly seen covering the surface of ponds. This is caused by a buildup of nutrients in the water that don’t get flushed out of the system quick enough. This can happen naturally, but also occurs unintentionally from humans. Fertilizer in lawns and fields that is washed down into streams and rivers can build up in slow moving ponds and lead to phytoplankton blooms. When it gets extreme, in a process called eutrophication, the algae and plants cover the surface of the pond and block light from reaching plants below. When these plants die, they are decomposed by bacteria which uses up most of the oxygen in the water. If uncontrolled, eutrophication can deplete the oxygen in a body of water, killing other plants and animals that live in the water.
Moving out of the ponds and into the flowing rivers, water’s behavior in these habitats can clue us into what the environment looks like and the animals we may find living there. Rivers naturally bend. In fact, the length of the S bend in a river tends to be about 6x its width. For example, if a stream is 4 ft (1.2m) wide, then the bend will be about 24 ft (7.3m) long. Any similar body of water that doesn’t bend is a man made canal. The water on the outside of the bend moves faster than on the inside. On the slower side of the river, more sediment will be deposited leading to silty buildup on that side and shallower water. On the faster side of the river, sediment stays in suspension more except for the larger heavier rocks, and the water is deeper. Many aquatic animals have adapted to specific water behaviors, including trout who prefer the faster moving water where they can pick up oxygen easier and lay their eggs in the larger gravel.
Even the waves in the ocean have a story to tell. For centuries, pacific island navigators used the patterns of the waves to find islands as they traversed the vast ocean. They recognized that waves reveal the presence and location of islands before they become visible. Out in an open ocean, there aren’t many objects that can obstruct the path of the waves, so they generally move in the same direction. If that pattern changes abruptly, that indicates an object that is obstructing the path of these waves. An island reflects and refracts the water as it comes into contact with it. Reflected waves move against or perpendicular to the original direction of the waves and away from the island, while refracted waves on the sides of the island are pulled inward towards the direction of the island because of friction. They then converge on the opposite side of the island moving in perpendicular directions. There can also be a dead space of not much wave movement on the side of the island opposite of the wind. With this wave map in mind, pacific islanders find islands before they see them.
Clouds are another body of water in a different form. Their patterns can reveal the conditions in the atmosphere and forecast future weather patterns. Clouds with flat bottoms indicate a stable atmosphere, where rain is not likely, but if the bottoms become more jagged and rough, then it's best to get your umbrella. Different rain clouds are formed by specific conditions. Nimbostratus clouds are low and cover the whole sky. They can arrive long before the rain actually begins, and they usually indicate the rain will last a long time. These clouds are formed by warm fronts that are pushed above a cold air mass and condense into clouds. This also indicates that the temperature the next day after rain will be warmer. In the opposite scenario with cold fronts, the warm air is pushed up rapidly where it quickly condenses into strong cumulonimbus clouds that drop a lot of rain for a short period of time. These clouds are large and puffy and tend to arrive and leave quickly. The air after cumulonimbus rainfalls tends to be cooler.
On this blue planet, water can be found almost everywhere. Just like many patterns in nature, its behavior and signs can clue us into what is going on in our environment in different ways. Water can reveal the level of molecules within ponds, the potential habitat for aquatic animals, the presence of islands out of sight in a vast ocean, and the type of weather that is on its way. Cluing into these signs and patterns in nature can enrich our experience outdoors, and connect us more deeply to the natural environment.