Harleman Lecture - 2011

'Water for a Crowded Planet: 21st Century Challenges
Rooted in the Past'

Dr. Charles J. Vörösmarty
Director, CUNY Environmental Cross-Roads Initiative
Professor, Civil Engineering Department
The City College of New York
Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 5:00 pm
22 Deike Building
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA  16802


Speaker Biography
Charles J. Vörösmarty is a professor of civil engineering, a Distinguished Scientist with NOAA-Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center and director of The City University of New York’s Environmental Crossroads Initiative at The City College of New York. His research focuses on the development of computer models and geospatial data sets used in synthesis studies of the interactions among the water cycle, climate, biogeochemistry and anthropogenic activities. His studies are built around local, regional and continental to global-scale modeling of water balance, discharge, constituent fluxes in river systems and the analysis of the impacts of large-scale water engineering on the terrestrial water cycle.  Before he came to The City College of New York, he was a research full professor at the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire, where he was founder and director of its Water Systems Analysis Group (http://www.wsag.unh.edu). Dr. Vörösmarty is a founding member of the Global Water System Project that represents the input of more than 200 international scientists under the International Council for Science’s Global Environmental Change Programs. He is spearheading efforts to develop global-scale indicators of water stress, to develop and apply databases of reservoir construction worldwide and to analyze coastal zone risks associated with water diversion. He recently won one of two national awards through the National Science Foundation to execute studies on hydrologic synthesis.  Dr. Vörösmarty also is on several national and international panels, including the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the NASA Earth Science Subcommittee, the National Research Council Committee on Hydrologic Science, the National Science Foundation’s Arctic System Science Program Committee and the Arctic HYDRA International Polar Year Planning Team. He also was on a National Research Council panel that reviewed NASA’s polar geophysical data sets, the decadal study on earth observations, and is co-chair of the National Science Foundation’s Arctic CHAMP hydrology initiative. He has assembled regional and continental-scale hydro-meteorological data compendia, including the largest single collection, Arctic-RIMS (covering northern Eurasia and North America). He was a consultant to the 24-agency United Nations World Water Assessment Programme and represented the International Council of Scientific Unions at the recent UN Commission on Sustainable Development meetings.


Fresh water is widely regarded as a fundamental, if not the most critical, natural resource. It underpins countless benefits to society and is pivotal to the success of the food and energy sectors, industry and commerce, and an expanding urban domain.  It also provides essential cultural, recreational, and aesthetic values.  Water is also critical to the maintenance of ecosystem services and biodiversity. Recent analysis of the global water system using a high resolution geospatial approach demonstrates that a wide array of stressors combine to produce a pattern of worldwide threat to much of the fresh water resource base that sustains human water supply as well as aquatic biodiversity. A pervasive, globally-significant pattern of management is evident in the contemporary setting, through which impairment accumulates as a function of wealth, but is then remedied by costly, after-the-fact technological investments. This strategy of treating symptoms while leaving unabated the underlying causes is practiced widely across rich countries, but it strands poor nations and much of the world's aquatic lifeforms at high levels of vulnerability. The Northeast region of the United States serves as an ideal example of the major changes that have taken place with respect to the hydrologic cycle over national and indeed global scales. Using a combination of biogeophysical, social science, and historical scholarship techniques --including the development of a prototype Digital History Archive-- a consortium of student-mentor teams pursued an interdisciplinary synthesis goal, that is:  To quantify the widespread alteration of hydrologic systems over local-to-regional domains focusing on the Northeast Corridor of the United States over a 500-yr period (1600 to 2100)—The 500-Year Challenge. Pursuing this centuries-scale analysis has enabled us to gain insight into how water management strategies first became established and ultimately entrenched in the modern management of water systems, particularly across developed regions. This presentation will summarize some of the major findings of the consortium's research agenda, including the development of frameworks to foster cross-disciplinary research perspectives, the use of hydrologically-meaningful metrics that can be engaged by non-hydrologists, and some key developments in the evolution of human-water systems over a 500-year time horizon that lend insight into the ways in which present-day societies, the world over, manage their water systems.