Hydrological Sciences

Pathways towards solving the Unsolved Problems in Hydrology (UPH) – feedback from the EGU SGO chat session

Pathways towards solving the Unsolved Problems in Hydrology (UPH) – feedback from the EGU SGO chat session

At the EGU 2020 Sharing Geoscience Online (SGO) week, we had a chat room session dedicated to discuss progress and way forward on the 23 Unsolved Problems in Hydrology (UPH).

As many of you, we experienced this exciting and fast-typing moment of discussing in-depth scientific issues during a short-duration, text-only chat. Many ideas were typed and some of them are shared with you in this post.

More questions to be answered

The first display by Daniel Peter Louck (Solving the 23 Major Mysteries in Hydrology: Who Cares and Why?) posed a simple yet relevant question: why scientists should be looking at these unsolved problems?

The International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS) has initiated and coordinated the UPH initiative, in strong partnership with EGU Division on Hydrological Sciences (HS), AGU Hydrology Section, and the International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH). The UPHs are articulated around 7 themes:

  • Time variability and change
  • Space variability and scaling
  • Variability of extremes
  • Interfaces in hydrology
  • Measurements and data
  • Modelling methods
  • Interfaces with society

The presentation by Louck provides excellent illustrative examples and pictures showing how the UPHs raise a number of challenges in research but also operational hydrology. It highlights the connection of the UPHs to practical issues and societal problems, including those in the UN initiative on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

More than ever, hydrological sciences have a lot to contribute also to policy makers and operational managers. As a consequence, this brings to another question raised in the chat discussion: how can we ensure to involve non-scientific experts, stakeholders and policy makers in the research co-creation processes to better serve society?

A varied of ways to address the 23 UPHs

One interesting issue raised in the chat discussion was about the way we could address the 23 UPHs:

  • Individually: e.g., if a scientist in hydrology had to choose one of the questions, which one should it be? Are there problems more important than others to be solved?
  • As an ensemble: there are clear synergies among the questions. Work done at the interface with society can inform some of the problems related to modelling or prediction issues, for instance. How can we ensure efficient feedback loops within our community?

Some of the UPHs formulated require dedicated attention and some require also multidisciplinary approaches. It seems it is important to work on fundamental science, operational challenges, as well as on interfaces to other disciplines.

Joining forces

We also discussed how we can organize ourselves to “attack” these problems in a more coordinated way (we probably do not want them to be unsolved problems forever!).

One idea is to encourage exchange among people working on the same question(s) through, for instance, working groups, online targeted discussions, online platforms to share papers, active projects, datasets, etc., related to each of the 23 UPHs, as a resource for community knowledge building and collaboration.

Another idea is to reflect upon the UPHs in light of the UN SDG initiative: many scientists (and many project proposals) very easily show how the research they deal with contributes to a few of the UN SDGs, without actually having to refocus their research problems. Maybe the UPH initiative could put in place a similar mechanism that helps researchers to achieve that too: identifying more easily where our current and future research efforts contribute to solving the UPHs.

Links to the SDGs could indeed be further explored. As mentioned in the chat, IAHS is an official partner of UNESCO, WMO, UN Water, among others; they are actually working on bridging with SDGs and related mechanisms. New articulations are definitely needed and part of the underlying rationale of the UPH initiative has been driven by this objective.

As a community, we may need to know how to put all this together. This includes facilitating sharing and networking to put people in contact, working together. But it also includes reflecting on funding too. As mentioned in the chat, “If we can convince funding bodies that contributing to reducing the 23 UPH to 22 UPH is a worthwhile endeavour that would help. The SDGs have that weight, but will the UHP initiative have that potential?

Discussing the UPHs but also the community process

The UPH initiative is characterized by a community process that was put in place to better define research questions, energise the research community and to “speak with one voice” (with aims also to attract funding for collaborative projects).

The consultation process adopted to define the 23 UPH used social media as well as physical meetings in a row of consultations. It engaged, in total, several hundreds of scientists and ended up in a journal paper with more than 200 authors. It took two years from the launch of the UPH initiative in the IAHS workshop in South Africa in July 2017 and the publication of the paper in July 2019.

It is therefore also interesting to reflect on the community process and not only the questions as such. This can help us to better prepare other consultation processes in the future, as a unified community in hydrological sciences:

  • Was developing the questions a worthwhile exercise?
  • Can we gain as a research community on more concerted actions like this?
  • What was good with the consultation process and what can be improved in future initiatives?

The UPHs have been shaped and shared by a large community of hydrologists, and are now forming an agenda-setting framework. Scientists can now refer to and inscribe their works in this framework. It is expected that IAHS and partners will facilitate the expression, survey and collection of spontaneous proposals and results.

How to follow up on this process now?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us had to use more digital means to communicate, teach and virtually meet with colleagues. It is expected that some of this acquired experience will remain and continue to be practised. As mentioned in the chat discussion, “we have made a great step forward towards closer virtual connectivity”.

Social media can thus be used effectively and successfully to reach a wider audience. We could plan to rely on worldwide accessible tools and platforms. But, as also mentioned in the chat discussion, we need people “with a lot of drive to get things going”.

An interesting proposal was to set up a “virtual meeting place for hydrologists” from all over the world: “[…] it would be very nice to have a perpetual virtual meeting place for hydrologists, with a self-reporting catalogue of datasets, models, and ongoing efforts.” The 23 UPHs could provide a structure for keeping this effort running.

It was also said that physical meetings are nevertheless crucial too to avoid that one person makes all the crucial decisions and we lose the community support. Conferences can be facilitators for such meetings. This EGU session was the first one dedicated to the UPHs following the UPH paper, and we can see it provides a lot of ideas and proposals.

Articulating good wills, facilitating conceptual debate and progress, bridging with SDGs implementation: our challenge now is to make choices and materialize them.

A key event in the future will be the next IAHS General Assembly, which is planned to take place in Montpellier, France, on 28 June – 2 July 2021 (more info will be provided here).

This blog post was written by Maria-Helena Ramos, with contributions from Christophe Cudennec, Berit Arheimer, Günter Blöschl, Elena Toth, and many of the 114 active users that connected and participated in the discussions of the EGU 2020 HS1.2.1 chat room*.

* This chatroom session derives from the merging of two sessions: “Pathways towards solving the Unsolved Problems in Hydrology (UPH)”, and “Hydrology & Society: Transdisciplinary approaches to hydrology and water resources management”. You can see all the displays presented here. A big “thank you” to all the conveners, authors and participants!

Maria-Helena Ramos
Maria-Helena Ramos is a research scientist in hydrology and hydrometeorology at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) in France. She is president of the EGU Division on Hydrological Sciences (HS) since April 2019.

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