Are we giants or ants? The future of hydrology discussed at the 2012 General Assembly

Today’s guest post, written during the 2012 General Assembly, comes from Eline Vanuytrecht from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at KU Leuven, Belgium. This is her second post for GeoLog after her insightful piece on climate change and Portuguese wines. 

Keynote speakers, ‘giants’ in the field of hydrology, were invited to give their opinion on the path that hydrologists should follow in the coming decade to tackle future challenges.

Professor Keith Beven (University of Lancaster) opened the debate by criticizing the occasional abuse of hydrological models for prediction purposes.  Although the present demand from policy makers for accurate predictions and quick answers is oppressing, Beven requests his fellow hydrologists to be courageous in the coming decade and to dare to reject models. “Adopt the alternative view that models  are wrong until they are proven to be right. The process of rejection and the reflection on the question why a model should be rejected, brings us to a better understanding of the whole system that is modeled.” At the same time, Beven warns that the rejectionist framework he proposes entails the risk to abandon reliable models falsely. Next to this rejectionist framework, Beven emphasizes the need for improvement of observational techniques. “Observations are the ground on which widely used models are based. Disinformation, invoked by observations of inferior quality, should be avoided.”

Water featured prominently at the 2012 General Assembly (source: Wikimedia)

Professor Gordon Young (President International Association of Hydrological Sciences) started with a remarkable request. “In the coming decades, hydrologists should drop their unique subject of hydrology. Emphasis should also lie on water resources.” Young’s perspective is one of human needs and the permanent issue of water security. Water is essential for diverse human services, including food production, health care, energy production to sustain economies, preservation of ecosystems and a whole web of social interactions. At the same time, water resources can be threats for humankind in the form of floods, droughts, and pollution. It should be, according to Young, the mission of hydrologists to focus on these topics in the coming decades. Hydrological research should be embedded in a social, economical and political context.

Professor Thorsten Wagener (University of Bristol) increasingly descries water-related problems as a result of changes in climate, land use, and population dynamics. He assigns an important role to the hydrology community to solve these problems if they can acquire reliable predictive power in a changing world. According to Wagener, this is only possible if there is a continuous knowledge accumulation in the science of hydrology. “There are three complementary pathways to achieve this continuous scientific progress: good data accessibility, a focus on comparative or synthetic science, and an initiative structure of hydrological sciences.” According to Wagener, it is essential that data is reported uniformly and that it is accessible. Comparative scientific attitudes help to identify cases with a similar behavior in time and or space, crucial for knowledge transfer. Protocols should be designed to ensure uniformity and an easy knowledge transfer. The initiative structure refers to the attractiveness of hydrology. “It should be both inspirational and relevant.”

Professor Hubert Savenije (TU Delft) started his talk with focusing on the behavior of hydrologists. “Are we ants or are we giants?” The ants are without a doubt hardworking creatures, digging holes in the ground and coming up with surprising conclusions. But they see only a small part of the whole system. Instead, the overlooking perspective of giants is needed in the field of hydrology in the coming decades, according to Savenije. Landscapes and their hydrological processes should be mapped to the model space. “But it is often forgotten that the landscape is extensively determined by its medium. And this medium is an evolutionary product of a combination of morphological, ecological, hydrological and anthropological processes.” Hydrology should be approached from a Darwinian point of view in the coming decade. Hydrological processes should be understood in a co-evolutionary perspective, and once understood in this framework, equations can derived to describe important processes.

Concluding words came from Professor Xavier Sanchez-Vila (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya). He dug deeper than his colleagues, literally, and focused his talk on hydrogeology, the science of deep groundwater. His concern is multi- and interdisciplinary work, which should not be disconnected from society needs. Sanchez-Vila argues that communication problems are at the basis of misunderstanding between disciplines, but also among hydrologists. “Four topics that deserve attention in the coming decade are ecohydraulics, water quality, uncertainty issues related to climate change and extreme events, and risk management. The solutions are often simple, but the problems are not.”

With these visionary talks, the keynote speakers may not only have touched important issues for the coming Hydrological Decade. A critical reflection may prove useful for the whole science community. Change is challenging.

By Eline Vanuytrecht, KU Leuven

Bárbara Ferreira was the Media and Communications Manager of the European Geosciences Union from 2011 to 2019. Bárbara has also worked as a science writer specialising in astrophysics and space sciences, producing articles for the European Space Agency and others on a freelance basis. She has a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Cambridge.

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