Cultural Impacts

Of Karst! – short episodes about karst

Of Karst! – short episodes about karst

Post by Andreas Hartmann Assistant Professor in Hydrological Modeling and Water Resources at the University of Freiburg.


Episode 3 – Learning about karst by … KARST IN THE MOVIES!

Before writing about karst hydrology in “Of Karst! Episode 4”, I have been urged to present some more visual information on karst landforms. Of Karst! Episode 1 focused on the abundance of hilarious karst landforms in nature. This episode focusses more on the appearance of karst features in famous movies and TV programs that may be familiar to some of us, although we may not have watched them through the eyes of a karst fanatic at the time.

In the next episode, we follow the path of the water from the karstic surface with karstic towers and dolines, through caves and conduits, to spectacular karst springs where waters emerge to the surface.

Movie makers have their reasons to pick spectacular landscapes for their stories and, Of Karst!, those landscapes are crowded with karst features. Let’s begin with James Bond. Created in the 70s, “The Man with the Golden Gun” finds a spectacular showdown just in front of a lovely tower karst at the Khao Phing Kan island in Thailand. Tower karst is a karst landform that is, characterized by residual hills of limestone rising from a flat plain or the ocean.

Figure 1: Bonds‘ duel with villain Scaramanga in front of a tower karst rock (Khao Phing Kan, Thailand; http://www.criminalelement.com, http://www.marinaaonang.com)

Similar landforms were chosen as scenery for a recent remake of the King Kong saga. Fighting with intruders and evil monsters from the deep subsurface (karst caves?), Kong had the pleasure living on the beautiful Cat Ba Island in Northern Vietnam, whose characteristic landscape evolved due to the strong dissolution of limestone.

Figure 2: Silhouette of Kong between the Tower Karst mountains of Cat Ba Island located at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (https://c1-zingpopculture.eb-cdn.com.au, http://www.baolau.com).

The opposite landform to tower karst landforms are karstic dolines, which occur commonly as funnel shaped depressions on the surface, also formed by carbonate rock dissolution. These depressions do not only funnel the water downwards to the subsurface, but also create favorable conditions for the installation of (very) large radio telescopes. The largest of those was built a couple of years ago in China but a similarly impressive one can be found in Puerto Rico, where James Bond had to deal with his evil competitor Trevelyan in “Goldeneye”.

Figure 3: Bond fighting with evil Trevelyan in Goldeneye high above the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico that was built just in the middle of a karst doline (https://i.pinimg.com, http://www.si-puertorico.com).

Underneath the tower karst and dolines, karst dissolution creates wide networks of karstic caves and conduits. With increasing dissolution of the carbonate rock, these features may also emerge at the surface, which was probably the case for the Azure Window at Malta. This karst landform was chosen as the background of a conversation of the famous Khaleesi and her spouse Drogo in “Game of Thrones”. Unfortunately, this amazing land form is not available for further movies as it was recently destroyed by a storm.

Figure 4: Khaleesi speaking to her beloved Drogo in Game of Thrones in front of the Azure Window in Malta (http://nypost.com).

Deeper in the subsurface, the famous Devetàshka cave in Bulgaria set the stage for a dramatic showdown in “The Expendables 2”, when Stalone’s plane crashed through the cave entrance that used to be the exit of groundwater flows emanating from karst. Imagine the tremendous amounts of water filling the karst system over thousands of years that are capable of forming a cave that can (almost) host an entire airplane!

Figure 5: Stalone’s plane crashing into the Devetàshka karstic cave in Bulgaria in The Expendables 2 (www.huffpost.com, www.wikipedia.org).

Due to the formation of dolines, caves and channels, karst springs are usually quite large in terms of their discharge. They also provide amazing sets for fantasy movies. Even though the springs of the St. Beatus Caves in Switzerland only inspired Tolkien for the scenery of the Rivendell, the town of the elves, their similarity is obvious.

Figure 6: Elves’ town Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, whose scenery was inspired by the karst spring of the St Beatus caves in Switzerland (http://www-images.theonering.org, http://tilomitra.com).

This movie-based tour through karst systems may have given you an impression how rainfall becomes discharge in karst systems. Of Karst!, Episode 4, will combine this impression with the hydrological, and more scientific point of view. It will speak to the complexity of these specific surface and subsurface land forms, and elaborate on why exploring and understanding these processes is worthwhile.



Andreas Hartmann is an Assistant Professor in Hydrological Modeling and Water Resources at the University of Freiburg. His primary field of interest is karst hydrology and hydrological modelling. Find out more at his personal webpage www.subsurface-heterogeneity.com

Everything is connected

Everything is connected

Post by Anne Van Loon, Lecturer in Physical Geography (Water sciences) at the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom.


In recent years the human dimension of hydrology has become increasingly important. Major flood and drought events have shown how strongly water and society are intertwined (see here and here). The hydro(geo)logical research community is increasingly including this human dimension, for example within the IAHS Panta Rhei decade (link), which focuses on the interface between environment and society and aims to “make predictions of water resources dynamics to support sustainable societal development”. Previous Water Underground blog posts have shown the importance of this topic and highlighted opportunities and methodologies for scientists to engage with socio-hydro(geo)logy and humanitarian projects. Viviana Re, for example, introduces the term socio-hydrogeology and promotes sustainable groundwater management in alliance with groundwater users (link). And Margaret Shanafield argues that humanitarian groundwater projects are “an opportunity for scientists to have an impact on the world by contributing to the collective understanding of water resources and hydrologic systems” (link).

In our interdisciplinary project CreativeDrought (link), which uses local knowledge and natural and social science methods to increase local preparedness for uncertain future drought, we are applying these ideas and we realise how important different types of connections are in our two-way learning process. We just completed our second fieldwork phase of the project that consisted of workshops in which groups of people from a rural community in South Africa experimented with potential future drought scenarios and created stories about how they would be impacted by the drought and what they could do to prepare for and adapt to it. Our scientific team consisted of hydrologists and social scientists from local and UK-based institutes and the groups in the community who participated were the village leaders, livestock farmers, irrigation farmers, young mothers, and elderly people.

Young women collecting water from communal standpipe (photo: Sally Rangecroft).

Both the scientific team and the community groups were interested to learn from each other’s knowledge and experience (or just curious, see photo below of our Zimbabwean colleague Eugine measuring irrigation canal discharge with an apple). During the time we spent in the community (four weeks in March/April and two weeks in July) we both learned about important connections. As hydrologists and hydrogeologists we know that different parts of the hydrological system are connected and that these connections are extremely important if you want to understand, predict, and manage the system. Knowledge about the connection between groundwater and surface water is what we as hydrologists could bring to the community. The community was getting their water from different sources: drinking water from a groundwater well, irrigation water from a reservoir that releases water into the river, and water for bathing, washing, brick making, and cleaning cars from the river. By showing how a drought would affect each of these water supplies and discussing amongst groups that would be affected differently by a drought, they learned about the connection between the water bodies and how abstraction in one would affect the other.

Researchers measuring discharge with help of schoolchildren and collecting stories about previous droughts and floods (photos: Anne Van Loon and Sally Rangecroft).

We scientists also learned some important connections from the community. For example, our project focuses on drought but when we asked the community to tell us about droughts they had experienced in the past, many also told us about flood events. For the community, both are water-related extreme events that often even impact them similarly, with crop loss, drinking water problems, diseases, etc. Even though floods and droughts are governed by different processes (floods by fast, mostly near-surface pathways and droughts by slower, sub-surface storage related pathways) and different tools and indices are used to characterise both extremes, people at local scale have to deal with both floods and droughts when the hydrological system goes from one into the other or when both occur simultaneously in different parts of the hydrological system. We realised that our academic world is so fragmented that we often forget about connecting floods and droughts in our scientific work. Furthermore, we forget that we may affect one hydrological extreme when trying to manage our resources for the opposite hydrological extreme.

The most important, but unintended connections we discovered, however, were the connections between people. During our stays in South Africa, we connected as hydrologists and social scientists and between the UK-based and local researchers, learning to communicate across different disciplines, languages and audiences. The project also helped the community rediscover some connections between generations (young mothers and elderly ladies) and between different sectors (livestock farmers and irrigation farmers). And finally, we as a scientific team connected with the community. As a token for our newly established connection, the children’s dance group performed traditional dances during our final visit with the chief and the village leaders (see below), only bestowed on very special guests. That is the best confirmation we could get that personal connections are important and that our water management and our science depend on them!

Everyone connected: researchers, village leaders, dancers (photo: Khathutshelo Muthala).


Anne Van Loon is a catchment hydrologist and hydrogeologist working on drought. She studies the relationship between climate, landscape/ geology, and hydrological extremes and its variation around the world. She is especially interested in the influence of storage in groundwater, human activities, and cold conditions (snow and glaciers) on the development of drought.

Bio taken from Anne’s University of Birmingham page.

Humanitarian groundwater projects; notes on motivations from the academic world

Humanitarian groundwater projects; notes on motivations from the academic world

Post by Margaret Shanafield, ARC DECRA Senior Hydrogeology/Hydrology Researcher at Flinders University, in Australia. You can follow Margaret on Twitter at @shanagland.


What led me down the slippery slope into a career in hydrology and then hydrogeology, was a desire to combine my love of traveling with a desire to have a deeper relationship with the places I was going, and be able to contribute something positive while there. I figured everyone needs water, and almost everyone has either too much (flooding) or too little of it.

But, from an academic point of view, aid/humanitarian/philanthropic projects can be frustrating and offer few of the traditional paybacks that universities and academia reward.  Last week, for example, I spent much of my time working on the annual report for an unpaid project, and I am soft money funded. And what’s worse, I couldn’t even get the report finished, because most of the project partners hadn’t given me their updates on time. When I went across the hall to complain to my colleague, he admitted that he, too, was in a similar situation.

So what is the incentive?

Globally, the need for regional hydrologic humanitarian efforts is obvious. Even today, 1,000 children die due to diarrhoeal diseases on a daily basis. Water scarcity affects 40% of global population, with 1.7 billion people dependent on groundwater basins where the water extraction is higher than the recharge.  And, the lack of water availability is only going to get worse into the future.

But being a researcher with pressure to “publish or perish” and find ways to fund myself and my research, what was/is my incentive to address these problems? From an academic point of view, water aid projects are often time-consuming, with expected timelines delayed by language and cultural barriers, difficulties in obtaining background data, expectations on each side of the project not matching up, and activities and communication not happening on the timescales academics are used to. And the results are typically hard to publish.

An online search revealed numerous articles discussing the pros and cons of pursuing a career in development work, including: having a job aligned with one’s morals and values, an exciting lifestyle full of change, motivated co-workers, the opportunity to see the world and different cultures, the opportunity to make a difference, and last but not least, because it is a challenge (in a good way).

As a scientist, I get elements of all these pros in my daily work. But, while much of what academics do fits under the umbrella of “intellectually challenging”, aid projects provide applied problems with real-world implications that can sometimes be lacking in the heavily research-focused academic realm, except for the creative “broader impacts” and outreach sections of grant proposals. They are therefore an opportunity for scientists to have an impact on the world by contributing to the collective understanding of water resources and hydrologic systems. And hey, many of us enjoy travelling and get to visit interesting places for work, too.

Pulling myself out of my philosophical waxings, I focused on these highlights and the benefits of working in an interdisciplinary project to address some of those global problems I mentioned earlier – and got back to report writing.

Training project partners in Vietnam to take shallow geophysical measurements (left). Sweaty days in the field are rewarded by cheap beers, magnificent sunrises, and relaxing evenings at the coast where the river meets the sea (right). Photos by M Shanafield.


Margaret Shanafield‘s research is at the nexus between hydrology and hydrogeology. Her current research interests still focus on surface water-groundwater actions, although she work’s on a diverse set of projects from international development projects to ecohydrology. The use of multiple tracers to understand groundwater recharge patterns in streambeds and understanding the dynamics of intermittent and ephemeral streamflow are her main passions. Since 2015, she has been an ARC DECRA fellow, measuring and modelling what hydrologic factors lead to streamflow in arid regions. You can find out more about Margaret on her website.

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

Post by Samuel Zipper, postdoctoral fellow at both McGill University and the University of Victoria, in Canada. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @ZipperSam.


Dedicated Water Underground readers know that this blog is not just about water science, but also some of the more cultural impacts of groundwater. Keeping in that tradition, today’s post begins with a joke*:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Your neighbor

Your neighbor who?

Your neighbor’s groundwater, here to provide water for your plants!

Figure 1. Typical reaction to joke written by the author.


Perhaps this joke needs a little explanation. As we’ve covered before, groundwater is important not just as a supply of water for humans, rivers, and lakes, but also because it can increase the water available to plants, making ecosystems more drought resistant and productive. However, we also know that groundwater moves from place to place beneath the surface. This means that human actions which affect groundwater in one location, like increasing the amount of paved surface, might have an unexpected impact on ecosystems in nearby areas which depend on that groundwater.

Imagine, for example, two neighboring farmers. Farmer A decides retire and sells his land to a developer to put in a new, concrete-rich shopping center. Farmer B continues farming her land next door. How will the changes next door affect the groundwater beneath Farmer B’s land, and will this help or hurt crop production on her farm?

In a new study, my colleagues and I explored these questions using a series of computer simulations. We converted different percentages of a watershed from corn to concrete to see what would happen. Our results showed that the response of crops to urbanization depended on where the land use change occurred.

Figure 2. Conceptual diagram showing how urbanization might impact crop yield elsewhere in a watershed. From Zipper et al. (2017).

In upland areas where the water table was deep, replacing crops with concrete caused a reduction in groundwater recharge, lowering the water table everywhere in the watershed – not just beneath the places where urbanization occurred. This meant that places where the ecosystems used to be reliant on groundwater could no longer tap into this resources, making them more vulnerable to drought. However, places where the water table used to be too shallow saw boosts in productivity, as the lower water table was closer to the optimum water table depth.

In contrast, urbanization happening in lowland areas had a much more localized effect, with changes to the water table and yield occurring primarily only in the location where land use changed, because the changes in groundwater recharge were accounted for by increased inflows from the stream into the groundwater system.

So, what does this mean for the neighboring farmers we met earlier?

For Farmer A, it means the neighborly thing to do is work with the developers to minimize the effects of the land use change on groundwater recharge. This can include green infrastructure practices such as rain gardens or permeable pavement to try and mimic predevelopment groundwater recharge.

For Farmer B, the impacts depend on the groundwater depth beneath her farm. If the groundwater beneath her farm is shallow enough that her crops tap into that water supply, she should expect changes in the productivity of her crops, especially during dry periods, and plan accordingly.

*Joke written by scientist, rather than actual comedian.


For More Information:

Zipper SC, ME Soylu, CJ Kucharik, SP Loheide II. Indirect groundwater-mediated effects of urbanization on agroecosystem productivity: Introducing MODFLOW-AgroIBIS (MAGI), a complete critical zone model. Ecological Modelling, 359: 201-219. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2017.06.002



Sam Zipper is an ecohydrologist. His main research focuses broadly on interactions between vegetation and the water cycle, with a particular interest in unintended or indirect impacts of land use change on ecosystems resulting from altered surface and subsurface hydrological flowpaths. You can find out more about Sam by going to his webpage at: samzipper.weebly.com.