Do we lack hydrological awareness?

 Contributed by Bettina Schaefli,HEPEX guest columnist for 2014

asking-a-questionWhen have you been asked for the last time what your work or research is about?

In my own experience as a catchment hydrologist, there are two possible outcomes of such a conversation.

Your questioner might be a geoscientist herself. For her, hydrologists just talk about water and hydrological models are more or less boring tools that are nevertheless very useful to investigate much more complex  processes, such as for example the carbon cycle.

Or you are having a discussion with a layperson. In this case, you might expect a more enthusiastic reaction since you are studying a fascinating element with a direct impact on our everyday life – especially in Switzerland where rivers and lakes are omnipresent. They stimulate tourism, structure the city centre of all major cities, cause regular floods and produce 60% of inland electricity.


School kids measuring artificial rainfall during a visit to EPFL

I can however not remember that I have ever been asked any further questions about the main challenges that hydrology is facing, what causes the sometimes surprisingly fast reaction of certain catchments or what is required to make predictions and forecasts.

Or simply any questions about what it might actually be useful for to train hydrologists in our universities.

This lack of interest becomes even more striking during the winter period: the local and national news (radio, newspapers, television) spend a great deal of time to report the current avalanche risk and to interrogate specialists about recent progress in avalanche forecasting or how to avoid accidents.

In potential flood situations, however, they just report weather alerts without any further interest in how damage might be prevented, what might have caused the dangerous situation or what is required to actually transform a weather forecast into a hydrological forecast. In case of important damages, they might occasionally accuse MeteoSwiss of having made wrong forecasts, but without providing more in-depth investigations of how the national or cantonal hydrology services tried to understand and forecast the particular situation.

This is just a very personal view of how hydrology is perceived by a wider audience in Switzerland.

It nevertheless sheds light on a topic that might sometimes be overlooked by forecasters when they think about the quality of their forecast (as for example discussed in the recent post by Tom Pagano): the lack of hydrological awareness of the public, not just in terms of potential risks and damages for those directly exposed to hydrological hazards but a wider awareness for the importance and the complexity of hydrological processes. Not just to better understand hydrological forecasts but also as a basis to follow such important topics as climate change impacts or the hydropower potential in the context of the planned nuclear power phase out.

An interesting initiative to bring hydrology closer to the public are the Swiss hydrologic excursions that explain a particular aspect of the hydrological cycle and of water management through a self-guided tour (with leaflets) along a river.

But such initiatives necessarily have to be followed by a more intense and direct dialogue between the public and the scientists themselves, for example in the context of events organized by foundations like the Swiss “Science et Cité“.

The big open question is, however, how such activities are supposed to fit into the schedule of today’s scientists who are still only judged based on their number of publications.

Next post: 2 May 2014.

columnist2014-Hepex-PinBettina will be contributing to this blog over the year. Follow her columns here.


  1. The question on “How much hydrological awareness do I want?” is for me preceded by a debate on “How important is hydrology with respect to all the other topics out there”. Despite all my passion for the beauty of the swirls in a river, the enthusiasm for the visualisation of preferential flow paths and the admiration for the never ending complexity of how rain and evaporation become runoff, I have to admit, there are other topics of greater importance and hydrology often only plays a minor part. It properly only matters to many when the impacts are visible. Hydrology does not have the tradition of meteorology where a large army of volunteers collects precipitation data. Tomorrows weather will always be on the daily news whilst tomorrows discharge will only make it in exceptional circumstances. But this is because most people are affected by the weather more than by streamflow. However, there are dedicated web sites for user communities which are more interested in the rivers (may it be for fishing, canoeing, caving, mountaineering etc). They of course do not represent the general population, Bettina had in mind.

    My expectation on how much awareness I expect from the general public is e.g. to understand where their drinking water comes from and how floods are generated – processes which impact on their and other livelihoods. I believe this awareness exists. Many people in the south of England do understand that the water out of the tap comes from ground water and that for flooding you need more that just heavy precipitation. Of course this is driven by extreme events – the recent droughts in the UK lead to a number of newspaper articles which included explanations of aquifers. This winter, the word ‘saturated’ has become common terminology in parliament.
    Can we do more, of course we can and Bettina lists some nice examples. The role of ambassadors for hydrology goes far beyond scientists, indeed it is part of the ‘survival’ package for many applied hydrologists. A key building block to convince politicians to keep funding a service is to convince their voters that it is important.

  2. I think you are suffering from a slight inferior complex towards meteorologists;-)

    As I mentioned in my column, I really became hooked on hydrology when I read Malin Falkenmark’s book in 2004. It features prominently in my book shelf. I have now taken it down and look through the pages – yes, the magic is still there!

    Take for example pages 10-11 about interception. If non-hydrologists think your science is boring it might be because they have the conception that it is all about “water floating down” as one (boring) Swedish hydrologists once summarized his science to a newspaper.

    But when Malin spends two pages just to explain in gripping detail how the water reaches the ground it indeed makes exciting reading!

  3. At cocktail parties, I sometimes introduce myself as “a weather forecaster, but for floods”. If I said I was a modeler, they might think I’m working in high fashion. Sadly, the only supermodel I’ve worked with is GR4J. Their follow up question is usually “what do you do when it’s not flooding?”

    That said, similar to Florian, I agree that there is mostly a technical audience for river forecasts. Most citizens don’t know that river forecasters exist but when they find out that they do, it seems obvious to them that someone would be doing that. For example, everyone drinks from bottles but few think about bottle cap designers (is there one designer, many? do they have other duties? are they paid well?). The question of your article though is should citizens know/care more about hydrologists/bottle cap designers? For the curious, yes, that information should be available, but like Florian said, the extent that it is pushed on people would depend on the relative priority of hydrology compared to other issues.

    One implication of all of this is that if the audience for river forecasts expands to include more citizens, then the information content/format/language of the forecasts would have to adjust. Compare for example, hydrology to space weather forecasting. The other day I wanted to find out if I should expect aurora on my vacation. On the space weather forecasting webpage I found information about K-indices, Pulsation plots, and TEC maps but in my mind nothing about aurora. Maybe all the pieces were there but not in a format I understood or found useful. The satellite operator probably completely understands the implications of a forecast for electron fluence more than 10^9, but not me- I just wanted to know if there was going to be lights in the sky. Perhaps it is the same when someone finds a forecast for flow at a streamgage but wants to know water depth at their house?

  4. I think there is only one solution: ask someone (Malin Falkenmark?) to write a best selling thriller about flood forecasting. Plot: a group of ardent flood forecasters are trying to force the authorities in a popular tourist region to call off a big money spinning festival because of signs of a threatening severe flooding. And then let Steven Spielberg make a Hollywood block buster called “Deluge”.

    1. On that note, probably the best “blockbuster” thriller about flood forecasts I’ve read is Richard Doyle’s Flood . From wikipedia: “Flood is a 2002 disaster thriller novel by Richard Doyle. Set in present day London, the novel depicts a disastrous flood and fire of London, caused by a storm, and the [spoiler alert — removed]. The plot is similar to his 1976 novel Deluge, updated to include the construction of the Thames Flood Barrier. The book was adapted into a 2007 disaster film, Flood, directed by Tony Mitchell.”

      I haven’t seen the movie but the book was a page-turner. I would say about 1/5th of it actually deals with river forecasts and hydrology (an enormous amount, considering the short treatment it usually gets), 2/5ths deals with the preparations and emergency response and the other 2/5ths is explosions and people running for their lives.

  5. We had this plot recently for the “Federal Gymnastics Festival” where despite of a storm warning (level 3 “considerable danger ” out of 5), the festival was not evacuated on time (see Swissinfo article) – and this even if the same event had seen, a week earlier, its infrastructure destroyed due to a previous storm. A typical setting where the officials took perhaps a wrong decision and the public was not able to undestand the danger (around 80 injured).

    I am a bit surprised to read comments along the lines “hydrology is not important enough for the general public”. This might well be due to our different backgrounds and working environments. For inhabitants of an alpine country, having basic insights into why the water flows where and when it flows is relevant for numerous decisions, including obviously many outdoor activities (e.g. swimming in mountain torrents which causes several deaths each year) but also political decisions (if the general public can participate) or decisions about where to not buy your house. This last point is rather interesting since some Swiss Cantons have publicly available flood risk maps, others do not show them to the public exactly because it might not be able to properly interpret the content.

    In my own experience, basic understanding is really missing. The most striking example I had in recent years was a winter rowing regatta in Torino on the river Po. The competitions were cancelled the first day due to too high water levels / too strong current. But the organizers decided that – given that the rainfall had stopped – the competitions were to take place the next day. I tried to convince the organizers that this would not result in lower flow within the next 12 hours, especially not if snowmelt was ongoing. I did not even manage to convince my own team to rather go to drink beer or taste the excellent local chocolate rather than to endanger our boat, the rowers and the cox (luckily the result of the disastrous race was just a complete split of the team but no accident).

    We might not agree on the importance of hydrology for the general public but how important is hydrology for engineers? The Swiss Hydrologic Commission is just about to evaluate the level of hydrology courses at Swiss universities, conclusions to follow later. Just as an interesting side comment: the Swiss Federal Office for Energy has no specialist for hydrology in its section on dam security.

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