History of Hydrology Wiki – Interview with Keith Beven

Have you seen the wiki “History of Hydrology“? It was created by Professor Keith Beven, Professor Emeritus in the Lancaster Environment Centre, in 2016, and we have recently interviewed him to learn more about it:

What was your motivation behind creating the “History of Hydrology Wiki”?

I have always been interested in the history of the hydrology and hydraulics, which is both long and interesting.

A lot of the early history was summarized in the book on the History of Hydrology, written by Asit K Biswas (North-Holland, 1971) but only up to the end of the 19th Century. There have been a few history studies since, including my own papers on Robert Horton in Journal of Hydrology and Hydrological Processes in 2004, but not a lot.

Both AGU and the International Association of Hydrogeologists have collected some video interviews with eminent hydrologists and hydrogeologists, but clearly there are now very many who we cannot now interview about their work and collaborations.

I remember realizing that I had once met Walter Langbein at a meeting, when he must have been close to retirement. He had worked with Robert Horton but, as a very young hydrologist at that time, I had not realized and certainly had not thought to ask about it. It would be a shame if the history just faded away.

So it is a project I have had in mind for some time, but it is not something that hydrologists are going to get much academic credit for. More of a project for someone who has retired, so I started the site when I took my pension (albeit that I have not exactly retired from research yet).

We have seen that a page was recently posted to Max Adam Kohler, a pioneer in hydrological forecasting. This area of hydrology has long been seen as an “operational” activity. Do you think hydrological forecasting can also be considered as “science” within hydrological sciences?

That is an interesting question (with a long history). Max Kohler, who died only last month at the age of 102, was influential in setting up hydrological forecasting in the US, but also working for the international community as Head of the Hydrological Division at WMO.

As in meteorology, we would want hydrological forecasts to be based on the best available science – but unlike meteorology, hydrological responses are very much dominated by the boundary conditions including catchment characteristics rather than the process representations. In particular in extreme flood events, we cannot be sure that we have a good idea of the volume of inputs from the raingauge and radar data available to the forecaster (and as yet numerical weather prediction cannot provide better estimates). And while we can be pretty sure of observations of water levels, there is a lot of uncertainty associated with estimates of the corresponding discharges. Thus, even the water balance equation may not be that useful in forecasting.

There are certainly cases where there is apparently more discharge than rainfall (and much less than expected when, in mountainous areas, valley bottom raingauges do not reflect that the precipitation falls as snow at higher elevations). Thus in these cases, until we have better data or NWP predictions, data assimilation can be more important as a way of getting improved forecasts  than improved process representations.

Thus in the Lancaster Flood Forecasting Methodology we use a nonlinear transform of the observed inputs, with a linear transfer function, coupled with a simple data assimilation algorithm to produce forecasts and their associated uncertainties. That does not mean that either the nonlinearity or transfer function should not be considered as scientific – see the hypothetico-inductive arguments in Peter Young’s  article in Water Resources Research, 2013.

If you search for ‘ensemble’ on the wiki then one only gets one hit to a reference, whilst there are 8 results when you check for ‘uncertainty’ – are there trends  or fashions one can observe through history?

I think you have to remember that all the biographies (with one exception who will be 100 years old next month) are of hydrologists who have already died, and that running ensembles of models has only been possible since the later part of the 20th Century (my own first Monte Carlo experiments were carried out in 1980 on a CDC “Mainframe” computer. There will certainly be more mention of both model ensembles and uncertainties in the biographies of those who have been active since then. I am sure that trends and fashions will be evident in the material as it accumulates. That, after all, is what constitutes the history of a subject area, especially when (as in hydrology) dramatic innovations occur only rarely.

Finally, how do you think the HEPEX community can contribute to the “History of Hydrology Wiki”?

As a Wiki site, anyone can register to add or edit material on the site (at the moment I am acting as the moderator for entries), or can send me material. There are templates on the site for the different types of entry which can be biographies, histories of experimental catchments, histories of hydrological institutions and details of historical hydrological textbooks (it is somewhat surprising how texts from the early 20th Century look similar to those of the early 21st Century).

I have also recently added a section on annotated papers about the history of hydrology. The hope is that the materials will provide both a record of our history and a starting point for anyone wanting to do more detailed studies. We particularly need entries from the non-English speaking world which is certainly under-represented as yet. There is no reason why entries should not be in another language (see for example the entry for Eugène Belgrand), but it would be good if an English summary can be provided, with a link to the original (see Pierre Cappus).

There will be a session at EGU in Vienna in 2018 convened Okke Batelaan, Roberto Ranzi, Laurent Pfister and myself. With this session we aim to stimulate the discussion on how we, as a community, develop a historical literacy and integrate this in teaching and research to enhance our science. We warmly invite your contributions that discuss how hydrological concepts have gradually evolved over time; how forgotten methods might have contemporary value; the value of historical datasets of experimental catchments and their management; remarkable contributions of scientists, institutes and organisations.   Contributions from the HEPEX Community would be welcome – including (why not) something on the origins and history of the HEPEX project. A more detailed description of the session and the link for abstract submission can be found here. The abstract submission deadline is 10 January 2018, 13:00 CET.

Thank you for this interview and thoughts.

We encourage all Hepex members to contribute to the wiki and EGU session. Sessions on Hydrological Forecasting (science and applications!) will also be held at EGU 2018 (see them in a previous post) and abstract submissions to them are also welcome.


  1. Another resource worth mentioning is “The History of Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting” https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/about/history/?cid=stelprdb1043978 which is downloadable for free. And this history of hydrology written in the 1960s. http://www.twdb.texas.gov/publications/reports/other_reports/doc/Circ63-03.pdf

    Also normal wikipedia has some indexes of hydrologists at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Hydrologists_by_nationality

    The article does mention focusing on people who have passed away. I would think it’s not too early to add Norm Crawford of the Stanford Watershed Model though.

    In terms of influential textbooks and experimental watersheds, most of what’s known in snow hydrology (at least in the US) comes from the Army Corps experiments in the 1950s https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/ftpref/wntsc/H&H/snow/SnowHydrologyCOE1956.pdf … a searchable but considerably larger version is here https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/ftpref/wntsc/H&H/snow/SnowHydrologyCOE1956searchable.pdf The hand-drawn plates in the original are stunning, I’m not sure the scans do them justice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.