“Water is at the center of economic and social development; it is vital to maintain health, grow food, generate energy, manage the environment, and create jobs. Water availability and management impacts whether poor girls are educated, whether cities are healthy places to live, and whether growing industries or poor villages can withstand the impacts of floods or droughts,” the World Bank explains. For this reason, solving the water crisis is one of the world’s most pressing issues.
One field of science working to address the problem? Hydrology. Here’s a closer look at this critical work, the people who do it, and how you can join them.
What Is Hydrology?
In its simplest sense, hydrology is the study of water. However, in reality, it’s much more complex.
The Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences defines hydrology as “the science that encompasses the study of water on the Earth’s surface and beneath the surface of the Earth, the occurrence and movement of water, the physical and chemical properties of water, and its relationship with the living and material components of the environment. Ultimately, many hydrologic questions involve the transport of solutes, nutrients, energy, sediment, or contaminants, as well as the fluxes of water itself.”
The Work of Hydrologists
Hydrologists study many things, including the interaction of the water with the earth’s crust; how precipitation impacts groundwater availability and river levels and therefore affects people; and how water is contaminated and how it can be fixed. While groundwater hydrologists focus their efforts on the water below the earth’s surface, surface water hydrologists concentrate on groundwater sources. Hydrologists may also specialize in certain areas, such as groundwater remediation and glacial meltaways.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hydrologists perform a wide range of duties, including the following:
Measuring volume, stream flow and other properties of bodies of water
Collecting and testing water and soil samples to test for certain properties, including pH or pollution levels
Analyzing data on the environmental impacts of pollution, erosion, drought, and other issues
Researching strategies for minimizing the impacts of these issues on the environment
Forecasting future water supplies, the spread of pollution, floods, and other events using computer models
Evaluating the feasibility of hydroelectric power plants, irrigation systems, wastewater treatment facilities, and other water-related projects
Prepare reports and presentations on their findings
Hydrologists, who may work in the office or the field, are employed in a variety of sectors, including for federal, state and local governments; for management, scientific and technical consulting services; and for engineering services. They may also work alongside professionals in related fields, such as engineers, scientists, and policymakers.
In fact, this is a “golden tip” shared by hydrologist Jean Bahr for early career hydrologists. “Take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to step outside of your comfort zone and broaden your perspectives by interacting with scientists from other specialties or sub-disciplines,” he told the Young Hydrologic Society.
Demand for Water = Demand for Hydrologists
Water may be all around, but it is also limited, valuable, and difficult to manage. The British Hydrological Society explains, “Water is one of the most important natural resources and although plentiful, is not always in the right place at the right time or of the right quality. An overall aim of hydrologists is to apply scientific knowledge and mathematical principles to mitigate water-related problems in society and environmental protection. This may mean working out the best use of water supplies for cities or for irrigation, controlling river flooding or soil erosion, protecting or cleaning up pollution, planning long-term water storage reservoirs, flood risk assessment and flood/drought warning.”
As the world changes, so do the challenges facing hydrologists. For example, climate change and other human interferences, such as mining and fracking, affect water cycle and balance.
Hydrologist Anna Barros told the Journal of Young Investigators of the impact of climate change and global warming on the hydrologic process, “The most important aspects of hydrology are precipitation, evapotranspiration and the flow of water in soils. Climate affects the water cycle by changing the amount of water that is available in the atmosphere at any given time. It also changes the rate at which water is evaporated, the water holding capacity of the atmosphere and various storm dynamics. Because of that you can have heavier precipitation, changes in the number of rainy days and so on. It also changes how clouds form, where they form, how persistent they are and what impact they have on the greenhouse effect.”
Hydrologists also seek to address problems on a local scale. Consulting hydrologist Rachel Z. Kamman told the Marin Science Seminar, “One of the biggest problems affecting our local watersheds is that people are disconnected from the natural landscape that they live in. Once disconnected from our natural setting, we are no longer aware of our day to day impacts. If you don’t recognize that the water in your driveway or yard is connected by a storm drain to the creek and the bay, you probably don’t think twice about rinsing your paint brush, washing your car or fertilizing your lawn.”
Given these ongoing changes, it follows that hydrologists and water management experts are in great demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook is strong for hydrologists with a projected growth rate of 10 percent between 2016 and 2026. Hydrologists are also compensated well for their efforts, earning a median pay of just under $80,000 a year in the US.
Becoming a Hydrologist
If you think you are up for the challenge -- and the satisfaction -- of working in this pivotal field, education is essential.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Students who plan to become hydrologists need a strong emphasis in mathematics, statistics, geology, physics, computer science, chemistry and biology. In addition, sufficient background in other subjects -- economics, public finance, environmental law, government policy -- is needed to communicate with experts in these fields and to understand the implications of their work on hydrology.”
But that’s not all. Aspiring hydrologists must also have strong communication, people, teamwork, and public relations skills.
Barros continues, “The other thing that’s great about hydrology is that it’s pretty much everything – it’s fundamentally interdisciplinary. You can’t study hydrology without also knowing about thermodynamics and mechanics. It’s very demanding in terms of the breadth of knowledge you need in order to make a contribution. It’s a very humbling discipline in that sense.”
And while a bachelor’s degree is the minimum education requirement for entry-level jobs in hydrology, a graduate degree in the natural sciences will help you stand out from the crowd. Additionally, professional licensing may be required, depending on where you live.
Speaking of where you live, Claudio Caponi, who heads up the World Meteorological Organization’s Division of Capacity Building in Hydrology and Water Resources, says today’s aspiring hydrologists have at least one major advantage over their predecessors: more options for online and international studies. Caponi explains, “It is not that easy in many countries to say ‘I want to study hydrology’. However, now it is much easier to get access to the right information than before. Now you have [the] internet and you can find a lot of relevant information there, both at [the] local level and internationally.”