Expert Report

Challenges and Opportunities in the Hydrologic Sciences (2012)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

New research opportunities to advance hydrologic sciences promise a better understanding of the role of water in the Earth system that could help improve human welfare and the health of the environment. Reaching this understanding will require both exploratory research to better understand how the natural environment functions, and problem-driven research, to meet needs such as flood protection, supply of drinking water, irrigation, and water pollution. Collaboration among hydrologists, engineers, and scientists in other disciplines will be central to meeting the interdisciplinary research challenges outline in this report. New technological capabilities in remote sensing, chemical analysis, computation, and hydrologic modeling will help scientists leverage new research opportunities.

Key Messages

  • New capabilities in areas such as imaging Earth, chemical techniques to measure molecules in water and in organisms, and increased computational power, will allow hydrologic scientists to answer new research questions. In particular, there are four areas where progress is revolutionizing hydrologic science—chemical analytical instrumentation, remote sensing, embedded sensor systems, and computation.
  • Three major areas define key scientific challenges and opportunities in the coming decade: the water cycle, the nexus between water and life, and clean water for people and ecosystems. These three research topics are intriguing areas of study and offer the potential for significant progress by taking advantage of new techniques, technologies and instrumentation.
  • The Water Cycle, An Agent of Change: The water cycle—the movement of water through evaporation, transport through the atmosphere, precipitation, and river and groundwater flow—is central to the processes that formed Earth and continue to influence its evolution. Understanding how water has acted throughout the history of Earth, today, and in the future, and how water cycles work on other planets, will broaden the understanding of how Earth's water cycle functions.
  • Water and Life: The evolution of life on Earth likely began with the formation of liquid water, and has been shaped by the availability and flow of water ever since. Over geologic timescales, changes in hydrology have been a major force in natural selection. Hydrologists can provide insight on how changes land masses and in the biosphere impacted the hydrologic cycle in earth's deep past. Across the modern Earth, annual precipitation and temperature help explain variations in vegetation cover and the distribution of many organisms.
  • Clean Water for People and Ecosystems: Water transports vast quantities of dissolved chemicals and suspended matter through ecosystems. As the global population grows, demand for clean water continues to increase. There are few untapped sources of clean freshwater in the places on Earth where most people live, and therefore it's likely that greater water treatment and reuse will be necessary in the future.
  • There is a need for interdisciplinary hydrologic research that takes advantage of cutting edge technological capabilities to grapple with the complex water related challenges of today and tomorrow. As technology to probe the mysteries of the Earth advances, as computer models become more and more sophisticated, as research relies on ever more extensive data for modeling and analysis, and as no single discipline provides the entire knowledge base for advancing hydrologic sciences in the 21st century, building mechanisms for sharing knowledge, equipment, models, data, and science requires a fostering platform and relevant resources.
  • Improved knowledge of the chemical and biological processes that affect the supply and quality of the planet's water resources does not necessarily translate into improved water management. In order to better connect science and decision making, sustained interactions are needed among scientists, engineers, water managers, and decision makers, called translational hydrologic science.
  • A range of capabilities with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies exist that play a critical role in hydrologic sciences that are key to tackling the challenges and opportunities in this report. The hydrologic community is well served by these capabilities including the funding of standard grants by the Hydrologic Science Program within the NSF, collaborative, community building efforts, instrumentation and facilities, and various educational programs.
  • The next generation of hydrologic scientists and engineers will need to be prepared for a more interdisciplinary scientific arena, with a portfolio of new and emerging technologies available. It will be important to cultivate hydrologic scientists and engineers with the skills to work easily in interdisciplinary teams, practical experience in both the laboratory and the field, and exposure to new technologies.