Scientists to Launch Major New International Hydrology Initiative

Nov. 17, 1999

Earth's human population is now six billion and growing. Hydrologists and international public policy experts are about to begin a new worldwide cooperative research effort called "HELP" to meet our planet's burgeoning demand for fresh water.

Hydrologists from around the world met in Tucson Nov. 22 through to define a major new 10-year international program called "HELP" - Hydrology for Environment, Life and Policy.

Speakers included UA Vice President for Research Richard Powell, College of Engineering and Mines Dean Tom Peterson, department of hydrology and water resources Director Victor Baker, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy Director Steve Cornell and Institute for the Study of Planet Earth Director Jonathan Overpeck.

Local sponsors from the UA included the department of hydrology and water resources, Institute for the Study of Planet Earth and Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. Joint national and international sponsors are the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Kingdom Institute of Hydrology, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A taskforce of 50 international experts in hydrology, water-related public policy and water management participated.

"It is a matter of satisfaction and pride to me that the University of Arizona has been selected to host the first meeting to define an important new global initiative in hydrology, said UA President Peter Likins in a welcome letter to participants. "That this event is taking place at our University is a reflection of the international stature of our faculty and the University of Arizona's worldwide reputation as a center of excellence for water-related science."

"The organizing principle of HELP is that its research should be directly responsive to the water-related public policy and development issues that are internationally recognized as of major importance at the beginning of the new millennium. This goal is consistent with my own initiative to encourage the application of high-quality water science in support of public policy within the state of Arizona," he said.

UA professor Jim Shuttleworth conceived of the policy-driven, decade-long international initiative in hydrology in fall 1998. UNESCO, the World Meteorological Organization and the International Association of Hydrological Sciences adopted the plan at the Fifth UNESCO/WMO International Conference on Hydrology in Geneva, Switzerland, last February (UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.)

Shuttleworth appealed to scientists to join the effort in an article published last March in EOS, the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union.

The initiative would link to link large-scale climate oscillations such as El Niño to the hydrology of individual watersheds.

Until recently, hydrologists and meteorologists have assumed that local variations in the amounts of rainfall, runoff, and evaporation are haphazard and have statistical properties that remain static through time. Now, however, they are realizing that these locally observed conditions may be significantly linked to global-scale oscillations and may be prone to long-term change.

In addition, new technologies have recently given hydrologists and meteorologists deeper insights into global weather patterns and their effects on local hydrology. These data-gathering devices include satellites, a series of buoy monitors across the Pacific and Atlantic, rainfall radar, and emerging techniques for measuring rain and soil moisture from aircraft and satellites.

"Perhaps most impressive is the information revolution fueled by inexpensive electronics and more capable software, which provides the capacity to transfer data and understanding at unprecedented rates," Shuttleworth says.

He notes, for instance, that the second largest El Niño event on record occurred in 1982-83. It was not predicted and its existence was not even recognized until it was well established. In contrast, the 1997-98 El Niño was predicted at least a year in advance, and its evolution was closely monitored, with data accessible via the Internet. As a result, its effects on local weather patterns in
various parts of the country became much more obvious.

"This deeper insight into El Niño patterns serves as an example of a more general growing understanding of the Earth_s water and energy cycles and of greater awareness of the coupled ocean-atmosphere-land system that determines them," Shuttleworth says.

The UNESCO/WMO research program will be guided by local needs because different issues are important in different parts of the world, Shuttleworth says. For instance, simple availability of water may be what is important in one area. In another, hazards such as floods and drought may be of primary concern. In still another area, balancing human water use with preserving the environment may be the issue.

"Population expansion is going to drive these issues," Shuttleworth says. "Population growth directly affects water quality and thus health."

"As the world_s population grows, the water science community needs a worldwide hydrological initiative to produce effective, water-related public policy and foster science-based development", Shuttleworth says.

The importance of this should not be underestimated, he adds. Disagreement over water use has a huge potential in coming decades to fuel conflicts wherever competing interests share water resources, particularly in the Middle East.

This also is true in countries such as Pakistan and India where the demands on water supplies are severe.

And water policy will figure directly in balancing the growing human demand for water and the need to safeguard the environment. Water policy also will influence efforts to more efficiently produce food for growing populations.

"A similar endeavor was undertaken 30 year ago during the International Hydrological Decade," Shuttleworth says. "It laid the basis for modern scientific hydrology. The international hydrological community should be emboldened by past success and once gain seek a quantum leap in hydrological understanding."