The Era of Data Rich Hydrology

50th presentation of the Lorenz G. Straub award ceremony
Award Recipient:
Conrad Wasko, University of New South Wales
Distinguished Speaker Rafael L. Bras, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering and K. Harrison Brown Family Chair in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology

Abstract: Until late in the 20th century hydrology, and many other Earth Sciences, developed in a limited data environment. For the most part, researchers and practitioners availed themselves of data of very low resolution in time and space. In hydrology, that meant point observations of fluxes like precipitation and evaporation and state variables like soil moisture, temperature and topography. Those observations were rarely hourly, sometimes daily and more commonly weekly and monthly. That situation forced hydrologists to rely on significant data extrapolation and on conceptual mathematical models designed to capture broad system behavior. That situation began changing rapidly at the end of the 20th century. In the 1990’s the United States (NASA) started implementing the Earth Observing System, some two dozen satellites have or continue to observe Earth and its environment at unimaginable resolution in time and space. In year 2000 the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission mapped the world at resolutions of 30 meters or less. That was a watershed moment for hydrology, it was no longer necessary to conceptualize and deal with lumped aggregated representations of basins. All of a sudden, and to this day, we have more data than we know how to use properly. This richness comes with challenges. The data is unwieldy, its errors structures are different, old models are of little guidance and new representations to match data availability are required. The tools needed to handle the data are different: the “big data” analysis era is with us. This paper explores that evolution in data and its use in hydrology. It will illustrate the challenges using analysis of precipitation, soil moisture, topography and temperature data, among others. The message is that the wealth of data now leads our understanding and to exploit that newly found information properly we cannot rely strictly on statistical/analytical procedures but must fall back on our understanding of hydrology/meteorology. In that sense, not much has changed.


About the Speaker: Rafael L. Bras is provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences where he holds the K. Harrison Brown Family Chair. 


Before becoming provost, Bras was a distinguished professor and dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UC-Irvine. For 32 years, he was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he was chair of the faculty, head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering department, and director of the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory. He has served as advisor to many institutions including: Engineering Directorate, National Science Foundation; Board of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, National Research Council; Earth Systems Sciences and Applications Committee of NASA and NASA Advisory Committee; National Academy of Sciences; United States Secretary of Energy, and the academic departments of prestigious American and international universities.


He is a distinguished member of ASCE, fellow of AGU, AMS, ASCE and AAAS, an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Puerto Rico and the Academies of Engineering and Sciences of Mexico. He holds an honorary degree from the University of Perugia in Italy. His awards include the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award Hall of Fame, AGU Horton medal, NASA Public Service Medal, and the Clarke Prize, among others.



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