Water and the Earth System in the Anthropocene: Evolution of Socio-Hydrology

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 4:30 PM
Murugesu Sivapalan, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Urbana-Champaign, IL, United States and Guenter Bloeschl, Institute of Hydraulic Engineering, Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien), Vienna, Austria
Over the past century, hydrological science has evolved through distinct eras as judged by ideas, information sources, technological advances and societal influences: Empirical Era which was data based with little theory, Systems Era that focused on input-output relationships, Process Era with a focus on processes, and the Geosciences Era where hydrology was considered an Earth System science. We argue that as the human footprint on earth becomes increasingly dominant, we are moving into a Co-evolution Era. Co-evolution implies that the components of the Earth system are intimately intertwined at many time scales – fast scales of immediate feedbacks that translate into slow scale interdependencies and trends. These involve feedbacks between the atmosphere, biota, soils and landforms, mediated by water flow and transport processes. The human factor is becoming a key component of this coupled system. While there is a long tradition of considering effects of water on humans, and vice versa, the new thrust on socio-hydrology has a number of defining characteristics that sets it apart from traditional approaches:

- Capturing feedbacks of human-natural water system in a dynamic way (slow and fast processes) to go beyond prescribing human factors as mere boundary conditions. These feedbacks will be essential to understand how the system may evolve in the future into new, perhaps previously unobserved, states.

- Quantifying system dynamics in a generalizable way. So far, water resources assessment has been context dependent, tied to local conditions. While for immediate decision making this is undoubtedly essential, for more scientific inquiry, a more uniform knowledge base is indispensable.

- Not necessarily predictive. The coupled human-nature system is inherently non-linear, which may prohibit predictability in the traditional sense. The socio-hydrologic approach may still be predictive in a statistical sense and, perhaps even more importantly, it may yet reveal possible futures not predicted by traditional forecasts, yet essential for long-term decision making.

Guided by these overarching arguments, and a review of recent progress, we will present a structured overview of socio-hydrology, framing the theoretical, observational and methodological challenges that lie ahead and ways to address them.