From a definitional perspective, ecohydrology is a study of the interactions between water and ecosystems. For me, ecohydrology is the science of natural systems, because the only way to truly understand natural systems is through exploring the connections and feedbacks between the various subsystems of our natural world -- between ecology, hydrology, geochemistry geomorphology -- and between natural and social systems. These feedbacks create interesting and unexpected patterns, ranging from fractal network formations in rivers, wetlands and coastal areas to ridge and slough landscapes in the Everglades to dryland vegetation patterns. Understanding patterns in natural systems using simple scientific principles, and being able to use this understanding to manage our landscapes more sustainably lies at the center of my love for ecohydrology.
What are your undergraduate and graduate degrees in?
All my degrees are in Civil and Environmental Engineering. My undergraduate and masters degrees are from Jadavpur University and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in India, while my PhD degree is from Purdue University, US.
How did you arrive at working in/thinking about ecohydrology?
My first foray into ecohydrology started in my undergraduate years when I did a project on the Kolkata wetlands, a 125-square km area of natural and human-made wetlands, lying downstream of the city of Kolkata in India. These wetlands not only provide flood defense against rising sea levels, but are an amazing example of a coupled natural and human system, where salt marshes and settling ponds coexist, where nutrient from the cities’ waste is used for sustaining fish farms and agriculture. Developmental pressures and a lack of an understanding of the true value of this amazing ecosystem are contributing to the wetlands being lost at an alarming rate. Coming from a traditional engineering background, where a wetland is treated as a reactor with a rate constant, the intricacies of the coupled dynamics of this highly complex system intrigued and fascinated me. For me, ecohydrology is about understanding these interactions between natural and human systems, and developing strategies to protect our natural system in a changing landscape.
What do you see as an important emerging area of ecohydrology?
In the last decade, we have seen an exponential increase in the incidences of algal blooms and hypoxic zones in our water bodies despite huge amounts of money and effort being invested in curbing nutrient pollution. Incidences of harmful algal blooms are being reported even in some of the more “pristine” lakes. What makes this a really interesting and challenging problem is that while multiple factors have been implicated -- ranging from a changing climate (changing precipitation and ice duration) to aquatic and terrestrial legacies, to changing nutrient ratios that trigger different algal species -- we are still struggling to develop a comprehensive understanding of the drivers and controls of these blooms and the strategies to improve water quality, given changing climate and population pressures. I consider this to be one of the most exciting areas of ecohydrology.
Almost concurrent with increasing water quality threats we have seen an exponential increase in our ability to harness massive geospatial datasets in the last decade, and I expect that learning from this data will allow us to see the forest from the trees, to go beyond our own streams or lakes to find global patterns and unifying theories, and will contribute to the greatest advances in ecohydrology. From a personal perspective, for data nerds like me, the ability to synthesize, understand and learn from disparate systems, using regional and global databases is like solving a large jigsaw puzzle - where the story gets clearer as you find more and more connections – and gives you hours of pure, unadulterated joy.
Do you have a favorite ecohydrology paper? Describe/explain.
This is a tough question…there are so many papers I love. For me, interesting papers are those that challenge the existing paradigm – one such paper is the Bernhardt et al. Perspectives paper “Cleaner Lakes are Dirtier Lakes,” and the related Finlay et al. paper. “Human Influences on Nitrogen Removal in lakes.”
The existing paradigm is that reductions in nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) loads to our water bodies will lead to water quality improvement. These papers show, using a global lake dataset, that reduction in P inputs can actually contribute to a reduction in a lake’s denitrification potential, thus increasing N exports and contributing to N pollution in downstream coastal waters. Reduction in P inputs to lakes can decrease algal production, and thus algal uptake of N, and subsequently decrease mineralization and denitrification of algal N in lake sediments.
These two papers are a brilliant example of unintended consequences, how attempting to solve one problem in a connected system can exacerbate another problem, unless we take a more holistic approach. This to me is the essence of ecohydrology.
What do you do for fun (apart from ecohydrology)?
I have a 4-year old – so fun includes erupting baking soda volcanoes, making electric dough and bouncy eggs, hiking in the woods, making snow angels, and answering a gazillion “why” questions. Guilty pleasures when he is asleep or otherwise occupied range from escape rooms with my amazing lab group to board games to reading, tweeting and Netflix binging. In the past, one of the most fun things I have done is skydiving – hope to do it again someday with my son when he is older.