Ecohydrology, in the way that I use it now, is the field that bridges study of the physical and biological processes that govern how water moves through and around our planet in the soil, vegetation, atmosphere across mountains and farms, lakes and rivers. Conversely, there is a whole community that applies it to the study of the medium (water) that aquatic organisms call home, and in fact that was my first introduction. Additionally, I don’t think we can ever entirely remove people from this story, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been hoping to coin the term “ethno-eco-hydrology” which I define as the study of how human practices and beliefs shape the vegetation which in turns shapes the hydrologic processes of a landscape. Someday I hope to do research that truly embodies this field.
What are your undergraduate and graduate degrees in?
I have a Bachelor’s of Arts in biology from Grinnell College, a Master’s of Environmental Science from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). I managed to maintain interdisciplinarity with the human and social sciences throughout my education with an interdisciplinary concentration in global development studies at Grinnell, a graduate minor in African Studies at Yale, and being co-housed in the center for cooperation and development at EPFL.
How did you arrive at working in/thinking about ecohydrology?
During my undergraduate aquatic biology class, I did a project studying the ephemeral pools that frogs use as habitat. I spent most of a semester going out regularly to our experimental prairie and listening for frog calls. I found myself thinking more about the water than the frogs, and particularly how the whole ecosystem was dependent on that seemingly random pooling of water. Grinnell didn’t offer hydrology and I was out of sync with the only earth science class in the curriculum so I had to pursue my interest in water within the biology curriculum. That led to an independent project with my aquatic biology professor (Dr. Peter Jacobson) examining the consequences of levy construction on a stand of cottonwood trees in the floodplain of the Rio Grande River with annual growth rings. During that semester, I became fascinated with the roles of floodplain forests and floods to exchange water and nutrients. It is this same fascination with biological communities that shape and are shaped by the hydrologic flows that guides my work today.
Though what happened between my bachelor’s projects and the present might seem a bit random to some people, it was a linear progression of my interest for me at the time. I spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Islamic Mauritania developing an environmental education curriculum. As luck would have it, I was stationed in the floodplain of the Senegal River Valley. During my Peace Corps service, I spent a seemingly infinite number of hours observing the forests and people who live in the floodplain and though a lot about how the management of the up- and downstream dams had changed the ecosystem. However, I craved more vegetation than the desert could provide, so I moved further south to Benin with a Fulbright grant in the woody savanna and later in the riparian forests of the Oueme River for my Master’s research. There, I made the connection between forests and trees that people call sacred and (hydrological) ecosystem services. Towards the end of my Master’s, however, I was looking for a more quantitative approach and dove into the other extreme by using eddy-covariance, stable isotopes of water, and a seemingly infinite number of sensors to study land-atmosphere interactions in the same savanna but across the border in Burkina Faso with Dr. Marc Parlange, at EPFL at the time. I invested a considerable amount of time in a single Sclerocarya birrea tree. As a post-doc, I’ve been involved in two main projects. First, modelling a waterborne disease, schistosomiasis, in Burkina Faso, and, second, an intensive observation of hydrologic process in a high-altitude catchment in the Swiss Alps, using stable isotopes of water among other methods to improve understanding of changing seasonal snow, glacier, and expanding vegetation impacts on downstream flow. However, my most recent paper (in HESS) was an exciting collaboration with biologists to examine variations in environmental DNA across the catchment. Sampling DNA is much more labor intensive than stable isotopes!
What do you see as an important emerging area of ecohydrology?
Interdisciplinarity is such a mixed blessing. On one hand, it took my whole trajectory to arrive where I am now, but on the other hand, there must be many much more efficient ways to have the tools to answer the questions I ask. I think my trajectory can confuse people who try to label my expertise (or give me a job). I’ve been involved in positive and negative, and substantial and superficial interdisciplinary exchanges. I think as ecohydrolgists we have to learn to glean information from lots of sources but still maintain our expertise. Sometimes, I find myself reinventing a wheel discovered by soil scientists a century ago or rederiving an equation that geochemists figured out the year I was born. Thus, I think the challenge in our field is holding the state-of-the-art knowledge of so many different fields in our heads all at once and still looking at things in innovative ways. We certainly have plenty of questions to answer ahead of us. I hope that we can find the questions that have direct applications that will improve the quality of life on our planet and make life more resilient.
Do you have a favorite ecohydrology paper? Describe/explain.
The first paper I read that captivated my thirst for ecohydrology was Junk, Bayley, and Sparks’ 1989 Flood Pulse Concept. I think that was before the term “ecohydrology” was coined. I first encountered the term in Paolo D’Odorico and Amilcare Porporato’s Dryland Ecohydrology book. I am also very attached to Brutsaert’s book “Evaporation into the Atmosphere” (1982). I love the way he starts at the very beginning. I hope that someday I write a book in such an exhaustive way. Finally, I always return to a paper by Bruijnzeel questioning the impact of upstream tropical deforestation on downstream flows.
What do you do for fun (apart from ecohydrology)?
I love being outside with almost any means of mobility, but my favorites are ski touring, hiking, swimming in cold water, and biking. That is certainly when I have my best ideas. I also seem to have a never-ending life style that requires me to learn different languages. Finally, I have a relatively new intensive, long-term child development project that seems to consume most of my non-ecohydrology hours but is a lot of fun. Perhaps there will be some overlap in the future. Who knows?