For me, ecohydrology means studying how water and vegetation interact across a range of settings and scales and the degree to which these interactions are altered and reshaped by human actions, both direct and indirect. Ecohydrology also means working with our stakeholders in developing data and solutions to help inform ecosystem management and build resilience.
What are your undergraduate and graduate degrees in?
I have a B.Tech (2003) in Agricultural Engineering from CSA University of Agriculture & Technology and a M.Tech (2005) in Agricultural Systems Management from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, both from India. After a brief period working in the industry, I moved to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and graduated with a PhD (2010) in Natural Resources and Environmental Management.
How did you arrive at working in/thinking about ecohydrology?
Trees and plants are mysterious, magical, and sophisticated, and deserve much more appreciation than they receive. From single-celled algae to the giant sequoia, everything seems to be ostensibly defying the laws of physics. Add soil and water to the mix and now you have something that is even more magical and mysterious, aka the field of ecohydrology. For me, this appreciation for trees and plant and how they interact with their environment goes back to my early days growing up in a farming family in the rural North India. Like most farm kids, I was juggling between school and helping my family by working on the farm. Chasing wetting fronts inside furrows and fields during irrigation and running in freshly harvested rice fields to experience the splashing of saps from stumps continuing to push water and nutrients from roots to the leaves were the favorite pastime. Observing plants perking right back up from wilt within minutes after irrigation and comparing shades of roots with iron plaquing were no less than miracles. Of course, at that time I had no idea of sap or plant’s ability and endurance against stress.
These early experiences, however, certainly shaped my curiosity and early education, but it was not until I started the graduate school that I learned about the role of humans in actively reshaping our planet and saw research as a career. Much credit goes to my advisor Professor BS Das at IIT Kharagpur, who really exposed me to the field of ecohydrology (or soil physics as he would like to call) and science. He is the one who introduced me the idea of macropores, how plants utilize it to their advantage, and giving me the opportunity to perform my first tracer test. In my early days I saw earthworms and other forms of soil life as villains trying to destroy embankments and draining water, but the close examination changed my views. Soil organisms turned out to be real heroes, particularly earthworms. At the end of my masters, Professor Das gave me the opportunity to work on land-use and erosion issues related to Chilika Lake, Asia's largest brackish water lagoon in eastern India. Degradation of such a beautiful lake was saddening to observe but seeing some of the ecohydrological solutions implemented by the locals gave me a hope. I carried these experiences and skills to the other side of the world in Hawaii where my PhD advisor Professor Ali Fares gave me the opportunity to investigate the role of invasive species and human activities to hydrological cycle. Professor Tom Giambelluca selflessly taught me canopy water balance 101. Doing a PhD on a small island had its disadvantages, especially during the pre-zoom era, but looking back, I feel like small places like these give you the real opportunity to engage with local people and learn native ways of interacting with nature and preserving/managing our natural resources. I finished my PhD with a realization that we cannot fully understand the interaction between vegetation and water without considering the role of humans. Humans are essential elements of ecohydrology and altering the system at a faster rate than nature.
Shaped by this realization, much of my current work has been largely influenced by Professor Gordon Grant, my postdoc advisor at the Oregon State, and Professor Naomi Tague at UC Santa Barbara. These two scientific giants introduced me to the world of forest management and the role of local settings, geology in particular, and critical zone in modulating the interactions between vegetation and water under natural and disturbed conditions. While Professor Gordon Grant gave me the freedom to expand my wings and fly on my own (THANK YOU Gordon), Professor Naomi Tague introduced me to the world of ecohydrological modeling that I continue to use in my research lab.
What do you see as an important emerging area of ecohydrology?
My personal bias is for disturbance ecohydrology. I do not think we fully understand the post-disturbance soil-water-vegetation interactions. In particular, the intricacies of roots in accessing and sharing resources like water. Managing our water resources while actively trying to achieve the climate change goals through carbon sequestration is another emerging area. Ecohydrology can offer a great deal in understanding water-carbon tradeoffs. Years of critical zone science has certainly improved our understanding of the subsurface, but transferability and scaling continue to pose challenges.
Do you have a favorite ecohydrology paper? Describe/explain.
I do not have a favorite paper but much of my scientific thinking around ecohydrology has been shaped by Dr. Brent Newman’s paper “Ecohydrology of water-limited environments: A scientific vision”. This paper does a fantastic job in introducing the field of ecohydrology, discusses key scientific challenges, and identifies cross-cutting hurdles in addressing those challenges. Professor Ying Fan’s work on “Hydrologic regulation of plant rooting depth” does a fantastic job in describing roots from hydrologic lens. In my mind, these two papers are a must read for early career researchers looking for ideas. I have also enjoyed reading much of Dr. Nate McDowell and Dr. Craig Allen’s work related to droughts, in particular their paper “Mechanisms of plant survival and mortality during drought: why do some plants survive while others succumb to drought?”.
Fan, Y., Miguez-Macho, G., Jobbágy, E. G., Jackson, R. B., & Otero-Casal, C. (2017). Hydrologic regulation of plant rooting depth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(40), 10572-10577.
McDowell, N., Pockman, W. T., Allen, C. D., Breshears, D. D., Cobb, N., Kolb, T., ... & Yepez, E. A. (2008). Mechanisms of plant survival and mortality during drought: why do some plants survive while others succumb to drought?. New phytologist, 178(4), 719-739.
Newman, B. D., Wilcox, B. P., Archer, S. R., Breshears, D. D., Dahm, C. N., Duffy, C. J., ... & Vivoni, E. R. (2006). Ecohydrology of water‐limited environments: A scientific vision. Water resources research, 42(6).
What do you do for fun (apart from ecohydrology)?
I enjoy watching nature documentaries along with hiking and exploring outdoors with my kids.