Articles | Volume 22, issue 3
Review article
 | Highlight paper
07 Mar 2018
Review article | Highlight paper |  | 07 Mar 2018

From engineering hydrology to Earth system science: milestones in the transformation of hydrologic science

Murugesu Sivapalan

Abstract. Hydrology has undergone almost transformative changes over the past 50 years. Huge strides have been made in the transition from early empirical approaches to rigorous approaches based on the fluid mechanics of water movement on and below the land surface. However, progress has been hampered by problems posed by the presence of heterogeneity, including subsurface heterogeneity present at all scales. The inability to measure or map the heterogeneity everywhere prevented the development of balance equations and associated closure relations at the scales of interest, and has led to the virtual impasse we are presently in, in terms of development of physically based models needed for hydrologic predictions. An alternative to the mapping of heterogeneity everywhere is a new Earth system science view, which sees the heterogeneity as the end result of co-evolutionary hydrological, geomorphological, ecological, and pedological processes, each operating at a different rate, which help to shape the landscapes that we find in nature, including the heterogeneity that we do not readily see. The expectation is that instead of specifying exact details of the heterogeneity in our models, we can replace it (without loss of information) with the ecosystem function that they perform. Guided by this new Earth system science perspective, development of hydrologic science is now addressing new questions using novel holistic co-evolutionary approaches as opposed to the physical, fluid mechanics based reductionist approaches that we inherited from the recent past. In the emergent Anthropocene, the co-evolutionary view has expanded further to involve interactions and feedbacks with human-social processes as well. In this paper, I present my own perspective of key milestones in the transformation of hydrologic science from engineering hydrology to Earth system science, drawn from the work of several students and colleagues of mine, and discuss their implication for hydrologic observations, theory development, and predictions.

Short summary
The paper presents major milestones in the transformation of hydrologic science over the last 50 years from engineering hydrology to Earth system science. This transformation has involved a transition from a focus on time (empirical) to space (Newtonian mechanics), and to time (Darwinian co-evolution). Hydrology is now well positioned to again return to a focus on space or space–time and a move towards regional process hydrology.