In praise of hydrology

Dr Nick Chappell
Dr Nick Chappell

Hydrology is the unsung hero of research into effective ways of restoring the natural functioning of our environment, says the new President of the British Hydrological Society.

Hydrology - the study of the movement and quality of freshwater - plays a vital role in the battle to mitigate the effects of climate changes on flooding, droughts and pollution, says Dr Nick Chappell, from the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, who has been elected President of the British Hydrological Society.

The British Hydrological Society (BHS) is the UK’s main body committed to advancing the inter-disciplinary study of hydrology, encouraging good practice, research and scholarship in the scientific and applied aspects of the discipline.

"Today's hydrologists play a vital role by: helping to identify housing areas at low risk from flooding; identifying ways of producing food that improves the quality of our soils and rivers; reducing the water footprint of our manufacturing industry; and ensuring that we have enough treated tap water to keep us healthy,” said Nick, who was elected to a two-year term as President at the Society’s AGM on 1 October.

Lancaster University has been a key player in the development of hydrology, and Dr Chappell sees his election as a recognition of the University’s role as well as his own. 

Lancaster appointed the first Professor of Hydrology in the UK - Terence O'Donnell. Another Lancaster researcher was the co-author of the seminal book on systems modelling (Box and Jenkins, 1970) that underpins the methods we use in flood forecasting today, and also forms the basis for the sophisticated modelling toolbox (CAPTAIN) developed by Lancaster’s Professors Peter Young and James Taylor and Dr Wlodek Tych.

One of the world’s most cited hydrologists, Distinguished Professor Keith Beven FRS, has spent most of his career at Lancaster University. In 2017, he became only the second hydrological scientist to be elevated to the position of Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

“Keith is really influential: his work on hydrological modelling has changed so many researchers’ approaches to the subject locally and internationally,” says Dr Chappell. “We also have Professor Andrew Binley, who is world famous in the emerging discipline of hydro-geophysics. All in all that is quite a reputation.”

Dr Chappell himself is particularly interested in hydrological processes within forest environments. He has spent much of his career researching hydrological change in the tropical rainforests of Asia, and ways of mitigating these changes to flood incidence and soil erosion.

“For 20 years there was minimal interest in the interaction between trees and water in the UK environment, but the Somerset floods in 2007 changed all that, with a realisation that tree planting might actually be beneficial to reducing flood risk”

“While tree planting and a range of other measures of so called ‘natural flood management’ (NFM) began to be introduced quite quickly, the magnitude of their flood mitigation benefit was not known. New hydrological science is needed to do this - not least to justify future public expenditure on these measures.”

In 2017, Dr Chappell led a team of Lancaster scientists who, in partnership with 17 government agencies, environmental charities and others delivering NFM measures, secured one of the three national projects to quantify the flood-mitigation effectiveness of NFM. He is now the national co-lead for the 4-year programme, funded by the UKRI Natural Environment Research Council.

The Lancaster project, known as Q-NFM, has been focused on modelling NFM effectiveness for the nearby Cumbrian catchments of the rivers Kent, Derwent and Eden, all areas that were badly affected by the flooding from Storm Desmond in December 2015.

Dr Chappell believes that the type of partnership working needed for this project embodies the mission of the British Hydrological Society, by working across sectors to advance our knowledge and improve practice.

“Working closely with farmers on whose land the interventions need to be placed, with the environmental organisations designing the interventions, and with the government agencies targeting works above flood-affected communities, keeps us researchers on our toes and makes sure that our research makes a real difference and quickly,” said Dr Chappell.

Dr Chappell has taught hydrological processes and techniques at Lancaster since 1990, most recently capitalising on partnership working, by delivering postgraduate training in flood and coastal risk management with industry leaders JBA Consulting, bringing the latest science and practice to  government and consultancy staff, recent graduates and PhD students.

Dr Chappell is looking forward to helping maintain the British Hydrological Society’s leading role in promoting research in hydrological processes, innovative engineering practice and critically, the career development of the next generation of hydrologists in the UK. He is keen to support the British hydrological community as it strengthens its role nationally and internationally, and so build on the inspired and effective leadership of the previous president, Peter Ede, with the invaluable support of the national committee and BHS membership.

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