Hallway Conversations – Harry Lins

A –Streams of Thought– contribution by Nilay Dogulu.


Harry Lins at WMO Secretariat, Geneva (September 2017)

Dr. Harry Lins is a hydrologist specialized in stochastic hydrology and hydroclimatology, and the current President of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Commission for Hydrology (CHy). He chaired the annual meeting of the Advisory and Management Committees for the Associated Programme on Flood Management (APFM) (held from 4-5 September 2017 at WMO Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland). Attending the same meeting as part of my (external) consultancy for the APFM Technical Support Unit, I took the opportunity to interview him. Harry Lins kindly accepted answering our questions during one of the lunch breaks in between his busy schedule full of meetings.

ND: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and education? 

HL: I have a PhD in Environmental Sciences with a specialization in climatology and hydrology. I spent 42 years working at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) which is the national hydrological service of the United States (U.S.). My background was in meteorology but most people at the USGS who work in hydrology are civil engineers. So, I was somewhat unusual. There were advantages and some disadvantages to that. But I think my background was general enough that it served me well and allowed me to work with both surface and groundwater hydrologists, and even with water quality community. It was broad enough background that I had a lot of degrees of freedom in choosing what I wanted to pursue in the field of hydrology.

ND: Having worked with so many people from different disciplines, which people/activities had major impacts on your development?

HL: Fortunately, the first few supervisors I had early on in my career were broad-minded scientists. They were just wonderful people to work for and always assumed that you could do something. So, I was very fortunate that I had very few constraints placed on me at the beginning of my career. I think it was those interactions with my first mentors that had a major impact on the direction my career took and encouraged me to pursue different avenues. They were very supportive of my ideas for where I thought I wanted to go. That was very helpful for me.

ND: You said that your background is in meteorology?

HL: I actually started my career, interestingly enough, in coastal sedimentary processes. I have an undergraduate degree in geography, a master’s degree in marine studies and, as a result, I did a lot of work in coastal processes. I was looking at the impact of weather and climate on beaches and sediment along barrier islands. When I went back for my PhD, I decided to put more emphasis on the meteorology and climatology. After a couple of years of PhD studies, I came back to USGS and moved into what was then known as the Water Resources Division. USGS had to decide what to do with a guy with a background in weather and climate! Well, the best match was hydrology, and that was where they put me in. I was in a very small research group. After couple of years working on sediment processes, my supervisor said to me: “you know, we are very interested in what you can do with your background in meteorology and climatology in understanding processes associated with rivers and streams. We are not as much interested in what you can do on beaches.” So, I said “sure, no problem!” That was the point at which I began to focus my efforts, research efforts in particular, on looking at the relationship between the atmosphere and hydrosphere. Most of my career is centred in that area, largely using statistical methods as I had a good background in both multivariate methods and time-series analysis. That is how I was drawn in to hydrology!

ND: Talking about statistics, what do you think about the role of statistics and their effective communication for practitioners? For example, the analyses and results presented in IPCC are statistical.

HL: I think for young scientists a strong foundation in fundamental statistics is absolutely essential to be able to communicate those things. Particularly, because young scientists entering the field must be able to read the IPCC reports with an understanding grounded in basic principles. It is crucial that you can wrap your head around not just what the statistical information seems to be revealing, but how those statistics were derived. It is absolutely essential that you be able to do that. You can tell many different stories with statistics, and that is true in any field whether economics, hydrology, climatology, or else. You have to be able to deconvolve what you are looking at in order to understand it, and then be able to communicate it effectively.

ND: Moving on to ‘practice’, what are the critical needs in the field of hydrology and how young hydrologists can contribute to addressing them, in your opinion?

HL: That’s an interesting question! We often tend to focus on what appears to be the higher-level needs in hydrology, such as water supply and sanitation. These are all critical. But I remember once reading an article saying “you can’t measure what you don’t monitor”. At the core of everything we want to achieve in hydrology, whether it is ultimately improved sanitation or improved water supply or improved flood risk avoidance somewhere, you must be monitoring! You must have networks of credible and standardized observations. I think it is absolutely critical for young people coming into the career to have not just an understanding of the big objectives that we would like to solve in the field, but what it takes to actually be able to do that. It begins with how you observe and monitor the conditions, whether it is surface water, groundwater or water quality. To me, that is one of the major challenges in the field right now. Many services around the world are experiencing declining networks because they are expensive to operate. Unfortunately, these declines are coming at a time when the requirement for hydrological information is growing. One of the ways that we can deal with this problem is to look at alternative ways of getting that kind of information. Certainly, remote sensing is something that helps us, although not at the same level of detail. So, you have to be prudent in terms of what you use your remote sensing information for and what you use your ground-based networks for. For example, if you look at flood risk avoidance, and the issuance of warnings through flood forecasting, there is no substitute for having robust ground-based networks in place; you must have that!

ND: In relation to your previous answer, what do you see as the biggest challenges to be dealt with, which are opportunities then for young hydrologists?

HL: It is a though question. I think the challenges are somewhat diverse in hydrology and they stem from the fact that in many cases we don’t have good inventories of our resource. I think monitoring which can promote the development of sound inventories and assessments are fundamentals that one can do. I think for young hydrologists those are a prerequisite. You start out by learning about (1) how to monitor; (2) the quality of information that you are getting from monitoring; and (3) how to use the observed data—which requires a good background in statistics and modeling—for your assessment purposes to get a better understanding of what the full resource is, regardless of where you are located on the planet. I think that is the big issue particularly for young people that are coming in to the field. It is one thing to see the overall long-term objective of solving some of these problems; but, to get to that point, you really have to understand that there are many weaknesses in the preliminary stages of operating networks and the way we do our assessments and inventories. Those are tough problems. It is not just an economic matter. In many cases what we find here in WMO through our work with National Hydrological Services in many developing countries is that there are institutional and administrative problems that have nothing to do with science and technology. Cultural, political and societal factors can become impediments to being able to run networks and sustain observation systems in a sustainable way. Financing and economics is one problem, but there are many others. Young scientists must be aware that there is this myriad of problems. They must find innovative ways to adjust to such factors and to find solutions.


First Session of CHy Advisory Working Group – AWG 1 (27 February – 3 March 2017, Geneva, Switzerland) [Photo source: WMO CHy]

ND: You have been also acting as the President of the WMO Commission for Hydrology (CHy). What are your responsibilities and what was the unique benefit that this experience contributed?

HL: I started working with CHy more than 20 years ago. I got involved in some of the working groups that they had within my region, and some here at WMO headquarters. The very first thing I observed was that, looking worldwide, the experience of many hydrologists was quite different than what I was used to in working at the USGS, which is the National Hydrological Service. I had a very limited perspective on the issues of importance to other operational hydrology services, and I had quite a shock when I tried to reconcile my experiences with those of my colleagues around the world. As an example, my Service is responsible for monitoring surface water, groundwater, water quality, and water use. It does all four of those things for the U.S.  I didn’t realize that we are an anomaly in doing so. There is no other National Hydrological Service in any country around the world that does all four things. Groundwater is usually done by geological institutes, water quality is frequently done by environmental services. So, my perspective was unlike everyone else’s, which was a surprise to me when I first started working with CHy.  In that regard, I think life as a hydrologist was much easier for me than for my counterparts around the world, and I had to make an adjustment for that. Over time, I began interacting with different CHy working groups and eventually was asked to serve on the Commission’s Advisory Working Group (AWG), which is a small group of people that actually conduct the projects that CHy requests at each of its quadrennial sessions. I served on the AWG for eight years (two separate tours), and was then elected President of CHy in 2012. As President, my job is to manage the work of the AWG and to represent the interests of CHy at the WMO Executive Council and to the WMO Congress.  The AWG accomplishes its work through close coordination with the Secretariat here at WMO, which is the permanent cadre of personnel who assist the various Technical Commissions (CHy is just one of eight Commissions at WMO). Jointly with the Secretariat, my job is to ensure that those things that the 154 CHy member states have requested actually get done. Tasks can include such things as preparing a manual on water resources assessment, or a manual on stream gauging. We also prepare material on techniques, such as water quality monitoring, as well as technical standards. In addition, we develop specialized capabilities and services such as the WMO Hydrological Observing System (WHOS).  Similarly, for a long time we wanted to be able to depict current surface water conditions around the world on a map, and have now initiated a WMO Hydrological Status and Outlook System (HydroSOS) that will go a long way toward achieving that objective.

ND: Reflecting on your experiences so far, let it be in the CHy or in the USGS, how do you see the role of research in dealing with the needs of operational hydrology, particularly in the developing world?

HL: I think it is absolutely essential.  Research provides the basis for understanding hydrological processes, whether it’s based in fluids mechanics, hydrochemistry, land-atmosphere interactions, etc. You have to understand the basics of the environment that you are working in, and then use that to make improvements in the way you do measuring and monitoring.  For example, both within USGS and CHy, we put a lot of effort into monitoring-related research and innovation because there haven’t been many changes in the way we measure streamflow over the past century. We are still doing it in the same basic way because it is very efficient, very well-understood, and very effective; at the same time, it is very expensive. What we are focusing on now is newer and less expensive technologies, and we’re turning to the research community to help us. As one example, over the last 30 years, National Hydrological Services had made increasing use of acoustic Doppler technology to measure discharge, which is also helping to take humans out of the river; especially, during very hazardous high flow situations. Moreover, many new improvements in modeling capability come from the academic community, even though many operational services have their own modeling capabilities. It is absolutely vital to the long-term health of operational hydrology that such interactions are maintained.

ND: What is the backstory behind your publication with the title “Streamflow trends in the United States” published in Geophysical Research Letters in 1999?

HL: About 20 years ago, concern was growing in response to climate studies suggesting that anthropogenic global warming would lead to an increase in extreme events. For the most part, these studies were coming from climatologists who were not familiar with hydrological extremes. Although they were generally referring to increases in extreme precipitation, some people, including the media, were interpreting these studies to mean increases in flooding. Significantly, USGS has daily discharge data for several hundred gauge locations going back more than 60 years. It was possible to do a very detailed analysis of trends; not only in the average or mean flow, but at low and high flows as well. In essence, we looked at trends across the entire range of streamflow, from annual minimum flow to annual maximum flow. In this way, we were able to determine in what part of the flow regime trends may be occurring. It is one thing to say “on average we had an increase in streamflow” but, if that increase is occurring in the annual low flow and not in the annual high flow, such an increase would actually be good news. You would have more water flowing through the system and wouldn’t be paying a “flood penalty” for it. But we didn’t know. Honestly, when we started out we had no clue what we would find because no one had investigated trends in discharge before. Somewhat surprisingly, our results clearly indicated that most of the streams that were having trends were experiencing them in the lower part of the distribution, and nearly all of those trends were positive. Low flows were actually gaining water, which was good news. When we looked at the high flow end of the regime, we found that there were fewer and fewer trends; less than 10 percent of the stations had trends. In other words, 50% of our stream gauges had increases in low flows, while only 7-8% of our stream gauges had trends in high flows, and of these, more were decreases than increases, although the pattern was fairly evenly split. That was a big surprise when the paper first came out because it appeared to go against the conventional wisdom. But it was actually a misperception on the part of some because no one had actually looked at these things before and no one really knew things if things were becoming more extreme hydrologically. Ours was the first paper published on the subject and, since then, there have been numerous papers published and they all found essentially the same thing. We were not an anomaly. Moreover, analyses of databases from around the world were coming to the same conclusion. I noticed that in the IPCC’s 2012 special report on extreme events, they acknowledged no trends were occurring in flooding. Notably, we are seeing increased trends in the cost of these events, but not in the events themselves. The increase in cost is, of course, related to the population and development on flood plains.

ND: What advice can you offer to early career, young and aspiring hydrologists?

HL: I think young people going into hydrology are wise because they are choosing the right field at the right time. Of all issues that face people on this planet, water is the most important. You can go several days without having food, but you can’t go very long without water—you simply have to have it. And yet, it is the one resource that we really take for granted, although it underpins everything we need for a healthy and prosperous life. It is the most essential of our resources. I think the best preparation for young hydrologists is to have, number one, a very strong fundamental quantitative background whether it is in numerical modeling and/or statistics (both would be useful). It is good to combine that with a broader environmental knowledge base in order to put water into the context of ecosystems, or agriculture or any resource factor that depends so much on water (and for which when they are dealing with issues they are turning to hydrologists for). So, it is good to be familiar with those things. And then I think it is also really important for young people, more so now than ever before, to be able to communicate effectively. One of the things that helped me along the way was getting training on communications. I did a lot of work for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) over the years. When I was involved in the AGU I was asked at one point if I would become the first Press Officer for the Hydrology Section. No section of AGU had press officers in the early 1990s, so the Union decided they were needed. They actually trained me on how to do press related work, to do interviews in front of a camera, how to understand reporters, the way they question, what they are expecting, and what your rights are as a scientist when you are speaking to them. This was invaluable for me because later in my career I became a manager of a program where we were looking at drought. One of my principal jobs was to talk to reporters all the time about drought conditions occurring in a certain place. They wanted to know how bad it currently is how much worse it is going to get and, because of the training I’d received, I was able to talk to reporters more effectively and to prepare myself with a better understanding of the interview process. I think such training is invaluable for any young person coming into the field today, so I encourage them to take advantage of any educational resources that are out there that can help them understand how to communicate in the media environment. It is not as easy as sitting down and chatting.  And, in so doing, it can provide tools for becoming a better public speaker in general.

ND: Could you share your insights on the role of creativity for success?

HL: I think every single time you come into a meeting environment or you are working with colleagues, although we don’t talk much about creativity, it is that creative element that each person brings to the table. It is essential to making progress whether it relates to a project or to the development of a new concept. That said, it is one of those things that I think just naturally flows from inquisitive minds. If you are looking around and questioning things all the time, I think that is what spawns creativity. It is absolutely essential to furthering our discipline and in helping our discipline contribute to broader issues and problems to which we are uniquely qualified to address.

About the author
Nilay Dogulu (@DoguluNilay) is a PhD candidate at the Middle East Technical University, Department of Civil Engineering and Early Career Scientist representative for the EGU Hydrological Sciences Division (@EGU_HS). She has been actively involved in Young Hydrologic Society since 2014, acting as the secretary (2015-2016) and the chair (2016-2017) of the board. Correspondence to Nilay Dogulu (nilay.dogulu@metu.edu.tr).

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