Hallway Conversations – Zahra Kalantari (October 2021)

Contribution by Samaneh Seifollahi (SS)

Zahra Kalantari is an Associate Professor in Environmental and Engineering Geosciences for Sustainability in the Anthropocene and a Docent in Physical Geography. She is affiliated with Royal Institute for Technology, KTH, and Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden. Zahra is also the Director of Navarino Environmental Observatory (NEO) in Greece, and a Research Area Co-Leader for Landscape processes and climate within Bolin Centre for Climate Researchat Stockholm University. Her research focuses on understanding of earth and human systems, technology and innovation solutions to planet’s most pressing environmental challenges related to the change effects of climate, land- and water-use in terrestrial environments.

SS. Can you tell us a little about your background, your formal education?

My background is in flood risk assessment and strategic water management issues, as well as water quantity and the dynamics of flow. My main competence is in Geoscience and environmental engineering for sustainability in the Anthropocene. I completed my doctoral degree at KTH in 2014 in Land and Water Resource Engineering, I did my postdoc in collaboration with Stockholm University (SU) and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and developed my research career at SU for a few years, and re-joined KTH in November 2020. Among other things, I am a member of the board and steering committee of three European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) actions, Land4Flood, FIRElinks, Damocles which have offered me great opportunity for collaboration with scientists across Europe.

SS. What inspired you to pursue research in hydrology?

I have always found water fascinating. For me, water is interesting as it is the most important substance in the world for all life on, under and above Earth’s surface – without water, there is no life. There are numerous linkages between water and environmental and societal challenges such as climate change, health risks, economic growth, conflicts, urban planning, etc. There are so many aspects of water that require an interdisciplinary approach, and necessitate transdisciplinary collaborations.

SS. What helped you to achieve your current positions in academia?

I love the collaborative efforts that water research requires and offers! Most of the projects I am involved in are interdisciplinary and include researchers from different areas and organization. Having the ambition and aim of developing and highlighting the internationally prominent research in solving the world’s emerging water problems has helped me to be in my current position.

SS. How has hydrologic science changed over the past years? Theoretically and practically!

I believe that Hydrology has evolved as a science in response to the need to understand the complex water systems of the earth and help solve water problems.

According to Sivapalan (2018), there has been a fundamental transformation of hydrology in the past 50 years (from Engineering hydrology to Earth system science): “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.”

SS. How do you see the future of hydrologic science?

Hydrologists need to work much more closely with experts from other disciplines (geologists, soil scientists, biologists, geochemists, ecologists, and social scientists, among others) to understand how the system functions at a fundamental level, as well as at the holistic level. This will promote a deeper understanding of the characteristics of the system, and of its components, under changing conditions. For instance, through interdisciplinary collaborative efforts, we can combine cutting-edge research in the areas of Earth Systems Science (hydro-climate research) with Computational Social Sciences (complex socio-economic systems). This will help Hydrologists to become both synthesists, observing and analysing the system as a holistic entity using top-down strategies, and analysts, understanding the functioning of individual system components through bottom-up approaches, while operating firmly from a strategy of well-designed hypothesis testing.

SS. What would you consider the most important open question in hydrology that needs to be addressed?

Explaining and modelling the interactions between human activities and physical hydrological processes are yet among the unsolved problems of hydrology, and I believe they frame a strategic agenda for 21st century that requires interdisciplinary research. This requires a systems approach to characterise human and natural systems as an interconnected holistic system.

SS. How do you see the potential for interactions between hydrology and other disciplines to address societal challenges?

From ground-breaking contributions that we have made through our research to address societal challenges, I can exemplify several interactions between hydrology and other disciplines:

Surface water hydrology, particularly flood analysis in the built environment can affect spatial planning and urbanization pattern and consequently regional economic and societal growth, which in turn can change flood patterns in those areas. Common flood analyses usually ignore the built environment, and most do not consider small scale infrastructure systems, such as urban roads and intersections. Regarding climate change mitigation, water bodies can play a significant role in the urban carbon cycle. So, it is crucial to look at the relationships between societal goals related to water across landscapes, and identify their synergies to guide policy development and urban planning for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and maximizing carbon sequestration.

Hydrological analyses also closely interact with the development of management solutions for current hydro-climate challenges such as, nature-based solutions and green-blue infrastructures to mitigate flood risk and other relevant problems in urban systems under climate change. On the other hand, socioeconomic development and management strategies greatly affect water availability and its changes at global scale. This is where the interactions with modelling, innovation and technology happen in form of assessing water-related performance and future scenario projections and implications of Earth System models and regional climate models, with particular focus on sustainability.

Hydro-climatic changes affect social communities through water changes, and the evaluation and quantification of such impacts are crucial for societal resilience, aiming to enable a better-informed foundation for policy decisions on adaptation. Nowadays, most of the works in hydrologic science are greatly motivated by societal benefits, because water is a valuable, vulnerable and, in various places and times, also a scarce resource. Hydrological analyses aim at improving scientific understanding and providing insight into how we can use this knowledge for reducing and mitigating the negative impacts of climate-driven and anthropogenic changes on our society and the environment.

SS. What technological advances do you think will be key for hydrological advancements over the next decade?

Availability of clean water is highly variable across places and times. According to the World Bank “Water is crucial in determining whether the world will achieve the SDGs. The world needs a fundamental shift in how it understands, values and manages water”. So, technologies that can support clean water production will be highly valued.

SS. What would be your advice for early career researchers to plan their pathways?

I would advise early career researchers to get involved in interdisciplinary research projects and work with scientists from different disciplines. Effective collaboration is necessary to maximize the potential benefits of interdisciplinarity for future research activity.

About the author

Samaneh Seifollahi is a researcher at Stockholm University, Sweden, with the hydrology and water resource management background, and is a member of the Blog Committee as part of the Young Hydrologic Society (YHS) board (2021-2022). Correspondence to samaneh.seifollahi@natgeo.su.se


Ghajarnia, N., Kalantari, Z., & Destouni, G. 2021. Data-driven worldwide quantification of large-scale hydroclimatic covariation patterns and comparison with reanalysis and Earth System Modeling. Water Resources Research, 57, e2020WR029377. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020WR029377

Horn, B., Ferreira, C., & Kalanatari, Z. 2021. Links between food trade, climate change and food security in developed countries: A case study of Sweden. Ambio, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-021-01623-w

Lei, x., Chen, W., …, Kalantari, Z. et al. 2021. Urban flood modeling using deep-learning approaches in Seoul, South Korea. J of Hydrology, 601, 126684. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2021.126684

Ma, Y., Destouni, G., Kalantari, Z. et al. 2021. Linking climate and infectious disease trends in the Northern/Arctic region. Scientific Reports, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-00167-z

Darabi, H., Rahmati, O., …, Kalantari, Z. et al. 2021. Development of a novel hybrid multi-boosting neural network model for spatial prediction of urban flood. Geocarto International, 1-27. https://doi.org/10.1080/10106049.2021.1920629

Pan, H., Page, J., …, Kalantari, Z. 2020. Understanding interactions between urban development policies and GHG emissions: A case study in Stockholm Region. Ambio, 49, 1313-1327. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-019-01290-y

Pan, H., Page, J., …, Kalantari, Z. et al. 2019. Using comparative socio-ecological modeling to support Climate Action Planning (CAP). J Cleaner Production, 232, 30-42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.05.274

Kalantari, Z. et al. 2019. Assessing flood probability for transportation infrastructure based on catchment characteristics, sediment connectivity and remotely sensed soil moisture. Science of the Total Environment, 661, 393-406. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.01.009

Kalantari, Z. et al. 2018. Nature-based solutions for flood-drought risk mitigation in vulnerable urbanizing parts of East-Africa. Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, 5, 73-78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coesh.2018.06.003

Sivapalan, M. 2018. From engineering hydrology to Earth system science: Milestones in the transformation of hydrologic science. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (HESS), 22, 1665-1693. https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-22-1665-2018

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