Flooded road

Meteorologists and hydrologists must work together amid increasing uncertainty

Meteorologists and hydrologists study different aspects of the water cycle. Simply speaking, meteorologists focus on water falling from the sky, while hydrologists focus on how water moves across the earth’s surface. Though we often equate flooding with precipitation levels, floods are multi-causal events influenced by soil moisture levels, man-made infrastructures, and agricultural and municipal water uses, all of which are monitored and modeled by hydrologists. Developing accurate river and flood forecasts requires a combination of hydrological models and up-to-date weather data, therefore, hydrologists and meteorologists must work hand-in-hand.

Though hydrologists focus on where water travels once it reaches the earth’s surface, weather data drives everything. Hydrologists can only run models and develop river forecasts as far in advance as meteorologists can provide weather data, so the two must collaborate to develop and share forecasts and information with relevant stakeholders.

To be the most useful, this information must be communicated to emergency managers as close to their decision points as possible. For example, in order to reach the most well informed and timely conclusions, it takes experts in both fields to work together to create detailed maps, illustrating which areas will be inundated so that emergency managers know which roads to close and what populations to evacuate.

Climate change, which leads to more severe weather events such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes, further illustrates the need for collaboration between meteorologists and hydrologists. Much of the infrastructure we currently have in place was built at least 50 years ago for a different climate than we are seeing now, meaning that hydrologists must closely monitor and model changing weather and climate data to determine how it could shift long-term and short-term flood risks.

As uncertainty surrounding adverse weather events continues to grow, we will need improvements in meteorological data, hydrological models, and communication systems to optimize flood forecasts and present them in ways that stakeholders can use.

To learn more about the overlap between hydrology and meteorology and what it means for flood forecasting, listen to Michael's full interview on the "Weather Geeks" podcast.

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Disclaimer: This piece was written by and Michael Kane (Director, RTI Center for Water Resources) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.