Journal article

Advancing catchment hydrology to deal with predictions under change

Throughout its historical development, hydrology as an earth science, but especially as a problem-centred engineering discipline has largely relied (quite successfully) on the assumption of stationarity. This includes assuming time invariance of boundary conditions such as climate, system configurations such as land use, topography and morphology, and dynamics such as flow regimes and flood recurrence at different spatio-temporal aggregation scales. The justification for this assumption was often that when compared with the temporal, spatial, or topical extent of the questions posed to hydrology, such conditions could indeed be considered stationary, and therefore the neglect of certain long-term non-stationarities or feedback effects (even if they were known) would not introduce a large error. However, over time two closely related phenomena emerged that have increasingly reduced the general applicability of the stationarity concept: the first is the rapid and extensive global changes in many parts of the hydrological cycle, changing formerly stationary systems to transient ones. The second is that the questions posed to hydrology have become increasingly more complex, requiring the joint consideration of increasingly more (sub-) systems and their interactions across more and longer timescales, which limits the applicability of stationarity assumptions. Therefore, the applicability of hydrological concepts based on stationarity has diminished at the same rate as the complexity of the hydrological problems we are confronted with and the transient nature of the hydrological systems we are dealing with has increased. The aim of this paper is to present and discuss potentially helpful paradigms and theories that should be considered as we seek to better understand complex hydrological systems under change. For the sake of brevity we focus on catchment hydrology. We begin with a discussion of the general nature of explanation in hydrology and briefly review the history of catchment hydrology. We then propose and discuss several perspectives on catchments: as complex dynamical systems, self-organizing systems, co-evolving systems and open dissipative thermodynamic systems. We discuss the benefits of comparative hydrology and of taking an information-theoretic view of catchments, including the flow of information from data to models to predictions. In summary, we suggest that these perspectives deserve closer attention and that their synergistic combination can advance catchment hydrology to address questions of change.


Related material