Hydrology Section, American Geophysical Union

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1930 -


The Hydrology Section is one of eleven in the American Geophysical Union. Its members are concerned with the cycling of continental water (solid, liquid and vapor) at all scales, and with physical, chemical and biological processes driven by that cycling. Of AGU’s almost 60,000 members, about 7000 list their primary affiliation with the hydrology section.

The stated purpose of the Section (per its bylaws) is “To promote the aims and activities of the American Geophysical Union within the field of hydrology and water resources including . promot[ing] the scientific study of hydrology and water resources and [making] the results of such studies available to the public; initiat[ing] and participat[ing] in hydrologic and water resource research programs including those which depend upon international cooperation, and promot[ing] cooperation among [other] scientific organizations whose objectives include furtherance of knowledge in the hydrologic and water resource disciplines.”

An article about the formation of the Hydrology Section of the American Geophysical Union, written by Oscar Meinzer, can be found here

From that article:

"At the annual meeting in May 1930 a Section of Hydrology was authorized to conform to the Section of Scientific Hydrology of the International Union. A meeting of the members of the Union who expressed their desire to be affiliated with the new Section of Hydrology was held at the National Research Council in Wash­ington, D. C.,on November 15, 1930. At this meeting the following officers were elected: Chairman, 0. E. Meinzer; Vice-Chairman, R. E. Horton; Secretary, H. N. Eaton. An executive committee was created consisting of the three officers together with such other members as the Chairman might select. Subsequently N. C. Grover and W. W. McLaughlin were added to the committee."

The Fields of Hydrology[edit]

Meinzer's article also set out the range of fields to be covered by the Section of Hydrology.

"The following is a slightly modified list of suggested fields of hydrology that was submitted with the ciroular letter. It is obviously illogical and overlapping in some respects and is to be regarded as suggestive rather than authoritative or final. Suggested fields of hydrology to be covered by permanent committees of the Section of Hydrology

(1) Distribution and intensity of precipitation

(2) Hydrology of snow (snow-surveys, evaporation of snow, melting of snow and its effects, prediction of stream-flow from snow-surveys)

(3) Hydrology of glaciers

(4) Evaporation from free water-surfaces and the fluctuation bf lakes

(5) Transpiration and evaporation from soil (including their relation to ground­water levels and stream-flow) (

(6) Soil-moistur© (including frost-action and the dynamics of soil-moisture in land-slides, mud-flows, and subsidences)

(7) Absorption of rain,snow, and stream-waters, and the resulting fluctuations of the water-table

(8) Methods of measuring the flow of streams

(9) Runoff and its interpretation and prediction (including low stages produced by droughts)

(10) Floods and their expectancy

(11) Movement of water in the zone of saturation (

12) Hydrology of artesian basins

(13) Relation of fresh surface-waters and ground-waters to salt-waters

(14) Hydrology of limestone terranes

(15) Hydrology of hot springs, hydrologic work in connection with volcanology, and the hydrology of volcanic terranes

(16) Quantitative methods in ground-water hydrology

(17) Laboratory work in hydrology

(18) Hydrologic work in connection with the study of metalliferous deposits

(19) Hydrologic work In connection with petroleum investigations

(20) Dynamics of rivers, and their work in erosion, transportation, and deposition

(21) Dynamics of rain- and surface-waters in soil-erosion, transportation, and de­position

(22) Dynamics of waves and currents along shore-lines

(23) Chemical character and chemical work of surface- and ground-waters

(24) Biology of surface- and ground-waters

(25) Historical and prehistorical hydrology

(26) Bibliography of hydrology"

The business of the Hydrology section and some scientific articles were published in the EOS Transactions of the AGU. In 1937 J. W. Church presented a paper on the Objectives of the Section of Hydrology noting that:

"The Earth and the Universe. What a progeny of scientific children they, or rather the former, have created. For from the Earth have come the sciences of air, land, and water, named meteorology, geology, and hydrology. And each in its turn has become specialized and yet coop­ erative. Their family-tree is as interlocked as that of the human race, for practical needs or human ambitions rather than reasoning have been at the base of their development.

In the beginning both geology and astronomy taught meteorology. They had equal claims. Then meteorology taught hydrology, for precipitation was apparently from the heavens. Now hy­ drology Is becoming independent and oceanography has created a complex world of Its own. At the present time meteorology, hydrology, and oceanography are oscillating between independence and interdependence, with the latter gaining the mastery.

Practically meteorology has gone heavenward and hydrology earthward. The former is spe­ cializing in the forecasting of weather, the latter in the effect of water. The fields necessar­ ily overlap. Officially the study of water is apportioned between the meteorologists, geologists, engineers, and conservationists.

The United States Weather Bureau has retained precipitation and floods. The United States Geological Survey has taken stream-flow and underground waters. The engineers are forecasting water-supplies. The conservationists desire to improve them. Since measurements of precipita­ tion have naturally become congested in the centers of population, where measurements are easy, rather than in the centers of hydraulic need, forecasting of water-supplies is becoming the acknowledged field of the engineers. However, the necessity for efficient cooperation calls for a guiding Division of Water Resources, such as has already been organized in some of the states.

Yet even here two broad fields persist: (1) The pure science of hydrology, and (2) its en­gineering applications. Some men toil in both."

He also notes: "Unfortunately the what or "applied* too often precedes the why. This is doubtless the cause of the founding of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics and its child, the American Geophysical Union--that is, to give aid and comfort to the theorists."

Church notes that the subdivisions of the field in AGU were already somewhat different from those in the International Union and the International Association of Scientific Hydrology and includes a figure of the overlapping fields of hydrological science (from the point of view of the IUGG Commission of Snow and Ice).

The overlapping fields of Hydrology, from Church, 1937

In another paper presented at the same 1937 meeting, Leroy K. Sherman reports that there were already 450 AGU members attached to the Section of Hydrology. In commenting on the science of hydrology he suggests that: "The time has now come when we should discard the general use of the time-honoured "coefficient of runoff". The use of this convenient expression of our ignorance of the relation of runoff to precipitation is not scientific hydrology. The runoff coefficient varies from zero to 100 per cent with rain, and more than that with snow. It is a variable with season, antecedent precipitation, duration and intensity of rain, nature of the soil, characteristics of basins, vegetation etc. The engineers, with nothing better at hand than the coefficient-formulae for runoff, condone the situation with the statement that runoff is erratic and that old man experience has become a pretty good guesser..... The runoff coefficient should be superseded by the relation that surface-runoff equals precipitation minus losses"

Water Resources Research[edit]

In 1965 the Section founded the journal Water Resources Research, initially published by AGU and then by Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of AGU.

AGU and the History of Hydrology[edit]

The AGU Hydrology Section maintains a "Virtual Hydrologist Project" site with biographies and complete bibliographies of some celebrated hydrologists [1]. A set of video interviews with past hydrologists produced by the Section can also be found here

Reference Material[edit]

Meinzer, O E, 1931, Formation of the section of hydrology of the American Geophysical Union, EOS Trans. AGU, Volume12, Issue1, Pages 227-229

Church, J W, 1937, Objectives of the Section of Hydrology, EOS Trans. AGU, 18, 510-514

Sherman, L. K., 1937, Hydrology as a Science, EOS Trans. AGU, 18, 514-516


AGU Hydrology Section Pages