Institute of Hydrology

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Howbery Park, Crowmarsh Gifford, Wallingford, UK


1968 - 1999 (1962 - 1968 as Hydrological Research Unit)


The Institute of Hydrology developed out of the The Hydrological Research Unit (HRU) which was set up in 1962, and attached to the DSIR Hydraulics Research Station (HRS) at Wallingford,Oxfordshire, UK. HRS had experience in field instrumentation and where Eamonn Nash had already made notable contributions to British hydrology in rainfall runoff modelling. Nash was appointed as Head of the new Unit, together with John Rodda, who had been responsible for catchment work at HRS, and John Sutcliffe of the DSIR, who had practical experience of hydrological surveys and the research needs of the engineering community.

The HRU was set up at a time of controversy in UK hydrology, following the suggestion by Frank Law, a river engineer with the Fylde Water Board that water yields in forested catchments were significantly lower than grassland catchments. This was a finding based on both catchment data and a large plot experiment at Stocks Reservoir in Lancashire. The HRU was initially asked to conduct a hydrological study of catchments with contrasting land cover, preferably grassland and coniferous forest, since that was felt to be the land use distinction most likely to reveal differences in behaviour and, importantly, it was the most common source of land use concern. The decision was made to work on catchment areas, rather than small plots, in order to overcome the criticisms levelled at Law’s experiment and to study the effects on total runoff and its time distribution. The first catchment experiments were set up in the adjacent headwaters of the Wye and Severn at Plynlimon in mid-Wales in 1967. The Plynlimon study played a crucial role in proving beyond doubt the potentially serious reduction in water flows resulting from afforestation, leading to major changes in the management of water and land use by resource managers and policy makers (Robinson et al., 2013). The Plynlimon study resulted in the development of narrow steep stream flumes for gauging the tributaries where sediment transport was important. The catchments are still being monitored.

In 1964 Eamonn Nash returned to Ireland to take up a position at the University of Galway and was replaced as Director by Jim McCulloch. The HRU at that time had a staff of 8. In 1965 Government Reorganisation resulted in the transfer of the HRU to the newly formed Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In recognition of the growing importance of hydrological research in Britain, NERC designated the HRU as a full component institute: on 1 April 1968 it became the Institute of Hydrology.

The Institute expanded to cover both instrumentation, field experiments, and modelling projects in both the UK and overseas, including East Africa and the Amazon. It was involved in the development of the Wallingford Neutron Probe for soil moisture measurement, early attempts at digital data logging using cassettes and later digital recording, large scale canopy interception measurements, and the use of eddy correlation to measure heat, vapour and carbon fluxes. Other catchment experiments were carried out, including Grendon Underwood near Oxford, Coalburn in Northumberland, and Balquhidder in Scotland. Important studies on recharge into the Chalk Aquifers of the UK were also carried out.

One of the most important projects carried out at the Institute was the production of the Flood Studies Report (FSR) which appeared in 1975. This required the collection of instantaneous flood peaks and catchment characteristics for over 550 gauging stations. The flow peak data were published in Volume IV for the Flood Studies Report along with tabulated catchment characteristics and flood statistics. All the gauging stations used in the study were visited and graded according to the suitability of the site for flood measurement. Charts from suitable stations were micro filmed to enable the extraction of data to be carried out more easily and also to provide a permanent and accessible record. Rating curve information was collected at the time of visit and subsequently reviewed to ensure that the most appropriate stage-discharge relationship was used.

The data and analyses of the Floods Studies report were later updated as the Flood Estimation Handbook (FEH) which appeared in 1999 which included data collected up to the water year 1993/94. The developments that led towards the FEH included the WINFAP-FEH software and the Hydrology of Soil Types (HOST) classification which was mapped over the UK (Boorman, 1995).

At the end of 1999, the Institute of Hydrology was incorporated with other institutes around the country into the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

The Institute of Hydrology under Jim McCulloch provided a home for the IAHS Press which has been based at Wallingford since 1972. The Institute of Hydrology Report Series has been digitised and is available on-line from the NERC Open Resource Archive

Reference Material[edit]

McCulloch, J S G, 2007, All our yesterdays, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 11(1), 3-11 [1]

Robinson, M., Rodda, J. C., & Sutcliffe, J. V. (2013). Long‐term environmental monitoring in the UK: origins and achievements of the Plynlimon catchment study. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38(3), 451-463.

Boorman, D, 1995, Hydrology of Soil Types, Institute of Hydrology Report 126, Wallingford, UK

Rodda, J and Robinson, M, 2015, Progress in Modern Hydrology, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester


Flood Estimation Handbook

History of the National River Flow Archive