Langbein, W

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Walter Langbein


Walter B.Langbein, 1907 (Newark, New Jersey, USA) - 1982 (Arlington, Virginia, USA)


Walter Langbein graduated from Cooper Union in 1931 with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. While attending classes in the evening,he worked for the Rosoff Construction Company, beginning as a rodman on a surveying team. At that time, the company was engaged by the city of New York to enlarge the subway along 8th Avenue. Along one section, excavation was suspended for a short time, as difficulties were encountered in lowering the groundwater levels by pumping. As the junior member of the staff, he was given the task of measuring and recording the distance of the water level below a reference mark - a task he later recalled as being his "introduction" to hydrology.

In 1935, Langbein left the company to take a position with the US Geological Survey in Albany. He had enjoyed his former work and felt that he had learned much, though at the time, he never understood why Arthur H.Diamant, vice-president of the company, urged him to learn about "least squares", as none of the work called for such learning.

He began his hydrological career in the then-traditional manner of stream gauging and the making of slope-area measurements of floods. The professional atmosphere in Albany provided by A.W.Harrington made a lasting impression on Langbein: there was no timeclock to punch, attention was paid to details, responsibilities were delegated and one was encouraged to learn. While in Albany, he was assigned to build a gauging station on a small stream in northern New York. Being inexperienced in this type of construction, but nevertheless resourceful, he found a local man experienced in construction, hired him, authorized him to hire a couple of labourers, carefully explained what was wanted and told the man to go ahead. Meanwhile, Langbein bought the materials, but otherwise stayed away from the site, so as not to interfere or influence the workmen (a manner that was to mark Langbein's career). Mr Harrington approved of the final product.

It was the hydrology of floods and their social impacts that attracted Langbein's scientific attention. He wrote extensively on the subject, particularly after he transferred to Washington, DC, in 1939. He remained with the USGS for 33 years until his retirement.

From the time he made his first "hydrological" measurements, he never lost interest in matters pertaining to the collection of hydrological data. In fact, his interest in data collection increased as a younger generation was introduced to hydrology through computer simulation rather than through the gauging of streams and wells. He did not question the merit of this newer introduction, but he was concerned that the quality of the data should not deteriorate.

In recognition of his scientific contributions he was the recipient of many awards, among them being the Bowie Medal (1969) and the Horton Medal (1976) from the American Geophysical Union, and J.C.Stevens Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers (1963; co-recipient with Tom Maddock, Jr),the Distinguished Service Award from the Department of the Interior (1959) and the Warren Prize from the National Academy of Sciences (1976). A year after he retired in 1969, he was elected a member of the Academy and in November 1982, he and Professor Korzum of the Soviet Union were the co-recipients of the International Prize in Hydrology for 1982, awarded by the International Association of Hydrological Sciences.

Hydrological Achievements[edit]

His technical and more popular papers, on the probabilities of floods and their relation to social risks within the flood plains and his book Floods co-authored with W.G.Hoyt, directly contributed to the development of federal interest in flood insurance, subsequently expressed by the 1968 National Flood Insurance Act (P.L. 90-448: 1 August 1968).

During the late 1940*s and early 1950's, Langbein was closely associated with the Soil and Moisture Conservation Program of the Interior Department in which the Division participated through Hal Peterson, Dick Hadley and others, at headquarter locations in the West. He was particularly interested in the effects of grazing and land treatment on soil moisture and runoff. He devised a "tippingbucket" raingauge recorder before recording raingauges became available. It was during this time that he became interested, through Earl Harbeck, in measuring evaporation and transpiration.

Langbein recognized that the runoff from drainage basins and the drawdown of aquifers could not be explained strictly in terms of climatic factors; an account of land use was no less important. To provide a rational basis for quantitatively accounting for land use, he collaborated with Luna B.Leopold in studying the carrying capacities of drainage basins in terms of their geomorphological features. Together they gave the first statistical explanations of R.E.Horton's "laws" of stream orders and of the meandering of rivers. This work (carried out in the early 1960's), gave meaning to hydrology on a large regional and temporal scale.

His book Water Facts for the Nation's Future co-authored with W.G.Hoyt in 1959, drew attention to the importance of the systematic collection of data to the development of water resource systems. The book was the motivation for a comprehensive approach to data collection, now generally referred to as network design, in terms of the economic worth of data. Following the Ottawa meeting of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences in I960, network design became a part of hydrological research in discerning the relative importance of parameter estimation and choice of model for describing the stochastic properties of hydrological processes.

Together with Luna Leopold and Ray Nace he was instrumental in laying the foundation for the International Hydrological Decade (1965-1975). His active participation did much to assure the success of the "programme" in furthering international exchange in hydrological research, promoting a more structured approach to national data collection programmes through network design and in providing a more comprehensive description of the global water balance.

Reference Material[edit]

N. C. Matalas (1983) WALTER B. LANGBEIN (1907–1982), Hydrological Sciences Journal, 28:3, 427-429, DOI: 10.1080/02626668309491982

Committee on Opportunities in the Hydrologic Sciences, 1991, Opportunities in the Hydrologic Sciences, Water Science and Technology Board, National Research Council,

Major Publications[edit]


Source: AGU Virtual Hydrologist Site with full publication list