Matalas, Nick C

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Nicholas Constantin (Nick) Matalas 1930 - 16 August 2019

Biography and Hydrological Achievements[edit]

Nicholas C. Matalas was a pioneer in the fields of stochastic hydrology, flood frequency methods, and the use of multivariate statistical methods in the natural sciences. He died at age 88, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Matalas received his B.S. degree in civil engineering from North Carolina State University in 1952. In 1953, he began his career with the USGS in the North Carolina District while concurrently pursuing his M.S. in sanitary engineering from North Carolina State University, graduating in 1955. He then attended Harvard University as a student of the legendary hydrologist Harold A. Thomas, receiving his Ph.D. in 1958.

While at Harvard, Nick witnessed the development of the Harvard Water Program, which launched the field of water resources systems analysis using concepts for the design of water resources systems that drew on both civil engineering and economics. Those ideas influenced Nick throughout his career. Nick and Myron B. Fiering were contemporaries at Harvard who, along with their academic adviser Harold Thomas (and publications by V. M. Yevjevich of Colorado State University), created the field of stochastic hydrology.

After leaving Harvard, Nick moved to the USGS Surface Water Office in Virginia, where he developed a long, collegial relationship with Walter Langbein. Their 1962 paper “Information Content of the Mean” demonstrated that cross-correlation diminishes the information in a regional mean, just as serial correlation does in a single series.

In 1961–1962, while he served as a founding faculty member in the hydrology program at the University of Arizona, Nick became intrigued with the structure of long-term memory in dendrochronologic (tree ring) records in comparison to streamflow. This interest led to his publishing highly cited studies on those topics with his colleagues D. Dawdy, J. R. Wallis, and J. M. Landwehr.

Returning to the USGS research offices in Virginia in 1962, Nick developed the framework for multivariate stochastic hydrologic models that is still used today. His 1967 paper “Mathematical Assessment of Synthetic Hydrology” was honored with a retrospective AGU Robert E. Horton Award (now known as the Hydrologic Sciences Award) in 1968. Nick also introduced, with B. Jacobs, the mathematical foundation for extending short hydrologic records using nearby longer records. That work led to the class of maintenance of variance extension (MOVE) methods included in manuals and handbooks, with a special adaption in the 2018 U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 17C.

In 1970, Nick formed and led the Systems Analysis Group within the USGS Water Resources Division. In this group, Nick promoted rigorous statistical analyses and risk management efforts, including the development of procedures by which DOI auctioned mineral leases for the Outer Continental Shelf and assessed the effectiveness of how the U.S. Bureau of Mines implemented the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

Nick was also asked to undertake several foreign assignments. One such assignment with the Hydrologic Services of Israel in 1973 involved designing a groundwater observation network. This project led to Nick and his colleagues publishing many subsequent papers on monitoring network design.

In the early 1970s, Nick began addressing the question of how to create a theoretical decision framework for evaluating flood frequency methods. In 1974, he published “Just a Moment!” with J. R. Slack and J. R. Wallis. This paper—still considered essential reading for hydrology students today—demonstrated how the short time periods covered by samples that were common in geophysical records could bias the distributions of estimates of the coefficients of variation and of skewness.

In 1976, as senior research scientist in the Office of the Chief Hydrologist, Nick was allowed to pursue new research directions. In addressing the problem of deciding on appropriate distributions for regional flood characterization, Nick developed, along with J. M. Landwehr and J. R. Wallis, the parameter estimation method of probability weighted moments, a method now widely used in hydrology and many other fields.

Nick, along with colleagues J. M. Landwehr and M. G. Wolman, conducted a 1982 special study for the National Academy of Sciences that probed the scientific basis of water resources management. This study provided the first explicit statement in the literature that human activity is inherently part of the hydrologic cycle and must be considered in making geophysical predictions. This concept is fundamental to the current perception of environmental and climatic variation.

After retiring from the USGS in 1995, Nick continued his work as a hydrologic consultant, as a private scholar, and as a visiting scientist at several institutions. His broad range of interests included explorations of the concept of stationarity in a changing world, the assessment and management of extreme risks, the vulnerability of water systems to terrorist attacks, statistics of record-breaking events, probabilistic interpretation of envelope curves (which describe the boundaries of our current experience of extreme floods in a given region), and hydrologic assessments and models for climate change impacts. During his last few years, Nick organized his extensive set of technical notes into a digital format to make them available for other scholars.


Nick Matalas was among the original group of "old men waiting at the Denver airport in 1960," which included John W. Harshbarger, Eugene S. Simpson, Thomas Maddock, Jr., and Luna Leopold, who went on to create the University of Arizona's Department of Hydrology and Water Resources. (see HWR First Fifty Years

Reference Material[edit]

Text taken from Vogel, R. M.,Stedinger, J. R., and Landwehr, J. M. (2019), Nicholas Constantinos Matalas (1930–2019), Eos, 100

Photograph from Stella Matalas

University of Arizona Chester Kisiel Memorial Lecture Short Biography

Selected Publications[edit]

Matalas, N.C. and Langbein, W.B., 1962. Information content of the mean. Journal of Geophysical Research, 67(9), pp.3441-3448.

Matalas, N.C., 1962. Statistical properties of tree ring data. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 7(2), pp.39-47.

Matalas, N.C., 1963. Probability distribution of low flows. US Government Printing Office.

Matalas, N.C. and Jacobs, B., 1964. A correlation procedure for augmenting hydrologic data. US Government Printing Office.

Matalas, N.C., 1967. Mathematical assessment of synthetic hydrology. Water Resources Research, 3(4), pp.937-945.

Matalas, N.C., 1967. Time series analysis. Water Resources Research, 3(3), pp.817-829.

Matalas, N.C. and Reiher, B.J., 1967. Some comments on the use of factor analyses. Water resources research, 3(1), pp.213-223.

Benson, M.A. and Matalas, N.C., 1967. Synthetic hydrology based on regional statistical parameters. Water Resources Research, 3(4), pp.931-935.

Wallis, J.R. and Matalas, N.C., 1970. Small sample properties of H and K—Estimators of the Hurst coefficient h. Water Resources Research, 6(6), pp.1583-1594.

Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1971. Statistical properties of multivariate fractional noise processes. Water Resources Research, 7(6), pp.1460-1468.

Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1973. Eureka! It fits a Pearson type: 3 distribution. Water Resources Research, 9(2), pp.281-289.

Wallis, J.R., Matalas, N.C. and Slack, J.R., 1974. Just a moment!. Water Resources Research, 10(2), pp.211-219.

Matalas, N.C., Slack, J.R. and Wallis, J.R., 1975. Regional skew in search of a parent. Water Resources Research, 11(6), pp.815-826.

Slack, J.R., Wallis, J.R. and Matalas, N.C., 1975. On the value of information to flood frequency analysis. Water Resources Research, 11(5), pp.629-647.

Matalas, N.C. and Fiering, M.B., 1977. Water-resource systems planning. Climate, Climatic Change, and Water Supply. Studies in Geophysics, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D. C., pp.99-110.

Landwehr, J.M., Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1978. Some comparisons of flood statistics in real and log space. Water Resources Research, 14(5), pp.902-920.

Landwehr, J.M., Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1979. Probability weighted moments compared with some traditional techniques in estimating Gumbel parameters and quantiles. Water resources research, 15(5), pp.1055-1064.

Landwehr, J.M., Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1979. Estimation of parameters and quantiles of Wakeby distributions: 1. Known lower bounds. Water Resources Research, 15(6), pp.1361-1372.

Greenwood, J.A., Landwehr, J.M., Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1979. Probability weighted moments: definition and relation to parameters of several distributions expressable in inverse form. Water resources research, 15(5), pp.1049-1054.

Landwehr, J.M., Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1980. Quantile estimation with more or less floodlike distributions. Water Resources Research, 16(3), pp.547-555.

Landwehr, J.M., Matalas, N.C. and Wallis, J.R., 1980. Quantile estimation with more or less floodlike distributions. Water Resources Research, 16(3), pp.547-555.

Lambert, J.H., Matalas, N.C., Ling, C.W., Haimes, Y.Y. and Li, D., 1994. Selection of probability distributions in characterizing risk of extreme events. Risk Analysis, 14(5), pp.731-742.

Matalas, N.C., 1997. Stochastic hydrology in the context of climate change. Climatic Change, 37(1), pp.89-101.

Haimes, Y.Y., Matalas, N.C., Lambert, J.H., Jackson, B.A. and Fellows, J.F., 1998. Reducing vulnerability of water supply systems to attack. Journal of infrastructure systems, 4(4), pp.164-177.

Bier, V.M., Haimes, Y.Y., Lambert, J.H., Matalas, N.C. and Zimmerman, R., 1999. A survey of approaches for assessing and managing the risk of extremes. Risk analysis, 19(1), pp.83-94.

Olsen, J.R., Stedinger, J.R., Matalas, N.C. and Stakhiv, E.Z., 1999. CLIMATE VARIABILITY AND FLOOD FREQUENCY ESTIMATION FOR THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI AND LOWER MISSOURI RIVERS 1. JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 35(6), pp.1509-1523.

Vogel, R.M., Zafirakou‐Koulouris, A. and Matalas, N.C., 2001. Frequency of record‐breaking floods in the United States. Water Resources Research, 37(6), pp.1723-1731.

Matalas, N.C. and Sankarasubramanian, A., 2003. Effect of persistence on trend detection via regression. Water resources research, 39(12).

Castellarin, A., Vogel, R.M. and Matalas, N.C., 2005. Probabilistic behavior of a regional envelope curve. Water Resources Research, 41(6).

Matalas, N.C., 2012. Comment on the announced death of stationarity. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, 138(4), pp.311-312.

Vogel, R.M., Lall, U., Cai, X., Rajagopalan, B., Weiskel, P.K., Hooper, R.P. and Matalas, N.C., 2015. Hydrology: The interdisciplinary science of water. Water Resources Research, 51(6), pp.4409-4430.