Water drop of thin leaf

Ecohydrology: What is it and why does it matter?

Civil engineer studies water’s critical role in environments

February 18, 2019

Many civil engineers construct buildings and design infrastructures. Allison Goodwell, PhD, is not your average civil engineer. She has her sights set on a little-known area of engineering: ecohydrology and information theory.

Ecohydrology involves studying the movement of water among plants, soil, the atmosphere and surface waters. Information theory, in Goodwell’s research, involves using data and models to quantify relationships among these materials over time and space.

“Many people associate civil engineering with bridges and skyscrapers,” said Goodwell, assistant professor of civil engineering, “but it can more broadly be about designing, building or maintaining our human and natural environments.”

Interactions between humans and the environment are increasing. This makes it more important than ever for engineers to understand the associated relationships and detect changes or “critical thresholds.”

Allison Goodwell, civil engineer
As part of her work in ecohydrology, Allison Goodwell, PhD, assistant professor of civil engineering, took a research trip to the Loess Plateau in China, where intensive human activities have led to soil degradation.

What’s an ecohydrological process network?

Goodwell’s research is a scientific hybrid of ecology, hydrology and statistics. Within this interdisciplinary science, she is specifically interested in ecohydrological process networks.

In a common social network, for example, the nodes are people and the links are friendships between them. In a process network, however, the nodes are locations or parts of an ecosystem and the links are the interactions between them.

Simply speaking, Goodwell wants to better understand how disturbances or “flicks” to the environment can propagate and have widespread influences.

“A practical example of this is the introduction of a dam,” she said. “The connection between rainfall and the streamflow has been altered. There are so many factors involved that it can be difficult to pinpoint the true causes and effects of changes we might see downstream.”

How ecohydrology relates to natural disasters

This general principle of connectedness can help explain complex issues associated with natural ecosystems. For example, small changes in a relationship, such as how plants use water, can create dramatic downstream effects and catastrophic environmental disturbances like flooding or drought.

However, these relationships are not as simple as a single “cause and effect.” They are frequently part of feedback loops. This makes understanding these associations tricky.

To uncover these features of causes, effects and feedbacks, Goodwell has used process networks to study how ecosystems react to drought or flood, and how these responses may affect other ecological components.

“Consider an area in a drought,” she said. “A plant will adjust its water uptake as one response. But what else might be affected?”

Her research examines how components such as air temperature, humidity and soil moisture work together to drive a response.

Cat sitting on laptop keyboard
Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Allison Goodwell, PhD, studies ecohydrology, the movement of water among plants, soil, the atmosphere and surface waters. Her cat, Elsie, aids in research and development.

Denver: dynamic city, arid climate, powerful research

Ecohydrology research can be especially interesting in a place like Denver, which has a relatively arid climate.

Originally from the Midwest, Goodwell is happy to have traded the vistas of corn and soybean fields for the Rocky Mountain-backdropped city of Denver. And she loves teaching in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Students here have a lot of interesting backgrounds and experiences,” she said. “Teaching such a diverse array of students has been a fun challenge.”

Goodwell also engages in curriculum development and program specialties.

“The compact size of the engineering department encourages a cross-collaboration between subjects,” she said. “I’m excited about the prospect of my research.”

Guest contributor: Blair Isley