Semantics: Ecohydrology vs. Hydroecology

In a recent Easternblot post by Eva, she played around with Google nGrams. I though it would be fun to use the same tool to look at the use of some of my favourite science terms: ecohydrology and hydroecology.Why bother with these terms at all?
A very good question. They represent a real and necessary re-integration of disciplines that had (perhaps unnecessarily) become separated in the increasing specialization of natural sciences over time. Think about our many ecological questions around the population dynamics of returning salmon runs. To really understand what happens to them in the freshwater phase of their lives, we need to know something about that freshwater habitat and how it changes during the times when salmonids use it most intensively. To acquire this complete understanding requires some study of hydrology and/or fluvial geomorphology. Or consider hydrological questions about what will happen to streamflow following the mountain pine beetle epidemic – and any salvage logging associated with it. While we could talk solely about water in the streams, the fact is that it comes from both snow & rainfall – which are affected by the tree canopy. So we need some knowledge of forest structure and disturbance ecology to really say something meaningful about post pine beetle water issues.
What’s the difference between these terms?
My take is that it depends on which you’re more focused on. For example, most of my work is in the hydrology realm – but I also link to ecological aspects such as stream temperature and forest disturbance. Thus I call myself a hydroecologist. Researchers who work on ecological topics that have hydrologic implications are more likely to call themselves ecohydrologists. That said, there’s no journal entitled ‘Hydroecology’, though I’ve published papers in the journal ‘Ecohydrology‘.
I started my nGram test with ‘hydrology‘ and ‘ecology, just to see how they compared with each other.
Interestingly, ecology is much better represented in Google’s book database than hydrology – which could partially be because ‘ecology’ has a lot more uses in the English language than ‘hydrology’. For example, you wouldn’t talk about ‘microbial hydrology’ but ‘microbial ecology’ is commonplace. Try subbing hydrology for ecology in these sentences and see how well that works…
So it appears that ecology is a more broadly based societal term, while hydrology remains in the technical domain.

Use of the words hydrology and ecology in Google’s book database since 1890 (click to enlarge)

Based on these initial results, I expected that ecohydrology would plot above hydroecology throughout the record. But I was wrong – at least for the first part of the record.

Hydroecology came into use about 40 years prior to ecohydrology, but it didn’t really take off. Ecohydrology, on the other hand, didn’t come into use until the early 1980s – but its use increased rapidly to more than double that of hydroecology.

Use of the words ecohydrology and hydroecology in Google’s book database since 1890 (click to enlarge)

I’m curious as to why that might be. Googling hydroecology brings up 43000 results, while ecohydrology brings up 58000 – not a huge difference. But based on personal experience, I rarely see hydroecology in published papers or conference session descriptions – scientists are more likely to use ecohydrology.

Do you identify yourself as a member of either – or both – of these subdisciplines? If so – what draws you to one over the other, and how would you define each term?

To read more about ecohydrology vs. hydroecology, check out this David Hannah paper from 2004 (Hydrological Processes). Thanks @JunaBuba for reminding me of this one!

Next post we’ll be looking at how scientists are using new techniques to look at long term trends in fish populations – and the surprising insights it’s providing!

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7 thoughts on “Semantics: Ecohydrology vs. Hydroecology”

  1. I identify as an ecohydrologist, and I’ll trace it back to the dominant term in the literature I was reading when I started down that track, and specifically to Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe’s 2000 WRR paper. We were hydrologists first, many in engineering depts in N. America, and then sought to modify what we did so added the prefix “eco-“.
    Then I met someone who identified himself as a hydroecologist, newly appointed to an engineering department. The difference was that he had a hydrogeology background, and swapped the geology for ecology. I infer that, to him, it was more natural to have “hydro-” as a prefix.
    I’ve thought about the order of modifiers in the past, and quickly arrive at “biogeochemistry”. The field, as I see it, is at its heart chemistry, with an emphasis on biological and geological systems. But then chemobiogeology doesn’t sound nearly as good.
    In the end, the words are not just a sum of their component parts, but also the connotations and associations that we give them.

    • Exactly – similar to the Waiology post about wetlands vs. swamps.
      Interesting to hear your thoughts on why you call yourself an ecohydrologist. In my case, I chose hydroecology because I’m not an ecologist but a hydrologist, and to me it seemed that ecohydrologists were stronger in ecology than I was.
      I’d like to hear from more people on this so we can understand those connotations and associations a lot better.
      A colleague just sent me a paper she has in press:”Is ecohydrology missing much of the Zoo?” (Westbrook et al., Ecohydrology doi:10.1002/eco.1365). Looks like an interesting update on where ecohydrology is at.


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