A Conversation With Richard M. Vogel, Professor and Hydrologist

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Vogel-Post.jpg A professor of civil and environmental engineering, Richard M. Vogel has been working at Tufts University since 1984. And while his primary expertise is in the areas of water resource engineering and hydrology -- he's also the director of his school's interdisciplinary program in water systems and science -- Vogel spends a fair amount of time thinking about and calculating the likelihood of earthquakes, landslides, bird extinctions, and even near-Earth asteroid collisions.

Here, Vogel discusses what it is that people don't understand about interdisciplinary education and research; how the idea that the environment matters as much as human needs, which was first advanced in South Africa, is having enormous repercussions in the water world; and why urbanization as a trend is having a much greater negative impact on our limited water resources than climate change.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I'm a hydrologist but I sometimes consider myself an odds maker because I estimate the likelihood of floods, droughts, and other calamities caused by one of the most powerful forces on Earth -- water -- and look for ways to prevent catastrophic damage. I'm also an educator concerned with how to do interdisciplinary education relating to water and the environment.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

The idea that the environment matters as much as human needs. This concept was first advanced in South Africa, where their water law put people and the environment on an equal footing. This idea is spreading like fire and is having enormous repercussions in the water world. We now realize that we not only need enough water to satisfy our own needs, but also the environmental needs of fish and other aquatic life. Right now we don't have enough water for either group. So this idea poses a tremendous challenge to the sustainability world.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

People don't get what it takes to do interdisciplinary education and research. Regardless of one's area of expertise, interdisciplinary education is only effective if students understand the language of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary programs must stress languages like English, history, computing, statistics, systems analysis, and economics, which apply to everything, thus making it possible to cross disciplines. Without a common language, interdisciplinary education is simply a blend of disciplines without a way to connect them. Interdisciplinary is a big buzz word today, but most interdisciplinary programs don't stress or even include this notion.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Urbanization is a trend that is having a much greater negative impact on our water resources than climate change. The original idea of urbanization -- preserving open spaces and containing urban sprawl by building cites instead of suburbia -- isn't necessarily a bad one. But we need to build smarter cities that take into account what happens when we pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

For example, recent research in Africa and the United States has shown clearly that flood damages have increased much more dramatically in urban areas than elsewhere, and that these damages result from increased impervious surfaces, rather than from changes in climate. Climate change poses an enormous challenge to society. But urbanization has been with us for a much longer period of time and poses even greater challenges to our water resources.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

The politicization of science. So many emerging phenomena relating to sustainability, from climate change to the need for clean energy, seem to be overwhelmed by political agendas. We now know definitively that climate change is due largely to us and that a wide mix of energy sources are needed to meet our future energy needs. I wish we could simply move forward with sensible strategies to deal with these issues, rather than getting mired in discussions of politically correct solutions.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Since I'm concerned with how to estimate the likelihood of floods and droughts, I have a background in applied statistics. I noticed that literature on other natural hazards, such as earthquakes, winds, sea levels, and landslides, is not nearly as advanced as the hydrology literature. Over the past five years I've become sidetracked by researching the likelihood of earthquakes, wind speeds, sea levels, landslides, bird extinctions, and, more recently, near-Earth asteroid collisions.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

E.J. Gumbel, a mathematician (not a hydrologist) from Columbia University who wrote the book on the Theory of Extremes in 1958. Interestingly, the only examples in that book are for floods and droughts. Jon Hosking, a more modern version of E.J. Gumbel, who is a mathematician from IBM Research Center. He introduced numerous ideas into the statistics literature that have advanced the field of hydrology immensely. And Myron B Fiering, a Harvard professor whose papers inspired me to pursue this career. He was also one of the principal founders of the "Harvard Water Program" in the early 1960s, which was the first interdisciplinary water program to merge the disciplines of water engineering and economics.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I first considered a career in biomedical engineering, but if I had read the book Freakonomics when I was young, I would have become an economist.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

That's easy: Google.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

My current ear-worm is the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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