A Conversation With Richard M. Vogel, Professor and Hydrologist

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.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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