Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is Man Bad for Nature?

This week I’m enjoying reading a classic publication on education in hydrology. The introduction included portraits of the authors, which is unusual for a journal article. All of them are titans in the field. Indeed, this is the first time I had seen a picture of Nash, one of the first people to call himself a “hydrologist”. His name is also on the “Nash-Sutcliffe Score”, the most widely used measure of how different a hydrologic simulation (or forecast) is from what actually happened.


Nash writes (in 1990):

It is fashionable to regard man's involvement in nature as almost always bad. It is true that ignorance (often spurred on by greed) is leading to progressive damage to the natural environment and that we require as much scientific understanding as possible of the relevant processes in order to diagnose our mistakes and put them right. On a more positive note, however, man's ability to control his environment, to improve it and to make it more enjoyable, and indeed more productive and profitable, depends just as centrally on putting our understanding of hydrological processes on as sound a scientific basis as we can manage.

The University of British Columbia Forest Department has a list of other great quotes from famous hydrologists. Another good quote is this one from Morton in 1983:

“The current state of the art is that of a car spinning its wheels while stuck in a swamp, with frenetic computer applications making the problem worse by devaluing human judgment and experience.”

Nash J.E., P.S. Eagleson, J.R. Phillip, and W.H. van der Molen, 1990, The education of hydrologists (Report of the IAHS-UNESCO Panel), Hydrological Sciences Journal, 35(b):12.


  1. If you could have a score named after you, what would you like it to be measuring?

  2. Barbara,

    That's a really good question. I very much enjoy coming up with acronyms for projects and software I've helped developed, such as the Visually Interactive Prediction and Estimation Routines (VIPER) and Short-term Water Information Forecasting Tools (SWIFT). It's a bit like naming your rock band.

    But as for naming something after a person... Years ago I named a technique after a now ex-girlfriend (Automatic Linear Interpolation and Statistical Hydrograph Adjustment - ALISHA). It's not the best idea because those follow you around like a tattoo.

    Usually people name a score in your honor, you don't give it your own name. But I think I'd want something to do with the quality of forecasts. Perhaps the Predictive Ability and General Accuracy Numerical Objective (PAGANO) score.

  3. The Nash-Sutcliffe score is closely related to (and indeed has its generalization in) model skill as it is now used in climatology.

    JE Nash died in 2000. I had the pleasure of meeting him in the late 1970s. He was indeed impressive.