Hydrologists are environmental scientists who work to understand how water systems and cycles interact with the Earth. They are mostly concerned with the possibility of contamination and how to preserve the viability of water sources. They study the movement and distribution of water, both above and below the Earth’s crust. Their research leads them to understand better how water can affect the Earth and how various events/materials can affect water. A hydrologist’s job is to determine these relationships, identify any problems, and find solutions.
To be a hydrologist, it is important to possess certain traits and skills:
Capable of project and time management
Observant of trends and outliers
Ability to work as a team and independently
Knowledgeable of math and science (especially geology, chemistry, and physics)
Aptitude for computers and specialized software
Understanding of government policies and laws
Experienced with engineering principles and concepts
Hydrologists are very important, because water is essential for all life. There are two distinct types of hydrologists: groundwater and surface.
Groundwater hydrologists study water that is below the ground. They are concerned about sub-surface contamination and work with many industries to prevent groundwater pollution. They also work as consultants for underground projects, like digging and maintaining wells. Groundwater hydrologists are good sources for companies who need to know proper procedures for contamination waste disposal, so they don’t pollute water sources.
Surface hydrologists focus their studies on above ground bodies of water, like lakes, rivers, and clusters of snow. They are responsible for reporting a number of factors to other scientists and government agencies. They study precipitation, flooding, and water source contamination. They also provide consultation regarding freshwater reservoir supplies.
Water is necessary for life to exist, and hydrologists make sure that water is suitable for drinking and living. Without hydrologists, the public may not have accurate information regarding water pollution, precipitation predictions and trends, flood warnings, and advancements in hydro technologies.
Hydrologist Work Environment
Hydrologists work in the field, in laboratories, and in offices. They often work full time and collaborate with other environmental scientists and geologists.
Hydrologists who work in the field go to the sources (caves, soil, wells, snow packs, and bodies of water) to collect samples. They are scientists who measure the properties of water, such as volume, flow, evaporation rate, etc. They check water and soil for pH levels, chemical properties, and other signs of pollutants.
Hydrologists can also work as researchers in laboratory settings. They analyze the samples to predict future trends or to understand cause/effect relationships. They can help private clients, government agencies, and other scientists understand the consequences of droughts, erosion, and contamination. Researchers can use specialized computer programs to make predictions and help prevent negative influences on water and the environment.
An office setting may be the best environment for a hydrologist to work as a consultant. Here, hydrologists can look at research findings and help private companies or government agencies with project management. These projects can include ways to produce hydroelectric power, irrigation systems, waste management systems, and drinking reservoirs.
The majority of hydrologists are employed by the federal government, although positions are available at the state and local levels. About a third of all hydrologists work for engineering firms, or they work as consultants and project managers for private industry. Some hydrologists go on to conduct independent research projects and teach in colleges or universities.
The average yearly salary for a hydrologist is $79,550 (May 2015). Hydrologists who work in engineering services will most likely make the most money, per year, at $89,680. Consultants and managers for private businesses will make about the same as hydrologists who work for federal government agencies, at $85,800. State and local government bodies have limited funding, but do require hydro-environmental services. These jobs can pay, on average, between $62,600 and $71,670 per year.
Hydrologist Career Outlook
The job growth for hydrologists is about average, compared to all other occupations. Hydrologists play an important role, especially since water is essential to life. They will be in demand as people become more informed about climate change and its consequences: rising sea levels, melting snow packs, and droughts.
Technologies that humans use for energy consumption will also drive the need for hydrologists. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), mining, and hydroelectric plant construction will have an impact on water, energy, and the environment. Hydrologists can help to limit their harmful effects while responsibly meeting human needs for energy.
Human population growth is another reason for an increased need for hydrologists. Construction and development will make it necessary for hydraulic consultation. Unfortunately, the federal government (who employs the most hydrologists), will be limited in its ability to pay and hire hydrologists due to budget restrictions and cuts.
Hydrologists can work in many types of jobs with varying degree levels.
Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree. Many types of undergraduate degrees exist that will allow aspiring hydrologists to work in entry-level jobs. Common degrees include a Bachelor of Science in Land and Water Management; Marine Geology and Water Placement; or Environmental Sciences: Hydrology and Climate. Engineering degrees are also a good place to start, such as a Bachelor of Engineering in Water Resources Engineering; or Civil Engineering: Environmental & Water Resources Engineering. If you can’t find a specific program in hydrology, choose one in environmental sciences, physical sciences, or geology. That is a great place to start!
Step 2: Get a master’s degree. Many jobs in hydrology require at least a master’s degree. Hydrologists need to have a background with a strong knowledge of sciences, mathematics, and computers. It’s really important that they gain a more specific education about life sciences, chemistry, economics, communication, and hydrology. Most likely, hydrologists will be involved in government policy-making, so it’s important to be knowledgeable about the scientific aspects of water and the environment, as well as effects of human interaction with these elements.
Step 3: Get a Ph.D. If you want to be a professor or conduct independent research projects, you must have a Ph.D. In this path, your education program will become even more specific, focusing on the type of hydrology you’d like to explore. At this level, you can earn grants for scientific research, write scientific papers, discover ways to limit harm to Earth’s water sources, and even teach future hydrologists.