Hydrology is the scientific study of the movement, distribution, and quality of water on Earth and other planets, including the water cycle, water resources and environmental watershed sustainability. A practitioner of hydrology is a hydrologist, working within the fields of earth or environmental science, physical geography, geology or civil and environmental engineering. Using various analytical methods and scientific techniques, they collect and analyze data to help solve water related problems such as environmental preservation, natural disasters, and water management.
Hydrology subdivides into surface water hydrology, groundwater hydrology (hydrogeology), and marine hydrology. Domains of hydrology include hydrometeorology, surface hydrology, hydrogeology, drainage-basin management and water quality, where water plays the central role.
Hydrology has been a subject of investigation and engineering for millennia. For example, about 4000 BC the Nile was dammed to improve agricultural productivity of previously barren lands. Mesopotamian towns were protected from flooding with high earthen walls. Aqueducts were built by the Greeks and Ancient Romans, while the history of China shows they built irrigation and flood control works. The ancient Sinhalese used hydrology to build complex irrigation works in Sri Lanka, also known for invention of the Valve Pit which allowed construction of large reservoirs, anicuts and canals which still function.
Pioneers of the modern science of hydrology include Pierre Perrault, Edme Mariotte and Edmund Halley. By measuring rainfall, runoff, and drainage area, Perrault showed that rainfall was sufficient to account for flow of the Seine. Marriotte combined velocity and river cross-section measurements to obtain discharge, again in the Seine. Halley showed that the evaporation from the Mediterranean Sea was sufficient to account for the outflow of rivers flowing into the sea.
Rational analyses began to replace empiricism in the 20th century, while governmental agencies began their own hydrological research programs. Of particular importance were Leroy Sherman's unit hydrograph, the infiltration theory of Robert E. Horton, and C.V. Theis's aquifer test/equation describing well hydraulics.
The central theme of hydrology is that water circulates throughout the Earth through different pathways and at different rates. The most vivid image of this is in the evaporation of water from the ocean, which forms clouds. These clouds drift over the land and produce rain. The rainwater flows into lakes, rivers, or aquifers. The water in lakes, rivers, and aquifers then either evaporates back to the atmosphere or eventually flows back to the ocean, completing a cycle. Water changes its state of being several times throughout this cycle.
Infiltration is the process by which water enters the soil. Some of the water is absorbed, and the rest percolates down to the water table. The infiltration capacity, the maximum rate at which the soil can absorb water, depends on several factors. The layer that is already saturated provides a resistance that is proportional to its thickness, while that plus the depth of water above the soil provides the driving force (hydraulic head). Dry soil can allow rapid infiltration by capillary action; this force diminishes as the soil becomes wet. Compaction reduces the porosity and the pore sizes. Surface cover increases capacity by retarding runoff, reducing compaction and other processes. Higher temperatures reduce viscosity, increasing infiltration.
Hydrology considers quantifying surface water flow and solute transport, although the treatment of flows in large rivers is sometimes considered as a distinct topic of hydraulics or hydrodynamics. Surface water flow can include flow both in recognizable river channels and otherwise. Methods for measuring flow once water has reached a river include the stream gauge (see: discharge), and tracer techniques. Other topics include chemical transport as part of surface water, sediment transport and erosion.
In some considerations, hydrology is thought of as starting at the land-atmosphere boundary and so it is important to have adequate knowledge of both precipitation and evaporation. Precipitation can be measured in various ways: disdrometer for precipitation characteristics at a fine time scale; radar for cloud properties, rain rate estimation, hail and snow detection; rain gauge for routine accurate measurements of rain and snowfall; satellite for rainy area identification, rain rate estimation, land-cover/land-use, and soil moisture, for example.
In hydrology, studies of water quality concern organic and inorganic compounds, and both dissolved and sediment material. In addition, water quality is affected by the interaction of dissolved oxygen with organic material and various chemical transformations that may take place. Measurements of water quality may involve either in-situ methods, in which analyses take place on-site, often automatically, and laboratory-based analyses and may include microbiological analysis.