A hydrologist standing in knee high water

A hydrologist could...

Gather and evaluate meteorological data to predict a drought. A large area of dry and cracked ground Help create environmentally responsible water usage regulations for communities along a major river. A large river with a mountain in the background
Collect and analyze water and mud samples to determine levels of pollutants in a water system. A hydrologist collecting mud samples near a stream Predict whether snow pack levels on a mountain range will cause flooding in the spring. Mountains covered in snow
Find out more...

Key Facts & Information

Overview Water is critical to the survival of virtually all the living things that you see around you. It is essential to the production of most of the things that people make, too. Hydrologists are the people who study and manage this remarkable resource. Through data gathered from satellite instruments, hydrologists examine and create computer models that show how water moves above, on, and under the earth. With these models, hydrologists work to conserve water, to predict droughts or floods, to find new water sources, and to reduce and reuse waste water.
Key Requirements Excellent analytical, computer, and interpersonal skills, and a love of strenuous outdoor work in remote places.
Minimum Degree Master's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Chemistry, biology, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, calculus, English; if available, computer science, statistics, marine biology, environmental science
Median Salary
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%)
  • Watch this interview to see Hawaiian hydrologists describe how water usage affects plant and animal life.
  • Read these interviews with hydrologists at the National Weather Service.
Related Occupations
  • Astronomers
  • Physicists
  • Atmospheric and space scientists
  • Geoscientists, except hydrologists and geographers
  • Geophysical data technicians
  • Geological sample test technicians
  • Ophthalmic laboratory technicians
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Most hydrologists need a master's degree. A PhD is usually necessary for jobs in college teaching or research.

Education and Training

Students interested in hydrology should take courses in the physical sciences, geophysics, chemistry, engineering science, soil science, mathematics, aquatic biology, atmospheric science, geology, oceanography, hydrogeology, and the management or conservation of water resources. In some cases, a bachelor's degree in a hydrologic science is sufficient for positions consulting about water quality or wastewater treatment.

For hydrologists who consult, courses in business, finance, marketing, or economics may be useful. In addition, combining environmental science training with other disciplines such as engineering or business, qualifies these scientists for the widest range of jobs.

Other Qualifications

Computer skills are essential for prospective hydrologists. Students who have some experience with computer modeling, data analysis and integration, digital mapping, remote sensing, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will be the most prepared to enter the job market. Familiarity with the Global Positioning System (GPS)—a locator system that uses satellites—is vital.

Hydrologists must have good interpersonal skills, because they usually work as part of a team with other scientists, engineers, and technicians. Strong oral and written communication skills also are essential because writing technical reports and research proposals and communicating results to company managers, regulators, and the public are important aspects of the work. Because international work is becoming increasingly pervasive, knowledge of a second language can be an advantage. Those involved in fieldwork must have physical stamina.

Nature of the Work

Hydrologists examine the physical characteristics, distribution, and circulation of water above and below the earth's surface. They study rainfall and other precipitation, the paths precipitation takes through the soil and rocks underground, and its return to the oceans and air. Often, they specialize in either underground water or surface water. They examine the form and intensity of precipitation, its rate of infiltration into the soil, its movement through the Earth, and its return to the ocean and atmosphere. Hydrologists use sophisticated techniques and instruments. For example, they may use remote sensing technology, data assimilation, and numerical modeling to monitor the change in regional and global water cycles. Some surface-water hydrologists use sensitive stream-measuring devices to assess flow rates and water quality. The government and private industry use this information about water properties and movement patterns for a variety of purposes.

Watch this video to see how hydrologists are crucial in emergency management, saving lives and property with their forecasts.

Many hydrologists assist in water conservation. The work they do is very important for environmental preservation; for instance, they may project water shortages, analyze the quality of potential water sources, or monitor the inflow and outflow of reservoirs. Some hydrologists forecast and help to prepare a region for conditions such as flooding, snowmelt, drought, and the formation and melting of river ice. Hydrologists often serve as consultants to scientists, engineers, developers, and governing bodies. They may study the feasibility of water reclamation or routing projects, or they may determine the possible effects of activities such as drilling, land development, and bridge construction on local waters.

Hydrologists generally perform research at a variety of outdoor sites, but they also work in laboratories. Hydrologists may monitor wells, record water depths, and measure stream flows or runoff rates. They frequently collect and analyze water samples and research historical data on storms and floods.

Work Environment

Hydrology requires a substantial amount of site work, particularly for beginners. This type of fieldwork can be uncomfortable, strenuous, and even somewhat risky. Hydrologists are expected to work in remote areas, walk long distances over rough terrain, carry heavy equipment, and wade in streams and other bodies of water. Moreover, they work outdoors in all types of weather conditions.

Although hydrologists generally have a regular 40-hour workweek, overtime may be required to meet deadlines. They also may have to travel long distances.

On the Job

  • Study and document quantities, distribution, disposition, and development of underground and surface waters.
  • Draft final reports describing research results, including illustrations, appendices, maps, and other attachments.
  • Coordinate and supervise the work of professional and technical staff, including research assistants, technologists, and technicians.
  • Prepare hydrogeologic evaluations of known or suspected hazardous waste sites and land treatment and feedlot facilities.
  • Design and conduct scientific hydrogeological investigations to ensure that accurate and appropriate information is available for use in water resource management decisions.
  • Study public water supply issues, including flood and drought risks, water quality, wastewater, and impacts on wetland habitats.
  • Collect and analyze water samples as part of field investigations or to validate data from automatic monitors.
  • Apply research findings to help minimize the environmental impacts of pollution, waterborne diseases, erosion, and sedimentation.
  • Measure and graph phenomena such as lake levels, stream flows, and changes in water volumes.
  • Investigate complaints or conflicts related to the alteration of public waters, gathering information, recommending alternatives, informing participants of progress, and preparing draft orders.
  • Answer questions and provide technical assistance and information to contractors or the public regarding issues such as well drilling, code requirements, hydrology, and geology.
  • Develop or modify methods of conducting hydrologic studies.
  • Install, maintain, and calibrate instruments, such as those that monitor water levels, rainfall, and sediments.
  • Evaluate data and provide recommendations regarding the feasibility of municipal projects, such as hydroelectric power plants, irrigation systems, flood warning systems, and waste treatment facilities.
  • Conduct short-term and long-term climate assessments and study storm occurrences.
  • Study and analyze the physical aspects of the earth in terms of the hydrological components, including atmosphere, hydrosphere, and interior structure.
  • Conduct research and communicate information to promote the conservation and preservation of water resources.
  • Design civil works associated with hydrographic activities and supervise their construction, installation, and maintenance.
  • Review applications for site plans and permits and recommend approval, denial, modification, or further investigative action.
  • Evaluate research data in terms of its impact on issues such as soil and water conservation, flood control planning, and water supply forecasting.
  • Monitor the work of well contractors, exploratory borers, and engineers and enforce rules regarding their activities.
  • Administer programs designed to ensure the proper sealing of abandoned wells.
  • Compile and evaluate hydrologic information to prepare navigational charts and maps and to predict atmospheric conditions.
  • Investigate properties, origins, and activities of glaciers, ice, snow, and permafrost.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Hydrologists

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