A hydrologist as a career option for a meteorologist?

By: AJ Jain , 5:32 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

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You bet…it’s definitely a possibility! Hydrologists and meteorologists work very close together, especially in the energy world. In my previous post, I discussed why hydrologists are very important for west power trading. In today’s post, I thought I would offer a more detailed perspective about the option of working as a hydrologist (in lieu of a meteorologist.) My focus is going to be in the energy world…one of the sectors where I mentioned the future of meteorology will also reside. I’ll also be highlighting the NW hydro operations in greater detail, too.

For an energy utility that owns and operates hydropower, the hydrologist would be forecasting inflows and helping to plan river operations and optimize storage for the water year (Winter-early spring). The meteorologists would help forecast precipitation, snow, temperatures – especially in the short term – which would be fed into a hydrologic model to generate streamflow forecasts.

These forecasts would then be fed into a reservoir operations model for the given hydro system. The reservoir operations model would then calculate river flows, storage use, reservoir levels, power generation, etc given operating constraints (fish flows, spill constraints, power prices, etc).

Also, there are many consulting firms that help utilities develop in-house models and systems. Most utilities develop streamflow and river models in-house, with assistance from engineering & consulting firms.

A hydrologist on an energy trade floor typically works on a much larger and less detailed scale. For example, they would be looking at the entire NW hydropower system rather than a specific plant. Their goal would be to understand the influence of hydropower on regional prices based on snowpack conditions, reservoir operations, etc. Although one plant that does have a pretty significant influence is Grand Coulee (my photo above). The Grand Coulee dam is based in the NW along the Columbia River and is the largest electric power producing dam in the United States.

Depending on the region and time of year, hydropower can have a small or large influence on market prices. High impact seasons on market prices would be Winter and Spring…low impact seasons would be late Summer/mid-Fall. And hydrologists would not only model, analyze and gather this information, but they would communicate it to traders as soon as new fundamentals are released.

Because the hydro system can be complex (due to many variables affecting the stream flow forecast), your communication skills need to be strong too. In the NW, hydro forecasts can sometimes be as important (if not more important) than the weather itself for west power traders.

If all this is new to you, that’s okay. It was all new to me too when I joined the west power trade floor in Portland, OR. The hydrologist and I did work very close together because a lot of the “input” for these hydro models did come from the weather side. Take a breather…and here we go.

Teleconnections such as PDO and ENSO have started to be modeled in longer term hydro forecasts. Just like meteorologists try and forecast for upcoming seasons (or even 12 months ahead) by using teleconnections, analogs, and climatology, hydrologists also base their long term streamflow forecasts more or less on climatology too.

There is always a wide range of possibilities starting the water year – using ENSO/PDO helps tilt the odds only slightly in favor of wet/dry conditions.

And then as the season progresses, actual basin conditions become more important, especially when snowpack becomes the predominant storage mechanism. And that’s a key time frame when meteorologists matter significantly. Beyond 12 months, most would base assumptions almost entirely on historical record & climatology.

Also , the actual storage in reservoirs in any given basin will play a large or small part on the streamflow forecasts. Some reservoirs have multi-year storage while others only have week’s or day’s worth of storage and hardly impact future runoff. And as you know from my previous post in West Power trading, predicting future runoff is one of the key variables for a West Power Trader.

Riverside Technology & 3 Tier are the 2 main vendors that I can think of that offer short, medium, and long term streamflow forecasts for the energy space (outside of the government). Working at utilities and/or private energy companies like Iberdrola Renewables is another option for hydrologists. Then of course you have your government agencies like NWRFC (Northwest River Forecast Center) and the Army Corps.

Hydrologist salaries in the energy world are generally in line with meteorologists overall. If you can combine hydrology + optimization/operations research + meteorology then you have a pretty unique combination of skills that is valuable to utilities. With those three skills, you could branch into many different industries too.

Bottom line, I know a lot of us want to be “forecasters” in the meteorology world…but with forecasting jobs so limited it’s good to think ‘outside the box’. It could be worth exploring opportunities that are similar to meteorology like hydrology. And getting further educated (with some internship experience) in hydrology too might not be a bad option.

And even better…if you can offer “meteorology” plus “hydrology” to an energy company or utility…you could make the case to the employer that you don’t need to hire two people and that you know both equally well (and/or you could be a back up to a hydrologist on staff in case they are sick). Think about it.

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1. Levi32
7:36 PM GMT on January 20, 2012
Thanks a lot AJ. I really enjoy your posts and find them very helpful.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 628 Comments: 26454

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About FreshAJ

Hi, I'm AJ Jain! I am a meteorologist, a family man, and a real estate investor. I've been on TV, in Aviation, and on the Energy Trade Floor.

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