Zhanqing Li, Daniel Rosenfeld, and Jiwen Fan
Aerosols (tiny solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere) have been in the forefront of environmental and climate change sciences as the primary atmospheric pollutant and external force affecting Earth’s weather and climate. There are two dominant mechanisms by which aerosols affect weather and climate: aerosol-radiation interactions (ARIs) and aerosol-cloud interactions (ACIs). ARIs arise from aerosol scattering and absorption, which alter the radiation budgets of the atmosphere and surface, while ACIs are connected to the fact that aerosols serve as cloud condensation nuclei and ice nuclei. Both ARIs and ACIs are coupled with atmospheric dynamics to produce a chain of complex interactions with a large range of meteorological variables that influence both weather and climate. Elaborated here are the impacts of aerosols on the radiation budget, clouds (microphysics, structure, and lifetime), precipitation, and severe weather events (lightning, thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes). Depending on environmental variables and aerosol properties, the effects can be both positive and negative, posing the largest uncertainties in the external forcing of the climate system. This has considerably hindered the ability to project future climate changes and make accurate numerical weather predictions.
Aijun Ding, Xin Huang, and Congbin Fu
Air pollution is one of the grand environmental challenges in developing countries, especially those with high population density like China. High concentrations of primary and secondary trace gases and particulate matter (PM) are frequently observed in the industrialized and urbanized regions, causing negative effects on the health of humans, plants, and the ecosystem.
Meteorological conditions are among the most important factors influencing day-to-day air quality. Synoptic weather and boundary layer dynamics control the dispersion capacity and transport of air pollutants, while the main meteorological parameters, such as air temperature, radiation, and relative humidity, influence the chemical transformation of secondary air pollutants at the same time. Intense air pollution, especially high concentration of radiatively important aerosols, can substantially influence meteorological parameters, boundary layer dynamics, synoptic weather, and even regional climate through their strong radiative effects.
As one of the main monsoon regions, with the most intense human activities in the world, East Asia is a region experiencing complex air pollution, with sources from anthropogenic fossil fuel combustion, biomass burning, dust storms, and biogenic emissions. A mixture of these different plumes can cause substantial two-way interactions and feedbacks in the formation of air pollutants under various weather conditions. Improving the understanding of such interactions needs more field measurements using integrated multiprocess measurement platforms, as well as more efforts in developing numerical models, especially for those with online coupled processes. All these efforts are very important for policymaking from the perspectives of environmental protection and mitigation of climate change.
Arid environments cover about one third of the Earth’s surface, comprising the most extensive of the terrestrial biomes. Deserts show considerable individual variation in climate, geomorphic surface expression, and biogeography. Climatically, deserts range from dry interior environments, with large temperature ranges, to humid and relatively cool coastal environments, with small temperature ranges. What all deserts share in common is a consistent deficit of precipitation relative to water loss by evaporation, implying that the biological availability of water is very low. Deserts develop because of climatic (persistent high-pressure cells), topographic (mountain ranges that cause rain shadow effects), and oceanographic (cold currents) factors that limit the amount of rain or snowfall that a region receives. Most global deserts are subtropical in distribution.
There is a large range of geomorphic surfaces, including sand sheets and sand seas (ergs), stone pavements, bedrock outcrops, dry lakebeds, and alluvial fans. Vegetation cover is generally sparse, but may be enhanced in areas of groundwater seepage or along river courses. The limited vegetation cover affects fluvial and slope processes and results in an enhanced role for the wind. While the majority of streams in deserts are ephemeral features, both intermittent and perennial rivers develop in response to snowmelt in nearby mountains or runoff from distant, more well-watered regions. Most drainage is endoreic, meaning that it flows internally into closed basins and does not reach the sea, being disposed of by seepage and evaporation.
The early study of deserts was largely descriptive. More process-based studies commenced with the study of North American deserts in the mid- to late-1800s. Since the late 20th century, research has expanded into many areas of the world, with notable contributions coming from China, but our knowledge of deserts is still more compete in regions such as North America, Australia, Israel, and southern Africa, where access and funding have been more consistently secure. The widespread availability of high-quality remotely sensed images has contributed to the spread of study into new global field areas. The temporal framework for research has also improved, benefiting from improvements in geochronological techniques. Geochronological controls are vital to desert research because most arid regions have experienced significant climatic changes. Deserts have not only expanded or contracted in size, but have experienced changes in the dominant geomorphic processes and biogeographic environment. Contemporary scientific work has also benefited from improvements in technology, notably in surveying techniques, and from the use of quantitative modeling.
Elisabeth N. Bui
Driving forces for natural soil salinity and alkalinity are climate, rock weathering, ion exchange, and mineral equilibria reactions that ultimately control the chemical composition of soil and water. The major weathering reactions that produce soluble ions are tabled. Where evapotranspiration is greater than precipitation, downward water movement is insufficient to leach solutes out of the soil profile and salts can precipitate. Microbes involved in organic matter mineralization and thus the carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur biogeochemical cycles are also implicated. Seasonal contrast and evaporative concentration during dry periods accelerate short-term oxidation-reduction reactions and local and regional accumulation of carbonate and sulfur minerals. The presence of salts and alkaline conditions, together with the occurrence of drought and seasonal waterlogging, creates some of the most extreme soil environments where only specially adapted organisms are able to survive. Sodic soils are alkaline, rich in sodium carbonates, with an exchange complex dominated by sodium ions. Such sodic soils, when low in other salts, exhibit dispersive behavior, and they are difficult to manage for cropping. Maintaining the productivity of sodic soils requires control of the flocculation-dispersion behavior of the soil. Poor land management can also lead to anthropogenically induced secondary salinity. New developments in physical chemistry are providing insights into ion exchange and how it controls flocculation-dispersion in soil. New water and solute transport models are enabling better options of remediation of saline and/or sodic soils.
Zong-Liang Yang and Lang Wang
The terms “land cover” and “land use” are often used interchangeably, although they have different meanings. Land cover is the biophysical material at the surface of the Earth, whereas land use refers to how people use the land surface. Land use concerns the resources of the land, their products, and benefits, in addition to land management actions and activities. The history of changes in land use has passed through several major stages driven by developments in science and technology and demands for food, fiber, energy, and shelter.
Modern changes in land use have been increasingly affected by anthropogenic activities at a scale and magnitude that have not been seen. These changes in land use are largely driven by population growth, urban expansion, increasing demands for energy and food, changes in diets and lifestyles, and changing socioeconomic conditions. About 70% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface has been altered by changes in land use, and these changes have had environmental impacts worldwide, ranging from effects on the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and climate to the extensive modification of terrestrial ecosystems, habitats, and biodiversity. A number of different methods have been developed give a thorough understanding of these changes in land use and the multiple effects and feedbacks involved. Earth system observations and models are examples of two crucial technologies, although there are considerable uncertainties in both techniques. Cross-disciplinary collaborations are highly desirable in future studies of land use and management. The goals of mitigating climate change and maintaining sustainability should always be considered before implementing any new land management strategies.
In 1945 the Amazon biome was almost intact. Marks of ancient cultural developments in Andean and lowland Amazon had cicatrized and the impacts of rubber and more recent resources exploitation were reversible. Very few roads existed, and only on the Amazon’s periphery. However, from the 1950s, but especially in the 1960s, Brazil and some Andean countries launched ambitious road-building and colonization processes. Amazon occupation heavily intensified in the 1970s when forest losses began to raise worldwide concern. More roads continued to be built at a geometrically growing pace in every following decade, multiplying correlated deforestation and forest degradation. A no-return point was reached when interoceanic roads crossed the Brazilian-Andean border in the 2000s, exposing remaining safe havens for indigenous people and nature. It is commonly estimated that today no less than 18% of the forest has been substituted by agriculture and that over 60% of that remaining has been significantly degraded.
Theories regarding the importance of biogeochemical cycles have been developed since the 1970s. The confirmation of the role of the Amazon as a carbon sink added some international pressure for its protection. But, in general, the many scientific discoveries regarding the Amazon have not helped to improve its conservation. Instead, a combination of new agricultural technologies, anthropocentric philosophies, and economic changes strongly promoted forest clearing.
Since the 1980s and as of today Amazon conservation efforts have been increasingly diversified, covering five theoretically complementary strategies: (a) more, larger, and better-managed protected areas; (b) more and larger indigenous territories; (c) a series of “sustainable-use” options such as “community-based conservation,” sustainable forestry, and agroforestry; (d) financing of conservation through debt swaps and climate change’s related financial mechanisms; and (e) better legislation and monitoring. Only five small protected areas have existed in the Amazon since the early 1960s but, responding to the road-building boom of the 1970s, several larger patches aiming at conserving viable samples of biological diversity were set aside, principally in Brazil and Peru. Today around 22% of the Amazon is protected but almost half of such areas correspond to categories that allow human presence and resources exploitation, and there is no effective management. Another 28% or more pertains to indigenous people who may or may not conserve the forest. Both types of areas together cover over 45% of the Amazon. None of the strategies, either alone or in conjunction, have fully achieved their objectives, while development pressures and threats multiply as roads and deforestation continue relentlessly, with increasing funding by multilateral and national banks and due to the influence of transnational enterprises.
The future is likely to see unprecedented agriculture expansion and corresponding intensification of deforestation and forest degradation even in protected areas and indigenous land. Additionally, the upper portion of the Amazon basin will be impacted by new, larger hydraulic works. Mining, formal as well as illegal, will increase and spread. Policymakers of Amazon countries still view the region as an area in which to expand conventional development while the South American population continues to be mostly indifferent to Amazon conservation.
Wim De Vries, Enzai Du, Klaus Butterbach Bahl, Lena Schulte Uebbing, and Frank Dentener
Human activities have rapidly accelerated global nitrogen (N) cycling since the late 19th century. This acceleration has manifold impacts on ecosystem N and carbon (C) cycles, and thus on emissions of the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4), which contribute to climate change.
First, elevated N use in agriculture leads to increased direct N2O emissions. Second, it leads to emissions of ammonia (NH3), nitric oxide (NO), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and leaching of nitrate (NO3−), which cause indirect N2O emissions from soils and waterbodies. Third, N use in agriculture may also cause changes in CO2 exchange (emission or uptake) in agricultural soils due to N fertilization (direct effect) and in non-agricultural soils due to atmospheric NHx (NH3+NH4) deposition (indirect effect). Fourth, NOx (NO+NO2) emissions from combustion processes and from fertilized soils lead to elevated NOy (NOx+ other oxidized N) deposition, further affecting CO2 exchange. As most (semi-) natural terrestrial ecosystems and aquatic ecosystems are N limited, human-induced atmospheric N deposition usually increases net primary production (NPP) and thus stimulates C sequestration. NOx emissions, however, also induce tropospheric ozone (O3) formation, and elevated O3 concentrations can lead to a reduction of NPP and plant C sequestration. The impacts of human N fixation on soil CH4 exchange are insignificant compared to the impacts on N2O and CO2 exchange (emissions or uptake). Ignoring shorter lived components and related feedbacks, the net impact of human N fixation on climate thus mainly depends on the magnitude of the cooling effect of CO2 uptake as compared to the magnitude of the warming effect of (direct and indirect) N2O emissions.
The estimated impact of human N fixation on N2O emission is 8.0 (7.0–9.0) Tg N2O-N yr−1, which is equal 1.02 (0.89–1.15) Pg CO2-C equivalents (eq) yr−1. The estimated CO2 uptake due to N inputs to terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems equals −0.75 (−0.56 to −0.97) Pg CO2-C eq yr−1. At present, the impact of human N fixation on increased CO2 sequestration thus largely (on average near 75%) compensates the stimulating effect on N2O emissions. In the long term, however, effects on ecosystem CO2 sequestration are likely to diminish due to growth limitations by other nutrients such as phosphorus. Furthermore, N-induced O3 exposure reduces CO2 uptake, causing a net C loss at 0.14 (0.07–0.21) Pg CO2-C eq yr−1. Consequently, human N fixation causes an overall increase in net greenhouse gas emissions from global ecosystems, which is estimated at 0.41 (−0.01–0.80) Pg CO2-C eq yr−1. Even when considering all uncertainties, it is likely that human N inputs lead to a net increase in global greenhouse gas emissions.
These estimates are based on most recent science and modeling approaches with respect to: (i) N inputs to various ecosystems, including NH3 and NOx emission estimates and related atmospheric N (NH3 and NOx) deposition and O3 exposure; (ii) N2O emissions in response to N inputs; and (iii) carbon exchange in responses to N inputs (C–N response) and O3 exposure (C–O3 response), focusing on the global scale. Apart from presenting the current knowledge, this article also gives an overview of changes in the estimates of those fluxes and C–N response factors over time, including debates on C–N responses in literature, the uncertainties in the various estimates, and the potential for improving them.
Precipitation falling onto the land surface in terrestrial ecosystems is transformed into either “green water” or “blue water.” Green water is the portion stored in soil and potentially available for uptake by plants, whereas blue water either runs off into streams and rivers or percolates below the rooting zone into a groundwater aquifer. The principal flow of green water is by evapotranspiration from soil into the atmosphere, whereas blue water moves through the channel system at the land surface or through the pore space of an aquifer. Globally, the flow of green water accounts for about two-thirds of the global flow of all water, green or blue; thus the global flow of green water, most of which is by transpiration, dominates that of blue water. In fact, the global flow of green water by transpiration equals the flow of all the rivers on Earth into the oceans.
At the global scale, evapotranspiration is measured using a combination of ground-, satellite-, and model-based methods implemented over annual or monthly time-periods. Data are examined for self-consistency and compliance with water- and energy-balance constraints. At the catchment scale, average annual evapotranspiration data also must conform to water and energy balance. Application of these two constraints, plus the assumption that evapotranspiration is a homogeneous function of average annual precipitation and the average annual net radiative heat flux from the atmosphere to the land surface, leads to the Budyko model of catchment evapotranspiration. The functional form of this model strongly influences the interrelationship among climate, soil, and vegetation as represented in parametric catchment modeling, a very active area of current research in ecohydrology.
Green water flow leading to transpiration is a complex process, firstly because of the small spatial scale involved, which requires indirect visualization techniques, and secondly because the near-root soil environment, the rhizosphere, is habitat for the soil microbiome, an extraordinarily diverse collection of microbial organisms that influence water uptake through their symbiotic relationship with plant roots. In particular, microbial polysaccharides endow rhizosphere soil with properties that enhance water uptake by plants under drying stress. These properties differ substantially from those of non-rhizosphere soil and are difficult to quantify in soil water flow models. Nonetheless, current modeling efforts based on the Richards equation for water flow in an unsaturated soil can successfully capture the essential features of green water flow in the rhizosphere, as observed using visualization techniques.
There is also the yet-unsolved problem of upscaling rhizosphere properties from the small scale typically observed using visualization techniques to that of the rooting zone, where the Richards equation applies; then upscaling from the rooting zone to the catchment scale, where the Budyko model, based only on water- and energy-balance laws, applies, but still lacks a clear connection to current soil evaporation models; and finally, upscaling from the catchment to the global scale. This transitioning across a very broad range of spatial scales, millimeters to kilometers, remains as one of the outstanding grand challenges in green water ecohydrology.
Richard G. Lawford and Sushel Unninayar
The global water cycle concept has its roots in the ancient understanding of nature. Indeed, the Greeks and Hebrews documented some of the most some important hydrological processes. Furthermore, Africa, Sri Lanka, and China all have archaeological evidence to show the sophisticated nature of water management that took place thousands of years ago. During the 20th century, a broader perspective was taken and the hydrological cycle was used to describe the terrestrial and freshwater component of the global water cycle. Data analysis systems and modeling protocols were developed to provide the information needed to efficiently manage water resources. These advances were helpful in defining the water in the soil and the movement of water between stores of water over land surfaces. Atmospheric inputs to these balances were also monitored, but the measurements were much more reliable over countries with dense networks of precipitation gauges and radiosonde observations.
By the 1960s, early satellites began to provide images that gave a new perception of Earth processes, including a more complete realization that water cycle components and processes were continuous in space and could not be fully understood through analyses partitioned by geopolitical or topographical boundaries. In the 1970s, satellites delivered quantitative radiometric measurements that allowed for the estimation of a number of variables such as precipitation and soil moisture. In the United States, by the late 1970s, plans were made to launch the Earth System Science program, led by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). The water component of this program integrated terrestrial and atmospheric components and provided linkages with the oceanic component so that a truly global perspective of the water cycle could be developed. At the same time, the role of regional and local hydrological processes within the integrated “global water cycle” began to be understood.
Benefits of this approach were immediate. The connections between the water and energy cycles gave rise to the Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment (GEWEX)1 as part of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). This integrated approach has improved our understanding of the coupled global water/energy system, leading to improved prediction models and more accurate assessments of climate variability and change. The global water cycle has also provided incentives and a framework for further improvements in the measurement of variables such as soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and precipitation. In the past two decades, groundwater has been added to the suite of water cycle variables that can be measured from space. New studies are testing innovative space-based technologies for high-resolution surface water level measurements. While many benefits have followed from the application of the global water cycle concept, its potential is still being developed. Increasingly, the global water cycle is assisting in understanding broad linkages with other global biogeochemical cycles, such as the nitrogen and carbon cycles. Applications of this concept to emerging program priorities, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Water-Energy-Food (W-E-F) Nexus, are also yielding societal benefits.
Noa Kekuewa Lincoln and Peter Vitousek
Agriculture in Hawaiʻi was developed in response to the high spatial heterogeneity of climate and landscape of the archipelago, resulting in a broad range of agricultural strategies. Over time, highly intensive irrigated and rainfed systems emerged, supplemented by extensive use of more marginal lands that supported considerable populations. Due to the late colonization of the islands, the pathways of development are fairly well reconstructed in Hawaiʻi. The earliest agricultural developments took advantage of highly fertile areas with abundant freshwater, utilizing relatively simple techniques such as gardening and shifting cultivation. Over time, investments into land-based infrastructure led to the emergence of irrigated pondfield agriculture found elsewhere in Polynesia. This agricultural form was confined by climatic and geomorphological parameters, and typically occurred in wetter, older landscapes that had developed deep river valleys and alluvial plains. Once initiated, these wetland systems saw regular, continuous development and redevelopment. As populations expanded into areas unable to support irrigated agriculture, highly diverse rainfed agricultural systems emerged that were adapted to local environmental and climatic variables. Development of simple infrastructure over vast areas created intensive rainfed agricultural systems that were unique in Polynesia. Intensification of rainfed agriculture was confined to areas of naturally occurring soil fertility that typically occurred in drier and younger landscapes in the southern end of the archipelago. Both irrigated and rainfed agricultural areas applied supplementary agricultural strategies in surrounding areas such as agroforestry, home gardens, and built soils. Differences in yield, labor, surplus, and resilience of agricultural forms helped shape differentiated political economies, hierarchies, and motivations that played a key role in the development of sociopolitical complexity in the islands.
Archis R. Ambulkar
Since the industrial revolution, societies across the globe have observed significant urbanization and population growth. Newer technologies, industries, and manufacturing plants have evolved over the period to develop sophisticated infrastructures and amenities for mankind. To achieve this, communities have utilized and exploited natural resources, resulting in sustained environmental degradation and pollution. Among various adverse ecological effects, nutrient contamination in water is posing serious problems for the water bodies worldwide.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are the basic constituents for the growth and reproduction of living organisms and occur naturally in the soil, air, and water. However, human activities are affecting their natural cycles and causing excessive dumping into the surface and groundwater systems. Higher concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus-based nutrients in water resources lead to eutrophication, reduction in sunlight, lower dissolved oxygen levels, changing rates of plant growth, reproduction patterns, and overall deterioration of water quality. Economically, this pollution can impact the fishing industry, recreational businesses, property values, and tourism. Also, using nutrient-polluted lakes or rivers as potable water sources may result in excess nitrates in drinking water, production of disinfection by-products, and associated health effects.
Nutrients contamination in water commonly originates from point and non-point sources. Point sources are the specific discharge locations, like wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), industries, and municipal waste systems; whereas, non-point sources are discrete dischargers, like agricultural lands and storm water runoffs. Compared to non-point sources, point sources are easier to identify, regulate, and treat. WWTPs receive sewage from domestic, business, and industrial settings. With growing pollution concerns, nutrients removal and recovery at treatment plants is gaining significant attention. Newer chemical and biological nutrient removal processes are emerging to treat wastewater. Nitrogen removal mainly involves nitrification-denitrification processes; whereas, phosphorus removal includes biological uptake, chemical precipitation, or filtration. In regards to non-point sources, authorities are encouraging best management practices to control pollution loads to waterways.
Governments are opting for novel strategies like source nutrient reduction schemes, bioremediation processes, stringent effluent limits, and nutrient trading programs. Source nutrient reduction strategies such as discouraging or banning use of phosphorus-rich detergents and selective chemicals, industrial pretreatment programs, and stormwater management programs can be effective by reducing nutrient loads to WWTPs. Bioremediation techniques such as riparian areas, natural and constructed wetlands, and treatment ponds can capture nutrients from agricultural lands or sewage treatment plant effluents. Nutrient trading programs allow purchase/sale of equivalent environmental credits between point and non-point nutrient dischargers to manage overall nutrient discharges in watersheds at lower costs.
Nutrient pollution impacts are quite evident and documented in many parts of the world. Governments and environmental organizations are undertaking several waterways remediation projects to improve water quality and restore aquatic ecosystems. Shrinking freshwater reserves and rising water demands are compelling communities to make efficient use of the available water resources. With smarter choices and useful strategies, nutrient pollution in the water can be contained to a reasonable extent. As responsible members of the community, it is important for us to understand this key environmental issue as well as to learn the current and future needs to alleviate this problem.
Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero
Since the late 20th century, water and sanitation management has been deeply influenced by ideas from economics, specifically by the doctrine of neoliberalism. The resulting set of policy trends are usually referred to as market environmentalism, which in broad terms encourages specific types of water reforms aiming to employ markets as allocation mechanisms, establish private-property rights and full-cost pricing, reduce (or remove) subsidies, and promote private sector management to reduce government interference and avoid the politicization of water and sanitation management. Market environmentalism sees water as a resource that should be efficiently managed through economic reforms.
Instead of seeing water as an external resource to be managed, alternative approaches like political ecology see water as a socio-nature. This means that water is studied as a historical-geographical process in which society and nature are inseparable, mutually produced, and transformable. Political ecological analyses understand processes of environmental change as deeply interrelated to socioeconomic dynamics. They also emphasize the impact of environmental dynamics on social relations and take seriously the question of how the physical properties of water may be sources of unpredictability, unruliness, and resistance from human intentions. As an alternative to the hydrologic cycle, political ecology proposes the concept of hydrosocial cycle, which emphasizes that water is deeply political and social. An analysis of the politics of water flows, drawing from political ecology explores the different relationships and histories reflected in access to (and exclusion from) water supply, sanitation, and drainage. It portrays how power inequalities are at the heart of differentiated levels of access to infrastructure.
Gerrit de Rooij
Henry Darcy was an engineer who built the drinking water supply system of the French city of Dijon in the mid-19th century. In doing so, he developed an interest in the flow of water through sands, and, together with Charles Ritter, he experimented (in a hospital, for unclear reasons) with water flow in a vertical cylinder filled with different sands to determine the laws of flow of water through sand. The results were published in an appendix to Darcy’s report on his work on Dijon’s water supply. Darcy and Ritter installed mercury manometers at the bottom and near the top of the cylinder, and they observed that the water flux density through the sand was proportional to the difference between the mercury levels. After mercury levels are converted to equivalent water levels and recast in differential form, this relationship is known as Darcy’s Law, and until this day it is the cornerstone of the theory of water flow in porous media. The development of groundwater hydrology and soil water hydrology that originated with Darcy’s Law is tracked through seminal contributions over the past 160 years.
Darcy’s Law was quickly adopted for calculating groundwater flow, which blossomed after the introduction of a few very useful simplifying assumptions that permitted a host of analytical solutions to groundwater problems, including flows toward pumped drinking water wells and toward drain tubes. Computers have made possible ever more advanced numerical solutions based on Darcy’s Law, which have allowed tailor-made computations for specific areas. In soil hydrology, Darcy’s Law itself required modification to facilitate its application for different soil water contents. The understanding of the relationship between the potential energy of soil water and the soil water content emerged early in the 20th century. The mathematical formalization of the consequences for the flow rate and storage change of soil water was established in the 1930s, but only after the 1970s did computers become powerful enough to tackle unsaturated flows head-on. In combination with crop growth models, this allowed Darcy-based models to aid in the setup of irrigation practices and to optimize drainage designs. In the past decades, spatial variation of the hydraulic properties of aquifers and soils has been shown to affect the transfer of solutes from soils to groundwater and from groundwater to surface water. More recently, regional and continental-scale hydrology have been required to quantify the role of the terrestrial hydrological cycle in relation to climate change. Both developments may pose new areas of application, or show the limits of applicability, of a law derived from a few experiments on a cylinder filled with sand in the 1850s.