Hydrologist Efi Foufoula-Georgiou Connects Water With Time and Space

by Savannah Peykani

As easily as water fuels life, it removes it. In Greek mythology, the River Styx functions as the aquatic passageway from life to death, as heroes and villains drift towards post-mortem eternity. And yet, Aphrodite — the Greek goddess of love — took her name from “Aphros,” which means sea foam, an homage to the sea for creating her.

Growing up in Greece, Efi Foufoula-Georgiou quite literally experienced a world surrounded by water. From the glorious scenery of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, to the inevitable droughts during hot, dry summers, her connection to water paralleled that of most Greeks by the time she enrolled in University of Athens.

There, Foufoula-Georgiou narrowed down her general interest in engineering by focusing on hydrology: the science of water.

Perched in her office over the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, today Foufoula-Georgiou has fully submerged herself in UCI’s Hydrology and Water Resources Program. This is her first year teaching at UCI and the campus celebrated her this fall after her winning of the American Meteorological Society’s Hydrologic Sciences Medal.

The Distinguished Professor in civil and environmental engineering emotes the pacifism of still water. She explains her work, her complex research attempting to connect water with space and time. How water can record histories, predict futures. Throughout, she frantically scribbles down crude drawings of deltas and sediment layers. This is her life’s work, unfit for hasty afternoon visuals.

As precipitation affects an environment’s geology, it leaves behind physical traces of its motions and methods, traces that act as clues for scientists like Professor Foufoula-Georgiou to predict similar habits and patterns. Using radar and satellite information, she can connect precipitation and hydrometeorology to an understanding of space-time structures. Her particular branch of study analyzes the relationship between land and the atmosphere, i.e. how floods occur, the process of desertification and drought development, to name a few. This knowledge then transfers to a broader understanding of scaling — how small and large regions of geologic space change over time.

She specifically channels her research on river deltas, an element of geomorphology (studying the transport of water). By analyzing the impact of climate change on river deltas, she can see how increased storms lead to increased sea levels and more fertile soils.

“Precipitation is the hardest weather variable to predict,” Professor Foufoula-Georgiou explained, estimating that questions like how much precipitation will fall and how will it distribute can at best be answered three days in advance.

To complicate matters even further, there are only nine satellites monitoring precipitation from space, meaning that most parts of the world do not even have access to this prediction technology. However, this global information is essential in combatting the more foreboding realities of climate change.

“Increased temperatures mean a higher potential for extreme storms,” she said. “You can only see this information from space.”

From enormous satellites in space, to the basin of the Mississippi River, Foufoula-Georgiou’s research brought her to the University of Minnesota, where she studied and taught for 28 years the agricultural impacts of water usage through the corn belt of America. Known for housing over 10,000 lakes, Minnesota also serves as the origin point of the Mississippi River. All along the river, agricultural draining requires millions of kilometers of subsurface pipes for agricultural production of soybeans and corn, leading to disastrous environmental consequences.

“Agriculture is serving its purpose,” Professor Foufoula-Georgiou argued, “but artificial drainage has created an increased stream flow and pollution of nitrogen and phosphorus.”
This polluted water then continues to travel down the Midwest, meaning that water quality is a national problem, not just a local one. As it flows into the Gulf of Mexico, the contaminated river water creates what is known as “the Dead Zone,” or a gulf of Hypoxia, without oxygen and thus, without the ability to sustain aquatic life.

“The driver is precipitation,” Professor Foufoula-Georgiou said of her work, “but it’s not only about water; it’s how water manifests itself to impact the whole environment.”
In her own way, Professor Foufoula-Georgiou wants to have a similar effect on campus. She sees her role not just as a professor or researcher, but as a mentor.

“I go out of my way to inspire, to hire undergraduates for research. A senior person in academia can make a big difference.”

Within one quarter at UCI, these first drops have already fallen. The way the other students and researchers respond to her in the Hydrology and Water Resources Center suggests a reverence, a commitment to helping her help our planet.

As the Greeks, as well as many other civilizations mythologized thousands of years ago, water is life. But it can also be death and understanding the reality and gravity of this dualism lies at the center of Professor Foufoula-Georgiou’s research.