Headwater catchments are the fundamental units that connect the land to the ocean. Hydrological flow and biogeochemical processes are intricately coupled, yet their respective sciences have progressed without much integration. Reaction kinetic theories that prescribe rate dependence on environmental variables (e.g., temperature and water content) have advanced substantially, mostly in well-mixed reactors, columns, and warming experiments without considering the characteristics of hydrological flow at the catchment scale. These theories have shown significant divergence from observations in natural systems. On the other hand, hydrological theories, including transit time theory, have progressed substantially yet have not been incorporated into understanding reactions at the catchment scale. Here we advocate for the development of integrated hydro-biogeochemical theories across gradients of climate, vegetation, and geology conditions. The lack of such theories presents barriers for understanding mechanisms and forecasting the future of the Critical Zone under human- and climate-induced perturbations. Although integration has started and co-located measurements are well under way, tremendous challenges remain. In particular, even in this era of “big data,” we are still limited by data and will need to (1) intensify measurements beyond river channels and characterize the vertical connectivity and broadly the shallow and deep subsurface; (2) expand to older water dating beyond the time scales reflected in stable water isotopes; (3) combine the use of reactive solutes, nonreactive tracers, and isotopes; and (4) augment measurements in environments that are undergoing rapid changes. To develop integrated theories, it is essential to (1) engage models at all stages to develop model-informed data collection strategies and to maximize data usage; (2) adopt a “simple but not simplistic,” or fit-for-purpose approach to include essential processes in process-based models; (3) blend the use of process-based and data-driven models in the framework of “theory-guided data science.” Within the framework of hypothesis testing, model-data fusion can advance integrated theories that mechanistically link catchments' internal structures and external drivers to their functioning. It can not only advance the field of hydro-biogeochemistry, but also enable hind- and fore-casting and serve the society at large. Broadly, future education will need to cultivate thinkers at the intersections of traditional disciplines with hollistic approaches for understanding interacting processes in complex earth systems. This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Methods.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Aquatic Science
- Water Science and Technology
- Ocean Engineering
- Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law