Amir AghaKouchak, assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering. Steve Zylius / UCI

Hydrological hat trick

UCI water and drought expert Amir AghaKouchak gets work published in three major journals within two weeks

Here in drought-stricken California, lots of families have dinnertime discussions about water, but rarely do they have the same depth and insight as those happening in the AghaKouchak household. Amir AghaKouchak, assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine, is an expert on drought and water issues; and his wife, Nasrin Nasrollahi, is an engineer at the Orange County Sanitation District who works on treating recycled water and replenishing groundwater supplies.

“We have drought-related discussions all the time,” says AghaKouchak. “We talk about drought and its effect on the water quality and inflow into sanitation system facilities. Because of drought, we have less stream flow and runoff. It means the levels of turbidity go up and down, depending on the location.” Please pass the salt.

In the publish-or-perish world of academic research, AghaKouchak could be said to be flourishing. In the last two weeks of August, his work has appeared in three of the world’s leading scientific journals: Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Science.

“I am proud to join colleagues in these publications,” he says. “The impacts of drought and climate change are of such importance to Californians and people around the world. I hope these writings will encourage the scientific community and the broader public to take these issues seriously.”

Born and raised in Iran, AghaKouchak attended K.N. Toosi University of Technology in Tehran. “When I first started, I was interested in structural engineering and construction management. I didn’t know anything about water or climate at the time,” he says. “But slowly, over time, I got more and more interested in water management issues. Before I knew it, I’d earned a master’s and a Ph.D. in this area.”

AghaKouchak and Nasrollahi, who live with their 2-year-old son in UCI’s University Hills housing community, met as university students in Tehran, and together they pursued advanced degrees and research at the University of Stuttgart, in Germany, and the University of Louisiana. When she applied for Ph.D. candidacy at UCI, Nasrollahi brought her husband along on a visit to the office of her prospective adviser, Soroosh Sorooshian, UCI Distinguished Professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. It was a productive meeting: Sorooshian went on to recruit Nasrollahi for his department’s doctoral program and to hire AghaKouchak as a postdoctoral scholar.

After a few years, AghaKouchak was invited to join the UCI faculty. “It was a natural to me, after seeing Amir’s performance, that we would offer him a job as an assistant professor,” says Sorooshian, director of UCI’s Center for Hydrometeorology & Remote Sensing. “You get a feeling after 35 years in any business, academics included, where you can recognize excellence, talent and hard work.”

AghaKouchak’s hard work, combined with the foresight to have immersed himself in the study of drought and climate change, among the most important issues in the world today, resulted in August’s flurry of publications.

For the PNAS paper, AghaKouchak and graduate student Omid Mazdiyasni looked at the past half-century of drought and heat wave data and found that while there’s been little change in the prevalence of drought over the decades, there has been a dramatic increase in droughts and heat waves happening at the same time. “This is bad, because heat waves have serious health impacts, and they also affect agriculture and the environment,” AghaKouchak says.

He has observed with alarm heat waves around the world, such as the recent event in India in which more than 2,000 people died and the European heat wave of 2003 that claimed over 70,000 people, many of them elderly.

“At this point, our goal is mainly to put the facts out there, but ideally, this research should translate into action on the part of policymakers and decision-makers,” AghaKouchak says. “France has put a lot of reforms into effect in response to heat waves. Senior centers are now required to have a common room with air conditioning. That’s one simple mitigation that’s fairly easy to do. It has been proven to save lives.”

He’s also co-author of an essay in Nature on anthropogenic, or human-caused, drought. (See related story.) “In most studies, researchers look at drought as a meteorological or climatological phenomenon, or they look at it from a hydrological perspective. But the human influence is becoming more and more important as the population and industry grow,” AghaKouchak says.

“If we grow nonstop, we’ll end up in a situation in which we experience continuous water stress. We’ll never have enough water. Imagine if we stop at the level where our demand is similar to what we receive from the atmosphere.”

He and his colleagues offer some policy suggestions, including employing more water-efficient technologies in agriculture and industry, developing water markets, reusing and repurposing water when applicable, and desalinization.

The Science letter that AghaKouchak co-wrote outlines problems that long-term drought poses to California’s levee system. When soil remains dry over an extended period of time, infrastructure such as levees – some of which date back to the New Deal era – can weaken and fail.

“There’s an urgent need to invest in research on the effects of drought on the short- and long-term behavior of levees,” he says. “Drought risk and potential changes in the future climate were not considered in the engineering design of these levee systems and are still not considered in maintenance guidelines today.”

AghaKouchak’s publishing trifecta attests to his – and UCI’s – prominence in water and climate research. He has been called on several times in the past few months to speak with news media on issues ranging from the drought to the possible effects of the looming El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean. And yet his work continues.

“I don’t even know when he sleeps,” Sorooshian says. “But he gets a lot done because he’s driven and very efficient. If I could, I’d make copies of Amir and put them to use in my research group.”