Zhiying Li developed a method to predict Streamflow

Using the hydrological modeling techniques she created, Zhiying Li is able to predict how the volume of water may change over decades in several hundred US watersheds. (Photo courtesy of Zhiying Li)

Editor’s Note: Zhiying Li wins The Story Exchange’s first annual Women In Science Incentive Prize.

Growing up in southeast China, Zhiying Li spent his early years of school in a cramped classroom, his face buried in books. Outside of school, Li was captivated by the spectacular mountainous terrain of her hometown of Guangxi, an autonomous region not far from the Vietnamese border, where limestone pinnacles rise dramatically amid rushing rivers. And she was fascinated by the bigger world she had seen in the books and knew she wanted to see it for herself.

Li had the support of her parents to continue her education, but they, like most others she met, did not believe that a girl was capable of doing academic work, especially in the sciences. “I’ve been told that girls aren’t good at this. If boys want to study hard to get a better grade, it’s a lot easier than it is for girls, ”says Li. Women should go back to the family and stay at home, she was told, because the marriage is the greatest happiness imaginable.

But Li has ignored what she calls the “indirect stereotypes” of women that have caused many of her peers to stay put. She aspired to become a scientist focused on water conservation, both to preserve the beautiful environment in which she grew up and to encourage other girls to resist discrimination and pursue higher education.

At Ohio State University, where Li received his doctorate in geography and hydroclimatology, Li began to realize his aspirations – and live up to his name, which means “unique” and “innovative.” She has studied river flow – the water from streams, rivers and other canals that supply urban and rural areas around the world. Changes in flow have an impact on drinking water, electricity supply, agriculture and biodiversity. This supply changes with climate change, which means more or less water than historically in many places, leading to droughts and floods. Predicting precisely how the flow will change is critical but tricky due to the number of factors that affect it.

Today, Li is primarily a water detective, investigating the dominant drivers of hydrological change and how they affect lives and livelihoods. Using the hydrological modeling techniques she created, Li is able to predict how the volume of water may change over decades in several hundred US watersheds. “[I] examine the impacts of climate change on water resources, for example, with global warming and more frequent extreme weather events. How will water resources evolve in the future? Will there be places that will run out of water and how can we deal with them and how can we provide useful information to decision makers? Li said.

Precipitation is the primary driver of flow changes across much of the United States, but Li also examines anthropogenic influences on watersheds, including urbanization and dam construction, as these non-climatic factors have t it discovered, were particularly pronounced over the past 30 years. Understanding these impacts is important to create an accurate picture of water availability in the decades to come. It has already made some of this knowledge available to policymakers, engineers and water resource managers, to help them plan more effectively for the future of climate change.

Today, as a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth University, Li studies the risk of drought in North America and, more specifically, how vegetation productivity and climate change influence each other. “My job is to look, in which regions and at what stages of the drought, the vegetation improves or worsens the drying out,” says Li.

Knowing this will help predict water availability and natural hazards. “Drought or wildfires in the western United States and extreme rainfall in the northeastern United States – all of these natural hazards… really motivate me,” she says. Li hopes that being able to predict these impacts might help mitigate them. “I am doing this research for love and, I just think, yes, this is a big and urgent problem that we have to face.”

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