March 2018 marked a significant Swiss anniversary: 30 years since the launch of project HADES. But although a name shared with the Greek god of the underworld might evoke images of darkness and death, HADES is all about shedding light on a substance essential to life: water.

HADES, the Hydrologischen Atlas der Schweiz, is a comprehensive scientific reference tool mapping and collating data on water in Switzerland. The result of a huge collaborative effort by Swiss hydrologists, HADES was launched by the Swiss government in 1988 as a means of providing essential information for water conservation and management. The original idea, however, was first developed by MRI Chair Prof. Dr. Rolf Weingartner two years earlier as part of his PhD thesis – and he continues to lead the project three decades on.

“When we started out, it was all completely analog; no computers were involved at all,” says Weingartner. “We relied on classic cartographic techniques to develop our maps.” In 1992, after four years of painstaking work, the first 17 map sheets were printed. Over time this number grew significantly. “The most recent version of the printed publication contains 63 map sheets presented in a large-format folder – and it’s huge!” says Weingartner. It needs to be; the atlas provides incredibly detailed data on various aspects of hydrology, including precipitation distribution, runoff, groundwater, changes in snowfall and glacier volume, and chemical pressures on rivers and lakes.

Science for practice

Prof. Dr. Rolf WeingartnerInitially, the printed atlas was owned by around 2500 people, organizations, and institutions. However, digitization in the year 2000 opened HADES up to a whole new audience. This is, Weingartner stresses, something that was a key priority for the HADES project team. “It is very important for us to be able to share the knowledge developed through years of observation, analysis, and research as widely as possible - with schools, businesses, local administration, and the general public.”

All maps and data are now free to access online, with most information offered in four languages. What is more, in order to support this mission of information sharing, a series of teaching modules and hydrology excursion guides – offering walkers a new, watery perspective on Switzerland – were also developed. 

“We plan to constantly update the site with new resources. And now we have digitized this can be done really easily,” Weingartner says. “The idea is that this is the hydrological atlas of the future.” New features, such as a 3D visualization platform or drone footage allowing a user to see what an area looks like on the ground, are therefore regularly being added. And to celebrate its 30-year anniversary, HADES will also be expanded with a two-dimensional data and analysis platform accessible to all.

“I think in the end what makes HADES a success is that it is not just science for scientists, it is also science for practice.”

Important insights

What HADES offers, says Weingartner, is context. It can serve as a useful tool to support construction project planning, for example. “Construction planning is often decided upon locally. We don’t see the wider spatial context – the connection in space and time. This collected data offers the broader picture for Swiss hydrology, as well as the local view.”

And HADES is not only a key resource for Switzerland; it also offers data for wider applications. Thanks to Switzerland’s mountainous topography – the Alps comprise roughly two thirds of the country’s land mass – the atlas offers detailed insights into mountain hydrology more broadly. It may also prove an important tool for charting the impact of climate change.

“Aspects of Swiss hydrology like run-off from snow and glacier melt are likely to alter significantly as a result of climate change,” says Weingartner. “Therefore, with the kind of understanding the atlas offers, we can also evaluate our pathways for the future.”

HADES mean precipitation Swiss Alps

Pictured: An example of the sort of data HADES offers. Here, details of precipitation in the Swiss Alps. 

Discover HADES online.

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