Modeling Evapotranspiration and the Limits of Plant Life: Gaby Katul for the GCSC Seminar Series

By Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant

Plants play an essential role in the cycling of water and carbon dioxide through the soil and atmosphere. Across eons, they have evolved to optimize processes that maximize their resource uptake and energy usage. Determining the basic mechanisms of this process is complex, as plants are susceptible to subtle changes in their environment. However, in a time of increased threat from climate change—including dire consequences for plant life—understanding the fundamentals of plants’ processes has the potential to revolutionize how we study plants relationship with ecosystems, water, and carbon.

Gaby Katul, the Theodore S. Coile Professor of Hydrology and Micrometeorology at the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University, will explore plant hydrology in his upcoming GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Evapotranspiration: From kinetic theory to the limits of plant life.”

In his research, Katul seeks a comprehensive model of how water moves through plants. This is not a simple task. Scientists have pieced together an understanding of the processes of drawing water from the soil and carbon from the atmosphere—processes that are bound up in complex and dynamic environmental, biological, and physical conditions. Katul hopes to identify what universal traits exist in the transpiration cycles of plants.

“Our thinking was to try and come up with the most general descriptions of these processes irrespective of the biomes,” Katul says. “The idea is to try to connect certain anatomical and physiological features of the plant to the environment. We want to study in the most generic way how environmental changes impact the responses of plants to drought, or elevated carbon dioxide, or elevated temperature.” Understanding the universal components of transpiration in plants can enable a radically holistic model for future research, regardless of biome, he says.

According to Katul, similar models are already used for understanding these processes in other fields. “For example, look at soil,” Katul explains. “There is sand, there is silt or clay, there are a billion combinations of them. But the objective is that if you know something about, say, the pore-size distribution, or the particle-size distribution, can you come up with general transport laws that describe water movement in porous media? We’re trying to do something similar for plants.”

Katul’s research is necessarily interdisciplinary. The physics of transpiration and carbon uptake are equally important factors. Katul has also drawn on economics, “particularly optimization principles where there are no conservation laws. The idea is to grab some techniques that have worked in different disciplines and try to bring them into this issue of plant-water relations.”

Ultimately, Katul thinks this work could lead to a universal model of plant response to environmental change that can inform future plant research. “We know a lot about water transport, carbon flow, energy flow in the plant. We also know that plants have evolved certain strategies, certain coordination among components to try to deal with certain bottlenecks that will pop up,” he says. “So, if we take this information and put it in a mathematical framework, can we interrogate this mathematical framework, and see what’s going to happen to these processes as climatic conditions evolve?”

A universal model will allow scientists to investigate the effects of changing climate on plants worldwide. By seeking a general model for optimization processes in plants, Katul envisions science where, as he puts it, “I am getting the answer right because I know the process that is being impacted by environmental change.”

To learn more, come to the lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. in Room 210 of the Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology building.

GOOD TO GROW

Originally published in Continuum on September 17, 2018.

Jessica Kemper, coordinator of the U’s Edible Campus Gardens, shows off produce from this season’s abundant harvest at their garden east of Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Kemper helps organize more than 75 student volunteers, who work shifts year round composting, trellising, weeding, planting, and harvesting at both the Pioneer Garden and their plot by the Sill Center. Come fall, there is enough produce to donate to the Feed U Pantry, share with volunteers, and sell at the U’s Farmers Market, which takes place Thursdays just west of the Union Building from mid-August to early October.

THE WASATCH FRONT: A LIVING LAB

Originally posted on @theU on September 17, 2018

By Paul Gabrielsen, science writer, University of Utah Communications

University of Utah scientists know how to turn a challenge into an opportunity. Repeatedly, researchers at the U have developed innovative research solutions to some of the Salt Lake Valley’s most serious environmental issues. Light rail trains sample the air as they dart around the valley. Camera traps keep their eyes on the wildlife in mountain canyons. Climate and hydrological observations track rain, snow, plant stress, groundwater and streamflow from the mountain crest to the valley floor.

All of these environmental factors—earth, air, water and life—are interconnected, though. A change in one has the potential to impact any or all of the others. So how do U researchers respond to this extraordinary complexity? By banding together. This fall, the U launches a new university-wide collaboration called the Wasatch Environmental Observatory.

“We’ve talked about campus as a living lab, and faculty have gotten grants to develop research infrastructure throughout the Wasatch Front,” says Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC). “We have all this infrastructure and we thought: ‘How can we pull this together in a new way to not just study campus as a living lab, but our home, the whole Wasatch Front?’”

This observatory isn’t a single facility like, say, an astronomical observatory. It’s a network of sensors and instruments, stretched all across the Wasatch Front, that collectively monitor multiple environmental metrics. “We’re pulling together all of the systems that were initially funded by individual researchers or large multi-researcher grants to make it into something more than the sum of its parts,” Bowen says.

Part of the observatory is relatively stationary, providing consistent, long-term data. But part is portable and deployable, Bowen says. “As events occur, we can deploy infrastructure into a certain area by pulling together hydrologic, atmospheric and ecological research facilities into a distributed observatory or field station.”

Paul Brooks, professor of geology and geophysics, says that the observatory is a framework for future projects and infrastructure to be added in. State, federal and local agencies, he says, have already expressed interest in tying their instrumentation into the WEO network. The measurements and results from WEO can then be used by those stakeholder agencies. “That’s one of the exciting areas of WEO,” Brooks says. “It takes the new knowledge generated by students and faculty and ports it through as quickly as possible to people on the ground who use that knowledge to make better decisions.”

For Bowen and the GCSC, which brings together faculty from across campus to study environmental issues, WEO is a fulfillment of the center’s mission. “It’s realizing what GCSC strives to be,” Bowen says. “WEO will help integrate everything we’re doing to advance sustainability in our own backyard.” 

WEO will be led by a committee of six faculty members (including Bowen and Brooks) hailing from the departments of Geology & Geophysics, Atmospheric Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the School of Biological Sciences. Beyond that, nearly 40 researchers from 13 different departments and eight colleges already have research or outreach projects associated with WEO.

According to a project summary from GCSC, current facilities to be linked together through WEO include:

  • Distributed hydroclimate, meteorological, biological and hydrological observations in seven catchments spanning the Wasatch Crest through the Great Salt Lake including six closely spaced stations spanning an elevation gradient from the top of Red Butte Creek down through campus and on to the Jordan River
  • Experimental stormwater, landscape, transportation, and architectural design infrastructure on campus
  • Long-term ecological, geological, and snow study sites
  • Seven atmospheric trace gas and climate stations from Hidden Peak (Snowbird) to the Salt Lake Valley floor
  • Light rail-based atmospheric observations distributed across land use and elevational gradients in the Salt Lake Valley (TRAX)
  • Deployable and relocatable high-precision atmospheric and hydrologic observation equipment
  • Co-Located, long-term, and spatially extensive databases from multiple disciplines

All of that equipment requires service, repair and maintenance. So WEO provides for two full-time research technical specialists, Dave Eiriksson and Ryan Bares, to keep the sensors running.

Brooks says the interconnectedness of the WEO sensor systems allows researchers to study the impacts on one environmental system, say, urban development, on others, such as the quality of water in urban streams.

“The idea is that each individual solution we have exists in a broader context,” Brooks says. “We want to be as comprehensive as possible so that the solution to one issue doesn’t then create a new problem down the line that perhaps we didn’t think of.”

Brooks adds that the U is uniquely positioned, with researchers and facilities, to study environmental issues common throughout the West.

“WEO brings those researchers and resources together,” he says, “so instead of addressing these issues piecemeal we have the ability to address them in concert.”

Want to join in?

If you’re considering or conducting environmental research along the Wasatch Front, come to a think tank mixer presented by GCSC on Sept. 26, from 5-7 p.m. at the College of Law, sixth floor, Flynn Faculty Workshop.

Learn more and register here.

 

5 GREEN FEATURES

Originally posted on @theU on September 10, 2018

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University of Utah Communications

The newly opened Gardner Commons building, which replaced Orson Spencer Hall, was designed with sustainability at its core. Here are five of its green features:

Looking out towards a carbon-neutral future

Gardner Commons is designed to be 100 percent electric-based. As the U installs and purchases more renewable energy like solar and geothermal, the building will eventually become carbon neutral, with no need for any fossil fuels. This design allows the U to move closer to its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

 

 

Looking down to the earth for power

The building is heated and cooled by the first and only geothermal ground-source heat pump on campus. The pump uses the ground as a battery, putting heat into the ground during the summer and taking heat out of the ground during the winter. This is estimated to save more than $70,000 a year in energy costs!

 

 

 

Looking inside for a holistic eating experience

Carolyn’s Kitchen, inside the commons, stocks reusable dishes, silverware and even reusable to-go containers. When it comes to food, this location features a plant-based station that satisfies vegan and vegetarian diets, a rotating station that hosts local vendors including Saffron Valley and local roaster Hugo Coffee, which uses fair trade beans. All this and more makes Carolyn’s Kitchen a holistic eating experience.

 

 

Looking all around for unique, beautiful and ethically sourced building materials

Those funky little dots on the windows? These ‘frits’ act as blinds while still allowing daylight, reducing solar heat gain to the inside of the building and glare from the sun. The horizontal panels on the outside of the building are glass fiber reinforced concrete, made locally. (Other buildings in Salt Lake City with these kinds of panels had them shipped from as far as Germany.) Marble from OSH’s restrooms was repurposed in Gardner to build front entry desks for all departments.

 

 

Don’t forget the Water Conservation Garden

Sandwiched between Gardner Commons and the Eccles School of Business, the Water Conservation Garden will be a beautiful oasis in the middle of campus. Formerly covered with water-consuming grass, the garden will bring water that would be piped through the city’s stormwater drain system to the surface, filter it, use it for irrigation, and send what’s left into the groundwater. The impetus for the garden was an $80,000 grant written by a team of U students and funded by the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund. The students also helped bring Red Butte Garden’s staff and expertise to this campus project. Look for the garden in spring 2019.

WATERSHED PROTECTION

Originally posted in @theU on August 27th, 2018

By Cecily Sakrison, U Water Center

Some come to the Natural History Museum of Utah for the world-class dinosaur exhibit, others are drawn to the vast collection of gems and minerals. But if you’re interested in sustainable engineering and infrastructure, you’ve arrived at your destination the moment you park your car.

 

It could be argued that the museum’s newest exhibit is its “50-year parking lot”—an engineering feat that’s “almost unheard of in Utah,” said David B. Alter, vice president of Ensign Engineering and project manager for the lot upgrade. With the pressures of ice, snow, salt and plows it’s rare that any parking lot in the Beehive state lasts anywhere near the half-century mark. But, this is no ordinary parking lot.

Michael Martin, NHMU Facilities Manager shows the 80mm depth of the pavers which are designed to withstand an exceptional amount of pressure. PHOTO CREDIT: Cecily Sakrison

The LEED-certified NHMU building opened in 2011 with a bevy of site-specific, environmentally sensitive design solutions including planted roofs, solar panels, water-catchment cisterns and a pervious concrete parking lot surface designed to let stormwater runoff percolate back into the soil. The original lot’s high porosity was very effective but, over time, the lot started requiring increasingly numerous repairs and additional maintenance expenses due to uneven surfaces.

At the urging of the museum board, NHMU elected to upgrade to highly durable, permeable concrete interlocking pavers. A coarse sand-filled expansion joint around each paver allows water to percolate deep into the soil below, naturally filtering and recharging groundwater and eliminating the need to transport water off-site through additional infrastructure.

“The base layer had already been established,” noted Alter. “To lose that would have been a real shame.” Alter referred to the 2-3 feet of crushed rock that was reverse-slope graded back into the hillside and had been laid for the museum’s original lot. It’s the most important element of a permeable parking lot yet sometimes overlooked. “It’s so important that the whole system is properly engineered,” said Abby Curran, NHMU’s  Chief Operating Officer.

Project managers were able to design the installation plan to keep the museum’s lot open throughout construction with the exception of 3 days when crews worked to pave the entrance. PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Martin

“When we pave a surface we increase stormwater runoff and that can lead to problems.” said Civil Engineering Professor Christine Pomeroy.  “Excess runoff can cause erosion in urban waterways. It can flush out fish and insects that live in our streams. But it’s not only about bugs, bunnies, and treehugger stuff—erosion from high volumes of runoff can damage infrastructure, creating financial impacts.”

Many Wasatch Front residents don’t realize that, unlike water that’s funneled through the sanitary sewer system, anything that’s flushed down a storm drain goes straight to the valley’s creeks, rivers, ponds and canals. A General Public Stormwater Telephone Survey Report conducted in December 2017 for Salt Lake County found that “only 10 percent of respondents were correct when they said that ‘none’ of the county’s stormwater goes to a treatment plant.”

“Our streams can better maintain a healthy ecosystem if they’re not inundated with excess water,” notes Pomeroy.

Michael Brehm, U environmental compliance manager added “Nearly 10 years ago, the U adopted design standards and initiated policy and programs to accelerate the adoption of best management practices for stormwater. As we develop more of campus, the potential to interrupt the natural infiltration of rain becomes greater.  We’re aware of this and, in response, we’ve updated design standards to replicate natural recharge of water as closely as possible.”

The museum’s respect for and sense of place guided both the re-paving decision and process. Old concrete went to a reuse facility, new pavers were machine-layed for time and cost efficiency and half-pavers that were originally “waste product” of the machine-laying process were repurposed as borders.  “The exterior of the museum is just as important as the interior,” said Curran. “We have many programs that take advantage of our natural, native environment. Being mindful of that space and its natural systems enriches what we can offer our visitors.”


Watershed Stories is a series exploring water work across the University of Utah campus. The stories are curated by the U Water Center, the Sustainability Office and the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

WATER IN THE NAVAJO NATION

AFTER THE RAIN

By: Liz Ivkovich, Global Change & Sustainability Center. 

Last week, 30 officials from city, county, and state agencies boarded a university shuttle on a tour of campus stormwater infrastructure. For participants, these projects offer a vision for what is possible when it comes to protecting the Jordan River watershed we all share.

Central to the tour was the announcement of $300,000 in new funding awarded to the Center for Ecological Planning & Design by the Utah Division of Water Quality. This grant will be matched with support from University Real Estate Administration to create the new Landscape Lab at the Williams Building.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

30 officials from the city, county, and state agencies attended a tour at the University of Utah campus.

The Landscape Lab’s goal is to demonstrate sound stormwater management practices. It will transform a one-acre area of water-intensive turfgrass south of the Williams Building into a picturesque, walkable space featuring local plants that reduce irrigation demand. The Williams Building is adjacent to Red Butte Creek, a tributary of the Jordan River.

All stormwater in Salt Lake City ultimately ends up in the Jordan River. Keeping stormwater on-site will not only protect the Jordan River from pollutants and flooding, it will significantly reduce irrigation costs for the Williams Building.

Sarah Hinners, director of the Center for Ecological Planning & Design, intends for the lab to test how well different types of stormwater management features work in our Northern Utah climate.

“Part of what makes this project unique is the multidisciplinary team of soil, plant, and planning experts and engineers involved in it,” said Hinners. “We are able to engage faculty expertise to monitor and share information about best practices with the rest of the Wasatch front.”  Dr. Hinner’s team of interested stakeholders also includes University Facilities and Operations staff, who oversee the design, construction, maintenance, environmental permitting and compliance of all stormwater on campus.

The lab will re-direct the water runoff from the Williams Building to its beautiful living plant communities. This allows the plant roots and microbial communities to take up pollutants and filter water through the soil to recharge the groundwater.

The grant received from the Utah Division of Water Quality is being matched with funds from University Real Estate Administration.

“Research Park and Real Estate Administration are excited to be involved in the new Landscape Lab at the Williams Building,” said Jonathan Bates, executive director of Real Estate Administration. “This opportunity to embrace research resulting in the direct implementation of sustainable water use techniques in a business park setting go to the core of the mission of Research Park. As the Park celebrates its 50th birthday we look forward to the opportunity to update our design standards to include concepts that come out of this exciting research initiative. Additionally, we look forward to future opportunities to blend research initiatives with commercial real estate development in order to show the financial, environmental and community benefits of sustainable design.”

In addition to the site of the Landscape Lab, the group also toured several existing low-impact development (LID) stormwater features on campus, including planned retrofits on the HPER mall, some updated permeable pavement at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the tiered bioswales and rain gardens near USTAR.

The all-day, valley-wide tour was initiated by the Jordan River Commission, an intergovernmental agency tasked with stewarding the Jordan River watershed and implementing the vision for the Jordan River Parkway.

According to Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, stormwater projects such as the Landscape Lab are increasingly important in northern Utah.

“The past century and a half of industrialization and urbanization in Salt Lake and Utah valleys have not always been kind to the Jordan River, ” said Simonsen. “We are confident that what we have learned about our ecosystem through science and application in more recent years will allow us to actually improve the Jordan River watershed as the region continues to grow. It will take a concerted effort, and we are excited to have incredible partners like the University of Utah to demonstrate innovative ways of retrofitting our landscapes and green infrastructure to improve water quality and habitat.”

The lab will test multiple designs for stormwater retention and filtration infrastructure. Sharing this research will minimize trial and error for city, county, and corporate agencies seeking to use these features in their communities.

The lab is the first phase of extensive redevelopment project for Red Butte Creek. Hinners expects to break ground on the lab in Fall 2018. She hopes that the project’s first phase will be completed by Summer 2019.

Melding Perspectives, Finding Solutions

In Utah, the second driest state in the country, water is a critical issue. Our water systems are interconnected with human systems, and as our population expands and the climate changes, protecting and sharing this resource equitably will require collaboration between researchers, practitioners and decision makers.

When it comes to collaborative water research, the U’s Society, Water, and Climate Research Group (SWC) is leading the way. With the addition of five new faculty members, the group has undertaken an ambitious mandate – to meld multiple scientific perspectives toward finding sustainable water solutions for a changing world.

Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and incoming president, addresses faculty at the forum.

Many U faculty already had significant expertise related to water, society and climate, but there were areas that could be strengthened. A group of U researchers, led by the chair of the U’s Geography Department Andrea Brunelle, formed the SWC in 2013.

The team’s first task was to articulate gaps in the society, water and climate perspectives already at the U. Then they proposed new faculty positions to fill those gaps through the university’s Transformative Excellence Program. The Transformative Excellence Program is an ongoing hiring initiative seeking new faculty focused around interdisciplinary themes rather than discipline.

“If we are to truly address Utah’s – and the nation’s – societal issues, we must think beyond our traditional approaches,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Watkins, who is also the incoming present of the U. “The Transformative Excellence Program was designed to identify areas within the university where focusing on strategic additions to our faculty could enhance our preeminence and allow us to better serve the citizens of this state and country.”

Ten departments – Anthropology, Atmospheric Sciences, Biology, Economics, Environmental & Sustainability Studies, Geography, Geology & Geophysics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology – invested in this unique hiring process, an unprecedented level of interdepartmental collaboration.

“This hiring process was very inspiring and rewarding,” said Brunelle. “Working with a group of faculty who obviously care so much about these topics and this research that they would invest an absolutely tremendous amount of time working on these searches even without a guarantee of a departmental hire was incredible. Even after the hires were completed, all the departments are represented on the SWC executive committee, showing continued investment in this collaborative endeavor.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, this kind of cluster-hiring can be a fraught endeavor. It is challenging to ensure the process doesn’t unravel in the context of disciplinary hiring needs.

At the U, the SWC hiring process fit in with the university’s ethos of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Several years earlier, in 2011, the U underwent a similar hiring process for a small group of faculty who would work at the fringes of their discipline on climate- and environmental change-related research. This initial search ultimately brought Diane Pataki (Biology), Gabe Bowen (Geology & Geophysics) and John Lin (Atmospheric Sciences) to the U. This first group hire, which laid the groundwork for the Transformative Excellence Program, happened through the dedicated efforts of faculty in the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC), which was led at the time by director emeritus Jim Ehleringer.

Audience members at the forum gather for panel presentation from (L to R) Amy Wildermuth, chief sustainability officer; Steve Burian, director of the U Water Center; Andrea Brunelle, co-chair of the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group; and Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

The GCSC is a web of 140 faculty members in 10 colleges who all work within environmental and sustainability themes. The center facilitates faculty connections and interdisciplinary grants, offers graduate fellowships and research funds and manages a sustainability-related graduate certificate. In addition, the GCSC also has a series of ongoing and one-time events aimed at bringing the interdisciplinary community together in meaningful ways. All of these endeavors work to catalyze relevant research on global change and sustainability at the U.

“The investment the administration put into the GCSC really set a tone for the value that collaborative work has on this campus and that translated beautifully to the SWC project,” Brunelle said. “A great example of this is the generous contributions of time, resources and support that my Dean, Cindy Berg, provided throughout the multi-year hiring process.”

To build the SWC research group, broad descriptions of new faculty positions were posted online. The response was immediate and overwhelming. In the first year of the search, 13 candidates were brought to campus, offering fascinating talks about climate change and impacts on water and society.

After several years of intensive searches and interviews, the group is now complete with five new faculty in four departments. These five faculty bring nationally renowned research to the university while seamlessly integrating into their departmental homes.

“The Society, Water and Climate initiative has really helped to integrate GCSC scholars from across campus around a common set of questions and problems that require scholars to come together in new ways,” said Brenda Bowen, director of the GCSC. “The SWC focus has helped us to recognize and identify common research interests between seemingly separate fields and is creating opportunities for faculty and students to advance their work in new directions. The incoming SWC faculty are interdisciplinary leaders and are already catalyzing and supporting projects and grant proposals that move all of us forward as we work towards a future where humans and ecosystems thrive.”

Meet SWC hires. These members will join existing faculty who are part of the group.

William Anderegg, Biology, 2016

William Anderegg is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah. His lab studies how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks. This research spans a broad array of spatial scales, from cells to ecosystems, and seeks to gain a better mechanistic understanding of how climate change will affect forests and societies around the world.

Juliet Carlisle, Political Science, arriving in 2018                                                                         

Juliet Carlisle is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. Her research substantively deals with political behavior and public opinion with an emphasis on environmental politics and policy. In particular, Carlisle has investigated issues surrounding environmental concern, including what people know about the environment, where that knowledge originates and how that knowledge influences their opinions and behaviors. Her co-authored book, “The Politics of Energy Crises” (2017), applies policy theories to energy crises and explores energy policy during energy crises with specific attention on the role of public opinion, business interests and environmental activists.

Gannet Hallar, Atmospheric Sciences, 2016

Gannet Hallar is an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Utah and the director of Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, operated by the Desert Research Institute. Her research focuses on using high-quality measurements of trace gases, aerosol physical and chemical properties and cloud microphysics to understand connections between the biosphere, atmosphere and climate, along with the impact of anthropogenic emissions on these connections.

Summer Rupper, Geography, 2015

Summer Rupper is an associate professor in the Geography Department at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on glaciers and ice sheets as recorders and indicators of climate change and as freshwater resources. Recent and ongoing projects include quantifying glacier contributions to water resources and sea-level rise, assessing glacier sensitivity to climate change and reconstructing past climate using ice core snow accumulation data and geomorphic evidence of past glacier extents. These projects are all part of a larger effort to characterize climate variability and change and the impacts of these on society.

S. McKenzie Skiles, Geography, 2017

McKenzie Skiles is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah. She is an alpine and snow hydrologist whose research interests center on snow energy balance, remote sensing of mountain snow and ice and cryosphere-climate interaction. Her research methods combine numerical modeling, laboratory analysis, and field, in situ, and remotely sensed observations to better constrain the timing and magnitude of mountain snowmelt and to improve our understanding of how accelerated mountain snowmelt is impacting this critical natural reservoir over time.

The SWC is one of 10 Transformative Excellence cluster hiring initiatives currently in place at the U. Current projects include families and health research; society, water and climate; statistical science and big data; digital humanities; biophysics; sustaining biodiversity; health economics and health policy; resilient spaces (aging); science and math education; and neuroscience.

Banner image: Members of the SWC chat at the November 2017 Water Forum, the inaugural event for the Society, Water & Climate Research Group, organized by the SWC, the Global Change & Sustainability Center, and U Water Center. 

Using Time as Our Guide

By Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Both urban and rural areas around the world rely heavily on groundwater to support agriculture, energy, residential, and industrial use. This demand for groundwater—from a global population of over seven and a half billion—combined with impacts of climate change places more stress on these systems. In order to sustainably manage these resources, we first need to quantify it.

Kip Solomon, department of Geology & Geophysics at the University of Utah, will show how understanding the age and recharge of aquifers can lead to more sustainable use at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

“While we have a hint that we are overexploiting a number of these large regional systems,” said Solomon, “the amount of data we have to make these assessments is rather limited. Part of my pitch is that we need to make more measurements in these kinds of systems.”

Groundwater recharge is a hydrologic process where water moves from surface water to groundwater—like an aquifer—by draining through the soil. Recharge can be a slow process, especially when the body of water is deep underground. The longer it takes water to reach the aquifer, the lower the rate of recharge. This makes measuring the rate of recharge a challenging process. For Solomon, the most promising tool is dating the groundwater.

“By getting the mean age of water we can calculate the recharge,” explained Solomon. “By dating the groundwater and using the geologic information to determine the volume, we can infer the rates of replenishment to the aquifer.”

There are a few tools that can be used to date water—namely isotopes and trace atmospheric gasses. Elements can have several isotopes depending on what the element has come in contact with. In aquifers, isotopes are often generated in the subsurface. Their concentrations build up the longer the water is in contact with the subsurface rock. A higher concentration of an isotope, like Carbon-14, thus signifies older water.

For younger water, atmospheric gasses can be used to date it. Over the past few decades, gasses produced in the industrial processes—like sulfur hexafluoride—have been increasing. When exposed to the air, water absorbs concentrations of these gasses. The longer the water interacted with the gas, the greater the concentration will be. Once the water moves below the surface those concentrations of gas are essentially “locked in.” Measuring the traces of these gasses in groundwater can show how old that water might be.

Determining the recharge rate is important for both hydrologic understanding of subsurface bodies of water and for natural resource management. The recharge is a vital component of understanding the amount of water that can be extracted without overexploiting or compromising the integrity of the groundwater body.

“99 percent of unfrozen freshwater is in the ground,” explained Solomon. “As our world approaches eight billion, it is a growing question of whether or not these big regional aquifers can be sustainably exploited to support agriculture in arid and semi-arid regions.”

To learn more, attend Solomon’s lecture, “Can Groundwater Feed the World? It’s All About Time” on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB.

 

Cover photo via USGS public domain. 

INVESTIGATING CONTAMINATION

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant

The Marcellus shale in northeastern Pennsylvania is estimated to hold up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, possibly making it the second largest natural gas field in the world. The deep sedimentary rock of the Marcellus requires hydraulic fracturing to access the natural gas trapped between rock layers.

By John G. Van Hoesen [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is when a chemical mixture is pumped into the subsurface at high pressures to fracture the rock and release gas used for energy production. Fracturing operations may have the potential to contaminate surface and drinking water, but finding the source of the polluting contaminants is a controversial undertaking. Scientists have relied on isotopes to assess contaminant sources.

Jennifer C. McIntosh, a University Distinguished Scholar and Associate Professor in the Department of Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona, will critically evaluate how tracing isotopes can help identify contaminants from hydraulic fracturing at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, April 18 from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Almost every element comes in multiple forms. Each element contains a characteristic number of protons—as that is what allows the atom to be identified. The number of neutrons for that element can vary. Atoms with the same number of protons and electrons but different numbers of neutrons are isotopes.

Isotopes have been used to track sources of contamination (like brine, fracking fluids, methane, or natural gas) to see if the contaminant is natural or human created. McIntosh describes isotopes as a fingerprint. Tracing these fingerprints is an effective way to identify where a contaminant is coming from.

“Depending on what geology an element or water interacts with,” McIntosh said, “the element is going to pick up a particular signature. This is a forensics type of work, you are essentially an investigator.”

By Joshua Doubek (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

McIntosh will point to contamination case studies from the Marcellus Shale gas production, and the Bakken Shale oil production in North Dakota. She will also talk about her own work collecting baseline studies on methane and shallow aquifers in Ontario, Canada. In case there are future environmental impacts—like leakage of natural gas or fracturing fluids—from future hydraulic fracturing in the area, McIntosh’s data will serve as a baseline of what Ontario was like before contamination

“Ontario has a shale that is equivalent to the Marcellus Shale, but there has been no shale gas production” explained McIntosh.

Using her expertise in natural tracers, McIntosh developed a road map agencies can use to determine if there is any contamination from oil and gas production. In it, McIntosh illuminates what an agency would want to do beforehand to have the best baseline data in place, the data they would want to collect during a fracking operation, and what data to collect afterward if contamination is suspected.

Learn more at McIntosh’s lecture, “Tracing Environmental Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing and Oil/Gas Production” on Tuesday, April 18 at 4 pm in 210 ASB.

Cover Photo: By lalabell68 [CC0 Public Domain], via Pixabay