The DRI Foundation has just awarded the next round of seed grants to six teams of researchers through the Innovation Research Program (IRP). The IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects.
The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were chosen through a competitive selection process and reviewed by a committee comprised of previous IRP recipients and DRI’s Vice President for Research. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission.
Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.
Advancing the science behind canine odor detection evidence in criminal trials Mary Cablk, Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khlystov
Cadaver dogs are often called on to detect the odors of human remains at a crime scene, and the evidence they find—the odor left behind from a body on a killer’s clothing, for example—is treated as hard scientific fact in criminal trials. However, there are currently no physical or chemical forensic methods to verify this kind of evidence. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Mary Cablk and her team are employing a scientific approach to compare the detection of residual odors by dogs and laboratory instrumentation. This research will bolster the scientific foundation for canine evidence used in homicide cases and position DRI to secure future funding for projects investigating a wider span of canine evidence, such as contraband.
Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.
Supporting climate adaptation for specialty crop farmers Kristin VanderMolen
Climate change impacts like flooding and drought threaten the production of specialty crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables in California, a state that grows more than half of these crops nationwide. DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, PhD, and partners at the Climate Science Alliance at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are investigating how farmers are adapting to these challenges in order to identify how climate research can best support them. This research lays the groundwork for field studies to test and verify the effectiveness of farmers’ adaptation strategies and the development of climate information products to support farmers into the future. Additionally, this project builds relationships between DRI and critical partners, like the Climate Science Alliance and University of California Cooperative Extension.
A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.
Enhancing soil moisture data to improve hydrologic modeling Ming Liu
Soil moisture is a critical variable when it comes to understanding processes like evapotranspiration, the transfer of water from land surfaces and plants into the atmosphere. Most hydrologic models rely on soil moisture data from satellite remote sensing, but this data lacks ground truthing, especially in remote arid places. In collaboration with Myriota, an Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite startup, DRI’s Ming Liu, PhD, is developing sensor stations by integrating Myriota’s nanosatellite transceiver with custom-made universal dataloggers. The sensor stations will be deployed across Nevada to collect soil moisture readings from the field. This project aims to improve the data used in hydrologic models and build the foundation for broader sensor deployment for environmental research in arid lands.
Researchers sample snow for a previous research project. Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.
Tracing the history of atmospheric river events to improve water resource management in the Western U.S. Joe McConnell, Nathan Chellman, Christine Albano
Atmospheric rivers carry significant amounts of water vapor from the tropics to the Western United States, providing 30-40% of the total precipitation during a typical winter season. However, these rivers in the sky can also result in extreme weather like flooding and wind storms, which pose risks to infrastructure and human safety. Despite the significant impacts of atmospheric rivers, little is known about how their frequency and intensity has changed over the past several centuries. Using chemical analysis in DRI’s state-of-the-art Ice Core Laboratory, Joe McConnell, PhD, and his team are working to identify isotopic signatures that differentiate snow produced by atmospheric rivers from that produced by other storms. If successful, researchers will be able to leverage this work in future projects to develop a history of atmospheric rivers over the last several hundred years. Such a record will be valuable for informing water resource management and hazard mitigation, especially as the climate continues to warm and change.
A cannabis growing facility, part of a previous DRI air quality study. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.
Evaluating health risks from cannabis smoking and vaping David Campbell
The legalization of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use in many states, including Nevada, has resulted in widespread commercial production of non-tobacco smoking and vaping products. However, this growth hasn’t been accompanied by research into the health effects from use of those products—in fact, there has been virtually no analysis of the many chemical compounds that are inhaled by users when smoking or vaping cannabis, due in part to federal research restrictions. Dr. David Campbell is developing a portable sampling system to collect the smoke or vapor for laboratory analysis, and it will be tested with cigarettes made from legal hemp, which is identical to marijuana except for the lower THC content. This research will bolster what we know about the health risks associated with cannabis use and develop intellectual property DRI researchers can leverage in future projects.
The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.
Advancing our understanding of dust emission risks to improve air quality Jack Gillies, Eden Furtak-Cole
Dust emissions, particularly from arid regions, directly impact air quality, human health, agricultural production, and the planet’s climate. Windy conditions drive the formation of dust through erosion, and while vegetation and structures like fencing are known to mitigate wind erosion and dust emissions, researchers have been unable to quantify their actual impact in large scale models. Dr. Jack Gillies and his team are working to incorporate the erosion mitigation impact of vegetation and engineered control structures into wind erosion models. These models will provide a cost-effective, efficient way to develop dust control strategies and improve air quality. This work will also position DRI as a leader in the ability to evaluate dust emissions and lay the foundation for future projects, particularly as problems like drought and desertification become more pronounced under a warming climate.
The family dinner table. The water cooler with coworkers. Your social media feed. Bedtime with your toddler.
What do all these places have in common? They’re full of stories.
Look closely atyour day and, chances are, you’ll notice that stories permeate just about every nook and cranny of your life, from the podcast you listen to as you’re getting ready for work to the Netflix show you binge in the evening to wind down.
It’s not just because stories entertain us. Science has shown that storytelling has an even more powerful function—stories help coordinate behavior in communities, teachshared values and norms, and even synchronize our brainwaves. They’re so important to successful group interactions, according to one study on hunter-gatherer societies, that the best storytellers turn out to be preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, suggesting that storytelling has evolved through individual-level selection.
The research makes it clear that stories ground us and guide us. That’s why social scientists have started listening for them as the world grapples with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
My COVID-19 Journey
Researchers at the Desert Research Institute, Spryng.io, and the Human Systems Dynamics Institute have launched a project called My COVID-19 Journey that aims to collect stories from people throughout the world over the comingyear. The team hopes that they’ll gather tens of thousands of unique entries to the project, enough to begin identifying patterns of behavior and decision-making in the face of uncertainty and chaos caused by the pandemic.
Map of My Covid-19 Stories: Blue dots represent locations where stories have been submitted from so far.
The goal isn’t to collect a library of individual stories—instead, it’s about finding patterns among them.
“While individual stories are important, the collective experience and the patterns that can be found in it are what we’re really looking for,” explained Tamara Wall, PhD, associate research professor at DRI and project lead. “This is a pattern seeking process.”
Historically, this kind of inquiry—one that invites stories and asks questions to facilitate pattern spotting—has only been possible at a very small scale over long periods of time, practiced by ethnographers and anthropologists whoexamine communities and groups to learn about their customs, relationships, and systems of power.
Now, with an easy-to-use online tool developed by Spryng.io, researchers can collect this kind of information rapidly and in real-time. More than just a survey, the tool is rooted in sense-making methodology, which aims to learn the participants’ opinions and the context that informs and shapes those opinions.
An example question that respondents answer after writing and titling their submission. These kinds of questions help provide the context that shapes the experiences participants share.
This datahelps researchers discern patterns that emerge out of what may feel like chaos—sparse grocery store shelves, overburdened hospitals, canceled plans—and get a better sense of what influences and shapes those patterns.
“To understand why some folks went for toilet paper while others began making protective masks,” explained Ajay Reddy, founder of Spryng.io.
Putting the data to work
With a deeper understanding of how we are collectively experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, and why we’re making the choices we are during the crisis, researchers are optimistic about what they can do to improve our collective response to this crisis.
In past research projects, for example, this methodology has helped fire captains adapt the training for wildland firefighters to account for rapidly shifting fire behavior and the changing risks on the front lines of wildfire.
For the COVID-19 project, the team plans to share data and findings with several levels of decision-makers, including the US Department of Health and Human Services, state and local governments, and non-profit organizations.
“We expect that county and state-level elected officials and decision–makers will probably find this work most useful,” said Wall. “For example, it could be really interesting to examine how people in different areas respond to public health messages, or to see the different concerns that motivate behavior change, whether that’s the health of the economy or their own personal health.”
Data collection began this month, and participants from around the world have submitted more than 200 stories. The research team’s goal is to have at least 5,000 before they can begin analysis.
“While each of us may be alone in our day-to-day experience, we are participating in an emerging global crisis,” reflected Glenda H. Eoyang, Ph.D., founding executive director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute. “Statistics about our behaviors and health status fill the public press and social media, but the patterns of our individual experiences are hidden from view. When we share our stories and make sense of them for ourselves and with others, we will begin to see how the future is unfolding around the world.”
In just 5-10 minutes, you can contribute to this project and help researchers understand how communities across the globe are being impacted by COVID-19—because your story is more important now than ever.https://crm.spryng.io/r/DRI
Portions of this blog are adapted with permission from Decision-making and COVID-19, published by Spryng.io’s CEO and Chief Product Officer Ajay Reddy.
Take a moment to picture a scientist who has made a groundbreaking discovery. What does that person look like?
Perhaps it’s a person in a white coat standing in a lab with microscopes and test tubes, or a distinguished professor accepting an award on stage.
What if we told you that you could have pictured yourself?
In citizen science projects, community members like you utilize their curiosity, enthusiasm, and talents alongside professional scientists in real-world research projects. They act as the eyes, ears, or an extra set of hands for scientists, helping to extend the spatial reach of a study or adding important perspectives that scientists cannot provide themselves.
DRI microplastics researchers sample water from the shore of Lake Tahoe in spring 2019.
Why citizen science? In fall of 2018, Desert Research Institute scientists Monica Arienzo, Zoe Harrold, and Meghan Collins were formulating a project to search for microplastic pollution in the surface waters of Lake Tahoe and in stormwater runoff into the lake. But the team was not satisfied in seeking to identify the presence of microplastic alone—they also wanted to make connections with community members in Tahoe.
“By involving citizen scientists in understanding the problem of microplastics,” explained Arienzo, “we can naturally connect the community to evidence-based solutions to reduce the microplastic problem.”
To recruit citizen scientists, DRI partnered with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, which runs the Pipe Keepers program. Pipe Keepers volunteers throughout the Tahoe Basin collect water samples from stormwater outfalls into Lake Tahoe and monitor for stormwater pollution.
These outfalls, which drain water from roadways, parking lots and neighborhoods into the lake, are a significant source of fine sediment pollution in Lake Tahoe, which threatens the clarity of Tahoe’s famous blue waters. They’re also a potential culprit of microplastic pollution since plastic litter, tires, and other sources can break down into smaller pieces and be swept away with the stormwater.
“Our citizen science programs are a great way to get locals and visitors directly engaged in protecting the Lake,” said Emily Frey, the League’s Citizen Science Program Coordinator. “We’re really excited to contribute to this groundbreaking research.”
Over the course of the 2019 field season, volunteer Pipe Keepers collected 24 liters of water from six sampling sites. Arienzo, Harrold, and Collins also pumped water samples from several places along the Lake’s shoreline surface waters for the study.
In both the stormwater samples and the surface water samples, a large portion of the microplastics found were small fibers, which can come from the breakdown of synthetic clothing. The stormwater represents a point-source of this microplastic pollution, which, in theory, could be mitigated in the future.
Meghan Collins in the Microplastics Lab at DRI’s Reno campus, holding a sample collected by a Pipe Keeper. Credit: Cat Allison/Nevada Momentum.
Broad benefits Beyond providing important data for research projects, citizen science also has the power to engage communities in scientific inquiry and inspire care for the places where we live and play.
Laura Schlim has been a volunteer with the Pipe Keepers program for three years, and she worked with the DRI team to collect samples for the microplastics project. The best thing about citizen science for her? It’s fun!
“I’m naturally interested in why things work a certain way,” explained Schlim, a certified California naturalist. “It’s fun to be part of something where I can contribute to the greater body of knowledge while also enjoying the natural world.”
Vesper Rodriguez, a Pipe Keeper since 2018, echoed this sentiment.
“I volunteer because I like to be outside and I have a lot of fun with the projects. Volunteering for the League’s Stewardship Days and their Pipe Keepers program in particular, which allows volunteers to monitor stormwater infrastructure, is really fulfilling,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a rewarding feeling to contribute to the community and the land that I live on.”
Since community members have been vested in the research from the start, the DRI team is optimistic that the findings of their work will be able to go far beyond the lab and begin to solve the microplastic pollution problem in Lake Tahoe.
“A core mission of the DRI team is to generate evidence-based solutions to microplastics in our water, by identifying sources that could be mitigated or finding techniques to better prevent microplastic generation in the first place,” said Collins. “Building a community of citizen scientists creates a strong network of engaged individuals who care and can implement these solutions as they are developed.”
DRI microplastics researchers (beginning top row, from center) Zoe Harrold, Meghan Collins, and Monica Arienzo pose with the Pipe Keeper volunteers on the project. Credit: League to Save Lake Tahoe.
The study on microplastics is one of many active citizen science projects led by DRI and the League to Save Lake Tahoe. DRI also leads Stories in the Snow and Tahoe: Rain or Snow?, projects related to weather and climate in the Sierra Nevada. In addition to the Pipe Keepers program, the League also runs Eyes on the Lake, which helps monitor and prevent the spread of aquatic invasive plants.
Interested in joining the team of citizen scientists in the Sierra Nevada and around Lake Tahoe? Download the Citizen Science Tahoe app to get started.
In addition to volunteering your time to this project, you can also financially support this research effort at the team’s crowdfunding page.
As populations in the southwestern United States continue to grow, the demand on water resources also increases. One region experiencing this stress on its groundwater resources is Pahrump Valley in southern Nye County, Nevada. Pahrump Valley is one of the fastest growing counties in Nevada, which has led to groundwater-related issues such as land subsidence. “Land subsidence has been reported in Pahrump Valley since the 1960s,” says Dr. Hai Pham the principal investigator (PI) of this project, which also includes co-PIs Karl Pohlmann, Susan Rybarski, and Kevin Heintz and research assistant Larry Piatt. “It has caused damage to building foundations and slabs, fissuring, shearing of well casings, and extensive damage to roadbeds.”
In their 2017 Water Resources Plan Update, the Nye County Water District determined that land subsidence is one of the key issues related to population growth in Nye County. However, the causes of land subsidence still haven’t been clearly identified. “Previous studies failed to precisely map spatiotemporal evolutions of subsidence, or adequately clarify the causes of subsidence,” Pham says. “These studies were limited by data quantity and quality. The goal of this project is to identify and prioritize predominant factors that cause subsidence and make predictions using machine learning algorithms and big data.”
A concrete well pad exposed by land subsidence around the well casing (right) observed during a field survey in May 2019 (photo by Karl Pohlmann).
Land subsidence is a complicated process that is driven by multivariate intercorrelated factors, such as groundwater decline, soil and sediment types, and tectonic and geologic settings. For example, excessive groundwater pumping results in soil compaction, which has been identified as a primary cause of land subsidence in Pahrump Valley. However, the magnitude of soil compaction depends on aquifer materials, and therefore understanding the geologic structure of Pahrump Valley is vital to evaluating future subsidence. The advantage of using machine learning to assess potential areas of land subsidence is that it can help illuminate complicated data relationships that may not be as obvious using traditional data analysis techniques.
In this project, the researchers will use machine learning algorithms and high-resolution data sets to identify the predominant factors causing land subsidence in Pahrump Valley. “In this study, we will derive spatiotemporal subsidence maps using recent high-quality satellite images and the Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar [InSAR] technique,” Pham says. “InSAR is a powerful technique that allows us to measure and map vertical changes on the earth’s surface as small as a few millimeters.”
The researchers will then build three-dimensional (3-D) computer models of the subsurface geological structures in Pahrump Valley at a very fine (one-foot) vertical resolution using data from 13,000 boreholes. “Compaction of aquifer materials can accompany excessive groundwater pumping and it is by far the single largest cause of subsidence, but the magnitude of soil compaction differs by soil type,” Pham explains. “Therefore, it is important that we account for these well log data to construct high resolution 3-D models of geologic structures.” The researchers will also develop groundwater drawdown maps by processing data from records of 130 groundwater observation wells that range from the 1940s to the present. “Incorporating these high-resolution datasets will help us identify and prioritize the causes of subsidence and make better predictions,” Pham adds.
The groundwater level has declined approximately 25 feet from December 1999 to December 2017 (photo taken in May 2019 by Karl Pohlmann).
Because of the limitations of existing field data, the researchers will generate high-resolution datasets to train and validate the machine learning algorithms. Advanced machine learning algorithms will then be run on supercomputers to analyze the data. By analyzing this data, the researchers hope to identify the factors that cause subsidence and ultimately predict possible subsidence in the future. “Once we have identified these factors, we can roughly predict areas that are prone to subsidence,” Pham explains. “This information can also be used to predict subsidence in other arid and semiarid regions.”
Three new research projects sponsored by the Desert Research Institute in 2020 will explore new methods in luminescence dating, groundwater contamination around fracking operations, and the movement of groundwater through rocks and soils.
DRI awards funding to several new faculty and staff projects each year through its Institute Project Assignment (IPA) competition. Winners of the IPA competition receive a research grant from DRI to pursue a topic that interests them and develop ideas that can ultimately be turned into externally funded research projects.
Winners of this year’s IPA competition are Christina Neudorf, Zhiqiang Fan, and Lazaro Perez. Their projects are as follows:
Christina Neudorf: A pilot project to explore the feasibility of dating rock surfaces and carbonate deposits using luminescence dating
Luminescence dating, which uses light emitted by minerals to date events in the past, is a technique most commonly applied to silt or sand samples. Christina Neudorf, manager of the DRI Luminescence Lab (DRILL), will explore new methods in luminescence dating that could be used to date rock surfaces and carbonate deposits such as travertine and tufa that are common in Nevada. Her research aims to diversify the luminescence dating approaches applied at DRILL, and to expand DRI’s capabilities in providing chronologies for past climate change, early human evolution and dispersal, and landscape evolution in response to climate change, tectonics and changing sea level.
Zhiqiang Fan: Hydraulic fracturing induced fault reactivation and groundwater contamination
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” injects fluid at high pressure into deep-rock formations, creating fractures in the rock through which natural gas can be extracted. Environmental impacts include risk of groundwater contamination. Zhiqiang Fan, a Postdoctoral Fellow in geomechanics with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, will investigate the potential for flow of fracking fluids from shale formations into groundwater aquifers, including the possibility for accidental reactivation of faults near injection wells. His work aims to improve fracking design and execution to produce gas in a more economically viable and environmentally sound manner.
Lazaro Perez: Reactive transport in porous media
Reactive transport modeling is an important tool for understanding the movement and mixing of fluids such as groundwater as it travels through various types of rocks and soils in an aquifer. Lazaro Perez, a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, will work with Rishi Parashar (DHS) to develop numerical models and conduct simulations of fluid-fluid reactions as they occur in porous media such as different types of rocks. Using the methodology that Perez developed during his Ph.D. work in Spain, they hope to learn about the fluid-fluid reactions that occur as water moves through heterogeneous porous media. An improved understanding of the underlying processes involved in fluid-fluid mixing can also be applied to other scientific disciplines, such as how fluids mix inside of the human body.
DRI is a non-profit, which means that we rely on financial support from donors to make our projects possible. Thanks to individual contributions from community members, seed grants were awarded to eight teams of DRI researchers last year through the Innovation Research Program (IRP), which provides the resources DRI scientists need to pursue groundbreaking new projects.
With those funds, DRI scientists have begun to explore big environmental questions. Has microplastic pollution made its way to the famous blue waters of Lake Tahoe? What can tools used to understand groundwater tell us about how chemo reaches tumors? How is declining snowpack changing mountain environments and economies?
Developing new tools to study and predict dust emissions Vic Etyemezian, George Nikolich, Markus Berli, Rose Shillito
With concerns about drought and desertification on the rise, it’s critically important to understand how and when dust forms, particularly in the Southwestern U.S. where dust emissions can directly impact water resources, human health, and public safety.
Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., and his team are developing new tools to help scientists better understand what causes small soil aggregates to break up into dust particles and be emitted into the atmosphere under windy conditions. With these insights, the research team hopes that scientists will be able to better predict dust emissions and their impact on our environment and communities.
Vic Etyemezian and George Nikolich work on an instrument at DRI’s Las Vegas Campus. 2018. Credit: David Becker/Nevada Momentum.
Developing techniques to analyze human health impacts of air pollutants Vera Samburova, Andrey Khlystov, Yeongkwon Son
Atmospheric scientists at DRI are world-leaders in analyzing air pollutants from sources like vehicle emissions and electronic cigarettes; however, they don’t yet have the tools to determine how exposure to those pollutants impacts human health.
DRI scientists led by Vera Samburova, Ph.D., are developing a technique for real-time analysis of human breath, which contains information that can shine a light on a person’s overall health and exposure to air pollutants. This breath analysis technique will allow for easy, noninvasive sampling from study participants and help DRI scientists determine a link between air pollutants and potential health impacts.
(From left) Andrey Khlystov, Yeongkwon Son, Chiranjivi Bhattarai, and Vera Samburova in the lab at DRI’s Reno Campus.
Tracking snow droughts in the Western US to improve water resource management Dan McEvoy, Ben Hatchett, Justin Chambers
With a warming climate and increasingly variable precipitation, mountain snowpack in the Western United States is declining, which dramatically impacts the water resources available to communities downstream. Understanding how changes in snowpack are happening in real-time is critical to management decisions about water use and to our understandings of natural ecosystems.
Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., and his team are developing tools to track and monitor snow droughts—periods when more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow and snowpack is below average. These new, snow-drought specific tools will help inform scientists, resource managers, and federal agencies as they assess drought conditions and distribute federal aid to farmers and others impacted by drought.
View of Washoe Lake from Mount Rose Ski Area, January 2018. Credit: Dan McEvoy
Examining connections between fire and groundwater to enhance wildfire prediction Hai Pham, Markus Berli
As wildfires across the Western U.S. become larger, longer, and more frequent, understanding the conditions that increase fire risk is essential to protect our communities. While there’s certainly a connection between moisture in a landscape and the likelihood of fire, little is known about the interplay between wildfire and groundwater resources.
Hai Pham, Ph.D., and Markus Berli, Ph.D., are using groundwater and fire data from across the United States to explore connections between the two, namely how groundwater levels may be affected by wildfire activity and how fire may impact the amount of water that infiltrates the soil and replenishes groundwater supplies. Identifying these relationships will play a critical role in enhancing both fire predictions and groundwater resource management.
Hai Pham during an open house at the Desert Research Institute on Friday, May 3, 2019, in Las Vegas. Photo by David Becker/Nevada Momentum
Investigating microplastic pollution in Nevada’s freshwater Monica Arienzo, Zoe Harrold, Meghan Collins, Xuelian Bai, Julia Davidson
Microplastics, pieces of plastic debris about the size of a pencil’s eraser or smaller, come from the breakdown of products like fishing lines, synthetic clothing, and single-use plastic goods. These tiny pollutants are durable, insoluble, and potentially toxic. More and more, though, they’re ending up in our waterways, which could threaten aquatic environments and the organisms that live there.
DRI researchers Monica Arienzo, Ph.D. Zoe Harrold, Ph.D., Meghan Collins, M.S., Xuelian Bai, Ph.D., and undergraduate researcher Julia Davidson are investigating the presence of microplastics in Lake Tahoe and the Las Vegas Wash to learn more about how much microplastic exists in these waterways. Developing baseline knowledge about the extent of microplastic pollution will allow scientists to ultimately identify the sources of such pollution, the potential accumulation and negative health effects of microplastics in freshwater organisms, and ways to reduce the amount of microplastic in freshwater ecosystems.
The microplastics research team samples water from the shore of Lake Tahoe. April 2019. Credit: DRI.
Advancing technologies to improve reliability of solar energy Eric Wilcox, Marco Giordano
Nevada enjoys many sunny days each year, but when the clouds do roll in, solar facilities experience dramatic fluctuations in power. If grid operators could anticipate when a cloud will come between the sun and solar panels, they could coordinate a smooth transition to alternative power sources and provide a steady, reliable supply of energy—but low-cost technology providing accurate, localized forecasts are not yet integrated into community solar power systems, such as residential rooftop solar.
Eric Wilcox, Ph.D., graduate student researcher Marco Giordano, and colleagues at UNR and UNLV are experimenting with sky-imaging cameras to track the movements of clouds and predict when they’ll shade solar panel arrays. With rigorous testing and refinement, Wilcox and Giordano hope that this portable tool will provide highly-localized, actionable forecasts of solar power fluctuation that will help make solar energy use more reliable and efficient.
The sky-imaging camera at work on the DRI rooftop in Reno. Credit: Eric Wilcox.
Applying hydrologic sciences to make advances in tumor treatment Rishi Parashar, Nicole Sund
To treat a tumor, doctors deliver chemotherapeutic agents and other drugs through the bloodstream to treat the cancerous cells. The tissue in solid tumors, however, is deformed, with twisted blood vessels and increased cell variability. This means that chemo traveling through the bloodstream may not be able to reach all the affected cells consistently, making the treatment ineffective.
DRI’s Rishi Parashar, Ph.D., and Nicole Sund, Ph.D., are using their expertise in hydrological modeling to better understand the movement of anti-cancer drugs through tumors. Collaborating with molecular cancer virologist, Subhash Verma, Ph.D., at University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine, Parashar and Sund hope that the mathematical models they create will allow them to determine the effective concentration of drugs for treatment of solid tumors.
(From left) Nicole Sund and Rishi Parashar look at images of cancerous tissue on a monitor.
Designing systems to test e-cigarettes for harmful chemical emissions Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khylstov
The popularity of e-cigarettes has increased exponentially over the last several years, especially among young people, but there’s growing evidence that e-cigarettes emit harmful chemicals like formaldehyde. Currently, there are no efficient and cost-effective e-cigarette testing systems available to manufacturers or regulators to ensure the safety of the devices and flavored e-liquids.
DRI’s Yeongkwon Son, Ph.D., and Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D., are developing a fully automated tool to collect and analyze e-cigarette emissions, lowering the costs, time, and labor currently required of e-cigarette testing. With this innovation, Son and Khylstov hope that e-cigarette testing will become more efficient and accurate, and that the devices themselves will become safer for the public.
Yeongkwon Son presents his research to the DRI Foundation.
Braimah Apambire, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS) at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), and an expert in international Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). He leads DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program, which is funded by humanitarian non-governmental organization World Vision and subsidized by the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and DRI. The program provides technical capacity training and action research to field staff across Africa and other developing countries. We recently sat down with Braimah to get an update on the WASH Capacity Building Program and to learn some of the history behind his and DRI’s involvement in the WASH sector in Ghana.
DRI: What is WASH, and what are some of the issues that experts in WASH work to address?
BA: “WASH” stands for water, sanitation, and hygiene. For people to obtain the maximum benefits of clean water, they also need access to improved sanitation facilities (toilets), and they need to be educated on how to best use the water and sanitation facilities in hygienic ways. In many parts of Africa, people – especially children – don’t understand the connection between unsafe water and disease, or poor sanitation and disease. So, people working in the sector of WASH work to improve health outcomes in children and adults by providing sources of clean drinking water, improved sanitation facilities, and education in basic hygienic practices like hand-washing.
Students from the second Cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program in a World Vision water quality lab in northern Ghana in 2017. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: CIWAS’s successful WASH Capacity Building Program launched in 2015, and now provides WASH training to field staff in Ghana and across Africa. How is the program going?
BA: We are working in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno, Drexel University, and World Vision to provide technical capacity training to field staff who work in the WASH sector in developing countries. Our biggest accomplishment so far is that as of December 2019, we will have graduated close to 100 students from 21 African countries.
The students earn a post-graduate certificate in International WASH from UNR. They complete 12 credits of coursework related to WASH and environmental issues, and also a lot of research on issues of importance to them in developing countries. We also teach what we call “cross-cutting” issues in WASH, which include climate change impact of water resources, environmental and health impacts assessments, and integrated water resources management. During the program, students take most of their classes online, but we meet twice for face-to-face coursework sessions — the first is held in Ghana, and the second is held at varying locations. We’ve done it in Rwanda, Uganda, Eswatini, and next year will probably be somewhere else.
The program has equipped these students with knowledge and working skills that allow them to go back and implement their programs in a better way to bring water and sanitation services to the poor in Africa. WASH is a combination of disciplines: It’s engineering, it’s science, it’s health, it’s social work, it’s advocacy. It deals with disease prevalence, sanitation systems, and how water can address that. And you also have to create awareness and advocacy to get money to solve the problem. It’s difficult to have one place that students can go to take these courses, but this program allows that. We bring all of these disciplines together in one place, which you can hardly get anywhere else in the world.
Students in Cohort 4 of the WASH Capacity Building Program in Ghana use a Tippy Tap, a hygienic and hands-free device to wash hands. January 2019. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: Many people don’t know that DRI scientists have worked in Ghana, West Africa for nearly 30 years. What is the history of our involvement in this region?
BA: DRI’s work in Ghana began back in the early 1990s, when we partnered with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and World Vision on a project to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease from the Afram Plains region of northern Ghana. Guinea Worm Disease is a terrible parasitic infection by the Guinea worm, which can grow up to three feet in length inside the body of an infected person. The eggs are spread to humans when they drink untreated water, so the Hilton Foundation and World Vision funded an effort to drill more than 500 boreholes (wells) and conduct community education in health, hygiene, sanitation, and the importance of clean water.
The Afram Plains is a very remote region with difficult geology. You can’t reach water easily. So, DRI scientists came to Ghana with GIS satellite imagery to see if they could improve on the success rate of drilling. We provided training to World Vision Ghana staff on the geophysical methods in locating favorable sites for well drilling, and helped them standardize how the data was reported internally and externally. We also helped to build a water quality laboratory in Ghana. As a result of this project, DRI helped to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease in the Afram Plains region. It is now gone completely in Ghana. It is also almost eradicated in the world.
DRI consultant Ron Petersen training World Vision Ghana staff in geophysics in the Afram Plains in 1996. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
From left to right, Braimah Apambire (DRI), Kumud Acharya (DRI), Kenan Okurut (Ugandan Christian University), Rosemary Carrol (DRI) and Susan Davis (DRI consultant) work with the first cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program to conduct a water quality field trip at the Ugandan Christian University in 2016. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: A photo from a recent WASH Capacity Building Program field trip in Ghana won DRI’s 2019 employee photo contest (shown below). What is the story behind the winning shot?
BA: This photo was taken at Bomso Primary School in Ghana, where students from our WASH Capacity Building Program were visiting to observe the school’s mechanized well and sanitation facilities. One of the problems in developing countries is that a lot of schools don’t have drinking water. So, children bring their own water in a bottle, but when they finish drinking it they have to drink contaminated water. They also don’t have toilets and hygienic places for girls who are menstruating to take care of themselves, so a lot of them drop out of school. So, here, WorldVision helped them get a mechanized water system powered by solar. The school has also created what we call a health club, which asks students to join, and tries to spread messages of good hygiene practices to students.
In the photo, you can see the joy in the children. When you go to a school in Africa like this as visitors, you will make their day. They will talk about this the whole month. It will be in their minds probably until they graduate college. Some of these visits change them.
Students Pawan Daniel and Cebolenkhosi Mavimbela from Cohort 4 of the WASH Capacity Building Program in Ghana alongside Dr. Opong (DRI instructor) visit Bomso Primary School to observe their mechanized well and sanitation facilities. January 2019. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: You are originally from Ghana. What brought you to DRI?
BA: I grew up in a village in Ghana where we didn’t have water during the dry season. When a borehole was drilled in front of our village home, I saw the relief it brought to my mother and aunts and sisters, it made me want to work in that field – designing and constructing water and sanitation systems. I studied geology and finished college there in Ghana, and then started to work with World Vision Ghana on the Guinea Worm Disease project.
When the DRI scientists came to Ghana to train World Vision staff, I was actually one of the recipients of that training. I have old photos with DRI crossing the river to the Afram Plains (shown below). There wasn’t any road, you could only access the place by boat or by foot. I later went to Canada to do my master’s degree, and then came to DRI as a Graduate Research Assistant and went to the University of Nevada, Reno for my Ph.D. After that, I worked at DRI briefly and went to work for World Vision and the Hilton Foundation, then came back to DRI with funding from the Hilton Foundation to start the Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS) in 2013.
From left to right: Steve Acheampong (DRI graduate student), Alan McKay (DRI) , Braimah Apambire (World Vision), Mat Chelsey (DRI), and other World Vision Ghana Rural Water Project staff cross a river to the Afram Plains of Ghana by boat in 1993. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Last May, DRI scientist Jack Gillies, Ph.D. spent three weeks at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), a 3,500-acre area of sandy beach and coastal dune habitat located within the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex on the central California coast. Unlike most visitors to this popular park, Gillies was not there to camp, or to ride OHVs over the miles and miles of beaches and dunes; he was there to measure the dust.
For more than 100 years, people have visited the Oceano Dunes region to drive on the beaches – beginning in the early 1900s with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles, then later with ATVs, dune buggies, dirt bikes, trucks, RVs, and other types of vehicles. All of this activity, however, has not been without impact: Dust emitted by the dunes routinely blows toward the nearby Nipomo Mesa area, violating air quality standards for particulate matter and posing a public health threat to residents.
Last year, the Oceano Dunes SVRA was issued an Order of Abatement, which requires the development and implementation of a management plan to bring the park’s dust emissions back into compliance with State and Federal air quality standards within four years. Now, with new funding from the California State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Division, Gillies and several other DRI researchers – Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., George Nikolich, and John Mejia, Ph.D.—are continuing a long-term effort to help park officials understand and manage dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes. But in order to stop the dust, it would help to know how it forms, and this is still a bit of a mystery.
The source of the problem
“Dunes are always sandy, but they aren’t normally dusty; at least not to this extent,” said Gillies, who has worked at the Oceano Dunes since 2010. “Part of our research is to actually come up with the scientific reasons why the dunes are so dusty.”
Neither the park nor the town has long-term air quality data to show what conditions were like prior to the presence of vehicles, says Gillies, but there is evidence that suggests that the presence of the vehicles exacerbates the problem. Gillies and Etyemezian hypothesize that the dust emitted under elevated wind speeds could be a result of the re-working of the dunes by the vehicles and re-shaping of the dunes by coastal winds.
Researchers do know that dust is released from the dunes through a natural process called saltation, in which wind-blown sand particles bounce along the surface of the dune, kicking up smaller particles of dust – and that holding the sand in place helps to prevent that dust from being released.
“When the wind blows the sand across the dune surface, it’s like all these little missiles of sand coming in,” Gillies explained. “That’s what kicks out the dust, and then the dust is dispersed by the wind.”
Tools of the trade
To help park officials identify major sources of dust, Gillies and his DRI colleagues are engaged in an effort to map out specific areas of the park where dust originates. This spring, they collected more than 500 dust emissions measurements in a grid pattern through the OHV recreation area using a tool called the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab).
“The last time we did such an extensive measurement of dust emissions at the Oceano Dunes was in 2013, so it was decided that we should go back this year to update the underlying emission grid and see if, or how much, it has changed,” Gillies said.
Pi-SWERL at the Oceano Dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.
The PI-SWERL at Oceano Dunes. A flat blade several cm above the surface in PI-SWERL rotates creating a shear stress like the wind created when it blows across a surface, causes the sand to saltate and the dust is emitted. The inset shows the sand surface after a test. PI-SWERL sits on the metal frame to provide a stable surface for testing. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.
The PI-SWERL, which was developed at DRI by Etyemezian and Nikolich, measures the potential for dust emissions from real-world surfaces. It acts as a miniature wind tunnel to simulate the high winds that produce dust storms. The dust emissions measurements are fed into a computer model, developed in part by DRI’s John Mejia, which simulates the action of coastal winds and the subsequent dispersal of dust. Using this model, the team can help park officials identify “hot-spot” areas where dust originates, and target those areas for remediation.
The team has also installed a network of air quality monitors throughout the park, which monitor wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, and particulate matter. These data are adding to their overall understanding of the spatial variability and strength of the dust emissions at the dunes.
“These data will help us answer questions like whether dust emissions levels are different on weekdays versus weekends, when human activity in the park is higher,” Gillies explained. “It will also allow us to see how things are changing over time.”
Researchers gather dust emissions data at the Oceano Dunes SVRA using the PI-SWERL. May 2019. Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.
Seeking new solutions
As the DRI team works to answer underlying scientific questions about the Park’s dust problem, they are also engaged in efforts to help develop and monitor solutions. They are working with Park officials on various dust control strategies, such as the use of temporary sand fencing, and revegetation with native plants to help hold sand in place and trap moving sand.
“Our aim is to stop the sand from moving, because when you stop the sand moving, you essentially stop the dust from being emitted,” Gillies said.
They are guiding the creation of “vegetation islands” of native plants, similar to that which are found in undisturbed dune areas to the north and south of the SVRA. OHVs are excluded from these areas, as well as from large sections of the park where endangered California least terns and threatened Western snowy plovers breed and nest during spring and summer.
As new dust control measures are added, the team monitors the remediation sites to see if dust emissions levels are reduced. The goal, Gillies says, is to help the park develop a management plan that will bring them into attainment with the Federal air quality standard for particulate matter within four years.
“The park has been ordered to find a solution to this problem, and it’s a problem that has raised a lot of contention among people of the region,” Gillies said. ”There are a lot of people who enjoy OHV recreation at the dunes and their visits contribute to the local economy, and another contingent of people who live downwind of the park and really want to breathe clean air. So, it is an interesting project to work on, both from a scientific perspective and as a project that deals with real-world problems.”
At the Oceano Dunes SVRA, native “vegetation islands” are being restored to help reduce dust emissions from the dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.
About Jack Gillies: Jack Gillies, Ph.D. is a Research Professor of Geography with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences. Jack specializes in the physics of sediment transport by wind, and applies this knowledge to solve problems related to air quality. He grew up in Ontario, Canada, and holds bachelors, master’s and doctoral degrees in physical geography from the University of Guelph, Ontario. Jack began his career at DRI as a post-doctoral researcher in 1994, and has been a member of the DRI community for 25 years. To learn more about Gillies and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/5427-jack-gillies
Climate change, in the abstract, can be a difficult phenomenon to comprehend – but on the ground, youth from Native American reservations in Arizona are already experiencing everyday impacts in the form of droughts and warming temperatures.
“Place-based education utilizes elements of the familiar, such as local landscapes, resources, and experiences, as a foundation for the study of more complex topics,” explained Meghan Collins, M.S., Assistant Research Scientist at DRI and NWAL’s Education Lead. “In this case, we worked with teachers to draw meaningful connections to some of our main project themes of water for agriculture and people, drought and climate connections, and solar energy.”
Workshop participants engage in a hands-on demonstration related to solar power at NWAL’s teacher workshop in Arizona. September 14, 2019.
Fourteen teachers attended the September workshop, including K-12 and GED adult educators from the Hopi, Navajo, and Tohono O’odham communities of Arizona. The workshop began with a day of seminars, discussions, and hands-on demonstrations led by researchers from DRI and the University of Arizona (UA). Activities were aimed at helping teachers gain a thorough understanding of the subject matter, and incorporated data and information relevant to reservations of Arizona.
Ed Franklin, Ph.D., (UA) led a professional development seminar on solar energy, using locally-appropriate methods and hands-on examples to demonstrate how solar panels can be used to generate energy and pump water. NWAL team member Alex Lutz, Ph.D., (DRI) led the group through a lesson in water quality, with a focus on salinity and total dissolved solids, using maps of water contamination from the Hopi and Navajo reservations and a hands-on exercise with salinity-meters. NWAL team member Kyle Bocinsky, Ph.D., (DRI/Crow Canyon Archaeological Center) led a seminar on climate and weather patterns, comparing modern-day climate conditions with paleo data from the last 1000 years, through an examination of the local tree ring record.
Workshop facilitators and participants counted tree rings as part of Kyle Bocinsky’s dendrochronology demonstration at NWAL’s teacher workshop. Sept 14, 2019.
On the second day of the workshop, NWAL team member Meghan Collins facilitated the group to use a template for developing place-based lesson plans. Teachers and scientists then worked together to create place-based lesson plans that incorporated the requirements of Arizona State Science Standards.
The lesson plans connected elements of each school’s local landscapes and resources with the science lessons from the NWAL/UA researchers. One teacher, who came from a community that will soon be constructing a new school, developed a lesson plan that asked students to calculate whether their new school’s energy needs could be met by solar energy. Another teacher developed a lesson plan for students to collect water quality samples from around their community and have them tested for arsenic, which is present in certain areas of the Hopi Reservation.
“One of the most important parts of this workshop was that the teachers had face-to-face contact with the researchers, so they could develop an understanding of the science that was presented and turn that into something they could teach,” said NWAL Program Director Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., (DRI/University of Nevada, Reno). “This workshop was a clear demonstration of our team being able to translate research into tangible outcomes that our tribal partners can use.”
Workshop participants gather outside of the STAR school for a demonstration on solar power by Ed Franklin of University of Arizona. Sept. 14, 2019.
The idea for the teacher training was sparked during a climate-agriculture resiliency workshop that NWAL held for members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes during March 2019, which centered around the idea of making climate data useful for farmers and ranchers in native communities. Several teachers were in attendance, and wanted to know how to bring local climate science data into their classrooms for the benefit of young and future generations.
The NWAL team planned the September teacher’s workshop and recruited participants, with help from Trent Teegerstrom (UA Tribal Extension Program), Ed Franklin (UA), and Susan Sekaquaptewa (University of Arizona Hopi FRTEP Agent). The STAR school provided a venue, and the director and teachers from the school participated in the workshop and provided a tour of their impressive facility.
“This workshop was an experiment, but it worked extremely well, so we’re going to build on this to do additional workshops this year or next,” McCarthy said.
Facilitators and participants from NWAL’s teacher workshop on place-based education. STAR School, September 14-15, 2019.
The Native Waters on Arid Lands project partners researchers and extension experts with tribal communities in the Great Basin and American Southwest to collaboratively understand the impacts of climate change, and to evaluate adaptation options for sustaining water resources and agriculture. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute; the University of Nevada, Reno; the University of Arizona; First Americans Land-Grant Consortium; Utah State University; Ohio University; United States Geological Survey; and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. To learn more, please visit: http://nativewaters-aridlands.com.
Photo: Duane Moser (left) and Xuelian Bai (right) collect filters from the sampling pump to take back to the lab for analysis.
Research on antibiotic resistance genes at DRI
Antibiotic resistance—the ability of bacteria to survive in the presence of antibiotics—is an increasing environmental and public health concern as more antibiotics enter urban waterways and treated wastewater is increasingly used to supplement limited water resources. Current wastewater treatment processes have difficulty removing antibiotics, which also encourages the growth of antibiotic resistance in urban watersheds, such as the Las Vegas Wash.
“Contaminants that are persistent in treated wastewaters that are discarded or reused may lead to health risks for humans,” explains Dr. Xuelian Bai, the principal investigator (PI) of this project that also includes co-PI Dr. Duane Moser and student researcher Rania Eddik-Zein. “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and numerous other global and national agencies recognize antibiotic resistance as a critical challenge.”
The Las Vegas Wash is a unique watershed that is highly affected by anthropogenic activities and flooding during wet seasons.
“A lot of research has been done to monitor chemical contaminants such as nutrients, heavy metals, and organic contaminants, as well as antibiotics in the Las Vegas Wash and Lake Mead,” Bai says. “However, there is still a lack of information on the presence of microbial contaminants and antibiotic resistance genes [ARGs] in the watershed.”
Understanding the presence and abundance of ARGs in this watershed will provide insight into possible antibiotic resistance developing in the wash.
For this project, the researchers will evaluate the occurrence and prevalence of ARGs in the Las Vegas Wash.
“Resistance to antibiotics is encoded in ARGs, which are segments of DNA that enable bacteria to fight antibiotics,” Bai explains. “The major concerns about antibiotic resistance are the tendency of bacteria to share ARGs through horizontal gene transfer and that efforts to kill resistant bacteria, such as UV or chlorine disinfection in wastewater treatment and drinking water facilities, may not remove ARGs.”
The researchers anticipate that the data from this study will provide insight into the prevalence of ARGs in the wash and provide valuable information that can be used to determine water quality and potential human health concerns in southern Nevada.
First, the researchers will take field samples of water and sediment from the Las Vegas Wash to assess the presence of ARGs in an urban wetland ecosystem.
“Municipal wastewater appears to be a significant reservoir of ARGs,” Bai says. “Many studies have detected ARGs at all stages of the municipal wastewater treatment processes.”
Urban water supplies are particularly susceptible to developing antibiotic resistance because of the concentrated quantities of antibiotics that are released when treated municipal wastewater is discharged into the environment.
“Microorganisms in wastewater discharge can transport ARGs to downstream surface waters used for recreation or sources of drinking water, which can lead to human exposure over local, or even global, scales,” Bai explains. “This is a concern in southern Nevada because five major wastewater treatment plants discharge into the Las Vegas Wash. The Las Vegas Wash then discharges into Lake Mead, which is the primary drinking water supply for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area.”
The DRI research team including (from left) Duane Moser, David Basulto, Hai Pham, and Xuelian Bai carry equipment down to the bank of the Lake Mead, one of several sampling sites along the Las Vegas Wash.
Lake Mead supplies water to millions of residents in the southwestern United States, so identifying potential antibiotic resistance is increasingly important, especially with the drastic population growth in the region. Effluent discharged from wastewater treatment plants, urban runoff, and floodwaters during wet seasons carry sediment, nutrients, and other contaminants to Lake Mead. This generates several water-quality concerns, particularly about the effects of contaminants on aquatic habitats.
“The Las Vegas Wash provides the full continuum of major freshwater aquatic habitats, includingwetlands, flowing water, lake water, and sediment,” Bai explains. “Wetlands, flowing water, and lake water are defined by aerobic conditions and exposure to photosphere influence. However, sediments almost always go anoxic very quickly below the surface, usually within millimeters in eutrophic systems. The fate of antibiotics and the microbial genes that mediate changes in anaerobes have been relatively understudied.”
The researchers anticipate that the field sampling and the lab studies conducted for this project—which include microcosm and microbial community experiments, and DNA analysis—will allow them to specifically identify southern Nevada water issues.
“We will detect and quantify target ARGs in water samples collected upstream and downstream along the Las Vegas Wash, as well as target ARGs in sediment samples collected from the Las Vegas Wash wetlands,” Bai says. “We will also determine the fate and spread of ARGs in the aquatic ecosystems, and assess the effects of elevated antibiotic concentrations on the ecosystem.”
Because evaluating ARGs in surface water and sediment has not been fully studied locally or globally, this project will address local water issues in Nevada and provide useful antibiotic resistance data about urban watersheds that can be used worldwide.
Photo: Drone pilots look toward their aircraft flying through the smoke. Credit: DRI’s Dave Vuono.
Fire science research using drone technology at DRI
“It was sort of like a deep-sea exploration, with a submarine scanning the ocean floor,” said DRI research technician Jesse Juchtzer. “We’d never flown into a smoke plume above a fire like this, no one has. We really didn’t know what we’d find.”
Juchtzer and a team of DRI researchers, along with nearly 35 other scientists, embarked on a unique kind of camping trip this June. The group spent several days and nights in a remote area of central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest to do something that’s never been done before: to light 2000 acres of forest on fire and conduct the biggest prescribed fire experiment yet attempted.
Led by the U.S. Forest Service, the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE) has been years in the making. Tim Brown, Ph.D., Research Professor of Climatology at DRI and Director of the Western Region Climate Center, began collaborating on the project with colleagues at the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station in 2013, with the idea of giving scientists the unprecedented opportunity to collect a range of data before, during, and after a large wildland fire.
Today, the project has evolved to bring together researchers from several universities and government agencies, including NASA and the EPA, in order to study fire from as many angles as possible, like the characteristics of the burning fuels, the chemistry of the smoke plume, fire behavior, and more. Roger Ottmar, Ph.D., Research Forester with the U.S. Forest Service and FASMEE lead, says the diversity of expertise is essential to the project’s goals.
“This is multi-agency and multi-organizational because we’re trying to collect not just smoke or soil but an entire suite of data that can be used to both evaluate and advance the fire and smoke models we use now,” Ottmar explained.
Fire managers rely on models to make critical on-the-ground decisions, like who to evacuate and when, where to allocate resources on the fire line, and when to issue air quality warnings, to name just a few. However, fires are changing, and the tools designed understand them aren’t keeping up.
“As fires get bigger and more destructive, we’re finding that the tools scientists and resource managers use to understand fires and predict their behavior are becoming inadequate,” explained Adam Watts, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor and director of DRI’s Airborne Systems Testing and Environmental Research (ASTER) Lab. “We need to develop the next generation of tools to help us understand modern wildfires, and that’s what this project aims to achieve.”
Adam Watts, PhD, outfits a drone in the ASTER laboratory with a custom air sampling canister. Credit Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum.
The DRI team, which included Watts and Juchtzer along with Dave Vuono, Patrick Melarkey, and David Page, deployed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) outfitted with scientific instruments over the fire as it burned. This is precisely the specialty of the ASTER lab: developing and refining scientific equipment, installing it on DRI’s UAS fleet, and deploying them in challenging environments like wildland fires.
For this FASMEE burn, the DRI team’s particular focus, among the many research areas explored in the project, was to better understand the chemical and biological components of smoke. To study these elements, DRI collaborated with the EPA and the University of Idaho to fly custom air quality sensors and samplers above and inside the smoke plume.
This research burn allowed the team to not only collect valuable data but also run critical tests of their equipment. The task of getting the UAS loaded with scientific instruments off the ground and into the hot column of smoke was a daunting technical challenge. When asked how this UAS flight compared to others he’s piloted in the past, DRI field technician Patrick Melarkey just laughed.
“It was like night and day,” he said. “During the flight, they’d say, okay, see that dark, black part [of the smoke plume]? Fly into that.”
Now that the burn is over, researchers have returned to the lab to analyze samples and make the necessary updates to their equipment. Though this project was the first of its kind, Watts says it’s definitely not the last.
“In the future, I expect that we’ll incorporate even more sophisticated science teams and work to develop more innovative equipment to collect data,” he explained. “This work is essential if we’re going to create the next generation of tools to help us cope with modern, extreme fires.”
The team will be heading back to central Utah later this year for the next FASMEE research burn. Stay tuned for updates about the project this fall!
The DRI-led team at the June burn included (from left) Dave Vuono, Johanna Aurell of the UNiversity of Dayton Research Institute, Adam Watts, Dave Page, Brian Gullet of the Environmental Protection Agency, Leda Kobziar of the University of Idaho, Patrick Melarkey, and Jesse Juchtzer. Credit: Dave Vuono/DRI.
Photo: A collection of marine debris including microplastics. Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program/Flickr.
Microplastics research at DRI
Even the tiniest pieces of plastic are a big pollution problem.
Microplastics are plastic pieces ranging in size from 5mm to microscopic particles, in other words, the size of a pencil’s eraser or smaller. They come from a variety of sources, including the breakdown of larger products like single-use plastic bottles and from the microbeads in products like facewash and toothpaste.
The extent of microplastic pollution is only just beginning to be understood, with researchers discovering the tiny plastic pieces everywhere from the air we breathe to the deep ocean. Because microplastics are durable, insoluble, and potentially toxic, they could pose threat to natural ecosystems and human health. But to determine the impact of microplastic pollution, researchers must first understand just how much tiny plastic is out there and where it’s coming from.
DRI’s Monica Arienzo, Zoe Harrold, Meghan Collins, Xuelian Bai, and University of Nevada, Reno undergraduate Julia Davidson are exploring these questions in two bodies of freshwater in Nevada: Lake Tahoe and the Las Vegas Wash.
“There has been a lot of work done to understand how much microplastic is in marine environments, but there have been far fewer studies in freshwater, and far fewer even in alpine lakes,” explained Collins, Education Program Manager at DRI. “This study is really well placed to identify what microplastics may be in the water, their sources, and their characteristics.”
The research team is collecting samples from four different sites in Las Vegas—one in Lake Mead and three in the Las Vegas Wash—and six sites in Lake Tahoe. Sites were selected to include areas both high and low human activity, like the Tahoe Keys with significant boat traffic and Emerald Bay State Park where human impact is low. Additional sampling was also conducted at three stormwater outfalls into Lake Tahoe in collaboration with the League to Save Lake Tahoe’s Pipe Keepers citizen science program.
The research team sets up the pump and filter system at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay State Park in May 2019.
“The sampling methods we’re using are unique,” said Arienzo, assistant research professor and project lead. “Past studies collected samples by trailing a large net from a boat or standing with it in a moving stream. Our approach is to sample and filter water in the field for microplastics using a pump, which allows us to filter upwards of 15 gallons of water in locations with still water and in places where boat access is limited.”
“Plus, we don’t have to haul netting around or carry the samples back to the lab—everything we need fits into a backpack, which makes sampling in remote and hard to access locations more feasible,” Arienzo added.
To make this novel method work, researchers place a stake with a funnel clipped to it about 20 feet from the water’s edge. The funnel, positioned on the surface of the water, is connected to tubing that runs back to the pump on shore, which draws water through the tubing and over a series of filters which can capture particles of different sizes.
Tubing runs into the column of filters, which capture particles at three different sizes as water flows through.
Tubing runs into the column of filters, which capture particles at three different sizes as water flows through.
Sampling in all locations took place throughout the spring, and now the team is set to process and analyze the samples over the summer.
“To isolate the plastic pieces, we first have to get rid of all the organics, and we’re going to do that by oxidizing them,” explained Harrold, assistant research scientist in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. “It’s a delicate balance between getting rid of the bugs and twigs and whatever else has ended up in there and not dissolving your plastics.”
Once the team oxidizes the organic particles left behind on the filters, they’ll separate the plastics from any remaining sediment using a high-density liquid separation method which will cause the sediments will settle to the bottom while plastics will float to the top.
From there, the team will begin identifying the different kinds of plastic pieces they find. The type of plastic, its size and shape, and the location where it was collected all provide clues about where it may have come from—for example, a nylon fiber may have come from the breakdown of synthetic clothing, and a piece of Styrofoam could have come from a single-use cup.
Harrold removes a filter from the sampling instrument to bring it back to the lab for analysis.
However, making determinations about where individual pieces of microplastic originate is far from straightforward.
“We’re only discovering more sources of microplastics,” explained Harrold. “Recent studies have shown that microplastics can be transported through the atmosphere, so though some of what we find might be coming from local sources, the pollution could also be coming from a factory manufacturing plastic on the other side of the world. We just don’t know.”
While it’s daunting that there’s so much still unknown about this increasingly problematic pollutant, the research team also finds it exciting.
“This is the second study ever to be done on microplastics in Lake Tahoe,” said Arienzo. “It’s amazing to be a part of advancing the science in this new area of study.”
The team hopes that this work will contribute to a foundation of scientific information about the extent of microplastics pollution in Nevada freshwater so that scientists will be able to better identify the sources of microplastic, potential harmful effects to plant and animal life, and ways to remove it from the environment.
From left: Harrold, Arienzo, Collins, Davidson, and Bai after sampling at Emerald Bay in May 2019.
Funding for this project came from the DRI Foundation’s Innovation Research Program (IRP), which is designed to support DRI faculty and staff as they pursue their very best ideas. The IRP is funded by individual contributions from science enthusiasts like you—if you’d like to donate to the IRP and help make projects like this one possible, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/foundation/innovation-research-program.
Photo: Ruins of adobe houses, Lost City of Nevada. Credit: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.
Nevada’s “Lost City,” located northeast of Las Vegas on a terrace above the Muddy River, has been lost twice before – first abandoned by the native people who built it, then later flooded beneath the waters of Lake Mead – but a team of archaeologists from the Desert Research Institute’s Las Vegas campus hopes to ensure that it isn’t lost a third time.
This summer, DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Tatianna Menocal, and Megan Stueve plan to use unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone technology to create high-resolution 3-D maps of the Lost City archaeological site, which consists of about 46 adobe structures that date back more than 1,000 years. Working with representatives from the National Park Service, the team will then use these detailed maps of the structures and topography to devise best management practices for the continued preservation of the site.
“The structures are set on old river terraces and lake deposits that are really susceptible to erosion, and as the level of Lake Mead has dropped, the erosion seems to have accelerated quite a bit,” said Lancaster, Assistant Research Scientist of Archaeology at DRI. “Our goal with this project is to try to figure out where erosion is particularly bad and to try some different techniques to help control that erosion.”
During summer 2019, DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Megan Stueve and Tatianna Menocal plan to use unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone technology to create high-resolution 3-D maps of the Lost City archaeological site.
Lost in time
Lost City, also known as the Pueblo Grande de Nevada, was home to a small community of people of the Puebloan culture from about 800 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Here, they lived along the banks of the Muddy River, farming crops such as corn, squash, cotton and beans, and supplementing agriculture with wild and hunted foods.
No one knows exactly why Lost City was abandoned by its original inhabitants, but once the remains were discovered in the 1920s, they were mapped by archaeologists. After the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1935, the rising shoreline of Lake Mead became a threat the site.
“The area was inundated by the rising waters of Lake Mead after the construction of the Hoover Dam. Original researchers and the Civilian Conservation Corps were under a time crunch to get all the data they could while the Dam was being constructed, all the while knowing it would be lost after inundation,” said Stueve, Staff Research Scientist of Archaeology. “Fortunately, only half the site was inundated by high water levels and as the water receded from years of drought, the site was fully exposed once again and available to study.”
The ruins were studied again in more detail in 1979 through the 1990s, by which time extensive erosion had already damaged a number of the structures.
“One thing that has always been noted in the archaeological studies is the level of erosion in this area,” said Menocal, Assistant Research Scientist of Archaeology. “Entire landforms or portions of the landforms have been eroded away, so portions of the site are no longer there. In some places, entire houses are gone.”
Today, Lost City is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and managed by the National Park Service as part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Lancaster, Menocal, and Stueve approached NPS with an idea for a partnership to aid in preservation of the site. When an opportunity to fund the project through DRI’s Lander Endowment became available they realized the partnership was a possibility.
“We were looking for ways that we could branch out and impact the local community and the local resources around us a bit more,” Lancaster said. “We have a lot of capabilities at DRI; it’s the type of place that has the infrastructure for us to do high quality and meaningful environmental science.”
A photograph of an unidentified person sitting in a group of restored pueblo homes at Lost City located near Overton, Nevada, circa 1930s-40s. Photo from University of Nevada, Las Vegas Special Collections.
A plan for preservation
To help protect Lost City from further damage, the DRI team plans to use UAS technology to create high-resolution maps of the area, through a process called photogrammetry.
“The UAS will fly around and take a series of several hundred photos of the area of interest, and we’ll use that to essentially build a 3-D model of the surface,” Lancaster explained.
They will use the maps to identify areas where erosion has occurred in the past and present, as well as areas where they expect erosion to occur in the future. During the summer of 2020, before the monsoon season hits, the DRI team will work with representatives from NPS to design effective treatments for the erosion problem. They plan to monitor the results of their efforts using UAS photogrammetry as the monsoon season progresses.
“The erosion is focused in these deep gullies that have formed in soft sediments, and these gullies are causing damage to the site as they expand and run into each other,” Lancaster said. “So, we’re planning a paired study. We’ll install an erosion treatment in one gully, and the other gully in that pair will not get a treatment. We’re essentially testing the effectiveness of erosion treatments approved by NPS management.”
The team is still looking for funding for another component of the project, which would utilize a thermal sensor on the UAS to detect structures or stone objects that are buried beneath the land surface.
“Out at Lost City, there are probably still structures that are buried beneath sediments, that you can’t actually see,” Lancaster said. “If we could discover where they were, and discover where gullies or erosion might expose them and start to damage them in the future, we could actually prevent them from being damaged or exposed in the first place. That’s one really exciting aspect of the project that we’d love to have the opportunity to test.”
DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Tatianna Menocal and Megan Stueve work with drones at DRI’s Las Vegas Campus.
Thanks to support from the Knowledge Fund, researchers across the Silver State have been busy cultivating the intellectual property that will continue the diversification of our economy for years to come. DRI researchers have leveraged over $11 million in state support over the last five years for projects focusing on public health, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) development, and commercialization of new technologies.
Applied Innovation Center (AIC)
Inception: March 2014 Total funds awarded (all years): $6M Status: Current project End Date: June 30, 2019
The AIC leverages the intellectual capital of DRI faculty and 60 years of environmental science research in four main areas of applied research: climate, weather, and energy nexus; Internet of Things (IoT) and remote sensing; engineering and design; and life sciences and informatics. From these four core areas, the AIC builds hardware and software for industry, leverages these platforms for sponsored projects, creates jobs, and helps build innovative companies in Nevada.
The Healthy Nevada Project: Developed by the Renown Institute for Health Innovation (Renown IHI), this is one of the first community-based population health studies in the nation. A world-class team of researchers and physicians from DRI and the Renown Health healthcare network are working together to use genetics, environmental data, and individual health information to create a healthier Nevada.
PHASE ONE: Open to northern Nevada residents, the comprehensive pilot phase of the study offered community members the opportunity to volunteer for research and gain access to their individual genetic information free of charge on September 15, 2016.
The pilot phase of the study enrolled 10,000 participants in less than 48 hours.
Subsequent DNA sample collection from each participant was completed in just 60 working days.
DNA genotyping was done with personal genetics company 23andMe.
Participants in the pilot phase of the study range from ages 18 to 90 years old and come from 135 zip codes in northern Nevada.
PHASE TWO: For the second phase of this project, research teams will have greater depth and quality of DNA data thanks to a public-private partnership with Helix, a personal genomics company that uses Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology and operates one of the world’s largest, most highly accredited exome sequencing labs.
Utilizing Helix’s proprietary NGS technology and uniquely personalized suite of DNA-powered products, research teams are offering an additional 40,000 Nevadans the opportunity to have their DNA sequenced and participate in the next phase of the study which opened for enrollment on March 15th, 2018.
In Phase Two, Renown IHI will begin providing advanced calcium score screenings to pilot phase participants at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. This will allow researchers to examine the link between genetics and calcium buildup in the heart. Additionally, based on pilot phase data, researchers have seen increased use of regional healthcare correlated with fluctuations in air quality and so-called “bad air events” such as wildfires and atmospheric inversions. Renown IHI will also evaluate possible links between genetics and increased susceptibility to respiratory ailments.
In the years ahead, Renown IHI aspires to offer genetic testing through the Healthy Nevada Project to every Nevadan interested in learning more about their health and genetic profile and drive positive health outcomes statewide. Simultaneously, the Healthy Nevada Project will expand the state’s access to cutting-edge clinical trials and foster new connections with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.
“Nevada is leading the country in growth and innovation. But sadly, we continue to rank among the worst regarding health at 47th in the nation. Through the Healthy Nevada Project, we now have the gift of insight to make needed changes not just for ourselves and our loved ones but for Nevada.” – Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, The Healthy Nevada Project’s first participant
Desert Research Corporation: Venture-Capital Funding Raised for Tu Biomics, AIC Tu Biomics Inc., born from DRI’s expertise in microbial ecology, is an agricultural pharmaceutical company that targets industrial scale farming and its significant soil health challenges. In conjunction with DRI’s soil and molecular biology scientists, Tu Biomics is driving the development of organic antifungal chemicals as a cost-effective alternative to currently available options. DRI scientists have demonstrated the ability of Biological Control Agents (BCAs) to eliminate white rot, a fungal pathogen impacting onion and garlic crops, under laboratory conditions.
First AIC, Desert Research Corporation Spin-Out Company Launches Predira Inc. leverages DRI’s weather intelligence platform to provide localized pest and disease forecasts for industrial scale farming through a web-based software product called ForecastView. With its companion smartphone app, FieldScout, users can input real-time data and get timely, detailed pest and disease forecasts as well as response options to mitigate significant crop loss. DRI scientists are completing software development and beta testing of ForecastView and FieldScout with some of California’s largest berry growers.
WaterStart (formerly the Nevada Center of Excellence in Water):
Inception: April 2014 Total Funds Awarded (all years): $3.7M Status: Current Project Project End Date: June 30, 2019
As fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, water resource management and sustainability will be vital to maintaining quality of life and economic development in communities around the world.
WaterStart is a cluster of global leaders in the implementation of water technology. Formed in 2013, WaterStart was established through a joint venture between academic, public, and private sectors to create a statewide network to deploy and test compelling, early-stage technologies that address Nevada’s greatest water management challenges. This network now includes, Nevada’s two largest drinking water utilities that serve approximately 80% of the state’s population, the largest agricultural producer, the largest employer and commercial space operator and has recently expanded to include out-of-state, as well as international drinking water utilities.
This group has collectively provided support through WaterStart’s membership program by contributing $400,000 to support technology recruitment and project development activities, opening up their facilities and infrastructure to host pilot projects, and providing more than $800,000 in additional funding to support these pilots.
Nevada and Queensland, Australia recently signed a sister state agreement, which includes $500,000 in funding for Queensland innovators to collaborate with WaterStart to improve local urban water supply systems and take their ideas to Nevada and the world. This agreement makes WaterStart truly international.
Its network of early adopters has effectively created a unique process for prioritizing, implementing, and evaluating new water technologies. This process, which is the foundation of WaterStart’s Commercialization Program, has rapidly accelerated the rate of technology deployment and provides a critical pathway for new technologies to successfully enter the U.S. water market. Waterstart and its members have:
Developed a list of more than 60 innovation priorities.
Assessed more than 300 technologies based on member needs.
Evaluated more than 220 proposals from companies seeking to participate in the Commercialization Program.
Implemented 17 projects.
Funded nearly $1.5M to deploy and test new water technologies.
Partnership for Research to Open Markets for an Emerging Technology: Helping to Expand Unmanned Systems (PROMETHEUS)
Total Funds Awarded (all years): $491K Status: Current Project Project End Date: June 30, 2019
NSHE-Industry Unmanned Autonomous Systems (UAS) Collaboration Program: This project’s purposes include developing new technologies and applications as they relate to fire science research and fire management; assessing the commercial potential of fire-UAS applications and assisting Nevada companies in targeting relevant markets; building capacity and conducting outreach to promote fire-related UAS business for our Nevada partners in the field of fire science and fire management; and seeking opportunities to conduct demonstrations, operations, and relevant supporting research.
Consulted with three Reno-based UAS startups on strategy and market.
Planning (Phase I) for the largest fire research project in history, Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE).
Supported or submitted external funding proposals for more than $25 million.
Development of specialized UAS payloads for air-quality monitoring and measurements for fire- smoke impacts ad public health applications.
Known returns to industry partners and Nevada represent more than $10 for each dollar invested in this project by GOED.
Inception: November 2015 Total Funds Awarded (all years): $750K Status: Past Project End Date: June 30, 2018
DRI, in partnership with AviSight and Drone America, developed and tested UAS technologies for cloud seeding operations. This includes creating forecasts and conducting flight planning for manned and unmanned aircraft, cloud seeding using manned and unmanned systems and ground generators as well as estimating effectiveness of UAS cloud seeding operations.
The goals of the project were four-fold:
Development of new UAS technologies for cloud seeding operations while demonstrating Nevada’s Public COA and commercial COA and 333 authority.
Operation of UAS for cloud-seeding operations, both alone and in conjunction with ground-based generators and manned aircraft.
Assessment of the effectiveness of unmanned cloud seeding platforms using newly-developed technology and tools.
Assessment of the broader market potential and development of a commercialization process for UAS cloud seeding in other areas.
Longest commercial UAS flight in US airspace, and DRI’s first beyond-line-of- sight (BLOS) flight.
More than two dozen print-media and web stories by local, state, national and international media, including a feature article in Popular Science.
Letter of collaboration to pursue cloud- seeding work in UAE with industry partners.
Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) for Agricultural Applications – Winnemucca Farms (AA/WF):
Inception: April 2016 Total Funds Awarded (all years): $152K Status: Past Project Project End Date: December 31, 2017
DRI, in collaboration with AboveNV, deployed AboveNV’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in support of agricultural and water management of critical crop fields owned and managed by Winnemucca Farms, Inc. The project tested the applicability of UAS data to address large-scale, multi-crop agricultural needs, particularly water- related crop stress and irrigation efficiencies.
Winnemucca Farms, Inc. is one of the largest in Nevada and expressed interest in assessing UAS data products to improve farm management. UAS activities were conducted using AboveNV’s Section 333 Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) and the team worked with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) to become a NIAS Node that allowed use of the NIAS blanket COA from the FAA.
DRI and AboveNV proposed a near-term and long- term approach to utilizing UAS collected imagery to monitor irrigation management and crop health. The project focused on UAS data acquisition to identify and map agricultural crop stress that will lead to improved water use while maintaining and/or improving crop yields (project location is a portion of Winnemucca Farms’ properties). Highlights included:
Image processing methods were further defined and UAS imagery of fields in bare soiled condition acquired. This enabled the assessment quality of elevation mapping from standard image processing techniques.
In response to the client’s needs, the original intent of developing a Geographic Information System (GIS) database was changed to pursue a secure web-based interface that the farm manager and his staff will be able to use from a computer or handheld devices such as notebook and smart phone assisting in his crop management decisions. This exemplifies customer driven applied R&D solutions.
Collaboration with a DRI faculty member, which resulted in the preparation of a secured website to display data acquired for Winnemucca Farms at multiple spatial scales. It includes both USGS digital elevation model data and a Landsat 8 satellite multispectral 13 image that encompasses the entire main farm fields and immediate adjacent areas with the UAS-acquired images being embedded.
DRI personal provided training to local start-up AboveGeo on the calibration and operation of FLIR thermal cameras and how to establish ground-based calibration targets for acquisition of thermal images using UAS. This is a good example of how an applied research institution can support a local early stage company by providing vital technology and equipment know-how.
It’s safe to say that 2018 has been a great year for DRI. From launching new programs to engage community members in science and technology to making new strides in our core research areas, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, and we’re looking forward to all that next year may hold. For our final blog post of the year, we review twelve (but by no means all) of our 2018 highlights, originally posted as a series on our Instagram, @DRIscience.
Day 1: In early 2018, DRI researchers Ben Hatchett, Ph.D., and Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., published research investigating snow droughts, which have become increasingly common in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains in recent years, as warming temperatures push snow lines higher up mountainsides and cause more precipitation to fall as rain. Their findings traced how snow droughts evolve over a winter season and impact local watersheds and economies.
Now, McEvoy, Hatchett, and collaborator Justin Chambers are working to develop this research further by creating tools that can help scientists track snow droughts and share that information with resource managers.
Day 2: In February, the DRI Science Alive Program, the PreK-12 education and outreach arm of DRI, collaborated with the Nevada Museum of Art to host the first annual Nevada Steam Conference, which brought together nearly 200 educators, administrators, and presenters from across the state to discuss best practices and new approaches to education in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math).
In 2019, the Nevada STEAM Conference will happen on Saturday, February 2nd.
Day 3: This spring, viewers around the world fell in love with the great horned owl family that nested on an office building at our Reno campus. Their nesting situation was unusual, never before recorded by scientists: a trio of owls, two female and one male, tending two nests side by side. In coordination with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, DRI installed a nest camera and live-streamed the video to YouTube so that anyone could observe this rare nesting situation. The feed quickly went viral and became a news sensation, attracting viewers from around the world and coverage by outlets such as National Geographic and the Audubon. By the time the two owlets successfully fledged in May and the live stream was turned off, the video logged over 20 million hours of viewing.
Day 4:This spring, the researchers in DRI’s ultra-trace ice core laboratory published remarkable new findings, tracing the rise and fall of the Roman economy through lead deposits in Greenland ice cores. The team of scientists, archaeologists, and economists from DRI, the University of Oxford, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and the University of Copenhagen used ice samples from the North Greenland Ice Core Project (NGRIP) to measure, date, and analyze European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800.
Their results provided new insight for historians about how European civilizations and their economies fared over time, and the research captured the attention of media outlets around the world, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist. Just this month, the team’s research was listed as one 2018’s top science stories in Discover Magazine.
Day 5:In May, DRI hosted the third annual May Science Be with You open house as part of the Las Vegas Science and Technology Festival. Nearly 3,000 community members visited DRI’s Las Vegas campus for lab tours, hands-on activities, special presentations, and Star Wars themed fun.
Stay tuned for more details on the 2019 May Science Be with You open house—rumor has it there may one more than one open house, and one in Reno, too!
Day 6: This June, DRI published its first ever Research Highlights magazine, a revisioning of our Annual Report to showcase engaging stories about research projects and programs at DRI. This fall, the magazine was recognized with awards by Public Relations Society of America chapters in Reno and Las Vegas!
Day 7: This summer, DRI researchers Markus Berli, PhD, and Rose Shillito published research with colleagues from UC Merced about how soils respond to low-severity fires like prescribed burns. Their findings indicate that prescribed burns may do more damage to soils than previously believed, sometimes resulting in long-term damage to soil structure and increasing its susceptibility to erosion. It’s not yet clear whether the negative impacts on soil associated with these low-severity fires outweigh the positives (like recycling nutrients back into the soil and getting rid of overgrown vegetation), but the research team hopes that their work will help inform land managers as they manage wildfires and plan prescribed burns.
Day 8: In August, DRI participated in the 22nd Annual Tahoe Summit, a yearly gathering of federal, state, and local leaders dedicated to the goal of restoring and sustaining Lake Tahoe as one of our most precious environmental treasures. DRI showcased a variety of research projects impacting the Lake Tahoe Basin, including research using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to monitor wildfires and stormwater management.
Day 9: This fall, sixteen interns began the first ever DRI Cybersecurity Internship Program, a semester-long program that provides training, certification, and hands-on experience for individuals interested in obtaining marketable job skills related to cybersecurity in collaboration with the SANS Institute, a world-renowned internet security research and education organization. All semester long, the interns have been working with DRI’s Chief Information Security Officer, Brandon Peterson, to gain hands-on experience building cyber-infrastructure using best practices from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Day 10: Fall of 2018 marked the close of the third season of Science Distilled, events presented by DRI and the Discovery Museum that make cutting-edge science approachable through presentations on current and curious topics held at hip locations in a social atmosphere. Topics this year ranged from genetics and heart health to cybersecurity and resilience, and each of the six talks attracted dozens of science enthusiasts around the Reno area.
Stay tuned for news on the 2019 season! There’ll be six fascinating talks, plus surprise science content coming soon.
Day 11: We at DRI are especially proud of how our researchers work to bring scientific knowledge to the forefront of society by engaging with reporters, policymakers, and community members. For example, Tim Brown, Ph.D., Director of the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI, recently worked with SciLine—a service that connects reporters to academic and industry experts—to produce an in-depth catalogue of information on wildfire science for journalists. Free and open to the public, this scientific information can help provide the expertise and context needed to make sense of scientific topics in the headlines.
Day 12: As we conclude our twelve days of reflection on the incredible year we’ve had, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge one of the key things that’s made it great: YOU! Whether through citizen science projects, community outreach events, collaborations on research projects, or just following along with us online and on social media, you are such an important part of the DRI team. Thank you for being here for science, today and every day.
“I knew our research institutions were doing solar energy research, but I didn’t realize how much they were doing,” said Nevada State Assemblyman Chris Brooks in welcoming attendees to the “Solar Nexus: Nevada’s Research Institutions Supporting our Community” panel event at the Springs Preserve on November 14th.
The Solar Nexus project (for short), which also includes researchers from University of Nevada, Reno, began in June 2013, its focus the nexus between solar energy generation, Nevada’s limited water resources, and the state’s fragile environment. Existing industrial solar panel models require water to keep them producing solar power at the rate at which they were intended and alter their surrounding environments, so research is needed to provide solutions to these potential barriers to widespread solar energy adoption in desert environments like Nevada.
Dr. Robert Boehm and Dr. Jacimaria Batista of UNLV describe the original idea for the Solar Nexus project.
All areas of study pursued by the project interweaved the goals of promoting economic diversification in Nevada, minimizing the negative environmental impacts of solar energy development while achieving maximum benefits, and developing the cyberinfrastructure and diverse, educated workforce needed to sustain the renewable energy industry in Nevada.
“The Solar Nexus project has put Nevada on the map with regard to the engineering and research related to solar energy,” said Dana, DRI project director and Nevada EPSCoR Director.
During the panel discussion, Dana and her fellow panelists were quick to point out, however, that research goals were not the only ones met by the project: the economic and workforce development outcomes of the project were also significant.
Brian Beffort, Director of the Sierra Club, Toiyabe Chapter (standing far left) moderated the discussion at the Solar Nexus panel event held at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas. Speakers, from left: Eric Wilcox, Dale Devitt, Bob Boehm, and Gayle Dana. November 14, 2018.
“Workforce development is a really big part of the Solar Nexus project, and we have a number of different mechanisms built in to develop this pipeline of educators and students,” said Dana. The project helped create new faculty and graduate student positions at each of the state’s research institutions, filling out each institution in terms of research area expertise related to solar energy that hadn’t been represented in the past. In all, nearly forty students graduated with advanced degrees related to renewable energy after working on the Solar Nexus project.
Beyond building capacity in the research expertise of Nevada’s research institutions, the project also helped expand the possibilities for commercialization of new technologies related to solar energy. This entrepreneurial activity has a ripple effect.
“Universities are an economic driver for the community,” explained Wilcox, associate research professor of climatology at DRI and solar forecasting researcher on the Solar Nexus project. “Economic growth draws on the intellectual production of faculty at our research institutions.”
With this project coming to a close this year, researchers are looking ahead to the next round of EPSCoR funding and another project that can build research excellence and drive economic development. EPSCoR is a program run by the National Science Foundation that works to stimulate research capacity and competitiveness in states that receive comparatively less federal funding. Nevada is one of 28 states, in addition to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, eligible for EPSCoR funding.
On a Monday morning in mid-October, several small groups of students from Pyramid Lake Junior/Senior High School gathered around tables inside of a conference room at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, sketching ideas, visions, and plans of what they want life on Earth to look like for future generations.
Schuyler Chew, a University of Arizona graduate student who is currently studying climate change resilience and vulnerability with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, encouraged the students to incorporate indigenous language, words, drawings, maps, poems, and stories into their drawings.
“Enlightenment. Growth. Water is life,” one group of students wrote on their poster paper, with key words and themes surrounding a drawing of Pyramid Lake. Another group sketched native wildlife and buildings outfitted with solar panels.
A Youth Day participant sketches his vision for Earth’s future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
A team of Native Waters on Arid Lands Youth Day facilitators adds their visions for the future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
The activity, part of a day-long event called Youth Day, was one of many hands-on activities, presentations, and discussions designed to engage the students in thinking about how to embrace the challenges of the future with regard to climate, water, and food.
The event was held as part of the Native Waters on Arid Lands project (NWAL), which partners scientists from research institutions such as DRI and the University of Nevada Reno with extension experts and members of tribal communities from across the Great Basin and American Southwest to explore the potential impacts of climate change and evaluate adaptation options for sustaining water resources and agriculture.
“The young people here today are incredibly gifted and creative, and our communities will rely on them to employ those gifts in facing the challenges of water, food, and climate in the future,” said Meghan Collins, youth engagement coordinator for the Native Waters on Arid Lands project and Assistant Research Scientist in environmental science at DRI.
Although the NWAL project did not initially place an emphasis on youth engagement, early feedback from project participants from various tribes was that they did not want to be talking about issues of climate without including younger voices in the conversation. In response, the NWAL team has held a series of events for tribal youth and college students at locations such as Salish Kootenai College in Montana, Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, and DRI in 2017 and 2018.
Youth Day organizer Meghan Collins of DRI instructs students in the use of Stories in the Snow kits. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
During the course of their day at DRI, the group heard from Chris Caldwell from the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, who discussed the work that he does with the school’s Sustainable Development Institute. Schuyler Chew, the graduate student from Arizona State University, described his research on climate change resilience and vulnerability with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Steven Chischilly, Associate Professor at Navajo Technical University, described some of the educational opportunities available at his school in New Mexico.
Collins, the event organizer, led the students through an outdoor activity using Stories in the Snow macro-photography kits to explore the environment on the DRI campus and get a taste for scientific inquiry. DRI’s Science Alive Americorps volunteers Brooke Stathis and Chelsea Ontiveros concluded the event with an activity on the salinity and water quality of western rivers.
“The lively and reflective conversations that I heard today were inspiring,” Collins said. “Students brought their best, and we had a lot of intergenerational dialogue that meant everyone in the room walked away with new perspectives on these issues related to the environment.”
DRI Science Alive team members Brooke Stathis and Chelsea Ontiveros lead an activity at DRI Youth Day. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
Later in the week, the Native Waters on Arid Lands project hosted their fourth annual Tribal Summit at the Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno. This event featured two days of presentations and interactive discussions related to climate change, water resources, agriculture, traditional knowledge, livestock and ranching, conservation practices, and other topics. More than 90 people attended the 2018 Tribal Summit, travelling from communities and reservations located across Nevada, North Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Wisconsin, California, Ohio, and Hawaii.
Native Waters on Arid Lands is funded by a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute, the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of Arizona, the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium, Utah State University, Ohio University, United States Geological Survey, and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona.
DRI faculty involved in this project include Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D. (program director), Christine Albano, Kyle Bocinsky, Ph.D., Meghan Collins, Richard Jasoni, Ph.D., Alex Lutz, Ph.D., Anna Palmer, Beverly Ramsey, Ph.D., and Kelsey Fitzgerald.
The Native Waters on Arid Lands team at DRI in October, 2017. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
Visit DRI’s Northern Nevada campus on a clear afternoon, and you may hear a near-deafening buzzing. A massive swarm of bees? Thankfully, no—it’s an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, being flown by researchers from DRI’s Airborne Systems Testing and Environmental Research (ASTER) laboratory.
Adam Watts, Ph.D., associate research professor of fire ecology and director of the ASTER lab, has worked over the last several years to apply UAS technology in a variety of research projects in dangerous or hard-to-access environments. Perhaps most notably, Watts led a 32-mile UAS flight at 1,500 feet above ground, the longest commercial UAS flight in American aviation history, in 2017. This historic flight was part of a larger effort to determine the feasibility of routinely using UAS for aerial cloud-seeding operations, which until recently have required pilots to fly in dangerous winter storm conditions. (You can read a full write up on the project in Popular Science.)
Drone America’s Savant sUAS flies with cloud seeding flares at the Hawthorne Industrial Airport in Hawthorne, Nev. on Friday, April 29, 2016. The test was successful by igniting the silver-iodide flares at 400 feet and flying for approximately 18 minutes. Photo by Kevin Clifford/Drone America.
More recently, Watts and his team in the ASTER lab have been working in entirely different environmental conditions: above prescribed burns.
“One of the big questions in land management, and in public health, is how smoke from prescribed fires versus wildfires differ, and what the effects are,” said Watts. His team is looking to UAS technology to explore this question and learn more about the differences between prescribed fire emissions and those from wildfire.
Earlier this year, postdoctoral researcher and fire ecologist Kellen Nelson, Ph.D., led the development of an innovative air sampling payload—a set of sensors and sampling equipment installed aboard the UAS—used to collect samples of wildland fire smoke. Traditionally, smoke has been collected by researchers from the air thousands of feet above the fire, or from a safe position on the ground far from the center of the smoke plume. Using a UAS, the research team has the unprecedented ability to collect samples directly from plumes and to move with a fire as its behavior changes, taking real-time measurements of CO2, CO, particulate matter, temperature, humidity, and pressure.
Jayne Boehmler holds up the data logger she designed to track real-time air quality measurements and remotely open the sampling canisters aboard the UAS. Kellen Nelson (left) and Adam Watts prepare the UAS (center) for flight in the background. October 2018.
“By collecting air samples, we’ll be able to test for trace gases and other constituents that we don’t have sensors to measure in real-time,” explained Nelson.
To do this work, the ASTER lab team has worked collaboratively with the researchers in DRI’s Organic Analytical Laboratory (OAL), a group that’s conducted ground-breaking air quality research over the last several years, including work to better understand the compounds present in e-cigarette emissions. The OAL provided sampling canisters to be installed on the UAS that are evacuated of all their contents. While in flight, the canisters are opened remotely to suck in the surrounding air, all using a handheld touchscreen controller developed by the team’s research physicist, Jayne Boehmler. Once the UAS is back on ground, the canisters are removed and returned to the OAL for analysis. Researchers hope these air quality data will improve understanding of smoke emissions from different fuel types.
“Smoke is really ephemeral,” explained Watts. “You’ll have a smoke plume moving around, or a little column of smoke coming up from a patch of vegetation that’s burning. Our custom payload on an unmanned aircraft is a powerful tool to make targeted measurements.”
Adam Watts explains how he’ll pilot the UAS for the test on DRI’s Northern Nevada Campus on October 11th, 2018.
Nelson and Watts successfully tested the payload at the Prescribed Fire Research Consortium’s research burn in Florida this spring and under laboratory conditions this fall. They’ve shown that the UAS can handle eight pounds of equipment with minimal vibration in flight and that the real-time data measurement is accurate. Going forward, Watts, Nelson, and Boehmler hope to test the payload in the field over live prescribed burns.
Last week, the team traveled to the Sycan Marsh Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property in southern Oregon, to test the UAS in the field with the Missoula Fire Lab and the Nature Conservancy. Unfavorable conditions prevented prescribed burns from happening on this trip, but the team has their sights set on getting the UAS back in the field soon.
Boehmler and Nelson work on the UAS at the Sycan Marsh Preserve in October 2018. Credit: Craig Bienz/The Nature Conservancy.
Watch the video to hear from Watts, Nelson, and Boehmler as they prepare for their trip to Oregon and learn more about UAS applications for wildland fire research.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program learn about dry sanitation during a field trip to the University of eSwatini (Swaziland) project site at the community of Buka, eSwatini. September 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
In August and early September 2018, several faculty members from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) found themselves far from home – teaching courses in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and environmental issues in the Kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, a small country nestled along South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique.
The courses, all focused on a set of interconnected environmental issues and public health challenges referred to by the acronym “WASH” (short for water, sanitation, and hygiene) are part of an ongoing WASH Capacity Building Program, operated by DRI’s Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS). This program received a five-year funding award from humanitarian non-governmental organization World Vision earlier in 2018 and provides technical capacity training to field staff who work in the WASH sector in developing countries.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program on a field trip to a World Vision and eSwatini Water Services Corporation Program site in Matsanjeni, southeastern eSwatini. Students learned about management of piped water supply systems, sanitation technologies and transboundary water issues. September 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program on a University of eSwatini University-led field trip to the Mbabane Wastewater Treatment site. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI. September 2018.
“The WASH Capacity Building Program is a partnership between DRI, the University of Nevada, Reno, Drexel University, and World Vision,” explained Braimah Apambire, Director of CIWAS. “We’ve developed six courses which we teach partly online and partly face-to-face, and the students take four of those courses to complete our post-graduate certificate program. In April, we taught two courses in Ghana, and the two courses that we just taught in eSwatini were the next in the series.”
The current cohort — the third since the program’s pilot season in 2016 — consists of 30 students from 18 African countries. In eSwatini, their coursework focused on water supplies and environmental management in developing countries, and on cross-cutting issues in WASH. The classes were taught by Apambire, DRI’s Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D., and Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D., and Emmanuel Opong, Ph.D., of World Vision.
Participants in DRI’s WASH Capacity Program gathered in eSwatini during August and early September 2018 to complete courses in cross-cutting issues in water, sanitation, hygiene and environmental issues. The 2018 cohort includes 30 students from 18 countries. Sept. 2018. Credit: World Vision eSwatini Communications.
From left to right: Courses were taught by instructors Braimah Apambire, Ph.D. (DRI), Emmanuel Opong, Ph.D. (World Vision), Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D. (DRI), and Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D. (DRI). Sept 2018. Credit: World Vision eSwatini Communications.
The classroom time was interspersed with field trips to rural areas, dams, water and sanitation facilities, wastewater treatment plants, and more. Students got a firsthand look at some of the WASH challenges that are common in eSwatini and a chance to experience some of the region’s unique culture and countryside. CIWAS collaborators from the University of eSwatini gave guest lectures and organized field trips for the students during face-to-face teaching in the country.
“ESwatini is a mountainous country and very, very beautiful,” Apambire said. “It is a kingdom with a king who is the ruler of the country, and a traditional culture that is almost completely intact. Their government and NGOs, including World Vision, take interest in developing social programs that help people, especially the poor. But they still have rural areas that do not have water and sanitation facilities.”
Sibebe Rock, north of Mbabane, Capital of eSwatini, one of southern Africa’s most impressive geological features. Sept 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program take a field trip to eSwatini’s Buka Community. September 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Most notably, says Apambire, people of eSwatini are currently experiencing WASH challenges related to an ongoing drought, which neighboring South Africa is experiencing as well. DRI has had discussions with the University of eSwatini and some governmental departments about how the institute can help address their challenges.
“Because of the impact of climate change and reductions in rainfall, they are having some existing wells dry up,” Apambire said. “There needs to be more research to find out what some of the causes are and how to mitigate that. Artificial recharge is one option, and they probably also need to look for alternative sources of drinking water for those communities. That’s their biggest challenge right now.”
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program on a University of eSwatini University-led field trip to a house in the Buka community where wastewater is used to grow vegetables. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Five women are enrolled in the 2018 cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program, receiving training that will help them become leaders in the WASH sector. Sept 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
For women and girls in many African nations, challenges related to WASH impact everything from their ability to go to school each day to the survival and well-being of their children and families. For this reason, Apambire is pleased to report that, for the first time, five of the students in this year’s cohort are female.
“DRI is helping to build women leaders in this sector,” Apambire said. “Women in Africa are the ones that the burden of fetching water falls on. When you are a girl and there is no water in your village, you spend a lot of time going to fetch water, sometimes a mile or two away. Then you are not able to go to school, so it affects education. Having women become trained as WASH professionals and go back to the villages really empowers them to become a part of the implementation and management of these projects.”
This fall, students in the 2018 cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program will finish their coursework online, with instruction from Apambire, Seshadri (Shey) Rajagopal, Ph.D. of DRI, Emmanuel Opong, Ph.D., and John Akudago, Ph.D., WASH Sector Expert. The program is now accepting applications for their 2019 cohort.
Several DRI researchers reported on recent projects at the Nevada Water Resources Association (NWRA) Fall Symposium in Reno this week. They were among engineers, resource managers, water rights professionals, and other stakeholders from across Nevada brought together by NWRA to discuss current water resource management topics, research and technology development, and legal issues related to water in the state.
DRI researchers explored a wide range of topics in their presentations, including drought and fire danger, innovations in irrigation, hydromechanics in mining operations, and more:
Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., assistant research professor of climatology and regional climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center, identified a correlation between drought and dire danger indices and is now working with stakeholders to develop prediction strategies for fire based on EDDI (evaporative demand drought index).
Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D., associate research professor of biochemistry, discussed the impacts of wildfire on surface water, including ash deposition, erosion, and declining water clarity.
Zhiqiang Fang, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, described two recent projects, including evaluating the effects of stresses on tunnels in mining operations using coupled hydromechanical models, and analyzing constant rate fluid injection into rock in geothermal systems.
Hai Pham, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, showed how his team has used groundwater models to examine the effect of groundwater pumping on surface water in the Tahoe Valley South groundwater basin.
Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., research faculty in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, Christine Albano, graduate research assistant in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, and Justin Huntington, Ph.D., research professor of hydrology, presented with colleagues from other institution–including the University of Nevada, Reno and USGS–about the Water for the Seasons project, a program that partners scientists with community water managers and water right holders in the Truckee-Carson River System (TCRS), to explore new strategies and solutions for dealing with extreme climate events such as droughts and floods. The four year study is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and uses the TCRS in a pilot study to learn how to best link science with decision-making in snow-fed arid-land river systems. By working collaboratively with stakeholders, Water for the Seasons aims to create a model for improving community climate resiliency, or ability to adapt to extreme climatic conditions.
In operation for more than 70 years, NWRA is a non-profit professional association that provides education, networking, and training opportunities for water resources professionals in Nevada. To learn more about NWRA, visit: http://www.nvwra.org/
Photo caption: Prototype sky-imaging camera. Credit: Eric Wilcox.
By: Jane Palmer
Reno, NV (September 1, 2018) – Solar energy is a clean and renewable energy source, but integrating solar power into the grid is not without challenges. For electricity to be useful, it needs to be delivered to users in a steady, reliable, and affordable way, says NEXUS scientist Eric Wilcox of the Desert Research Institute (DRI). But solar energy can only be generated when the sun is shining, so to guarantee a reliable source of electricity requires using power from other sources when the sun goes down or clouds shade solar panels. “This poses both a technical and an economic challenge,” Wilcox says. “How can we design systems so that solar power is maximized and backup power generation is minimized?”
NEXUS researchers have addressed this question from a variety of perspectives. Scientists at DRI and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) have investigated the fluctuations in solar power production due to cloudiness, in an attempt to build accurate forecasts. At UNLV, researchers have built a microgrid—a mini version of the electric power grid—that can operate independently of the main grid for testing “smart” technology. Such technologies will maintain a steady power supply when transitioning between solar power, gas-generated backup, and battery storage systems. Economics researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) have also been performing economic analyses to determine how behavioral economics can motivate greater efficiency and utilization of renewable energy.“The promise of the approaches used and technology under development by this group is central to the mission of increasing the utilization of solar energy and mitigating pollution, by reducing the amount of fossil-fuel generated backup power needed to protect electricity grids from fluctuations in solar power generation,” Wilcox says.
Although Nevada enjoys many sunny days each year, every few weeks or so, the North American monsoon effect carries moisture from the Gulf of California to form clouds over Southern Nevada. And when these clouds come, solar facilities can’t produce as much power.
Numerical weather prediction models can determine when one of these weather events will arrive up to five days in advance, but the models can’t predict when a particular cloud will move in between a solar panel array and the sun. Typically during these times, the amount of sunlight reaching a panel can vary dramatically over very short time scales, causing large fluctuations in voltage and power. Ideally, grid operators could anticipate from the forecasts when these events occur, so that they could coordinate a smooth transition toward using alternative power sources.
“The research has demonstrated the validity of using fluctuations in regional humidity over Las Vegas to characterize the error in solar forecasts derived from numerical weather prediction models,” Wilcox says. “So it will help achieve more accurate day-ahead solar forecasting.”
To detect and predict these quick power fluctuations, Wilcox and his team have built a prototype sky-imaging camera that takes images of the sky in the vicinity of solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays. The weatherproof camera takes the pictures and then analyzes them to distinguish cloudy pixels, which are the smallest units of a digital image, from clear sky pixels. Using this information, a computer algorithm can then track the movement of a cloud and predict when it will shade the PV array.
Following from this work, UNLV assistant professor Brendan Morris has explored more accurate prediction algorithms and UNLV scientist Venkatesan Muthukumar has investigated other concepts to produce distributed sensors for forecasting solar fluctuations. “This idea has really seemed to have caught on now and spread well beyond our DRI lab,” Wilcox says.
The low cost of the developed tool means the scientists could deploy the instruments at distributed solar PV sites in the city of Las Vegas and develop a shared database of sky images. This wealth of data will mean the researchers can continue to refine the algorithms that predict the cloud movements. “The goal is to build networks of sensors that can make predictions of solar generation fluctuations and communicate those forecasts to advanced control systems,” Wilcox says. The researchers are continuing to work on developing the idea of making short-term forecasts of cloud cover in as little as 5 to 20 minutes away. The goal is to determine if the low-cost forecasting technology can make a difference in optimizing the use of batteries, such as the Tesla Powerwall batteries. “Grid operators may also be interested in the networked nature of this solution, so that optimization can happen at the neighborhood scale,” Wilcox says.
As the U.S. electric grid has been starting to run up against its limitations, the Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a vision of a future, more resilient, “smart” electric power infrastructure. The DOE Smart Grid Research and Development Program considers microgrids— localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional grid to operate autonomously—as key building blocks for this smart grid. Using such microgrids would facilitate integrating renewable sources of energy into the electrical infrastructure and offer other advantages for grid reliability.
“Microgrids can strengthen the grid resilience which is becoming increasingly important in the face of the increased frequency and intensity of power outages caused by severe weather due to climate change,” says NEXUS scientist Dr. Yahia Baghzouz of UNLV.
Baghzouz and his team have built a small microgrid at UNLV, which acts as a test bed to investigate the various devices that will be needed for the smart grid and technologies that will ultimately help with the integration of renewable energy resources into the grid infrastructure. Using this microgrid, the scientists have demonstrated that advanced inverters, which convert the output of photovoltaic solar arrays into utility frequency alternating current, can be configured to ride through voltage and frequency disturbances as well as assist with voltage support and reactive power requirements.
Simultaneously, NEXUS scientists Mehdi Etezadi-Amoli and M. Sami Fadali at UNR have built a new lab for simulating real-time digital monitoring and control of remote systems, such as the UNLV microgrid. Baghzouz is also testing the DRI forecasting technology for its ability to smooth out variations in solar power output to the electricity grid when coordinated with a battery energy storage system. “The microgrid is the natural place to see how we can combine forecasting technology with other smart grid technology with the goal of increasing the reliability of solar power on the electric grid,” Wilcox says.
A Different Type of Forecast
Solar power has the potential to supply a sustainable and clean source of energy to households and industry in the state of Nevada and beyond, but to fully realize its benefits requires a detailed understanding of the economic costs and risks associated with its use. “The incorporation of solar into our power supply has to be done with the highest of knowledge, not only in engineering but also in economics,” says NEXUS economist Dr. Thomas Harris at UNR.
Consequently, Harris has also been looking at the risks, for investors, associated with this sustainable energy source. His work has demonstrated that income tax credits and appropriate depreciation schedules can yield rates of return on solar development greater than 15 percent, which is sufficient for private investment. The study also estimates that solar energy development on the 60,000 acres of Nevada designated by the Bureau of Land Management as Solar Economic Zones has the potential to yield $326 million annually in positive impacts on output, employment, and household income.
NEXUS economist Dr. Dilek Uz has been looking into solar energy policy and its political implications. “If, as a society, we have ambitious environmental goals, it is important that we reach them in the most cost effective way possible,” Uz says. When it comes to solar, large-scale projects seem to offer significant cost advantages relative to residential rooftop installations, however the whole issue is highly controversial and politically charged, Uz says.
Storage is the key to integrating renewables into the grid and this is where the new frontier in power utility regulation is, Uz says. Currently the renewable energy policy toolbox of many states includes rebates for residential rooftop solar installations as well as favorable rates for residential solar power. Uz is researching how the different benefits provided by owning a rooftop panel are valued at the residential level. It is research that will inform policy on the correct subsidy level for better use of tax payer money. She is also looking into how owning a rooftop solar panel correlates with voting patterns on energy related issues.
The economics team is also collaborating with the DRI researchers in analyzing the benefits of improved cloud forecasting techniques to mitigate the impacts of intermittency on the economics of solar. “How much does using this technology cost?” Harris says. “It is a very complicated issue from a solar standpoint.”
For solar power to be not just sustainable, but profitable, in future decades economists have to investigate all the variables and permutations associated with this relatively new industry, Harris says.
A Model Future
A common thread running through the research investigating maximizing the benefits of solar power while minimizing the costs is that of building models to test out different systems, technologies and theories. At DRI, the scientists numerically simulate the weather using a supercomputer and at UNLV, the engineers have constructed a physical model of a grid in the form of the experimental microgrid.
Creating such models allows the scientists to see how such complex systems would react in different scenarios e.g., to investigate how the solar power responds to different degrees of cloudiness, or how different technologies can smooth out fluctuations in the grid. Questions like these are difficult to answer only by observing real systems because often so many elements of the system change at the same time. “Modeling is an important research tool for estimating the behavior of such complex systems because we can carefully control the environment,” Wilcox says.
Similarly, at UNR, the NEXUS economists have constructed numerical models to simulate the economic relationships among participants in the energy and development markets in Nevada.
Fluctuations in solar and wind generation are often cited as a limiting factor in preventing generation of a large majority of electricity from renewable sources, Wilcox says. “We seek to understand the economic factors that may limit solar electricity development and then we seek to mitigate the fluctuations that limit the extent to which the grid can depend on solar electricity,” he says. “Overcoming these limitations is essential to reducing greenhouse gases and other pollution emissions from traditional fossil fuel sources of electricity generation.”###
Started June 1, 2013, the Solar Nexus Project is a multifaceted five-year research project focusing on the nexus (or linkage between) solar energy generation and Nevada’s limited water resources and fragile environment. The focus of the Solar Nexus Project is creating a center of research excellence on solar energy conversion to electricity, minimizing its negative impacts on water usage and the environment. In essence, seeking to create a paradigm shift in how solar plants are built and utilized, helping Nevada establish itself as a competitive state in the field of solar nexus research.
The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.
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