New study examines impacts of three desert landscaping strategies on urban irrigation and air temperatures

New study examines impacts of three desert landscaping strategies on urban irrigation and air temperatures

Removing turf-grass saves water. But will it increase urban heat?

September 14, 2022
LAS VEGAS, Nev.

Landscape
Urban Irrigation
Air Temperature

New study examines impacts of three desert landscaping strategies on urban irrigation and air temperatures

As Las Vegas and other Southwestern cities look for ways to reduce water use during a historic drought, the removal of grass lawns and other areas of “nonfunctional turf” has been recommended by the Southern Nevada Water Authority and written into Nevada state law with AB356. But, will this change from turf-grass to other landscaping types result in other unintended climate impacts in urban areas, such as increased air or surface temperatures?

In a new study in the journal Hydrology, a team of scientists from DRI, Arizona State University (ASU), and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), examined the irrigation water requirements of three common types of urban landscapes. Then, they compared air temperature, surface temperature, and wind speed around the three sites to learn how differences in landscape types impact their surrounding environment.

The three landscape types analyzed in the study were a “mesic” tree and turf-grass landscape with water-intensive plants; a “xeric” landscape consisting primarily of desert plants on drip irrigation; and an intermediate “oasis” landscape type with a mix of high-and low water use plants. The sites were located around buildings in an experimental study area at ASU in Phoenix.

As expected, the mesic (tree and turf-grass) landscape showed the highest water consumption rate. However, the mesic site also had the lowest surface and air temperatures, both in the daytime and nighttime, thus creating better conditions for outdoor thermal comfort.

The site with xeric (desert) landscaping had the lowest irrigation water requirement but the highest temperatures. Air temperatures in the xeric landscape plot averaged 3oC (5.4oF) higher than in the other two landscape types.

The oasis landscape, with a mix of high- and low-water use plants, provided the best of both worlds – lower irrigation water requirements than the mesic site but more daytime cooling than the xeric landscape.

“The simple take-home message from what we learned was that xeric (desert) landscaping is not the best long-term solution and neither is mesic (tree-turf),” said the study’s lead author Rubab Saher, Ph.D., Maki postdoctoral research associate at DRI. “An ‘oasis’ style landscape, which contains trees like Acacia or ghost gum, and shrubs like dwarf poinciana, requiring light irrigation, are the best solution, because it conserves water but also contributes to cooling through the evapotranspiration of the plants.”

The study also examined the role of buildings and open sky to understand the effect of shade on the landscape. They found that shade in the narrow space between buildings created shade of comparable temperature to that under a tree in a mesic landscape and are interested in doing follow-up studies to learn more about the impact of building orientation on maximizing summer shade.

“I became interested in this topic because urban irrigation and water efficient landscaping are really important issues in the Western U.S., but haven’t been studied very thoroughly,” said Saher. “People have been applying methods for calculating irrigation from agricultural fields, but urban areas are very different landscapes, and the ways that homeowners irrigate are very unpredictable.”

The authors hope that their findings are helpful to homeowners, city planners, or anyone trying to help conserve water but prevent warming temperatures in arid urban regions.

“Removing turf grass from the landscape is an excellent approach for saving water, but if we remove all the turf grass, the temperature will go up,” Saher said. “For every acre of turf grass removed, we also need to plant native and/or rainfed trees to make arid cities livable in the long run.”

More information:

The full study, Assessing the Microclimate Effects and Irrigation Water Requirements of Mesic, Oasis, and Xeric Landscapes, is available from Hydrology: https://www.mdpi.com/2306-5338/9/6/104

This study was made possible with funding from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and DRI’s Maki Postdoctoral fellowship. Study authors included Rubab Saher (DRI), Ariane Middel (ASU), Haroon Stephen (UNLV), and Sajjad Ahmad (UNLV).

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About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.

About ASU

Arizona State University, ranked No. 1 “Most Innovative School” in the nation by U.S. News & World Report for seven years in succession, has forged the model for a New American University by operating on the principles that learning is a personal and lifelong journey for everyone, and that people thrive on experience and discovery that cannot be bound by traditional academic disciplines. Through innovation and a commitment to educational access, ASU has drawn pioneering researchers to its faculty even as it expands opportunities for qualified students.

About UNLV

UNLV is a doctoral-degree-granting institution of more than 30,000 students and nearly 4,000 faculty and staff that has earned the nation’s highest recognition for both research and community engagement from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. UNLV offers a broad range of respected academic programs and is committed to recruiting and retaining top students and faculty, educating the region’s diverse population and workforce, driving economic activity, and creating an academic health center for Southern Nevada. Learn more at unlv.edu

 

Media Contacts:

Detra Page
DRI
702.591.3786
Detra.page@dri.edu

David Rozul
ASU
480-965-3779
david.rozul@asu.edu

Cheryl Bella
UNLV
702-895-3965 (o)
702-499-3930 (c)
cheryl.bella@unlv.edu

Growing numbers of Native American households in Nevada face plumbing poverty, water quality problems

Growing numbers of Native American households in Nevada face plumbing poverty, water quality problems

Growing numbers of Native American households in Nevada face plumbing poverty, water quality problems 

September 7, 2022
LAS VEGAS, Nev.

Native Americans
Plumbing Poverty
Water Quality

New study analyzes trends, opportunities, and challenges related to water security in Nevada’s Native American communities

A growing number of Native American households in Nevada have no access to indoor plumbing, a condition known as “plumbing poverty,” according to a new study by a team from DRI and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

The study assesses trends and challenges associated with water security (reliable access to a sufficient quantity of safe, clean water) in Native American households and communities of Nevada and also found a concerning increase in the number of Safe Drinking Water Act violations during the last 15 years.

Native American communities in the Western U.S., including Nevada, are particularly vulnerable to water security challenges because of factors including population growth, climate change, drought, and water rights. In rural areas, aging or absent water infrastructure creates additional challenges.

In this study, the research team used U.S. Census microdata on household plumbing characteristics to learn about the access of Native American community members to “complete plumbing facilities,” including piped water (hot and cold), a flush toilet, and a bathtub or shower. They also used water quality reports from the Environmental Protection Agency to learn about drinking water sources and health violations.

According to their results, during the 30-year time period from 1990-2019, an average of 0.67 percent of Native American households in Nevada lacked complete indoor plumbing – higher than the national average of 0.4 percent. Their findings show a consistent increase in the lack of access to plumbing over the last few decades, with more than 20,000 people affected in 2019.

“Previous studies have found that Native American households are more likely to lack complete indoor plumbing than other households in the U.S., and our results show a similar trend here in Nevada,” said lead author Erick Bandala, Ph.D., assistant research professor of environmental science at DRI. “This can create quality of life problems, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when lack of indoor plumbing could have prevented basic health measures like hand-washing.”

graph representation of Native Americans  in Nevada with no access to plumbing from 1990 to 2019

Native American community members in Nevada with no access to plumbing from 1990 to 2019.

Credit: Erick Bandala, DRI.

Plumbing poverty may correlate with other types of poverty. Analysis by the study team showed that as the number of people living in a household increased, access to complete plumbing decreased significantly, in agreement with other studies.

Study findings also showed a significant increase in the number of Safe Drinking Water Act violations in water facilities serving Native American Communities in Nevada from 2005 to 2020. The most common health-based violations included presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), presence of coliform bacteria, and presence of inorganic chemicals.

“Water accessibility, reliability, and quality are major challenges for Native American communities in Nevada and throughout the Southwest,” said coauthor Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., research professor of environmental science and director of the Native Climate project at DRI.

graph displaying Types of Safe Drinking Water Act violations

Types of Safe Drinking Water Act violations documented by the EPA for public water systems serving Native American communities in Nevada, 2005-2020.

Credit: Erick Bandala, DRI.

The study authors hope that their findings are useful to decision-makers and members of the general public who may not be aware that plumbing poverty and water quality are significant problems in Nevada.

More information:

The full study, “Assessing the effect of extreme heat on workforce health in the southwestern USA,” is available from the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901122002179?dgcid=author

This project was funded by the General Frederick West Lander Endowment at DRI. Study authors included Erick Bandala (DRI), Maureen McCarthy (DRI), and Nancy Brune (DRI, formerly of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities).

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About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.

Study Explores Uncertainties in Flood Risk Estimates

Study Explores Uncertainties in Flood Risk Estimates

Study Explores Uncertainties in Flood Risk Estimates

June 14, 2022
RENO, Nev. 

Hydrology
Climate
Flood Risk

Above: The Truckee River in Reno, Nev. during high flow conditions after a storm in late January, 2016. 

Credit: Kelsey Fitzgerald/DRI.

Results show a need to revise existing methods for estimating flood risk

Flood frequency analysis is a technique used to estimate flood risk, providing statistics such as the “100-year flood” or “500-year flood” that are critical to infrastructure design, dam safety analysis, and flood mapping in flood-prone areas. But the method used to calculate these flood frequencies is due for an update, according to a new study by scientists from DRI, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Colorado State University 

Floods, even in a single watershed, are known to be caused by a variety of sources, including  rainfall, snowmelt, or “rain-on-snow” events in which rain falls on existing snowpack. However, flood frequencies have traditionally been estimated under the assumption these flood “drivers,” or root causes, are unimportant. 

In a new open-access paper in Geophysical Research Letters, a team led by Guo Yu, Ph.D., of DRI examined the most common drivers (rainfall, snowmelt, and rain-on-snow events) of historic floods for 308 watersheds in the Western U.S., and investigated the impact of different flood types on the resulting flood frequencies. 

Their findings showed that most (64 percent) watersheds frequently experienced two or three flood types throughout the study period, and that rainfall-driven floods, including rain-on-snow, tended to be substantially larger than snowmelt floods across watershed sizes.   

Further analysis showed that by neglecting the unique roles of each flood type, conventional methods for generating flood frequency estimates tended to result in under-estimation of flood frequency at more than half of sites, especially at the 100-year flood and beyond. 

“In practice, the role of different mechanisms has often been ignored in deriving the flood frequencies,” said Yu, a Maki postdoctoral research associate at DRI. “This is partly due to the lack of physics-based understanding of historic floods. In this study, we showed that neglecting such information can result in uncertainties in estimated flood frequencies which are critical for infrastructure.” 

The study findings have important implications for estimating flood frequencies into the future, as climate change pushes conditions in snowmelt-dominated watersheds toward increased rainfall. 

“How the 100-year flood will evolve in the future due to climate change is one of the most important unanswered questions in water resources management,” said Wright, an associate professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “To answer it, we need to focus on the fundamental science of how the water cycle, including extreme rainstorms and snow dynamics, are and will continue to change in a warming climate.” 

The study team hopes that this research is useful to engineers, who rely on accurate estimates of flood frequencies when building bridges and other infrastructure. Although many engineers realize that there is a problem with the conventional way of estimating flood frequencies, this study provides new insights into the level of inaccuracy that results.  

“This study shows that taking into account different physical processes can improve flood risk assessment,” said Frances Davenport, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow at Colorado State University. “Importantly, this result suggests both a need and opportunity to develop new methods of flood frequency assessment that will more accurately reflect flood risk in a warming climate.” 

More information: 

The full study, Diverse Physical Processes Drive Upper-Tail Flood Quantiles in the US Mountain West, is available from Geophysical Research Letters: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2022GL098855  

This project was funded by the DRI’s Maki Postdoctoral fellowship, U.S. National Science Foundation Hydrologic Sciences Program (award number EAR-1749638), and Stanford University. Study authors included Guo Yu (DRI/University of Wisconsin-Madison), Daniel Wright (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Frances Davenport (Stanford University and Colorado State University).  

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About DRI 

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu. 

About Colorado State University’s Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering 

Colorado State is one of the nation’s top public research universities with about 33,000 students and $447 million in annual research funding. The Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering at CSU prepares students to solve global challenges to shape a better world through research, education, innovation, and outreach. In addition to a top-ranked graduate program in atmospheric science, the college conducts cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research that provides students hands-on learning in biological, biomedical, chemical, civil, computer, electrical, environmental, mechanical, and systems engineering. The college attracts about $80 million in annual research dollars, placing it in the top tier of public institutions of similar size, and is a campus leader in patents, startups, and technology transfer. For more information, please visit www.engr.colostate.edu. 

Field Notes From a DRI Research Team in Greenland: A Story Map

Field Notes From a DRI Research Team in Greenland: A Story Map

Field Notes From a DRI Research Team in Greenland: A Story Map

In May 2022, a team led by scientists from DRI in Reno, Nevada departed for Greenland, where they were joined by ice drilling, Arctic logistics, and mountaineering experts. Together, the team plans to collect a 440 meter-long ice core that will represent 4,000 years of Earth and human history.  

For much of their time on the Greenland ice sheet, the team will not have access to the internet or phone service — but they are able to send short text messages back to DRI from a Garmin inReach two-way satellite communicator. You can follow along with their journey on our Story Map, “The Return to Tunu.” 

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

MAY 23, 2022
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

Hydrology
Hydrogeology
Rainwater

Above: Brianda fly fishing in Northern California where the Klamath River and the Pacific Ocean meet.

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

Brianda Hernandez Rosales is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno. She recently earned her Master’s degree in hydrogeology from the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). Learn more about Brianda and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog!

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Hernandez: I first learned of DRI during my time at Mt. San Antonio College, during a research trip to Capitol Reef National Park. The chief scientist of the park was a hydrogeologist with a degree from the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences at UNR and mentioned his affiliation with DRI. I decided to check out DRI when I had access to the web. I started following the research that was being conducted at DRI and knew that I wanted to somehow make my way to Northern Nevada once I was ready to tackle a graduate degree. Luckily, my research interests aligned with the work of Alexandra Lutz, Ph.D., allowing me to attend UNR and join DRI. It was the best decision I made way back in June 2017 during that hot afternoon overlooking the Capital Reef basin. 

DRI: What are you studying?

Hernandez: My focus of study is hydrology/hydrogeology. I am interested in water security issues in the West, particularly in underrepresented communities. Using science to help build climate resiliency among these communities is another interest and passion of mine, as well as science communication.

Brianda Hernandez Rosales headshot

Brianda Hernandez Rosales is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno.

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

DRI: What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

Hernandez: My graduate research focuses on assessing the feasibility of rainwater harvesting for food production in Peach Springs, AZ on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. Rainwater harvesting is the concentration, collection, and storage of rainwater to be used at a later time. It has been practiced for centuries in arid and semi-arid environments around the world, however, this practice has been overlooked in the United States as a means to ensure water security in rural areas. Rainwater harvesting can be used to diversify water portfolios and attain food security in vulnerable communities.  

COVID-19 and supply-chain issues have exposed the need to assess food security in areas that are considered “food deserts” and rainwater harvesting can be a way to combat those issues, particularly in the Southwest, since monsoonal rains are available for capture during the growing season. This project has been inspirational for me because it can be scaled to any degree and applied to any rural community interested in harvesting rainwater to grow food. I’ve learned that this practice can be applied not only in rural communities but across the United States to reduce the strain on other water supplies. On this project, I work alongside Alexandra Lutz, Ph.D., Christine Albano, Ph.D., and Susie Rybarski at DRI.

In addition to my graduate research, I also worked alongside Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., and Alexandra Lutz, Ph.D., during summer 2021 on providing content for the COVID-19 Toolkit website through Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL) project. I researched the impacts on water quality during drought in the West to help inform Tribal Extension agents, tribal ranchers, and farmers as well as tribal members about these looming issues.

Hualapai Community Garden

Brianda documenting the crops currently grown in the Hualapai Community Garden in Peach Springs, AZ with support from the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program (FRTEP) agent for the tribe, Elisabeth Alden.

Credit: Alexandra Lutz.

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

Hernandez: My overall goal at DRI is to conduct good, reputable science that is accessible to everyone. I think having access to great science is important, now more than ever. My short-term goal is to finish my degree in May 2022. My long-term goal is to continue working with folks at DRI and the NWAL team to assist in the important work that is being done to ensure climate resiliency among the communities that need it most.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

Hernandez: Like many people at DRI, I am a lover of the outdoors! You can find me climbing boulders in the Tahoe Basin, Bishop, California, or throughout the West. I also enjoy mountain biking on any dirt, fly fishing at any body of water, and simply just camping with friends in the mountains or the open desert. We live in such a beautiful area here in the West, it’s nice just to explore.

When I am not outside, I enjoy reading books about people who do things outside (e.g., adventure memoirs, anthropology books) or science books. I also enjoy listening to music, eating delicious food, and drinking wine while having great conversations with family and friends.

pebble wrestling

“Pebble wrestling” in Rocky Mountains National Park.

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

Additional Information:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/education/graduate-programs/.

Farm vehicles heavy as dinosaurs jeopardize future food security

Farm vehicles heavy as dinosaurs jeopardize future food security

Heavy farm machinery

May 17, 2022

Farm vehicles are heavy as dinosaurs, jeopardize future food security

Reposted from https://www.slu.se/en/ew-news/2022/5/farm-vehicles-heavy-as-dinosaurs-jeopardize-food-security/.

Farm vehicles are becoming so heavy that they jeopardize future food security in Europe, America and Australia. Larger and more flexible tires have limited the damage on the surface, but below the topsoil, the soil is becoming so compact that its long-term production capacity is threatened. These conclusions are made in a new global study, which also draws parallels to the sauropods, the heaviest animals that ever walked Earth.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) yesterday, was conducted by Professor Thomas Keller from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Agroscope in Switzerland, and Professor Dani Or from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the Desert Research Institute in the USA.

Mechanization has greatly contributed to the success of modern agriculture, with vastly expanded food production capabilities achieved by the higher capacity of farm machinery. However, the increase in capacity has been accompanied by heavier vehicles that increase the risk of subsoil compaction.

While the total weight of laden combine harvesters could be around 4 tonnes in the late 1950s, we can today see modern vehicles weighing 36 tonnes in the fields, and the researchers behind the present study decided to investigate what this development has meant for arable land. The contact stress on the soil surface turned out to have remained constant at a low level during this period, which is due to the fact that the machines have been fitted with ever larger tires that distribute the weight over a larger surface. In the deeper soil layer, the subsoil, on the other hand, soil compaction has increased to levels that jeopardize the soil’s ability to produce food. This also has consequences for the soil’s ability to transport water and provide other important ecosystem services.

“Subsoil compaction by farm vehicles is a very serious problem, since once soils are compacted, they remain damaged for decades. This may be one of the reasons why harvests are no longer increasing and why we are now seeing more floods than before”, says lead author Professor Thomas Keller, from SLU in Sweden and Agriscope in Switzerland.

High risk of compaction in one fifth of the arable land globally

The researchers have also produced a map that shows how the risk of chronic subsoil compaction varies around the world and the risk turned out to be greatest in Europe, North and South America and Australia. Globally, about a fifth of all arable land is estimated to be at risk of far-reaching damage that is very difficult to repair. In other words, the chance that these soils will recover is small.

The risk is presently smaller in Asia and Africa, where the mechanization of agriculture has not reached the same high level yet.

“If the mechanization were to gain momentum in Asia and Africa, however, there is a risk of subsoil compaction also on these continents”, says Thomas Keller.

Vehicle manufacturers must pay more attention to subsoil compaction

To contribute to more sustainable agriculture, vehicle manufacturers need to be more concerned about the risk of subsoil compaction and its negative impact on the soil.

“Above all, the wheel loads of modern farm vehicles need to be reduced in order not to affect the subsoil to the same extent as today. The heavier the machines, the worse for the subsoils”, says Thomas Keller.

Did dinosaurs induce soil compaction?

The researchers also show that the heaviest farm vehicles used in modern agriculture approach the weight of the heaviest dinosaurs, the sauropods. This indicates that the sauropods probably induced soil compaction and affected the soil’s production capacity in the same way as modern farm vehicles.

“No one seemed to have wondered whether dinosaurs induced subsoil compaction, but since the sauropods were as heavy as modern farm vehicles, we thought this was a question that ought to be explored”, says Thomas Keller.

Like humans, sauropods depended on the soils ability to provide food, suggesting that they moved across the landscape in a way that reduced the risk of soil compaction. One possibility is that they restricted their movements to fixed “foraging trails” and grazed plants next to them with the help of their long necks. In this way, they could ensure that the surrounding land continued to produce the plant food they needed.

More information:

The full study, “Farm vehicles approaching weights of sauropods exceed safe mechanical limits for soil functioning,” is available from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2117699119

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About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

MARCH 24, 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEV.
Data Modeling
Hydrology
Wildfires
Above: Dennis Hallema of DRI studies natural catastrophe impacts, such as the longer-term impacts that wildfires have on flood risk after a fire has passed. The hillside shown here burned in California’s Loyalton Fire during August 2020.
Credit: Kelsey Fitzgerald.

Dennis Hallema, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor of hydrology with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Las Vegas. He specializes in data modeling and natural catastrophe research. Dennis is originally from the Netherlands and holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Earth Sciences from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and a Ph.D. in Continental hydrology and society from Montpellier SupAgro in France. A new addition to the DRI community, Dennis started working for DRI remotely from North Carolina in November 2021 and relocated to Las Vegas in March.

dennis hallema
Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.
Credit: Dennis Hallema.
DRI: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to DRI? 

Hallema: I started at DRI in November of last year, so I am still fairly new here. If you had to describe me with two keywords, it would be hydrology and wildfires. I specialize in consulting on natural hazard impacts – not so much the natural hazards themselves, but the longer-term impacts that they have on things like flood risks. My methods are AI (artificial intelligence) focused – so, machine learning. When I applied for this job at DRI, there was really a need for a person who could do research on all of these aspects combined – a person that crossed the bridge between traditional hydrologic modeling and who could also apply newer methods like AI.

My background is in hydrologic modeling and fire science. I first did this work for the USDA Forest Service, where I was a research fellow with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). That was my first big fellowship. I did that job for a few years, and that’s where I really became an expert in wildfire impacts on hydrology. Before that, I worked in Quebec City, Canada, on different jobs in hydrologic modeling of snowy landscapes, so I have experience doing snow modeling as well.

DRI: What are some of the ways that wildfires impact hydrology? Can you give us an example?

Hallema: I have studied this across the whole entire country looking at various regions where fires have an impact on runoff. The higher up you go in mountainous areas, you see very profound impacts. We can divide the impacts into primary perils and secondary perils. In the case of a wildfire, primary perils are the immediate damage. People lose their property, there are health impacts, there can be loss of life.

Secondary perils are what come later, after the fire has passed – the indirect effects that occur from the fire. In many cases, secondary perils are related to hillslope stability. You may remember the mudslides of California a few years ago. The hillslope becomes unstable because the wildfire can remove a large part of the vegetation canopy.  After the fire, when the first rainfall event occurs, the soil can often still absorb that. But when the second rain shower comes, and there’s nothing to retain or protect the soil, in case of very severe wildfires, the soil becomes saturated and essentially creates a sliding plane, and that’s when you get mudslides.

 

dennis hallema
Above: Dennis Hallema is an assistant research professor of hydrology with DRI in Las Vegas. In his free time, he enjoys spending time outdoors.
Credit: Dennis Hallema.
DRI: You recently published new research on wildfire risks to watersheds in Canada. Can you tell us about that?

Hallema: The paper was a review of the mechanisms that are responsible for wildfire impacts on water security and water resources across Canada. We mapped out where data are available, and what types of data are available, as far as wildfire occurrence, severity, streamflow data, and streamflow impacts. Data is often collected with publicly funded projects, so the ideal outcome would be that data should be accessible to other users later on. But this isn’t always the case.

One principle that we advocate for in this paper that I also want to promote in Nevada is the FAIR data principle. That stands for Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse of digital assets. Obstacles to that are data scarcity and data fragmentation. Data scarcity means that there is little data available, and data fragmentation means that the data exist, but they are stored in many different locations. There is a lot of opportunity to improve the depth of data collection and quality of datasets and improve and reduce the fragmentation of data.

DRI: Can you tell us about a project you’re working on here at DRI?

Hallema: I’m working on a project that is sponsored by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and one thing that we’re exploring is the effect of rain on snow. This happens in landscapes in northern Nevada when temperatures are around the freezing point, and you get an interesting dynamic of snowmelt and snowfall. My research is really focused on how likely this is to generate a flood, such as a 50-year flood, or a 100-year flood. The way I’m approaching the problem is by looking at the interactions between rain, snow, and rain-on-snow events. I’m researching how these interactions at the land surface really affect the runoff that is generated, how that affects the probability of a flood occurring, and when during the season you see this elevated flood risk. That’s one thing I’m working towards – and in general also providing consulting for institutions like USACE for implementing machine learning and remote sensing technologies into natural hazards impact models, wildfire data modeling, water risk models, and such.

DRI: What do you like to do outside of work?

Hallema: I like to spend a lot of time outdoors. I like to travel, I speak a few languages. I’m lucky that the things I do for work are things that I really enjoy doing. Being outside, collecting data, and doing cool computer stuff when I get back to the office, that’s the fun of my job.

DRI scientist Rishi Parashar receives NSF Mid-Career Advancement Award

DRI scientist Rishi Parashar receives NSF Mid-Career Advancement Award

Meet Rishi Parashar, Ph.D. and learn about his research in this Q&A with “DRI’s Behind the Science” Blog. 

Rishi Parashar, Ph.D., is an Associate Research Professor of Hydrology with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno. He studies the movement of water, contaminants, and other substances through Earth’s subsurface. Originally from India, Rishi holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, India, and Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Civil Engineering from Purdue University. He has been a member of the DRI community since 2008. In his free time, Rishi enjoys photography, listening to music, and spending time with his wife and three children.

DRI: What do you do at DRI?

Parashar: I study flow and contaminant transport through Earth’s subsurface, which consists of soil as well as rocks. Within rocks you can have fractures, so that is known as fractured media; within soils, there are tiny air or water-filled pores, so they are generally called porous media. My research is largely focused on understanding how water or anything that is mixed into the water – like contaminants, microbes, or heat – flow and disperse through fractured rocks and porous media.

DRI: Why is it important to understand these processes here in Nevada? Can you share an example from your work?

Parashar: When I began at DRI in 2008, I spent a large portion of my first eight or nine years working on problems at the Nevada Test Site, which is now known as the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). During that time, my work was heavily based on trying to understand how radionuclides might move through fractured rocks. Radionuclides are unstable forms of elements that release radiation as they break down and can have harmful effects on living organisms. So, we were trying to determine how radionuclides that were released into the subsurface after atomic tests might move further by getting into fractured rocks. Understanding how contaminants or water or radionuclides in this case can potentially move through fractured rock is very important in places like the NNSS.

DRI: You recently received a Mid-Career Advancement (MCA) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will allow you to expand your work in some exciting new directions. Can you tell us about your plans?

Parashar: This was the first year that the NSF has offered mid-career awards, which provide time and resources for scientists at the Associate Professor rank to diversify their knowledge by partnering and training with researchers working in complimentary fields. Until now, my research has been mainly focused on understanding flow and transport in fractured rocks and porous media – but one of the major challenges in my field right now is that most computational models are large, computationally heavy, and difficult to scale-up. To take science or modeling of these processes to the next level, I believe that we need to try to combine our work with some of the technological advances that we are seeing in the fields of computer science and applied mathematics.

Some high-fidelity fracture network models cannot be easily scaled up – they allow us to study problems at a small scale, but to apply our models for realistic world problems at a larger scale, we may benefit greatly from tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning or quantum computing. With the MCA award, I will be partnering with three collaborators: two are applied mathematicians from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the third is a computer scientist from the University of Nevada, Reno with expertise in AI, graph representations of networks, and quantum computing. Together we will explore opportunities of convergence research and see if we can develop more robust computational approaches that would benefit many different areas within the field of hydrology.

DRI: What are some of the applications for your work?

Parashar: The type of modeling I’ve described can help us understand the movement of water, heat, and other quantities of interest through connected networks in the subsurface with applications to geothermal, carbon sequestration, and nuclear waste repositories among others. They can also be useful in studying the transport of viruses and bacteria through porous media, which is important in applications such as water recycling.  Here in Nevada, there is interest in treating and cleaning municipal water and reusing it for irrigation and other purposes. One way to clean it is to run it through the ground – but to ensure that the water is being properly cleaned it is important to understand how bacteria and viruses move through the system.

DRI: You are originally from India. How did you end up here at DRI?

Parashar: I came to DRI as a postdoc in 2008. The true story is that in all my life I have only written one job application. In 2008, when I was about to complete my Ph.D., my wife was already well established in the Reno area working for a consulting firm. I wanted to explore opportunities and knew about the good quality of work at DRI. So I approached John Warrick, who was the Division Director at that time, and he informed me about this new position that was about to open. I interviewed in Las Vegas and have stayed here at DRI’s Reno campus ever since.

More information:

https://www.dri.edu/directory/rishi-parashar/

1,000 years of glacial ice reveal ‘prosperity and peril’ in Europe

1,000 years of glacial ice reveal ‘prosperity and peril’ in Europe

Above: Researchers’ ice core drilling camp on Colle Gnifetti in 2015. Two ice cores extracted from this area preserved a continuous one-thousand-year record of European climate and vegetation. Credit: Margit Schwikowski.

Evidence preserved in glaciers provides continuous climate and vegetation records during major historical events

Reposted from AGU – https://news.agu.org/press-release/1000-years-of-glacial-ice-reveal-prosperity-and-peril-in-europe/

RENO, Nev. – Europe’s past prosperity and failure, driven by climate changes, has been revealed using thousand-year-old pollen, spores and charcoal particles fossilized in glacial ice. This first analysis of microfossils preserved in European glaciers unveils earlier-than-expected evidence of air pollution and the roots of modern invasive species problems.

A new study analyzed pollen, spores, charcoal and other pollutants frozen in the Colle Gnifetti glacier on the Swiss and Italian border. The research found changes in the composition of these microfossils corresponded closely with known major events in climate, such as the Little Ice Age and well-established volcanic eruptions.

The work was published in Geophysical Research Letters, which publishes high-impact, short-format reports with immediate implications spanning all Earth and space sciences.

The industrialization of European society also appeared clearly in the microfossil record and, in some cases, showed up sooner than expected. Pollen from the introduction of non-native crops was found to go back at least 100 years ago and pollution from the burning of fossil fuels shows up in the 18th century, about 100 years earlier than expected.

Existing historical sources such as church records or diaries record conditions during major events like droughts or famines. However, studying data from the glaciers contributes to the understanding of climate and land use surrounding such events, providing non-stop context for them with evidence from a large land area. Precisely identifying the timing of these events can help scientists better understand current climate change.

“The historical sources that were available before, I don’t think [the sources] got the full picture of the environmental context,” said Sandra Brugger, a paleoecologist at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada and lead researcher on the study. “But also, with the ice core, we couldn’t get the full picture until we started collaborating with historians on this. It needs those two sides of the coin.”

Evidence on High

The new study analyzed microfossils frozen in two 82- and 75-meter-long ice cores pulled from the Colle Gnifetti glacier, which are the first two ice cores from the continent of Europe studied for microfossils. Similar studies have sampled ice cores in South America, Central Asia and Greenland, but those regions lack the breadth of written historical records that can be directly correlated with the continuous microfossil data in ice cores.

Over the centuries, wind, rain and snow carried microfossils from European lowlands, the United Kingdom and North Africa to the exposed glacier. Ice in this glacier site dates back tens of thousands of years, and the altitude of Colle Gnifetti — 4,450 meters above sea level — means the ice was likely never subjected to melting, which would mix the layers of samples and create uncertainty in the chronology of the record.

“They can actually pinpoint and identify the relationships between what’s happening on the continent with climatic records inherent in the ice,” said John Birks, a paleoecologist at the University of Bergen who was not associated with the study. “They can develop, in a stronger way, this link between human civilization and change and climate, particularly in the last thousand years or so where conventional pollen analysis is rather weak.”

Evidence of pollution due to fossil fuel combustion also appeared earlier in the chronological record than expected. The researchers found evidence of the early burning of coal in the United Kingdom around 1780, much earlier than the expected onset of industrialization around 1850, which could have implications for global climate change modeling.

The records also showed evidence of pollen from non-native European plants from 100 years ago, showing a long legacy of the existing ecological problems created by invasive species transported across continents through trade.

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AGU (www.agu.org) supports 130,000 enthusiasts to experts worldwide in Earth and space sciences. Through broad and inclusive partnerships, we advance discovery and solution science that accelerate knowledge and create solutions that are ethical, unbiased and respectful of communities and their values. Our programs include serving as a scholarly publisher, convening virtual and in-person events and providing career support. We live our values in everything we do, such as our net zero energy renovated building in Washington, D.C. and our Ethics and Equity Center, which fosters a diverse and inclusive geoscience community to ensure responsible conduct.

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.

Consortium Launches New Online Water Data Platform to Transform Water Management in the Western United States as Droughts Intensify

Consortium Launches New Online Water Data Platform to Transform Water Management in the Western United States as Droughts Intensify

“What OpenET offers is a way for people to better understand their water usage. Giving farmers and water managers better information is the greatest value of OpenET.” – Denise Moyle, Farmer, Diamond Valley, Nevada

OpenET makes satellite-based data widely accessible to help 17 states develop more resilient water supplies

Reposted from OpenET

SACRAMENTO, CA – OpenET, a new online platform that uses satellites to estimate water consumed by crops and other plants, launched today, making critical data for water management widely available in 17 western states for the first time amid record drought.

OpenET fills a major information gap in water management in the West. Although water is essential to the health of our communities, wildlife, and food supply, access to accurate, timely data on the amount of water used to grow food has been fragmented and often expensive, keeping it out of the hands of many farmers and decision-makers. OpenET allows users to easily view and download this important water data for the current year and previous five years at no charge.

OpenET is providing this data down to the field scale in 17 western states as water supplies become increasingly scarce due to drought, climate change and population growth. The states covered by OpenET are Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

“OpenET addresses one of the biggest data gaps in water management in the western United States,” said Forrest Melton, program scientist for the NASA Western Water Applications Office. “This easy-to-use online platform provides scientifically robust data that are invaluable for water management at all scales, from an individual agricultural field to an entire river basin.”

As water supplies become increasingly scarce in arid regions, we need new, innovative tools like OpenET to manage water more precisely and sustainably,” said Robyn Grimm, senior manager, water information systems, at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “OpenET provides all farmers, policymakers and communities big and small with the same high-quality data on water use, so that we can all work together from the same playbook to develop more resilient water supplies across the West.”

“OpenET is a powerful application of cloud computing that will make a measurable impact on the ground in the agriculture sector. Google is proud to support such an important new tool to help improve water sustainability in the western United States as we see the impacts of climate change intensify,” said Google Earth Engine developer advocate Tyler Erickson.

“OpenET combines decades of research with advances in technology from just the past five years to make valuable water data much more affordable and accessible to all,” said Justin Huntington, a research professor at Desert Research Institute. “In the future we hope to expand OpenET to other arid regions of the world, such as South America, India and Africa.”

 

Justin-Huntington-OpenET-Technical-Team

“As someone who has worked on evapotranspiration for more than 40 years, I am thrilled to see multiple, independent models for estimating ET come together on a single, easy-to-navigate platform,” said Richard Allen, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Idaho. “By putting these water consumption data into the hands of farmers and water managers across the western United States, OpenET will be transformative in helping us manage water more sustainably,” added Ayse Kilic, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“In some parts of the arid West, more than 70% of irrigation water ends up as evapotranspiration. By automating calculations for this highly important water data, OpenET will enable the USGS and water managers to more easily create water budgets at the watershed scale, which is an essential first step toward proactive water management,” said Gabriel Senay, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Irrigated agriculture is essential to feeding a growing population,” said Martha Anderson, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “OpenET will be a powerful tool to help our nation’s farmers increase food production under conditions of limited freshwater resources.”

“OpenET has not just transformed access to information on ET, but has also facilitated important advances in the underlying science,” said Josh Fisher, a research scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles. “The collaborative approach used to develop OpenET will accelerate our ability to scale the platform to other regions, and to rapidly incorporate new information from future satellite missions.”

“The development of multi-model tools based on cloud computing, as provided by OpenET, is a paradigm shift, allowing water resources management in sustainable ways, not only in the United States, but also in many agricultural regions of the world, where agriculture and irrigation are increasing rapidly, as in Brazil”, added Anderson Ruhoff, a professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

 

Screenshot of OpenET Data

Applications of OpenET data include:

  • Informing irrigation management and scheduling to maximize “crop per drop” and reduce costs for water, fertilizer and energy. ET data are being used by E&J Gallo Winery in California and Oregon state legislator and alfalfa farmer Mark Owens to reduce applied irrigation water while sustaining crop yields and quality.
  • Enabling water and land managers to develop more accurate water budgets, water trading programs and other innovative programs. Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District in California’s San Joaquin Valley is using OpenET in its online accounting and trading platform. Salt River Project in Arizona is using OpenET to improve their understanding of the impacts of wildfire and forest management on streamflow and groundwater recharge.

What is evapotranspiration?

The “ET” in OpenET stands for evapotranspiration — the process by which water evaporates from the land surface and transpires, or is released, from plants. ET is a key measure of water consumed by crops and other vegetation that can be used by farmers and water managers to better track water use as well as water saved, for instance, when farmers change crops or invest in new technologies.

Evapotranspiration can be estimated by satellites because the ET process absorbs energy and cools the land surface, and vegetation reflects and absorbs different amounts of visible and near-infrared light depending upon the density and health of the vegetation. These effects are visible to thermal and optical sensors on a satellite. Using sophisticated biophysical models, OpenET combines satellite information with local weather data to accurately estimate ET. 

Using publicly available data, OpenET brings together six independent models for estimating evapotranspiration onto a single computing platform, ultimately helping to build broader trust and agreement around this information.

OpenET data has been extensively compared to ground-based measurements collected in agricultural fields and natural landscapes, and tested by a wide variety of organizations through several use cases to ensure the highest accuracy.

Unprecedented public-private partnership

OpenET has been developed through an unprecedented public-private collaboration with input from more than 100 farmers, water managers, and other stakeholders. The project is led by Environmental Defense Fund, NASA, Desert Research Institute, and HabitatSeven. Additional team members include Google, the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture, California State University Monterey Bay, University of Idaho, University of Maryland, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Wisconsin-Madison, UCLA, and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

The OpenET project has received funding from the NASA Applied Sciences Program Western Water Applications Office, S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Water Funder Initiative, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, The Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, Delta Water Agencies, and the Windward Fund. In-kind support has been provided by Google Earth Engine and partners in the agricultural and water management communities.

Providing farmers and local water managers free ET data is a core objective of the OpenET project. For-profit entities and other organizations looking for large-scale access to OpenET data will be able to purchase it through an application programming interface (API) expected to launch in 2022. Revenue generated will fund continuing research and development of OpenET data services.

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Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and our Growing Returns blog.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa.gov) is a U.S. government agency that leads an innovative program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and bring new knowledge and opportunities back to Earth. With its fleet of Earth-observing satellites and instruments, NASA uses the vantage point of space to understand and explore our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future.

The Desert Research Institute (dri.edu) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Google Earth Engine (earthengine.google.com) is a geospatial processing platform that combines a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite imagery and other geospatial datasets with planetary-scale analysis capabilities. The platform is enabling scientists, developers and decision-makers to make substantive progress on global environmental and sustainability challenges.

DRI Research Professor Dr. Michael Dettinger Awarded 2021 Tyndall Lecture

DRI Research Professor Dr. Michael Dettinger Awarded 2021 Tyndall Lecture

Second DRI researcher to be recognized with this prestigious award

 

Reno, Nev. (September 10, 2021) – DRI announced that research professor Michael Dettinger, Ph.D., has been selected by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to give this year’s Tyndall Lecture at the Fall 2021 AGU meeting. The prestigious Tyndall Lecture Award recognizes outstanding work in advancing understanding of global environmental change. Dettinger is the second DRI researcher to be recognized by AGU since the award’s inception in 2013. World-renown DRI researcher Kelly Redmond, Ph.D., was recognized with the second Tyndall Lecture award in 2014.

“I am deeply honored to be recognized with the Tyndall Lecture and to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Kelly Redmond,” said Dettinger. “I look forward to sharing my research at the Fall 2021 AGU meeting. My lecture will present a history of climate and water studies in the Western U.S. Water resources have not been a focus of previous Tyndall Lectures and with current conditions in the West, the time is right for taking a look at this history.”

Dr. Dettinger joined DRI several years ago following a long (38-year) career with the U.S. Geological Survey that began in Nevada with studies of Las Vegas valley groundwater and the carbonate-rock aquifers of Eastern and Southern Nevada in collaboration with DRI scientists in the early 1980s. His career has since focused on unraveling the complex interactions between water resources, climate variations and change, and ecosystems in the Western U.S.  He recently co-edited a book on atmospheric rivers. He is a Fellow of the AGU and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“We are proud of Mike’s accomplishments and are honored that he has been awarded DRI’s second Tyndall Lecture Award,” said DRI Executive Director, Division of Hydrologic Sciences Sean McKenna, Ph.D. “Mike has sustained his considerable energy, curiosity and creativity over a long career resulting in ground-breaking insights on global environmental change. His ability to communicate his findings in clear language and his dedication to mentor other researchers is a shining example of what we strive for at DRI.”

The Tyndall History of Global Environmental Change Lecture is presented annually and recognizes outstanding contributions to our understanding of global environmental change. It honors the life and work of Irish physicist John Tyndall, who confirmed the importance of the greenhouse effect in the late 1800s.

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu

Media Contact:
Detra Page
Communications Manager
Detra.page@dri.edu
702.591.3786

Senator Cortez Masto, Representatives Huffman, Lee, and Stewart Introduce Bicameral, Bipartisan Legislation to Transform Water Management in the West

Senator Cortez Masto, Representatives Huffman, Lee, and Stewart Introduce Bicameral, Bipartisan Legislation to Transform Water Management in the West

Reposted news release from the office of Senator Cortez Masto.

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) today introduced legislation to get critical water use data in the hands of farmers, ranchers, and decision-makers for improved water management across the Western U.S. The Open Access Evapotranspiration (OpenET) Act would establish a program under the Department of the Interior (DOI) to use publicly available data from satellites and weather stations to provide estimates of evapotranspiration (ET), a critical measure of the water that is consumed and removed from a water system. ET represents the largest share of water use in most arid environments around the world. Companion legislation is being introduced in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Susie Lee (D-Nev.-03), Congressman Chris Stewart (R-Utah-02), and Congressman Jared Huffman (D-Calif.-02).

“With Nevada and states across the West facing drought, we need to make it as easy as possible for our communities to conserve water and for farmers and ranchers to effectively manage their water use,” said Senator Cortez Masto. “My legislation will help accomplish that goal by equipping Nevadans with this critical water data. This data will help us protect our water resources and ensure our crops, livestock, and wildlife have water access, and passing this bill would mark a significant step in our plan for a more sustainable future.”

“The West faces a historic drought that demands action and innovation,” said Representative Susie Lee. “All of Nevada is currently in drought, and the entirety of my district, Nevada’s Third District, is in exceptional drought, the highest classification. In order to solve our water crisis, we need to better understand how much water is available and how much water is being used. With this program, we will have credible, transparent and easily accessible data on our consumptive water use so that we can make better water management decisions in Nevada and across the West.”

“Extreme drought fueled by climate change has become a dire challenge in the western United States, and it’s critical for us to operate with the best information and data possible as we manage this increasingly limited resource,” said Representative Huffman. “Knowing key water metrics like evaporation rates is incredibly valuable for folks across all sectors, and I‘m glad to join Representatives Lee and Stewart and Senator Cortez Masto in this bill to help farmers, water utilities, regulators, and governments alike all make well-informed water management decisions.”

“Water is the lifeblood of the American West, and the ongoing drought is taking a toll on everyone,” said Representative Stewart. “It’s absolutely necessary that we get the most use out of the water we already have. That starts with giving states more consistent, accessible, and accurate data. This legislation will allow us to be more prudent with our current resources and plan for the future of our communities.”

“The Nevada Division of Water Resources strongly supports the continued development and public accessibility of OpenET,” said Adam Sullivan, Nevada State Engineer, Nevada Division of Water Resources. “This outstanding program directly benefits water users throughout Nevada and the West who strive to improve efficiency and conserve water. Public access to these data will be increasingly vital to support water users and responsible water management needs into the future.”

“OpenET will allow water managers to assess how much water is being used via a cost-effective and easy-to-use web-based platform, filing a critical data gap in water management across the U.S.,” said Zane Marshall, Director, Water Resources, Southern Nevada Water Authority. “The Authority believes OpenET is a valuable tool for federal, state, and local policymakers and water users.”

“It’s more important than ever to provide consistent, accurate information to water users and water managers to allow them to make the most efficient decisions about water use,” said Desert Research Institute President Kumud Acharya. “OpenET is an innovative approach that provides agricultural water users and water managers access to the same information on consumptive water use. I appreciate the leadership of Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Nevada Congresswoman Susie Lee on this important piece of legislation.”

“OpenET has been developed in close collaboration with partners from agriculture, cities, irrigation districts, and other stakeholders across the West,” said Laura Ziemer, Senior Counsel and Water Policy Advisor, Trout Unlimited.  OpenET is a forward-looking tool for supporting TU’s goals of water conservation and meaningful water allocation to promote the sustainability of both agriculture and watershed health.”

The West is facing the devastating impacts of increased drought and a changing climate, and to maximize the benefits of our water supplies, we must know how much water is available and how much is being used. Access to this data has been limited, inconsistent, and expensive, making it difficult for farmers, ranchers, and water managers to use it when making important decisions that could benefit communities. The OpenET program brings together an ensemble of well-established methods to calculate ET at the field-scale across the 17 Western states. Applications of this data include:

  • Assisting water users and decision-makers to better manage resources and protect financial viability of farm operations during drought;
  • Developing more accurate water budgets and innovative management programs to better promote conservation and sustainability efforts;
  • Employing data-driven groundwater management practices and understanding impacts of consumptive water use.

The bill text can be found here.

Senator Cortez Masto has worked to safeguard Nevada’s water and landscapes and the agricultural and outdoor recreation industries that rely on them. Her legislation to combat drought and protect the water supply in western states recently cleared a key Senate committee hurdle, and she is also leading a bipartisan bill to restore Lake Tahoe. She has introduced comprehensive legislation to prevent wildfires, fund state-of-the-art firefighting equipment and programs, and support recovery efforts for communities impacted by fires.

WASH Capacity Building Program Alumni Share Career Impacts

WASH Capacity Building Program Alumni Share Career Impacts

WASH Capacity Building Program Alumni Share Career Impacts

July 28, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)
Sustainability
Education

Successful international training program provides education in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and environmental issues.

Alumni from the Desert Research Institute’s WASH Capacity Building Program (WASHCap) recently gathered for an online Zoom panel to share some of the positive impacts that the program has had on their careers in the areas of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) across Africa and India.

The WASHCap program is led by DRI’s Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS), in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), Drexel University, and World Vision. Students complete a series of courses on topics related to WASH, some of which are taught online and others in a face-to-face setting in locations such as eSwatini, Ghana and Uganda.

Since launching in 2016, five cohorts of students have graduated from WASHCap program – a total of 133 students from 25 countries. A sixth cohort of 38 students is currently enrolled, and includes for the first time students from Latin America and the Caribbean.

More than 75 WASHCap alumni, friends, colleagues, and students attended the online panel discussion, which featured dynamic and lively dialogue among the current and previous students of the program, and remarks by Margaret Shuler, Senior Vice President of International Programs at World Vision and Jodi Herzik, Interim Vice Provost of Extended Studies at UNR.

WASHCap program alumni Martin Mutisya is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Sudan. Credit: DRI.

WASHCap program alumni Martin Mutisya is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Sudan. 

Credit: DRI.

The discussion was moderated by Braimah Apambire, Ph.D., Director of CIWAS at DRI. Several instructors from the WASHCap program including DRI’s Rosemary Carrol, Ph.D., Alan Heyavert, Ph.D., and Erick Bandala, Ph.D., and Drs, Emmanuel Opong, John Akudago and Eleanor Wozei also participated in the discussion, asking program alumni to reflect on ways in which the program has helped them to improve their careers, implement new business plans, understand complex issues related to WASH, network with other professionals, and more.

Martin Mutisya, Program Manager for WASH World Vision Sudan, appreciated the breadth of knowledge that was covered during a course called “Cross-cutting issues in WASH”, which helped him understand issues of gender and social inclusion, and the importance of covering them in WASH plans.

Alexander Pandian from World Vision India said that the WASHCap program helped him to feel more comfortable serving as a technical point person for WASH, and allowed him to help develop the first World Vision country strategy on WASH for India.

Rose Riwa, a hygiene specialist from World Vision in Tanzania, credited the WASHCap program for helping her to understand how WASH integrates with other issues, and for helping her to progress in her career as a leader in WASH in her country.

WASHCap program alumni Pamela Wamalwa is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Kenya.

WASHCap program alumni Pamela Wamalwa is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Kenya.

Credit: DRI.

Pamela Wamalwa of World Vision Kenya said that because of the training she received in conducting research and presenting term papers during the WASHCap program, she now feels more comfortable doing research in her job and presenting her findings at professional conferences.

“During the training, I gained a lot of courage,” Wamalwa said. “Before I was not able to present papers, but during the training, I realized that I can actually do research and present in conferences. It was an experience I couldn’t have gotten if I didn’t attend this program.”

Other panelists spoke to the value of the program in building their knowledge, research skills, presentation skills, confidence, and networks within the WASH sector. Many graduates of the WASHCap program have gone on to lead WASH programs and projects across Africa and India, including many who are now employed by World Vision.

“It was very powerful to hear about the positive impact that this program has had on the careers of so many of our graduates, and to be able to share that message with students who are in the program now,” Apambire said.

Additional information:

 

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About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI)  is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

DRI Ice Core Lab Data Shows Magnitude of Historic Fire Activity in Southern Hemisphere

DRI Ice Core Lab Data Shows Magnitude of Historic Fire Activity in Southern Hemisphere

DRI Ice Core Lab Data Shows Magnitude of Historic Fire Activity in Southern Hemisphere

May 28, 2021
RENO, NEV.

Ice Cores
Fire Activity
Climate Change

Above: Smoke from human-caused wildfires on the Patagonian steppe are trapped in Antarctic ice. 

Credit: Kathy Kasic/Brett Kuxhausen, Montana State University.

A new study in Science Advances features ice core data from the DRI Ice Core Laboratory and research by Nathan Chellman, Ph.D., Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., and Joe McConnell, Ph.D.

Fire emissions in the Southern Hemisphere may have been much higher during pre-industrial times than in the present day, according to new research from an international team of scientists including Nathan Chellman, Ph.D., Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., and Joe McConnell, Ph.D., of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno.

The study, published today in Science Advances, used new ice core data from DRI’s Ice Core Laboratory to document changes in levels of soot from ancient fires and modern fossil fuel combustion during the years 1750 to 2000. Many of the 14 Antarctic ice cores included in the study were obtained through national and international collaborations, and together comprise an unprecedented long-term record of Southern Hemisphere fire activity that provided the foundation for the modeling effort described in the new paper.

All of the ice cores were analyzed using a specialized method for soot measurements in ice that McConnell and his team pioneered at DRI nearly 15 years ago. This method is now widely used in laboratories around the world.

For more information about the DRI Ice Core Laboratory, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/labs/trace-chemistry-laboratory/. The full news release from Harvard University, A fiery past sheds new light on the future of global climate change, is posted below.

Co-author Dr. Robert Mulvaney from the British Antarctic Arctic Survey drilling the James Ross Island core in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Co-author Dr. Robert Mulvaney from the British Antarctic Arctic Survey drilling the James Ross Island core in the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Credit: Robert Mulvaney.

Thumnail image of Science Advances paper, links to paper

The full text of the paper, Improved estimates of preindustrial biomass burning reduce the magnitude of aerosol climate forcing in the Southern Hemisphere, is available from Science Advances: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/22/eabc1379.abstract

A fiery past sheds new light on the future of global climate change

Ice core samples reveal significant smoke aerosols in the pre-industrial Southern Hemisphere 

By Leah Burrows, Harvard University

Centuries-old smoke particles preserved in the ice reveal a fiery past in the Southern Hemisphere and shed new light on the future impacts of global climate change, according to new research published in Science Advances.

“Up till now, the magnitude of past fire activity, and thus the amount of smoke in the preindustrial atmosphere, has not been well characterized,” said Pengfei Liu, a former graduate student and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and first author of the paper. “These results have importance for understanding the evolution of climate change from the 1750s until today, and for predicting future climate.”

One of the biggest uncertainties when it comes to predicting the future impacts of climate change is how fast surface temperatures will rise in response to increases in greenhouse gases. Predicting these temperatures is complicated since it involves the calculation of competing warming and cooling effects in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases trap heat and warm the planet’s surface while aerosol particles in the atmosphere from volcanoes, fires and other combustion cool the planet by blocking sunlight or seeding cloud cover. Understanding how sensitive surface temperature is to each of these effects and how they interact is critical to predicting the future impact of climate change.

Ancient ice from James Ross Island in the Northern Antarctic Peninsula about to be extracted from the drill barrel.

Ancient ice from James Ross Island in the Northern Antarctic Peninsula about to be extracted from the drill barrel. 

Credit: Robert Mulvaney.

Many of today’s climate models rely on past levels of greenhouse gasses and aerosols to validate their predictions for the future. But there’s a problem: While pre-industrial levels of greenhouse gasses are well documented, the amount of smoke aerosols in the preindustrial atmosphere is not. 

To model smoke in the pre-industrial Southern Hemisphere, the research team looked to Antarctica, where the ice trapped smoke particles emitted from fires in Australia, Africa and South America. Ice core scientists and co-authors of the study, Joseph McConnell and Nathan Chellman from the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, measured soot, a key component of smoke, deposited in an array of 14 ice cores from across the continent, many provided by international collaborators.

“Soot deposited in glacier ice directly reflects past atmospheric concentrations so well-dated ice cores provide the most reliable long-term records,” said McConnell.    

What they found was unexpected.

“While most studies have assumed less fire took place in the preindustrial era, the ice cores suggested a much fierier past, at least in the Southern Hemisphere,” said Loretta Mickley, Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry-Climate Interactions at SEAS and senior author of the paper.

To account for these levels of smoke, the researchers ran computer simulations that account for both wildfires and the burning practices of indigenous people.

“The computer simulations of fire show that the atmosphere of the Southern Hemisphere could have been very smoky in the century before the Industrial Revolution. Soot concentrations in the atmosphere were up to four times greater than previous studies suggested. Most of this was caused by widespread and regular burning practiced by indigenous peoples in the pre-colonial period,” said Jed Kaplan, Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong and co-author of the study.

Drilling ice cores in East Antarctica as part of the Norwegian-U.S. International IPY Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica.

Drilling ice cores in East Antarctica as part of the Norwegian-U.S. International IPY Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica.

Credit: Mary Albert.

This result agrees with the ice core records that also show that soot was abundant before the start of the industrial era and has remained relatively constant through the 20th century. The modeling suggests that as land-use changes decreased fire activity, emissions from industry increased.

What does this finding mean for future surface temperatures?

By underestimating the cooling effect of smoke particles in the pre-industrial world, climate models might have overestimated the warming effect of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in order to account for the observed increases in surface temperatures.

“Climate scientists have known that the most recent generation of climate models have been over-estimating surface temperature sensitivity to greenhouse gasses, but we haven’t known why or by how much,” said Liu. “This research offers a possible explanation.”

“Clearly the world is warming but the key question is how fast will it warm as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This research allows us to refine our predictions moving forward,” said Mickley.

The research was co-authored by Yang Li, Monica Arienzo, John Kodros, Jeffrey Pierce, Michael Sigl, Johannes Freitag, Robert Mulvaney, and Mark Curran.

It was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Geosciences Directorate under grants AGS-1702814 and 1702830, with additional support from 0538416, 0538427, and 0839093.

 

Additional Information:

The full text of the paper, Improved estimates of preindustrial biomass burning reduce the magnitude of aerosol climate forcing in the Southern Hemisphere, is available from Science Advances: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/22/eabc1379.abstract

The news release above was reposted with permission from Harvard University: https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2021/05/fiery-past-sheds-new-light-future-global-climate-change. 

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About the Desert Research Institute
The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental 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 policymakers, 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. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu

Does Cold Wildfire Smoke Contribute to Water Repellent Soils in Burned Areas?

Does Cold Wildfire Smoke Contribute to Water Repellent Soils in Burned Areas?

Does Cold Wildfire Smoke Contribute to Water Repellent Soils in Burned Areas?

May 25, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Soil Science
Wildfires
Hydrology

Above: After a wildfire, soils in burned areas often become water repellent, leading to increased erosion and flooding after rainfall events. The hillside shown here burned in California’s Loyalton Fire during August 2020.

Credit: Kelsey Fitzgerald/DRI.

A new DRI pilot study finds severe water repellency in sand samples after treatment with both hot and cold smoke.

After a wildfire, soils in burned areas often become water repellent, leading to increased erosion and flooding after rainfall events – a phenomenon that many scientists have attributed to smoke and heat-induced changes in soil chemistry. But this post-fire water repellency may also be caused by wildfire smoke in the absence of heat, according to a new paper from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Nevada.

In this pilot study (exploratory research that takes place before a larger-scale study), an interdisciplinary team of scientists led by DRI Associate Research Professor of Atmospheric Science Vera Samburova, Ph.D., exposed samples of clean sand to smoke from burning Jeffrey pine needles and branches in DRI’s combustion chamber, then analyzed the time it took for water droplets placed on the sand surface to be absorbed – a measure of water repellency.

Natasha Sushenko processes samples in the Environmental Microbiology Lab at the Desert Research Institute during a COVID-19 wastewater monitoring study.

A new pilot study by an interdisciplinary team from DRI exposed samples of clean sand to smoke from burning Jeffrey pine needles and branches, then analyzed the time it took for water droplets placed on the sand surface to be absorbed — a measure of water repellency. After exposure to smoke, water droplets sometimes remained on the sand surface for more than 50 minutes without soaking in.

Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

The full text of the paper, Effect of Biomass-Burning Emissions on Soil Water Repellent: A Pilot Laboratory Study, is available from Fire: https://www.mdpi.com/2571-6255/4/2/24

The pilot study investigated the effects of smoke and heat on water repellency of the sand and was the first study to also incorporate an analysis of cold smoke. In the experiments, sand was used in place of soil because it could be cleaned thoroughly and analyzed accurately, and Jeffrey pine for a fuel source because it represents a common wildland fire fuel in the Western U.S.

Before exposure to Jeffrey pine smoke, water droplets placed on the surface of the sand samples were quickly absorbed. But after exposure to smoke, the sand samples showed severe-to-extreme water repellency, in some cases retaining water droplets on the sand surface for more than 50 minutes without soaking in. It made little difference whether or not samples had been exposed to heat and smoke, or just cold smoke.

“The classic explanation for fire-induced water repellency is that it is caused as smoke diffuses under rather hot conditions and settles down into the soils, but our work shows that the smoke does not have to be hot to turn the sand hydrophobic — simply the presence of the chemical substances in the smoke is enough,” Samburova said. “This is something we really need to look deeper into because soil water repellency leads to increases in flooding, erosion, and surface runoff.”

Above, left: Jeffrey pine needles and sticks were used as a fuel source in the new DRI study because Jeffrey pine represents a common wildland fire fuel in the Western U.S.

Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Above, right: Jeffrey pine needles and branches burn inside of the combustion chamber at DRI during a new study that investigated the effects of smoke and heat on water repellent of sand samples.

Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

This study built on previously published work by former DRI postdoctoral researcher Rose Shillito, Ph.D., (currently with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Markus Berli, Ph.D., of DRI, and Teamrat Ghezzehei, Ph.D., of University of California, Merced, in which the researchers developed an analytical model for relating soil water repellency to infiltration of water.

“Our earlier paper focused on how fire changes the properties of soils, from a hydrology perspective,” Berli explained. “In our current study, we were interested in learning more about the chemistry behind the process of how soils come to be hydrophobic. We’re bringing together geochemistry and organic geochemistry with soil physics and hydrology to understand the impact of fire-induced water repellency on hydrology.”

The project team is now working on a larger proposal to further investigate questions touched on by this study about the roles of heat and smoke in fire-induced water repellency. Among other things, they would like to know how long soil water repellency lasts after a fire, and gain a better understanding of the detailed processes and mechanisms through which cold smoke affects the soil.

In her free time, Natasha enjoys hiking and being outside in beautiful areas like the Desolation Wilderness in California.

DRI’s combustion chamber, pictured here, is a specialized facility that has been designed and built for the open combustion of solid fuels under controlled conditions. In this experiment, it was used to expose samples of clean sand to Jeffrey pine smoke. 

Credit: Kelsey Fitzgerald/DRI.

Gaining a thorough understanding of the process that leads to fire-induced soil water repellency is important because land managers need this information in order to accurately predict where soils are likely to be hydrophobic after a fire, Berli explained.

“We still don’t really understand the processes that lead to this fire-induced soil water repellency,” Berli said. “Depending on what we find, the measures to predict fire-induced water repellency might be different, and this can have a significant impact on how we can predict and prevent flooding or debris flows that happen after a fire.”

“This study was one big step forward, but it highlights the importance of future research on how fires affect soil, because wildfires are affecting thousands and thousands of square kilometers of land each year in the Western U.S., ” Samburova added. “Some of our future goals are to find out how exactly this soil water repellent happens, where it happens and how long it lasts.”

Additional Information:

This study was made possible with support from DRI and the National Science Foundation. Study authors included Vera Samburova, Ph.D., Rose Shillito, Ph.D. (currently with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Markus Berli, Ph.D., Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D., and Hans Moosmüller, Ph.D., all from DRI.

The full text of the paper, Effect of Biomass-Burning Emissions on Soil Water Repellency: A Pilot Laboratory Study, is available from Fire: https://www.mdpi.com/2571-6255/4/2/24

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About the Desert Research Institute
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. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu

New Study Investigates the Distribution of Deep Underground Microbial Life

New Study Investigates the Distribution of Deep Underground Microbial Life

Above: DeMMO field team from left to right: Lily Momper, Brittany Kruger, and Caitlin Casar sampling fracture fluids from a DeMMO borehole installation. Credit: Matt Kapust.


Las Vegas, Nev. – Below the Earth’s surface, a zone of life known as the continental deep subsurface is home to large populations of bacteria and archaea, but little is known about how these microbial populations are distributed. To learn whether they are spread evenly across rock surfaces or prefer to colonize specific minerals in the rocks, scientists from Northwestern University and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) went deep inside of a former gold mine in South Dakota and grew biofilms (collections of microorganisms) on rocks. Their results, which published in April in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, show that the microbes formed “hotspots” around certain minerals in the rocks. Brittany Kruger, Ph.D., Assistant Research Scientist in Biogeochemistry from DRI in Las Vegas, served as field lead for the Northwestern research team at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), where this study was conducted.

The full text of the paper Rock-Hosted Subsurface Biofilms: Mineral Selectivity Drives Hotspots for Intraterrestrial Life is available from Frontiers in the Environment: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2021.658988/full

The press release below was reposted with permission from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL:


Earth’s crust mineralogy drives hotspots for intraterrestrial life

Northwestern University – Evanston, IL

April 9, 2021 – Below the verdant surface and organic rich soil, life extends kilometers into Earth’s deep rocky crust. The continental deep subsurface is likely one of the largest reservoirs of bacteria and archaea on Earth, many forming biofilms – like a microbial coating of the rock surface. This microbial population survives without light or oxygen and with minimal organic carbon sources, and can get energy by eating or respiring minerals. Distributed throughout the deep subsurface, these biofilms could represent 20-80% of the total bacterial and archaeal biomass in the continental subsurface according to the most recent estimate. But are these microbial populations spread evenly on rock surfaces, or do they prefer to colonize specific minerals in the rocks?

To answer this question, researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, led a study to analyze the growth and distribution of microbial communities in deep continental subsurface settings. This work shows that the host rock mineral composition drives biofilm distribution, producing “hotspots” of microbial life. The study was published in Frontiers in Microbiology.

Hotspots of microbial life

To realize this study, the researchers went 1.5 kilometers below the surface in the Deep Mine Microbial Observatory (DeMMO), housed within a former gold mine now known as the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), located in Lead, South Dakota. There, below-ground, the researchers cultivated biofilms on native rocks rich in iron and sulfur-bearing minerals. After six months, the researchers analyzed the microbial composition and physical characteristics of newly grown biofilms, as well as its distributions using microscopy, spectroscopy and spatial modeling approaches.

The spatial analyses conducted by the researchers revealed hotspots where the biofilm was denser. These hotspots correlate with iron-rich mineral grains in the rocks, highlighting some mineral preferences for biofilm colonization. “Our results demonstrate the strong spatial dependence of biofilm colonization on minerals in rock surfaces. We think that this spatial dependence is due to microbes getting their energy from the minerals they colonize,” explains Caitlin Casar, first author of the study.

Future research

Altogether, these results demonstrate that host rock mineralogy is a key driver of biofilm distribution, which could help improve estimates of the microbial distribution of the Earth’s deep continental subsurface. But leading intraterrestrial studies could also inform other topics. “Our findings could inform the contribution of biofilms to global nutrient cycles, and also have astrobiological implications as these findings provide insight into biomass distributions in a Mars analog system” says Caitlin Casar.

Indeed, extraterrestrial life could exist in similar subsurface environments where the microorganisms are protected from both radiation and extreme temperatures. Mars, for example, has an iron and sulfur-rich composition similar to DeMMO’s rock formations, which we now know are capable of driving the formation of microbial hotspots below-ground.

 

Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Natasha Sushenko, Graduate Researcher

May 11, 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

By Kaylynn Perez

Environmental Microbiology
Pathogenic Bacteria
Space

Natasha Sushenko is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas. She is a Master’s student in Biological Sciences in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and is co-mentored by Duane Moser, Ph.D., of DRI and Brian Hedlund, Ph.D., of UNLV. Funding for Natasha’s position is provided by the NASA EPSCOR Rapid Response Research Program. Learn more about Natasha and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog!

Natasha Sushenko processes samples in the Environmental Microbiology Lab at the Desert Research Institute during a COVID-19 wastewater monitoring study.

Natasha Sushenko processes samples using a biosafety cabinet in the Environmental Microbiology Lab at the Desert Research Institute in December of 2020 during a SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring study. Sushenko is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Las Vegas.

Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Sushenko: Dr. Duane Moser spoke in my undergraduate Microbial Ecology class at UNLV, and I was really interested in how his lab studies the deep biosphere, the zone of life that exists far below Earth’s surface. His lab does fascinating research on “microbial dark matter,” yet-to-be-classified microorganisms that live under extreme conditions within the deep biosphere and are difficult to culture in the lab. We kept in touch, and even though I considered leaving Las Vegas to do my graduate studies, the opportunities that he and DRI offered were too good to pass up.

What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

Sushenko: I work in Dr. Moser’s Environmental Microbiology Lab here at DRI. We completed a COVID-19 wastewater monitoring study this winter, but my main research project is a NASA collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). They sent our lab strains of a pathogen (disease-causing bacterium) called Klebsiella pneumoniae that were isolated from the International Space Station (ISS). This microbe is a common cause of hospital-borne pneumonia and other infections, but in this case, it was found living on surfaces on the ISS, including on their space toilet. This pathogen is of particular concern to NASA because it has appeared in multiple samples across several years of microbiome monitoring, and it is growing more prevalent over time. While no astronauts on the space station have gotten sick, future human spaceflight to Mars and beyond may require astronauts to go on trips lasting years before returning to Earth. Because of this, NASA wants to know how pathogens like K. pneumoniae respond and adapt to living in space.

Our goal is to study how this pathogen’s virulence, or ability to cause severe illness, and its resistance to antimicrobial drugs and cleaners changes when exposed to the stresses of microgravity. Microgravity is the condition in space where people or objects appear to be weightless. This is something we can study here on Earth, at DRI, with a machine that simulates microgravity.

Above, left: Natasha Sushenko processes samples using a biosafety cabinet in the Environmental Microbiology Lab at the Desert Research Institute in December of 2020 during a SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring study.

Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

Above, right: Natasha Sushenko performs field chemistries on deep borehole samples in the Funeral Mountains near Death Valley on 28-April, 2021. Here Natasha is using a Hach Colorimeter to measure dissolved oxygen, iron, sulfate, and sulfide to test whether increased rates of pumping from a deep well facilitated collection of deeper samples from a geologic fracture zone. Natasha contributed to the DRI-led portion of an NSF-funded collaboration with Bigelow Lab in ME and others focused on applying cutting-edge genomic approaches to the oceans, marine crustal fluids, and the continental subsurface.

Credit: Detra Page/DRI.

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

Sushenko: Right now, I’m on the master’s degree plan, but I’m considering changing to Ph.D. track to continue working on my project to completion and beyond. The issue of the microbiome of the built environment in closed systems like spacecraft will only become more important as agencies and companies explore travel to the moon and Mars. You don’t get opportunities to work with NASA at every institution, and I’m excited that DRI gives me this opportunity.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

The pandemic has cramped a lot of my favorite hobbies, but usually, I love to travel to visit friends, go camping, hike, and just being outside with others. This past year I’ve instead spent more time hanging out with my dog, gardening (indoors and outdoors), and baking.

In her free time, Natasha enjoys hiking and being outside in beautiful areas like the Desolation Wilderness in California.

In her free time, Natasha enjoys hiking and being outside in beautiful areas like the Desolation Wilderness in California. 

Credit: Natasha Sushenko

Additional Information:

For more information on DRI’s Environmental Microbiology Laboratory, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/labs/environmental-microbiology/

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/education/graduate-programs/

 

Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

MAR. 25, 2021
RENO, NEV.

Ice Cores
Climate Change
Environment

Meet DRI scientist Nathan Chellman and learn about his work in the Ice Core Laboratory in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog.

Nathan Chellman, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev. He specializes in the collection, processing and analysis of ice cores — cylindrical samples of ice drilled from glaciers and ice sheets around the world. Nathan grew up in Reno, and holds a B.Sc. in Geology/Biology from Brown University, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Hydrology from the University of Nevada, Reno. He first worked at DRI as a high school intern in 2008, then later returned to DRI during and after college to work with Joe McConnell in the Ice Core Lab. He received his helicopter private pilot license in 2014 and volunteered as an EMT while he was an undergraduate. In his free time, Nathan enjoys running, skiing, and backpacking in the Sierras and central Nevada.

DRI scientists Yuan Luo (left) and Markus Berli (right) inside of DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in Boulder City, Nev.

Nathan Chellman, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

Chellman: I work in the Ice Core Lab, where we do analyses and measurements on snow and ice from polar and alpine regions to learn about how the environment has changed over the past several centuries and millennia. I also do some work with tree rings and sediment cores from areas a little closer to home, like the Rocky Mountains, primarily looking at pollution and climate reconstructions.

DRI: What does an ice core look like, and how do you collect one?

Chellman: An ice core is a long, narrow cylinder of ice. To recover an ice core from an ice sheet or a glacier we use an ice core drill, which is a hollow tube with sharp cutters at one end and a big motor at the top. The motor spins the hollow tube, the cutters cut the ice away, and the ice core then ends up in the center of the hollow tube. You send the ice core drill down through the ice about 1 meter (3 feet) at a time, bring up the entire drill with an ice core inside, push the ice core out of the hollow drill section, send the drill back down the borehole, and then repeat that until you’re the whole way through the ice feature. For polar ice cores, we sometimes drill down hundreds of meters. So, we end up with hundreds or thousands of those meter-long sections back-to-back that represent a whole profile through the ice.

Above, left: Researchers process an ice core sample collected from a glacier in Greenland. Above, right: Closeup of an ice core drill.

Credit: Michaeol Sigl (left photo); Nathan Chellman/DRI (right photo).

DRI: What can you learn from all of these samples of ice? Can you tell us about one of your projects?

Chellman: One of my favorite projects right now is a study on some really old ice patches in Wyoming. These ice patches are about the size of a football field or smaller, so they are too small to be glaciers. They look just like little remnant snow patches that you might see in the Sierra Nevada if you go out hiking in the late summer. However, they’re not snowdrifts, they’re actual ice – and some of these ice patches are turning out to be thousands and thousands of years old.

I was invited to join the project by a group of archaeologists and climate scientists who were interested in looking at how old the ice patches were, and studying the organic debris inside of them and the artifacts that were melting out around the edges. They didn’t know what to do with the ice itself, but since we specialize in measuring ice chemistry, I volunteered to go to their field site when they were drilling through a shallow ice patch and bring some ice back to DRI. Those samples ended up being a very nice record of ice chemistry. The ice patch turned out to be 10,000 years old at the bottom, with about 30 organic layers cutting through the ice.

Normally in an ice core project, if you have dirt and organic layers in your ice core you’ve done something terribly wrong. In this case, the dirt was the key to unlocking how old the ice patch was, since the age of the organic material can be accurately dated. It turned out that the chemistry of the ice was really interesting as well, and preserved some climate information going back over ten thousand years. You can see distinct warm and cold periods that paralleled lake sediment records from nearby, and also some anthropological records of population. So, that suggested that people living in the area were affected by the general climate conditions as indicated by the ice patch chemistry.

Above, left: Nathan Chellman carries ice coring equipment to an alpine ice patch, where he and his colleagues are using ice core records from an isolated ice patch to learn about ancient climate in the region. Above, right: Chellman holds an ice core sample collected from an alpine ice patch.

Credit: Monica Arienzo/DRI.

DRI: Have you ever been part of a polar drilling operation?

Chellman: Yes, in 2013 I was in northeastern Greenland. That year we recovered a 212-meter ice core, which went back about 1,700 years. It took about two weeks working normal 8- or 10-hour days – but as you drill deeper and deeper into the ice, it takes longer and longer for the drill to go up and down the borehole. On the first day you can go about 20 meters in a day, and the next day you can go a little less, and by the end you’re only drilling 6 to 10 meters per day because it takes so long for the drill to go up and down the hole.

The first day was terrifying. The plane landed out in the middle of the ice sheet, hundreds of miles from any other camps or bases. The pilot dropped us and our gear out in the snow, and then took off and left. Help was a few days away at best, so we had to just get working and get camp set up before everything blew away, because it’s always windy there. There were no buildings, no infrastructure, just us and our camping gear. We had personal sleeping tents (we each used two sleeping bags!), a kitchen tent, and a science tent, as well as plenty of food, Coleman stoves for cooking, and the ice core drill.

DRI: What were the working conditions like in Greenland?

Chellman: The strangest part about working in Greenland during the summer is that it’s never night. The sun never completely goes down, even at night. The sun goes low on the horizon and it gets colder, but it’s never actually dark. It’s a little disorienting at first. You have to sleep with eye covers or pull your hat down over your eyes so you can pretend like you’re in a little bit of darkness.

It was also really cold. Between -25 and -35C (-13 to -31F) at night, and anywhere between -5 and -15C (23F to 5F) during the day. When it’s that cold, it’s really interesting because you have to consider that everything is going to be frozen. Your toothpaste is going to be frozen, if you leave your water in a mug it’s going to be frozen. It requires some adaptations from a lifestyle perspective to make sure what you need isn’t going to be a total block of ice.

Yuan Luo near a lysimeter tank at DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in boulder city, nevada

In 2013, Chellman and his colleagues traveled to northeastern Greenland to collect a 212-meter ice core that went back 1,700 years. Their field camp is pictured here.

Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

DRI: Do you have any plans to return?

Chellman: We were supposed to go back last year to that same place in Greenland and get an ice core that was twice as long, but that was postponed. We’re rescheduling for this spring, but everything is still very much up in the air. If we go, we’ll be gathering data for a study that is trying to understand pollution from ancient societies. For example, we will be looking to see if we can detect Bronze Age pollution from 2,000-3,000 years ago in the ice. The pollution would have been caused by mining and smelting of metals.

DRI: It sounds like you have a very exciting job. What do you like best about what you do?

Chellman: One of my favorite things is actually being in the lab and making the measurements, and taking all the time to make sure everything is running right, and that the analytical system and all the instruments are making high-quality measurements. When you’re analyzing ice cores, you have to be consistent day to day and week to week, since sometimes it can take a month or two to analyze all the samples from an ice core. But it’s really fun to get in the groove in the lab, run long days, and generate really consistent, nice datasets. There’s a lot of troubleshooting involved, but once the system is running smoothly, it’s really amazing to be able to generate unique, one-of-a-kind data that can be trusted to inform really big picture questions.

Additional Information:

For more information on Nathan Chellman and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/nathan-chellman/

For more information on the DRI Ice Core Laboratory, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/labs/trace-chemistry-laboratory/

 

Researchers Markus Berli and Yuan Luo near a sign for the Desert Research Institute

DRI scientist Nathan Chellman.

Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

Traditional hydrologic models may misidentify snow as rain, new citizen science data shows

Traditional hydrologic models may misidentify snow as rain, new citizen science data shows

Traditional hydrologic models may misidentify snow as rain, new citizen science data shows

FEB. 22, 2021
RENO, NEV.

Weather Forecasting
Climate
Citizen Science

Tahoe Rain or Snow weather spotters help reduce inaccuracies in estimating precipitation

Normally, we think of the freezing point of water as 32°F – but in the world of weather forecasting and hydrologic prediction, that isn’t always the case. In the Lake Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada, the shift from snow to rain during winter storms may actually occur at temperatures closer to 39.5°F, according to new research from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), Lynker Technologies, and citizen scientists from the Tahoe Rain or Snow project.

The new paper, which published this month in Frontiers in Earth Science, used data collected by 200 volunteer weather spotters to identify the temperature cutoff between rain and snow in winter storms that occurred during the 2020 season. Their results have implications for the accuracy of water resources management, weather forecasting, and more.

“Scientists use a temperature threshold to determine where and when a storm will transition from rain to snow, but if that threshold is off, it can affect our predictions of flooding, snow accumulation, and even avalanche formation,” said Keith Jennings, Ph.D., Water Resources Scientist at Lynker Technologies and one of the lead authors on the study.

DRI scientist Monica Arienzo collects data for the Tahoe Rain or Snow project with Lake Tahoe in the distance.
From a backcountry area near Lake Tahoe, Desert Research Institute scientist Monica Arienzo collects field data from her smartphone for the Tahoe Rain or Snow project. January 2021.
Credit: DRI.
Thumbnail image of Tahoe Rain or Snow paper

The full text of the study “Enhancing Engagement of Citizen Scientists to Monitor Precipitation Phase” is available from Frontiers in Environmental Science: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2021.617594/full

Previous studies have found that thresholds used are particularly problematic in the Sierra Nevada, where a significant proportion of winter precipitation falls near 32°F. When the temperature is near freezing, weather forecasts and hydrologic models have difficulty correctly predicting whether it will be raining or snowing.

Tahoe Rain or Snow was launched in 2019 to take on the challenge of enhancing the prediction of snow accumulation and rainfall that may lead to flooding by making real-time observations of winter weather. The team is comprised of two scientists, one education specialist, and about 200 volunteer weather spotters from the Lake Tahoe and western slope regions of the Sierra Nevada and Truckee Meadows.

Tahoe Rain or Snow harnesses the power of hundreds of local volunteers. The real-time observations that they share with scientists add an incredible amount of value to the study of hydrology and clarify crucial gaps left by weather models,” said Meghan Collins, M.S., Education Program Manager for DRI and another lead author on the paper.

DRI scientist Meghan Collins collects data from her smartphone for the Tahoe Rain or Snow project
Closeup of smartphone displaying the Citizen Science Tahoe app
Above: Desert Research Institute scientist Meghan Collins collects data from her smartphone for the Tahoe Rain or Snow project using the Citizen Science Tahoe app during January 2021.

Credit: DRI (left) and Keith Jennings/Lynker Techologies (right)

In 2020, these citizen scientists submitted over 1,000 timestamped, geotagged observations of precipitation phases through the Citizen Science Tahoe mobile phone app.

Ground-based observations submitted by the Tahoe Rain or Snow team in 2020 showed that a much warmer temperature threshold of 39.5°F for splitting precipitation into rain and snow may be more accurate for our mountain region. In contrast, a 32°F rain-snow temperature threshold would have vastly overpredicted rainfall, leading to pronounced underestimates of snow accumulation. Such model errors can lead to issues in water resources management, travel planning, and avalanche risk prediction.

Tahoe Rain or Snow citizen scientists across our region open a door to improve our understanding of winter storms”, said Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Hydrology at DRI and another lead author on the paper. “Growing our team of volunteer scientists is important given that climate change is causing the proportion of precipitation falling as snow to decrease, and they help enhance the predictions of precipitation that we rely on in the Sierra Nevada and Truckee Meadows.”

Tahoe Rain or Snow is continuing in 2021. To join, text WINTER to 877-909-0798. You will find out how to download the Citizen Science Tahoe app and receive alerts as to good times to send weather observations. Tahoe Rain or Snow particularly needs observations from sparsely populated, remote, or backcountry areas of the Sierra Nevada.

DRI scientist Monica Arienzo collects data for the Tahoe Rain or Snow project with a rainbow-colored umbrella
Desert Research Institute scientist Monica Arienzo collects field data from her smartphone for the Tahoe Rain or Snow project. January 2021.
Credit: DRI.

Additional Information:

This study was funded by Nevada NASA EPSCoR Grant 20-23, 19-40.

The full text of the study “Enhancing Engagement of Citizen Scientists to Monitor Precipitation Phase” is available from Frontiers in Environmental Science: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2021.617594/full

To learn more about the Tahoe Rain or Snow project, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/project/tahoe-rain-or-snow/

 

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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 policymakers, 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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Lynker Technologies delivers innovative solutions to support global environmental sustainability and economic prosperity as a trusted partner to governments, communities, research institutions, and industry. We are passionate about what we do and the high value we provide to water resources management, hydrologic science, and conservation across the US and beyond. For more information, please visit https://www.lynker.com/.

As climate warms, summer monsoons to produce less streamflow

As climate warms, summer monsoons to produce less streamflow

Photo caption: A monsoon rain event in the East River watershed of Colorado, a pristine, high elevation, snow-dominated headwater basin of the Colorado River. Credit: Xavier Fane.


New study holds implications for future water supply in the Colorado River Basin

 

Las Vegas, Nev. (Monday, Feb. 1, 2021) – In the summer of 2019, Desert Research Institute (DRI) scientist Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D., waited for the arrival of the North American Monsoon, which normally brings a needed dose of summer moisture to the area where she lives in Crested Butte, Colo. – but for the fourth year in a row, the rains never really came.

“2019 had just a horrendous monsoon,” Carroll said. “Just the weakest monsoon. And we’d had a few years of weak monsoons before that, which had really gotten me wondering, how important is the monsoon to late summer streamflow here in the Upper Colorado River basin? And how do monsoons influence the following year’s streamflow?”

Working in partnership with colleagues David Gochis, Ph.D., of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Kenneth Williams, Ph.D., of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Carroll set out to explore the importance of monsoon rain in streamflow generation in a Colorado River headwater basin.

The team’s findings, which are published in a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, point to both the importance of monsoon rains in maintaining the Upper Colorado River’s water supply and the diminishing ability of monsoons to replenish summer streamflow in a warmer future with less snow accumulation.

Their study focuses on the East River watershed, a pristine, high elevation, snow-dominated headwater basin of the Colorado River and part of the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) program that is exploring how disturbances in mountain systems – such as floods, drought, changing snowpack and earlier snowmelt – impact the downstream delivery of water, nutrients, carbon, and metals.

Using a hydrologic model and multiple decades of climate data from the East River watershed, Carroll and her colleagues found that monsoon rains normally deliver about 18 percent of the basin’s water and produce about 10 percent of the annual streamflow, with streamflow generated primarily in the higher elevations of the basin.

“The amount of streamflow produced by monsoons, while not geographically extensive, is actually somewhat substantial,” Carroll said. “It was larger than I thought it would be. That doesn’t mean all of that water gets to a reservoir – some likely is used by riparian vegetation or irrigation, but it still does go to meet some need within the basin.”

DRI scientist Rosemary Carroll stands in the East River measuring stream discharge in Colorado.

Desert Research Institute scientist Rosemary Carroll measures stream discharge in the East River, Colorado. Credit: Kenneth H. Williams.

Next, the team explored the ability of these summer rains to produce streamflow during cool years with high snow accumulation, and during warm years with less snow accumulation. During cool years with more snow, soil moisture levels were higher going into summer, and greater streamflow was generated by the monsoon rains. During warmer years with low snowpack, dry soils absorbed much of the monsoonal rains, and less runoff made it to the streams.

“You can think of the soil zone as a sponge that needs to fill up before it can allow water to move through it,” Carroll said. “So, if it’s already depleted because you had low snowpack, the monsoon then has to fill it back up, and that decreases the amount of water you actually get in the river.”

As the climate warms, snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and other mountain systems is expected to decline, leading to reduced streamflow. Rising temperatures also lead to increased soil evaporation and increased water use by plants. According to the results of Carroll’s study, these changes will reduce the ability of water from the monsoon to make it to the river as streamflow.

“Our results indicate that as we move toward a climate that is warmer and our snowpack decreases, the ability of monsoon rain to buffer these losses in streamflow is also going to go down,” Carroll said. “So, the monsoon is not some silver bullet that is going to help mitigate those changes.”

The Colorado River is a critically important resource for people living in Southern Nevada, where it accounts for about 90 percent of the water supply. Although runoff from winter snowpack provides a much larger proportion of streamflow each year than the monsoons, the monsoonal moisture is important to both ecosystems and people in part because it arrives at a different time of year. And in a system like the Colorado River, where every drop of water is allocated, if monsoon rains do not arrive, it creates a shortage somewhere downstream.

“In terms of water resources, if monsoon rains are useful and contribute to late-season streamflow, then the loss of that water obviously has implications for the ecology of these systems,” Carroll said. “This water is really important in supporting aquatic habitat there. But it’s also really important for human use. If any amount of water that we rely on isn’t there,  then something has to give. The Upper Basin will have to consider how they are going to manage their water to meet those downstream obligations.”

Additional information:

The full text of the study, Efficiency of the Summer Monsoon in Generating Streamflow Within a Snow‐Dominated Headwater Basin of the Colorado River, is available from Geophysical Research Letters: https://doi.org/10.1029/2020GL090856

For more information on Rosemary Carroll, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/rosemary-carroll/

For more information on the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) program, please visit: http://watershed.lbl.gov/ 

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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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

What happens when rain falls on desert soils? An updated model provides answers

What happens when rain falls on desert soils? An updated model provides answers

What happens when rain falls on desert soils?

DEC. 14, 2020
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

Soils
Hydrology
Deserts

An updated model from DRI scientists in Las Vegas provides a new understanding of water movement in dry soils

Several years ago, while studying the environmental impacts of large-scale solar farms in the Nevada desert, Desert Research Institute (DRI) scientists Yuan Luo, Ph.D. and Markus Berli, Ph.D. became interested in one particular question: how does the presence of thousands of solar panels impact desert hydrology?

This question led to more questions. “How do solar panels change the way water hits the ground when it rains?” they asked. “Where does the water go? How much of the rain water  stays in the soil? How deep does it go into the soil?”

“To understand how solar panels impact desert hydrology, we basically needed a better understanding of how desert soils function hydraulically,” explained Luo, postdoctoral researcher with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences and lead author of a new study in Vadose Zone Journal.

DRI scientists Yuan Luo (left) and Markus Berli (right) inside of DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in Boulder City, Nev.

DRI scientists Yuan Luo (left) and Markus Berli (right) conducting research at DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in Boulder City, Nev. November 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

The full text of the paper “Modeling near-surface water redistribution in a desert soil”, is available from Vadose Zone Journal: https://doi.org/10.1002/vzj2.20081.

In the study, Luo, Berli, and colleagues Teamrat Ghezzehei, Ph.D. of the University of California, Merced, and Zhongbo Yu, Ph.D. of the University of Hohai, China, make important improvements to our understanding of how water moves through and gets stored in dry soils by refining an existing computer model.

The model, called HYDRUS-1D, simulates how water redistributes in a sandy desert soil based on precipitation and evaporation data. A first version of the model was developed by a previous DRI graduate student named Jelle Dijkema, but was not working well under conditions where soil moisture levels near the soil surface were very low.

To refine and expand the usefulness of Dijkema’s model, Luo analyzed data from DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility, located in Boulder City, Nev. Here, large, underground, soil-filled steel tanks have been installed over truck scales to allow researchers to study natural water gains and losses in a soil column under controlled conditions.

Above: Yuan Luo and Markus Berli of DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences used data from DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility (shown here) to refine an existing model called HYDRUS-1D, which simulates how water moves through dry soils.

Photographs by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Using data from the lysimeters, Luo explored the use of several hydraulic equations to refine Dijkema’s model. The end result, which is described in the new paper, was an improved understanding and model of how moisture moves through and is stored in the upper layers of dry desert soils.

“The first version of the model had some shortcomings,” Luo explained. “It wasn’t working well for very dry soils with volumetric water content lower than 10 percent. The SEPHAS lysimeters provided us with really good data to help understand the phenomenon of how water moves through dry soils as a result of rainfall and evaporation.” 

In desert environments, understanding the movement of water through soils is helpful for a variety of practical uses, including soil restoration, erosion and dust management, and flood risk mitigation. For example, this model will be useful for desert restoration projects, where project managers need to know how much water will be available in the soil  for plants after a desert rainstorm, Berli said. It is also a key piece of the puzzle needed to help answer their original question about how solar farms impact desert hydrology.

“The model is very technical, but all of this technical stuff is just a mathematical way to describe how rainwater moves in the soil once the water hits the soil,” Berli said. “In the bigger picture, this study was motivated by the very practical question of what happens to rainwater when falling on solar farms with thousands and thousands of solar panels in the desert – but to answer questions like that, sometimes you have to dig deep and answer more fundamental questions first.”

Yuan Luo near a lysimeter tank at DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in boulder city, nevada

DRI scientist Yuan Luo standes near a weighing lysimeter at DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in Boulder City, Nev. November 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

“In the bigger picture, this study was motivated by the very practical question of what happens to rainwater when falling on solar farms with thousands and thousands of solar panels in the desert – but to answer questions like that, sometimes you have to dig deep and answer more fundamental questions first.”

Additional Information:

This study was funded by the DRI Foundation Innovative Research Program, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rose Shillito, Ph.D. (DRI/ACOE) and Nicole Damon (DRI) also contributed to the success of this project.

The full text of the paper “Modeling near-surface water redistribution in a desert soil”, is available from Vadose Zone Journal: https://doi.org/10.1002/vzj2.20081

To learn more about DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/sephas/lysimeters/

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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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Researchers Markus Berli and Yuan Luo near a sign for the Desert Research Institute

DRI scientists Markus Berli and Yuan Luo. November 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Making Sense of Remote Sensing: A Q&A with Matt Bromley

Making Sense of Remote Sensing: A Q&A with Matt Bromley

Making Sense of Remote Sensing

SEPT 28, 2020
RENO, NEV.

Remote Sensing
Evapotranspiration
Hydrologic Sciences

A Q&A with Matt Bromley on remote sensing and the OpenET project

Matt Bromley, M.S., is an Assistant Research Scientist with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, and specializes in GIS and remote sensing. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.S. in Geography from the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a native Nevadan, an Army veteran, and has been a member of the DRI community for ten years. 

Matt is currently working alongside a team of scientists and web developers from DRI, NASA, Google and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop a new web application called OpenET (https://openetdata.org/), which will make satellite-based data on evapotranspiration widely accessible to farmers, landowners, and water managers. We recently sat down with Matt to learn the basics of remote sensing and how it is used in the OpenET project.

Matt Bromley

Matt Bromley, M.S. is a an Assistant Research Scientist with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno.

DRI: You specialize in remote sensing. Can you tell us a little bit about this field of study?

Bromley: Technically, remote sensing means “the acquisition of data from a distance.” In the context of the work that I do, it means studying the earth’s surface with satellites. These satellites are often sensitive to same portions of the light-spectrum that our human eyes can see, as well as portions of the light spectrum that we can’t see, such as infrared (thermal).  The images and data that Earth-focused satellites provide are a great way to learn about the Earth from a distance. There are also other types of remote sensing data, such as aerial images from planes, Radar, and LIDAR, where you use laser light to determine distance which can allow you to measure terrain and geographic features.

DRI: What is OpenET, and what is your role in the project?

Bromley: To understand the importance of OpenET you have to first understand evapotranspiration (ET). ET is the process by which water is transferred from land to the atmosphere – through evaporation from soil and transpiration from plant leaves – which is approximately the amount of water used by crops to grow our food and other resources. OpenET is a new web application that will provide ET data to water managers, land owners, and farmers in 17 western states. We started building this tool in 2018 and it’s scheduled to launch in 2021.

My role is pretty varied within the project. I have a foot in the technical side of it, in that I’m working on some of the data used in the ET models as well as contributing to the analysis. I also have an outward facing role in that I engage with people and organizations who are the preliminary users of the data. I provide some analysis, answer questions, and act as the bridge between the teams developing the evapotranspiration data and the people using it.

OpenET data showing evapotranspiration graph

OpenET is a new web application that will provide evapotranspiration data to water managers, land owners and farmers across 17 western states.

Credit: OpenET.

screenshot of OpenET website

To learn more about OpenET project, visit their website at openetdata.org.

DRI: How do you use remote sensing data in the OpenET project?

Bromley: The team that I work with uses remote sensing to measure water use from irrigation. We use both optical and thermal data to get information from the land surface. Among other things, the optical data shows how green and healthy the vegetation is, and with the thermal data we can actually detect the cooling effect that’s produced when water evaporates.

When I started at DRI, remote sensing data was generally processed on individual computers. You had to download all the data yourself and then process it with specialized software. About ten years ago, Google started hosting climate and remote sensing data in the cloud. So, rather than having to download all the data to do your analysis on a desktop computer, you can instead send your analysis to the cloud (lots of computers), allowing you to get some of your answers much, much faster. OpenET makes use of that platform, processing remote sensing data through five different models. Through OpenET we’re able to produce not only individual model ET estimates, but also an ensemble estimate using all of those models.

DRI: What type of remote sensing data do you use to calculate evapotranspiration (ET)?

Bromley: All of it right now is from the Landsat series of satellites, which gives us the optical and thermal data that we need to calculate ET. Landsat is a series of earth-observations satellites which are operated as a joint program between NASA and the USGS. The modern series of Landsat satellites started in the early 1980s, so with this collection of data we can actually look back in time and see how water use has changed over the decades. The duration and consistency of the Landsat program really sets it apart from other sources of remote sensing data.

OpenET data showing evapotranspiration graph

OpenET is being built by scientists and web developers from DRI, NASA, Google and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The web application is scheduled to launch in 2021.

Credit: OpenET.

DRI: How did you become interested in working in this field?

Bromley: Being a native Nevadan, you grow up being  aware of how special water is. As a kid my family would go on road trips through the Great Basin and as much as I loved seeing the sagebrush and mountains, it felt like we were discovering an oasis whenever we’d drive past a river or lake. In working to understand water use, I’m providing information to the people who manage that precious resource, as well as to the farmers and ranchers who grow our food.  It feels like I’m helping not just my community but the state and the region.

The work that we’re doing at DRI and with OpenET is especially important, because detailed information on water use at a large scale has typically been hard to access and very expensive.  OpenET is working to change that and make this data widely accessible to spark improvements an innovation in water management across the West.

“In working to understand water use, I’m providing information to the people who manage that precious resource, as well as to the farmers and ranchers who grow our food.”

Additional information

Other DRI scientists that work on the OpenET project include Justin Huntington, Charles Morton, Britta Daudert and Jody Hansen.

To learn more about the OpenET project, please visit: https://openetdata.org/

To read a recent (September 2020) press release on the OpenET project, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/openet-2020-announcement/ 

To learn more about Matt Bromley and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/matthew-bromley/

Engineered Processes for the Separation and Degradation of Microplastics in Freshwater

Engineered Processes for the Separation and Degradation of Microplastics in Freshwater

Photo: The sand band used to prepare hydrochar from microplastics. Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.


 

By Nicole Damon, Nevada Water Resources Research Institute

Microplastics, plastic fragments that are smaller than 5 mm in any dimension, have been found in ecosystems worldwide. These emerging contaminants are even in environments that are supposed to be free from human contact, such as Antarctica and the deep ocean floor, and their toxic properties make them a significant environmental hazard.

“After the first acknowledgement of microplastics in the early 2000s, their presence in the environment has raised ever-increasing concerns because of their effects on organisms and ecosystems, and because approximately 1.5 million tons of microplastics are estimated to be released into aquatic environments every year,” explains Dr. Erick Bandala, the principal investigator of this project, which also includes Dr. Menake Piyasena from New Mexico Tech, graduate research assistants Adam Clurman and Ahdee Zeidman, and summer intern Yajahira Dircio. “Unfortunately, very little is known about the capability of engineered separation and/or degradation technologies to remove this highly ubiquitous contaminant.”

Commercial products that are manufactured to contain microplastics—such as personal care and pharmaceutical products, industrial abrasives, drilling fluids, and 3D printing products—are the primary sources of microplastics. However, the degradation of plastic debris can also generate microplastics.

“Wastewater treatment plant effluents are the main pathway for microplastics to be released into aquatic environments,” Bandala says. “Although the microplastic removal rate of a conventional wastewater treatment plant is reported to be in the range of 73 to 79 percent, the treated effluent can carry as much as 220,000 to 1.5 million microplastic particles per day.”

Yajahira Dircio, a student at Rancho High School and summer intern on the project, is preparing hydrochar from MPs using a sand band

Yajahira Dircio, a student at Rancho High School and summer intern on the project, is
preparing hydrochar from MPs using a sand band. Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI

In recent years, the effects microplastics have been found to have on aquatic species and their unknown effects on human health have increased concerns about their presence in water sources.

“Because conventional water treatment processes are unable to effectively eliminate microplastics in water, developing new technologies that can separate them from effluents and prevent their release into the environment is a high priority to protect water quality and water security,” Bandala says.

For this project, the researchers will use acoustic focusing and electrocoagulation to separate microplastics in freshwater effluents and determine the removal process mechanisms.

“Acoustic standing waves are a fast, noncontact, gentle particlemanipulation technique for microfluidic conditions that have emerged as a promising new technology for the purification, separation, and concentration of beads and biological cell samples,” Bandala explains.

The researchers will also assess the efficacy of using electrocoagulation to remove MPs from wastewater.

“Electrocoagulation has several significant advantages to conventional chemical coagulation, such as it increases treatment efficiency, generates less sludge, requires less space, and prevents chemical storage,” Bandala adds. “It has been proven to be highly efficient in removing contaminants. Our research group has used it for water defluoridation and to pretreat effluents that were heavily contaminated with petrochemicals.”

Because microplastics in freshwater are increasingly detected, it is even more important to find effective water treatment process that remove them.

“Although ultrafiltration, or microfiltration, have microplastic removal efficiencies as high as 99.4 percent, they also have high operational and maintenance costs and require skilled operators,” Bandala explains. “Finding efficient, costeffective methods to separate microplastics from freshwater effluents is critical to preventing population exposure.”

Adam Clurman, an undergraduate student at Nevada State College, is conducting the electrocoagulation experiments for the project.

Adam Clurman, an undergraduate student at Nevada State College, is conducting the
electrocoagulation experiments for the project. Credit: Erick Bandala

Another challenge that microplastics in freshwater present is how to dispose of them once they are removed from water. For this project, the researchers will use advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) as complementary processes to degrade the plastic waste after it has been separated from the wastewater. Advanced oxidation processes are an eco-friendly way to degrade organic compounds. In previous projects, the research group has tested the capability of these processes to degrade a wide variety of dissolved organic contaminants in water.

“Advanced oxidation processes have been used to degrade organics and have shown high cost-efficiency and short detention time compared with conventional water treatment processes,” Bandala explains. “Using AOPs to degrade microplastics will not only be an interesting challenge because of the complexity of their polymeric chains, but also because these contaminants are suspended in water and treating contaminants in a different phase in water using AOPs has not yet been reported.”

Maintaining the quality of water sources is an increasing issue, particularly in arid and semiarid regions with rapidly growing populations, such as Nevada.

“Desert Research Institute has reported the presence of MPs in places such as the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe, which are the origin of several drinking water supply systems in Nevada,” Bandala explains. “We live in a region with a moderate-high water stress and as Nevadans, we need to protect our water sources from contamination to ensure the sustainable development of our communities.”


This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) Summer 2020 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.

For more information on the NWRRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/nwrri/ 

 

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Sandra Brugger, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Researcher with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences, and a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Fellow.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Brugger: I started at DRI in October 2019 with an Early Postdoc Mobility grant funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). DRI is home of one of the world-leading ice core labs. I am extremely grateful that I could join Professor Joe McConnell’s ice core group in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) and be co-supervised by Professor Dave Rhode in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences (DEES).

DRI: What are your research interests?

Brugger: I am interested in past vegetation dynamics and their relationship with climate change and human activities. Using optical pollen, charcoal, and other microfossil analyses in ice cores, we can infer how the ecosystems and fire regimes have changed over time. We can then try to reconstruct sensitive ecosystems in high latitude regions to gain a better understanding how they will react to rapid global warming.

DRI: What is the SNSF Fellows Virtual Conference?

Brugger: The conference is a multidisciplinary platform where Postdoc fellows are sharing their exciting results and show how diverse the research is that the Swiss National Science Foundation is funding with over 700 projects around the world.

DRI: How did you get involved in helping lead this unique event?

Brugger: Most conferences were cancelled this summer. Young scientists rely very much on presenting their results, networking at scientific meetings, and interacting with other research fellows. Therefore, my SNSF-Mobility fellow Tobias Schneider (University of Massachusetts) and I spontaneously decided on a Friday evening over a virtual glass of wine on Zoom to turn our own pandemic misery into a virtual conference for us and our fellow SNSF-postdoc fellows in the US and around the world. Six weeks and several virtual wine glasses later, we are ready and excited to host the four-day long conference on Zoom.

The multidisciplinary character of the conference is also reflected in the exciting keynotes that will be presenting their research. Among them, we have two from DRI: Professor Monica Arienzo will introduce us to her latest research on microplastics in Alpine environments, and Professor Joe McConnell will be presenting on Roman lead pollution in Arctic ice cores.

Since we have one thing in common among all fellows, the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to hold a daily panel on COVID-19 with invited frontline workers that will be hosted by Theresa Watts, Professor at ORVIS School of Nursing at UNR. On Thursday, Professor Ajay Sethi from the University of Wisconsin-Madison will give a keynote on conspiracy theories around COVID-19.

Sandra Brugger (Klimaforscherin), Institute of Plant Sciences, PhD student – Palaeoecology. © Manu Friederich

DRI: What are you hoping to accomplish? What would be the best outcome for this event?

Brugger: We hope to provide an inspiring meeting where people can present their work, get new input, and maybe even provide additional research motivation during difficult home-office situations they are experiencing. And above all, we are excited to get to know our fellows and their fascinating research projects.

DRI: How can people get involved or watch the event?

Brugger: The event is free of registration and will be hosted on three platforms: Zoom, Youtube and Remo. The program and the links to join the virtual conference can be found on our Event website: https://www.swissnexboston.org/event/snsf-fellows-conference/ hosted by Swissnex Boston, our partner for the conference.

DRI: How has your work been impacted by the pandemic?

Brugger: My own research has been severely impacted. I started the project only 8 months ago and since March we have only very limited access to lab facilities. This is critical for sample preparation and analyzing data in this early stage of the project.

Also, our group had to cancel fieldwork and as mentioned above, most conferences got cancelled this summer and for the upcoming months hopefully can be replaced by virtual meetings. It was a tough time to arrive new to the USA from Switzerland and to face the pandemic in a foreign country.

DRI Hydrologist Mark Hausner Receives 2020 Rising Researcher Award

DRI Hydrologist Mark Hausner Receives 2020 Rising Researcher Award

Reno, Nev. (March 5, 2020) – Today, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Board of Regents awarded the 2020 Rising Researcher Award to Mark Hausner, Ph.D., of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno. This honor is given annually to researchers from DRI, the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) based on early-career accomplishments and potential for future advancement and recognition in research.

Hausner is an assistant research professor with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences, and specializes in ecohydrology, the study of interactions between water and ecological systems. His research has increased our understanding of how heat and water move through the environment, how climate change and disturbance affect those processes, and how to assess the resultant impacts to various aspects of the hydrologic setting and the ecosystem.

“I am honored to be recognized by the Board of Regents for my work in the field of hydrology,” Hausner said. “I look forward to continuing to explore new questions about how water and ecosystems affect one another throughout my career.”

Mark Hausner (right) installs temperature sensors in Devils Hole with researchers from the US National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2010.

Much of Hausner’s recent work focuses on the use of satellite imagery to fill in information gaps about the impacts of human activity on riparian landscapes in the Western US. He has worked extensively on Devils Hole in southern Nevada, a unique geologic formation that provides the only naturally occurring habitat for the endangered Devils Hole Pupfish. Hausner’s other notable projects include studies of groundwater-surface water interactions, as well as applied science support for the US military, US Department of Energy, and resource managers such as the South Tahoe Public Utility District and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Since beginning his career at DRI in 2014, Hausner has given over 60 presentations at national scientific conferences and workshops and published 18 peer reviewed publications to high quality journals such as Groundwater and Water Resources Research. He has successfully developed and funded more than 15 grants and contracts from diverse sources such as the Department of Energy, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, NASA, and the Death Valley Conservancy, a total of more than $938,000 in funded projects.

Hausner holds a B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from Cornell University, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in hydrologic sciences and hydrogeology form the University of Nevada, Reno. He joined DRI in 2014 as a postdoctoral fellow, and transitioned to an assistant research professor in 2016.

For more information about Hausner and his work, please visit his directory page.

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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 is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Using Machine Learning to Address Land Subsidence in Pahrump Valley

Using Machine Learning to Address Land Subsidence in Pahrump Valley

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.”

This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) October 2019 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.

DRI Launches Two New Projects to Study Hydrology at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch

DRI Launches Two New Projects to Study Hydrology at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch

Scientists will investigate water quality and flow in critical desert wetland habitat

 

LAS VEGAS, NEV. (Sept. 30, 2019) —The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is pleased to announce the launch of two new research projects to study hydrology at The Nature Conservancy in Nevada’s 7J Ranch property near Beatty, Nevada. Work will begin in September on two complementary projects, funded by the Sulo and Aileen Maki Endowment, which will install meteorological stations and develop a watershed model to monitor how future restoration activities at the 7J Ranch will affect its water resources.

The 900-acre working ranch in Southern Nevada’s Oasis Valley is a unique place to study water, as it contains the headwaters of the Amargosa River, one of the world’s longest spring-fed river systems that runs mostly below the surface. The ranch’s unique geography and location where the Great Basin and Mojave deserts meet, and its habitat for many endemic and protected species, make it a globally important site for conserving biodiversity and give it strategic value for facilitating climate change adaptation for wildlife. The highly arid environment of southern Nevada and the Amargosa River’s status as an important source of groundwater discharge in the region also make its headwaters an important place to study hydrology.

The first project, led by Kevin Heintz, will install a hydrometeorological station to monitor the habitat at the 7J Ranch and study how surface water is affected by restoration activities and extreme weather conditions.  This study is significant to southern Nevada water issues because it will contribute to estimating the flow of water in a critical wetland habitat and it will continuously monitor for environmental stressors, both of which have implications for southern Nevada’s biodiversity and wetland health.

DRI’s second project, led by Gabrielle Boisramé, Ph.D., will study how the potential removal of ponds will impact downstream hydrology and habitat. This project will use a variety of environmental data to develop a water budget model that can describe the movement of water in and out of the restoration area under various scenarios.

DRI researcher Gabrielle Boisrame, Ph.D., inspects a floating evaporation pan at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch on September 18, 2019. Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

“Stream restoration in arid environments like the Mojave Desert has not been studied extensively,” explained Boisramé. “Our hope is that this new research will help guide other restoration work in similar spring-fed streams systems of southern Nevada.”

The Conservancy plans to encourage long-term research at the 7J Ranch, and this project will provide an important base of knowledge for future researchers to build upon.

“This research will provide critical information for needed restoration projects at 7J Ranch, and we are so grateful to the Desert Research Institute for their support,” said John Zablocki, Southern Nevada Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy.  “The insights gained from these projects, and the instruments installed, will help inform better water management decisions for southern Nevada, help predict hydrologic responses to climate change, and help improve modeling on how groundwater flows in the region.”

The Sulo and Aileen Maki Endowment was established by the Sulo and Aileen Maki Trust to be used by the DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences for research, instruction, and scholarships relevant to southern Nevada water issues. The endowment supports innovative, creative, and multidisciplinary research, as well as scholarly endeavors such as journal publications and presentations at scientific conferences, water resources course instruction and student scholarships, and community outreach and service. The overall goal of these efforts is to make the DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences and the name Maki stand for excellence in water resources research, education, and outreach.

Desert Research Institute scientist Gabrielle Boisrame, Ph.D., (left) and graduate research assistant Rose Shillito from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (right) prepare a pressure sensor for measuring water depth

Desert Research Institute scientist Gabrielle Boisrame, Ph.D., (left) and graduate research assistant Rose Shillito from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (right) prepare a pressure sensor for measuring water depth at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch on September 18, 2019. Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

For more information, please contact Sara Cobble, Marketing and Communications Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, at sara.cobble@tnc.org or Kelsey Fitzgerald, Science Writer for the Desert Research Institute Communications Office at kelsey.fitzgerald@dri.edu

To view a photo gallery of images from 7J Ranch, please visit: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmHaHULv

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About The Nature Conservancy

The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. We’ve been working in Nevada for nearly 35 years. To learn more, please visit www.nature.org/nevada.

About the Desert Research Institute

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 policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

About the Nevada System of Higher Education The Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE), comprised of two doctoral-granting universities, a state college, four comprehensive community colleges and one environmental research institute, serves the educational and job training needs of Nevada. NSHE provides educational opportunities to more than 100,000 students and is governed by the Board of Regents.

Meet Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D.

Meet Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D.

Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D., is an associate research professor in DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences. She has been a member of the DRI community since 2000 when she was hired as a research hydrologist. Rosemary works remotely from Crested Butte, Colorado, where she studies mountain hydrology. She recently published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters titled, “The Importance of Interflow to Groundwater Recharge in a Snowmelt-Dominated Headwater Basin,” so we sat down to talk to her about the project and her other work at DRI.

What is your background, and what do you do at DRI?
I pursued both my Master’s and Ph.D. in hydrology at the University of Nevada, Reno. I joined DRI upon the completion of my Master’s degree in 2000 working primarily on groundwater modeling projects. In 2006, my family and I moved to Colorado while I was finishing my Ph.D. on mercury transport in the Carson River. I’ve been able to maintain projects at DRI and build new science programs because of the wonderful support of my division director as well as from DRI faculty and staff who still look out for me despite not being on site.

My current research is focused on groundwater and surface water interactions. Specifically, I create numeric models, or computer simulations, of watersheds that begin high in the mountains and are fed primarily by snowmelt, like those in the East River where I live. I am trying to understand how snow dynamics influence the amount of groundwater that feeds into mountain streams. In 2014, I began working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory using the East River as their experimental watershed to quantify how mountain systems store and release water and solutes and the relationship of that process to climate. Through these efforts, I am interacting with a wide range of scientists from universities, national labs, and federal agencies as well as with water managers in the state of Colorado.

What are the challenges in studying hydrology in mountainous landscapes like the East River?
The challenges are largely associated with either lack of data or the difficulty in collecting data. Mountainous watersheds contain steep terrain and extreme weather to make access, safety and maintaining deployed sensor networks difficult. I am in charge of the East River stream network. Avalanches are a very real problem here, and some of our stream field sites require skiing 20 miles round-trip to sample in the winter. In the spring, streams are fast and cold and not safe to wade. Spring runoff can also wash away equipment, erode banks and make rivers very turbulent. All of this puts traditional techniques of observation to the test and can mean lost data. We also spend quite a bit of effort protecting equipment from animals. Beavers, moose, elk and cattle are an inevitable part of planning a sensor network in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

It sounds like mountain hydrology involves a lot of time outdoors. How often do you go out in the field?
I am part of a larger team of field scientists and technicians, so I go out about once a week but I now largely oversee several others. The fieldwork is rigorous, and the conditions are not easy. There’s a lot of hiking and backcountry time, including skiing and snowmobiling, and there’s intense spring runoff to contend with. My next big field push will be in September and October to make sure all our equipment is winterized before snow begins to accumulate.

Rosemary Carroll

Carroll checking weather station monitoring equipment in the East River, CO.

So taking measurements directly from streams is one thing, but modeling a watershed seems an entirely different challenge. How exactly do you build a model, and what goes into it?
Essentially what you’re doing with a hydrologic model is combining data on climate—precipitation, temperature—and watershed characteristics—elevation, vegetation, soils, geology—into a single framework to solve mathematical equations that describe how water moves through the system. The model is tested against data we can collect in the field, like streamflow, solar radiation and snow accumulation.

As part of our modeling approach, we integrate LiDAR (light detection and ranging) radar imaging of snow through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO). ASO essentially produces a 3-D map of snow depth. We use these detailed snow maps to show how snow redistributes through forces like avalanches or wind. We see that the majority of East River snow resides in the upper subalpine, or the zone between the tree-less alpine environment and the forested subalpine. The upper subalpine is a mix of barren and low-density conifer forests.

Rosemary Carroll

Carroll measuring water content in snow of the East River, CO.

What does your hydrologic model help us understand?
What our model shows is that the upper subalpine is a very important location in the watershed for replenishing groundwater supplies, which is called recharge. Snow is redistributed to the upper subalpine, where it lasts late into the spring and summer—it then melts quickly and this generates recharge. In addition, snowmelt from steep, alpine regions in the watershed is transported via shallow soil or weathered rock to the upper subalpine where it recharges into the deeper groundwater system.

Over the last several decades, the model suggests that groundwater replenished by snowmelt in this zone has remained stable, even in low snowpack years. This could mean that the water supply coming from a watershed with a large upper subalpine area may be more resilient to climate variability than watershed with little of this zone.

At least that is what our model is suggesting. The next steps are to observe this recharge process in the field, and to see if something similar is happening in other mountain watersheds with different geology. Ultimately, we want to explore how this kind of information can be used by water managers in long-term watershed management planning in the Colorado River and other snow-dominated systems around the world.

Rosemary Carroll

Carroll’s model suggests that the upper subalpine zone—where forest gives way to the alpine zone—could be a particularly important place for replenishing groundwater supplies in mountain watersheds like East River, Colorado.

Evaluation of Antibiotic Resistance Genes (ARGs) in the Urban Wetland Ecosystem: Las Vegas Wash

Evaluation of Antibiotic Resistance Genes (ARGs) in the Urban Wetland Ecosystem: Las Vegas Wash

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.”

 

Researchers carry equipment toward a sampling site at the Las Vegas Wash.

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.

This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) July 2019 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.

Lead pollution in Arctic ice shows economic impact of wars, plagues, famines from Middle Ages to present

Lead pollution in Arctic ice shows economic impact of wars, plagues, famines from Middle Ages to present

Photo: Dr. Joe McConnell and graduate student Nathan Chellman work in the ice lab at the Desert Research Institute, in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum.


 

RENO, Nev. (July 8, 2019) – How did events like the Black Death plague impact the economy of Medieval Europe? Particles of lead trapped deep in Arctic ice can tell us.

Commercial and industrial processes have emitted lead into the atmosphere for thousands of years, from the mining and smelting of silver ores to make currency for ancient Rome to the burning of fossil fuels today. This lead pollution travels on wind currents through the atmosphere, eventually settling on places like the ice sheet in Greenland and other parts of the Arctic.

Because of lead’s connection to precious metals like silver and the fact that natural lead levels in the environment are very low, scientists have found that lead deposits in layers of Arctic ice are a sensitive indicator of overall economic activity throughout history.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), the University of Oxford, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Rochester, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research used thirteen Arctic ice cores from Greenland and the Russian Arctic to measure, date, and analyze lead emissions captured in the ice from 500 to 2010 CE, a period of time that extended from the Middle Ages through the Modern Period to the present.

This work builds on a study published by some of the same researchers in 2018, which showed how lead pollution in a single ice core from Greenland tracked the ups and downs of the European economy between 1100 BCE and 800 CE, a period which included the Greek and Roman empires.

“We have extended our earlier record through the Middle Ages and Modern Period to the present,” explained Joe McConnell, Ph.D., lead author on the study and Director of DRI’s Ultra-Trace Ice Core Chemistry Laboratory in Reno, Nevada. “Using an array of thirteen ice cores instead of just one, this new study shows that prior to the Industrial Revolution, lead pollution was pervasive and surprisingly similar across a large swath of the Arctic and undoubtedly the result of European emissions. The ice-core array provides with amazing detail a continuous record of European – and later North American – industrial emissions during the past 1500 years.”

“Developing and interpreting such an extensive array of Arctic ice-core records would have been impossible without international collaboration,” McConnell added.

The research team found that increases in lead concentration in the ice cores track closely with periods of expansion in Europe, the advent of new technologies, and economic prosperity. Decreases in lead, on the other hand, paralleled climate disruptions, wars, plagues, and famines.

“Sustained increases in lead pollution during the Early and High Middle Ages (about 800 to 1300 CE), for example, indicate widespread economic growth, particularly in central Europe as new mining areas were discovered in places like the German Harz and Erzgebirge Mountains, “McConnell noted. “Lead pollution in the ice core records declined during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (about 1300 to 1680 Ce) when plague devastated those regions, however, indicating that economic activity stalled.”

Even with ups and downs over time due to events such as plagues, the study shows that increases in lead pollution in the Arctic during the past 1500 years have been exponential.

“We found an overall 250 to 300-fold increase in Arctic lead pollution from the start of the Middle Ages in 500 CE to 1970s,” explained Nathan Chellman, a doctoral student at DRI and coauthor on the study. “Since the passage of pollution abatement policies, including the 1970 Clean Air Act in the United States, lead pollution in Arctic ice has declined more than 80 percent.”

“Still, lead levels are about 60 times higher today than they were at the beginning of the Middle Ages,” Chellman added.

This study included an array of ice cores and the research team used state-of-the-art atmospheric modeling to determine the relative sensitivity of different ice-core sites in the Arctic to lead emissions.

“Modeling shows that the core from the Russian Arctic is more sensitive to European emissions, particularly from eastern parts of Europe, than cores from Greenland,” explained Andreas Stohl, Ph.D., an atmospheric scientist at NILU and coauthor on the study. “This is why we found consistently higher levels of lead pollution in the Russian Arctic core and more rapid increases during the Early and High Middle Ages as mining operations shifted north and east from the Iberian Peninsula to Great Britain and Germany.”

Lead pollution found in 13 ice cores from three different regions of the Arctic (North Greenland, South Greenland, and the Russian Arctic) from 200 BCE to 2010 CE. Increases in lead deposition coincided with times of economic prosperity, such as the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century. Dramatic declines in lead pollution followed crises such as the Black Death Plague Pandemic starting about 1347 CE, as well as pollution abatement policies such as the 1970 U.S. Clean Air Act.

 

The combination of expertise on this study is unique, continuing collaboration between researchers in fields as different as ice-core chemistry and economic history. These results, the team argues, are a testament to the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“What we’re finding is interesting not just to environmental scientists who want to understand how human activity has altered the environment,” said Andrew Wilson, Ph.D., Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford and co-author on the study. “These ice-core records also are helping historians to understand and quantify the ways that societies and their economies have responded to external forces such as climate disruptions, plagues, or political unrest.”

Collection, analysis, and interpretation of the ice cores used in this study were supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, NASA, the John Fell Oxford University Press Research Fund and All Souls College, Oxford, the German Ministry of Education and Research, the German Research Foundation, and the Desert Research Institute.

Locations of the 13 Arctic ice-core drilling sites, as well as ancient and medieval lead/silver mines throughout Europe. Atmospheric modeling shows the impact of emissions from different regions on pollution recorded in the Arctic ice cores. The Russian Arctic, for example, is relatively more sensitive to emissions from mines in eastern Europe, while North Greenland is relatively more sensitive to emissions from western Europe.

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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 policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education. Learn more at www.dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Media Contact:
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@DRIscience 

Traces of Roman-era pollution stored in the ice of Mont Blanc

Traces of Roman-era pollution stored in the ice of Mont Blanc

Researchers drill ice cores from a field camp on Mont Blanc in the French Alps. Credit: B. Jourdain, L’Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement.


 

RENO, Nev. (May 8, 2019) – Last spring, an international team of researchers led by Joe McConnell, PhD, Director of the Ultra Trace Ice Core Chemistry Laboratory at DRI’s campus in Reno, Nevada, traced significant atmospheric lead pollution from Roman-era mining and smelting of lead-silver ores in an ice core record from Greenland, providing new insights about the Roman economy.

Now working with colleagues at the Institute of Geosciences and the Environment in Grenoble, France, some members of the same research team have published findings that show a related record of pollution in an ice core from the Col du Dôme area of Mont Blanc in the French Alps.

Published in Geophysical Research Letters, the new study reveals significant atmospheric pollution from lead and antimony, another toxic heavy metal. This study is the first to document an ice core record of antimony, showing that Roman-era mining and smelting activities had implications beyond lead contamination.

 

Graph of study results.

Lead (black) and antimony (red) concentrations in ice from the Col du Dôme (CDD). On the bottom scale, age is indicated in years. Phases of increasing lead emissions were accompanied by a simultaneous rise in the presence of antimony – another toxic metal – in the alpine ice. The increases and decreases in heavy metal concentration in the ice correspond with boom times and crises in Roman-era economic history.

 

“This is the first study of antiquity-era pollution using Alpine ice,” explained lead author Susanne Preunkert, PhD, of the CNRS Institute of Geosciences and the Environment. “Our record from the Alps provides insight into the impact of ancient emissions on the present-day environment in Europe, as well as a comparison with more recent pollution linked to the use of leaded gasoline in the twentieth century.”

Compared to the lead pollution record obtained from a Greenland ice core in the previous study, which reflects heavy metal emissions from across Europe, the Mont Blanc ice core reflects influences from more local pollution sources.

“This study continues an international collaboration between ice core experts, historians, and atmospheric scientists,” said McConnell. “Cross-disciplinary research like this allows us to interpret the ice record in more detail, leading to a better understanding of the impacts of past human activities on the natural environment while also providing new, more quantitative information on those human activities.”

This research received support from the CNRS, ADEME, and the European Alpclim and Carbosol projects, as well as the Desert Research Institute.

The full study, titled “Lead and Antimony in Basal Ice From Col du Dome (French Alps) Dated With Radiocarbon: A Record of Pollution During Antiquity,” is available here.

François Maginiot of CNRS contributed to this release.

North Atlantic Ocean productivity has dropped 10 percent during Industrial era

North Atlantic Ocean productivity has dropped 10 percent during Industrial era

Researchers use a drill to extract one of the Greenland ice core samples that became the basis for this research. Credit: Joe McConnell/DRI.


RENO, Nev. (May 7, 2019) – This week, new research outlining the steady decline of phytoplankton productivity in the North Atlantic since the Industrial Revolution was published in the journal Nature. The study, titled “Industrial-era decline in subarctic Atlantic productivity,” is underpinned by data provided by Joe McConnell, Ph.D., director of DRI’s Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory in Reno, Nev.

The recently published study uses measurements from twelve Greenland ice cores to trace the amount of methanesulfonic acid (MSA)—a byproduct of the emissions from large phytoplankton blooms—in the atmosphere. Since the mid-19th century, the concentration of MSA in ice core records has declined by about 10 percent, which translates to a 10 percent loss of phytoplankton. This loss coincides with steadily rising ocean surface temperatures over the same time period, which suggests that populations may decline further as temperatures continue to rise.

A full press release about these findings, originally published by MIT News, is available below.


North Atlantic Ocean productivity has dropped 10 percent during Industrial era

Phytoplankton decline coincides with warming temperatures over the last 150 years.

Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

May 6, 2019

Virtually all marine life depends on the productivity of phytoplankton — microscopic organisms that work tirelessly at the ocean’s surface to absorb the carbon dioxide that gets dissolved into the upper ocean from the atmosphere.

Through photosynthesis, these microbes break down carbon dioxide into oxygen, some of which ultimately gets released back to the atmosphere, and organic carbon, which they store until they themselves are consumed. This plankton-derived carbon fuels the rest of the marine food web, from the tiniest shrimp to giant sea turtles and humpback whales.

Now, scientists at MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and elsewhere have found evidence that phytoplankton’s productivity is declining steadily in the North Atlantic, one of the world’s most productive marine basins.

In a paper appearing today in Nature, the researchers report that phytoplankton’s productivity in this important region has gone down around 10 percent since the mid-19th century and the start of the Industrial era. This decline coincides with steadily rising surface temperatures over the same period of time.

Matthew Osman, the paper’s lead author and a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography, says there are indications that phytoplankton’s productivity may decline further as temperatures continue to rise as a result of human-induced climate change.

“It’s a significant enough decine that we should be concerned,” Osman says. “The amount of productivity in the oceans roughly scales with how much phytoplankton you have. So this translates to 10 percent of the marine food base in this region that’s been lost over the industrial era. If we have a growing population but a decreasing food base, at some point we’re likely going to feel the effects of that decline.”

Drilling through “pancakes” of ice

Osman and his colleagues looked for trends in phytoplankton’s productivity using the molecular compound methanesulfonic acid, or MSA. When phytoplankton expand into large blooms, certain microbes emit dimethylsulfide, or DMS, an aerosol that is lofted into the atmosphere and eventually breaks down as either sulfate aerosol, or MSA, which is then deposited on sea or land surfaces by winds.

“Unlike sulfate, which can have many sources in the atmosphere, it was recognized about 30 years ago that MSA had a very unique aspect to it, which is that it’s only derived from DMS, which in turn is only derived from these phytoplankton blooms,” Osman says. “So any MSA you measure, you can be confident has only one unique source — phytoplankton.”

In the North Atlantic, phytoplankton likely produced MSA that was deposited to the north, including across Greenland. The researchers measured MSA in Greenland ice cores — in this case using 100- to 200-meter-long columns of snow and ice that represent layers of past snowfall events preserved over hundreds of years.

“They’re basically sedimentary layers of ice that have been stacked on top of each other over centuries, like pancakes,” Osman says.

The team analyzed 12 ice cores in all, each collected from a different location on the Greenland ice sheet by various groups from the 1980s to the present. Osman and his advisor Sarah Das, an associate scientist at WHOI and co-author on the paper, collected one of the cores during an expedition in April 2015.

“The conditions can be really harsh,” Osman says. “It’s minus 30 degrees Celsius, windy, and there are often whiteout conditions in a snowstorm, where it’s difficult to differentiate the sky from the ice sheet itself.”

The team was nevertheless able to extract, meter by meter, a 100-meter-long core, using a giant drill that was delivered to the team’s location via a small ski-equipped airplane. They immediately archived each ice core segment in a heavily insulated cold storage box, then flew the boxes on “cold deck flights” — aircraft with ambient conditions of around minus 20 degrees Celsius. Once the planes touched down, freezer trucks transported the ice cores to the scientists’ ice core laboratories.

“The whole process of how one safely transports a 100-meter section of ice from Greenland, kept at minus-20-degree conditions,  back to the United States is a massive undertaking,” Osman says.

Cascading effects

The team incorporated the expertise of researchers at various labs around the world in analyzing each of the 12 ice cores for MSA. Across all 12 records, they observed a conspicuous decline in MSA concentrations, beginning in the mid-19th century, around the start of the Industrial era when the widescale production of greenhouse gases began. This decline in MSA is directly related to a decline in phytoplankton productivity in the North Atlantic.

“This is the first time we’ve collectively used these ice core MSA records from all across Greenland,  and they show this coherent signal. We see a long-term decline that originates around the same time as when we started perturbing the climate system with industrial-scale greenhouse-gas emissions,” Osman says. “The North Atlantic is such a productive area, and there’s a huge multinational fisheries economy related to this productivity. Any changes at the base of this food chain will have cascading effects that we’ll ultimately feel at our dinner tables.”

The multicentury decline in phytoplankton productivity appears to coincide not only with concurrent long-term warming temperatures; it also shows synchronous variations on decadal time-scales with the large-scale ocean circulation pattern known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC. This circulation pattern typically acts to mix layers of the deep ocean with the surface, allowing the exchange of much-needed nutrients on which phytoplankton feed.

In recent years, scientists have found evidence that AMOC is weakening, a process that is still not well-understood but may be due in part to warming temperatures increasing the melting of Greenland’s ice. This ice melt has added an influx of less-dense freshwater to the North Atlantic, which acts to stratify, or separate its layers, much like oil and water, preventing nutrients in the deep from upwelling to the surface. This warming-induced weakening of the ocean circulation could be what is driving phytoplankton’s decline. As the atmosphere warms the upper ocean in general, this could also further the ocean’s stratification, worsening phytoplankton’s productivity.

“It’s a one-two punch,” Osman says. “It’s not good news, but the upshot to this is that we can no longer claim ignorance. We have evidence that this is happening, and that’s the first step you inherently have to take toward fixing the problem, however we do that.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as well as graduate fellowship support from the US Department of Defense Office of Naval Research.

Reprinted with permission of MIT News.

Forest fires accelerating snowmelt across western U.S., new study finds

Forest fires accelerating snowmelt across western U.S., new study finds

Kelly Gleason, assistant professor of environmental science and management at Portland State University, and crew head out in a recently burned forest to collect snow samples. Credit: Kelly Gleason/Portland State University


 

RENO, Nev. (May 2, 2019) – Forest fires are causing snow to melt earlier in the season, a trend occurring across the western U.S. that may affect water supplies and trigger even more fires, according to a new study by a team of researchers at Portland State University (PSU), the Desert Research Institute (DRI), and the University of Nevada, Reno.

It’s a cycle that will only be exacerbated as the frequency, duration, and severity of forest fires increase with a warmer and drier climate.

The study, published May 2 in the journal Nature Communications, provides new insight into the magnitude and persistence of forest fire disturbance on critical snow-water resources.

Researchers found that more than 11 percent of all forests in the West are currently experiencing earlier snowmelt and snow disappearance as a result of fires.

The team used state-of-the-art laboratory measurements of snow samples, taken in DRI’s Ultra-Trace Ice Core Analytical Laboratory in Reno, Nevada, as well as radiative transfer and geospatial modeling to evaluate the impacts of forest fires on snow for more than a decade following a fire. They found that not only did snow melt an average five days earlier after a fire than before all across the West, but the accelerated timing of the snowmelt continued for as many as 15 years.

“This fire effect on earlier snowmelt is widespread across the West and is persistent for at least a decade following fire,” said Kelly Gleason, the lead author and an assistant professor of environmental science and management in PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Gleason, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Desert Research Institute, and her team cite two reasons for the earlier snowmelt.

First, the shade provided by the tree canopy gets removed by a fire, allowing more sunlight to hit the snow. Secondly and more importantly, the soot — also known as black carbon — and the charred wood, bark and debris left behind from a fire darkens the snow and lowers its reflectivity. The result is like the difference between wearing a black t-shirt on a sunny day instead of a white one.

In the last 20 years, there’s been a four-fold increase in the amount of energy absorbed by snowpack because of fires across the West.

Research team in snowy forest

Burned forests shed soot and burned debris that darken the snow surface and accelerate snowmelt for years following fire. Image Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

“Snow is typically very reflective, which is why it appears white, but just a small change in the albedo or reflectivity of the snow surface can have a profound impact on the amount of solar energy absorbed by the snowpack,” said co-author Joe McConnell, a research professor of hydrology and head of the Ultra-Trace Ice Core Analytical Laboratory at DRI. “This solar energy is a key factor driving snowmelt.”

For Western states that rely on snowpack and its runoff into local streams and reservoirs for water, early snowmelt can be a major concern.

“The volume of snowpack and the timing of snowmelt are the dominant drivers of how much water there is and when that water is available downstream,” Gleason said. “The timing is important for forests, fish, and how we allocate reservoir operations; in the winter, we tend to control for flooding, whereas in the summer, we try and hold it back.”

Early snowmelt is also likely to fuel larger and more severe fires across the West, Gleason said.

“Snow is already melting earlier because of climate change,” she said. “When it melts earlier, it’s causing larger and longer-lasting fires on the landscape. Those fires then have a feedback into the snow itself, driving an even earlier snowmelt, which then causes more fires. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Gleason will continue to build on this research in her lab at PSU. She’s in the first year of a grant from NASA that’ll look at the forest fire effects on snow albedo, or how much sunlight energy its surface reflects back into the atmosphere.

Funding for the study was provided by the Sulo and Aileen Maki Endowment at the Desert Research Institute. Co-authors also included Monica Arienzo and Nathan Chellman from DRI and Wendy Calvin from the University of Nevada, Reno.

The full paper, “Four-fold increase in solar forcing on snow in western U.S. burned forests since 1999,” is available here.

Cristina Rojas of PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences contributed to this release.

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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 is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

As Oregon’s only urban public research university, Portland State offers tremendous opportunity to 27,000 students from all backgrounds. Our mission to “Let Knowledge Serve the City” reflects our dedication to finding creative, sustainable solutions to local and global problems. Our location in the heart of Portland, one of America’s most dynamic cities, gives our students unmatched access to career connections and an internationally acclaimed culture scene. “U.S. News & World Report” ranks us among the nation’s most innovative universities.

DRI researchers successfully remove harmful hormones from Las Vegas wastewater using green algae

DRI researchers successfully remove harmful hormones from Las Vegas wastewater using green algae

Xuelian Bai, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Environmental Sciences, works with an algae sample in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Credit: Sachiko Sueki.


 

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (April 8, 2019) – A common species of freshwater green algae is capable of removing certain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from wastewater, according to new research from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas.

EDCs are natural hormones and can also be found in many plastics and pharmaceuticals. They are known to be harmful to wildlife, and to humans in large concentrations, resulting in negative health effects such as lowered fertility and increased incidence of certain cancers. They have been found in trace amounts (parts per trillion to parts per billion) in treated wastewater, and also have been detected in water samples collected from Lake Mead.

In a new study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, DRI researchers Xuelian Bai, Ph.D., and Kumud Acharya, Ph.D., explore the potential for use of a species of freshwater green algae called Nannochloris to remove EDCs from treated wastewater.

“This type of algae is very commonly found in any freshwater ecosystem around the world, but its potential for use in wastewater treatment hadn’t been studied extensively,” explained Bai, lead author and Assistant Research Professor of environmental sciences with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI. “We wanted to explore whether this species might be a good candidate for use in an algal pond or constructed wetland to help remove wastewater contaminants.”

Samples of Nannochloris grow in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory at DRI. This species of green algae was found to be capable of removing certain types of endocrine disrupting chemicals from treated wastewater. Credit: Xuelian Bai/DRI.

Samples of Nannochloris grow in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory at DRI. This species of green algae was found to be capable of removing certain types of endocrine disrupting chemicals from treated wastewater. Credit: Xuelian Bai/DRI.

During a seven-day laboratory experiment, the researchers grew Nannochloris algal cultures in two types of treated wastewater effluents collected from the Clark County Water Reclamation District in Las Vegas, and measured changes in the concentration of seven common EDCs.

In wastewater samples that had been treated using an ultrafiltration technique, the researchers found that the algae grew rapidly and significantly improved the removal rate of three EDCs (17β-estradiol, 17α-ethinylestradiol and salicylic acid), with approximately 60 percent of each contaminant removed over the course of seven days. In wastewater that had been treated using ozonation, the algae did not grow as well and had no significant impact on EDC concentrations.

One of the EDCs examined in the study, triclosan, disappeared completely from the ultrafiltration water after seven days, and only 38 percent remained in the ozonation water after seven days – but this happened regardless of the presence of algae, and was attributed to breakdown by photolysis (exposure to light).

“Use of algae for removing heavy metals and other inorganic contaminants have been extensively studied in the past, but for removing organic pollutants has just started,” said Acharya, Interim Vice President for Research and Executive Director of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI. “Our research shows both some of the potential and also some of the limitations for using Nannochloris to remove EDCs from wastewater.”

Although these tests took place under laboratory conditions, a previous study by Bai and Acharya that published in November 2018 in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research examined the impacts of these same seven EDCs on quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis) collected from Lake Mead. Their results showed that several of the EDCs (testosterone, bisphenol A, triclosan, and salicylic acid) were accumulating in the body tissues of the mussels.

Researcher examines a sample of quagga mussels collected from Lake Mead. A recent study by Bai and Acharya found that endocrine disrupting chemicals are accumulating in the body tissues of these mussels. Credit: Xuelian Bai.

Researcher examines a sample of quagga mussels collected from Lake Mead. A recent study by Bai and Acharya found that endocrine disrupting chemicals are accumulating in the body tissues of these mussels. Credit: Xuelian Bai.

“Algae sit at the base of the food web, thereby providing food for organisms in higher trophic levels such as quagga mussels and other zooplantkons,” Bai said. “Our study clearly shows that there is potential for these contaminants to biomagnify, or build up at higher levels of the food chain in the aquatic ecosystem.”

Bai is now working on a new study looking for antibiotic resistance in genes collected from the Las Vegas Wash, as well as a study of microplastics in the Las Vegas Wash and Lake Mead. Although Las Vegas’s treated wastewater meets Clean Water Act standards, Bai hopes that her research will draw public attention to the fact that treated wastewater is not 100 percent clean, and will also be helpful to utility managers as they develop new ways to remove untreated contaminants from wastewater prior to release.

“Most wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove these unregulated contaminants in lower concentrations, but we know they may cause health effects to aquatic species and even humans, in large concentrations,” Bai said. “This is concerning in places where wastewater is recycled for use in agriculture or released back into drinking water sources.”

Bai’s research was funded by the Desert Research Institute Maki Endowment, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute. The studies mentioned in this release are available from Environmental Pollution and Environmental Science and Pollution Research journals:

Bai, X. and Kumud Acharya. 2019. Removal of seven endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from municipal wastewater effluents by a freshwater green alga. Environmental Pollution. 247: 534-540. Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749118347894

Bai, X. and Kumud Acharya. 2018. Uptake of endocrine-disrupting chemicals by quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis) in an urban-impacted aquatic ecosystem. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 26: 250-258. Available: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-018-3320-4

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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 one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Monica Arienzo receives Board of Regents 2019 Rising Researcher Award

Monica Arienzo receives Board of Regents 2019 Rising Researcher Award

Reno, Nev. (March 1, 2019): This week, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Board of Regents awarded Monica Arienzo, Ph.D. of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno with its annual Rising Researcher Award. The honor is given annually to one NSHE faculty member from DRI, UNR, and UNLV.

Arienzo is an assistant research professor of hydrology with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences. She was recognized for her early-career accomplishments using geochemical tools to understand climatic changes of the past and human impacts to the environment, and for her commitment to sharing her research with the scientific community, the greater Nevada community, and with students.

As a member of DRI’s Ice Core Laboratory, Arienzo and her collaborators have published climate records extending 100,000 years into the past. Her work also has focused on emissions from anthropogenic processes since the industrial revolution. Using ice cores from Greenland, Antarctica, and the European Alps, this research demonstrated the geographic extent of anthropogenic emissions, variations in emissions through time, and sources of these emissions. Locally, her work includes a project partnering with a Nevada non-profit organization to assess the impact of pollutants to the Tahoe Basin snow and water resources.

“I am honored to receive this award,” Arienzo said. “I look forward to continuing this important work with our team at DRI to understand interactions between the environment, climate, and human activities.”

With her collaborators, Dr. Arienzo is at the forefront in development of new geochemical methods including extraction of small (<1µL) water samples from stalagmites, analysis of formation temperatures for carbonates, and novel dating techniques for ice cores. She is currently collaborating with researchers at eight different institutions in four countries on a variety of interdisciplinary research projects.

Since joining DRI, Dr. Arienzo has been the lead author on four and co-author on ten peer-reviewed manuscripts published in high-impact journals including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Environmental Science and Technology, and Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Arienzo holds a B.A. in geology from Franklin and Marshall College and a Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. She joined DRI in 2014 as a Postdoctoral Fellow under the mentorship of Dr. Joe McConnell, and was promoted to Assistant Research Professor in 2016.

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. For more than 50 years DRI research faculty, students, and staff have applied scientific understanding to support the effective management of natural resources while meeting Nevada’s needs for economic diversification and science-based educational opportunities. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Research team develops first lidar-based method for measuring snowpack in mountain forests

Research team develops first lidar-based method for measuring snowpack in mountain forests

Reno, Nev. (Jan. 22, 2018): Many Western communities rely on snow from mountain forests as a source of drinking water – but for scientists and water managers, accurately measuring mountain snowpack has long been problematic. Satellite imagery is useful for calculating snow cover across open meadows, but less effective in forested areas, where the tree canopy often obscures the view of conditions below.

Now, a new technique for measuring snow cover using a laser-based technology called lidar offers a solution, essentially allowing researchers to use lasers to “see through the trees” and accurately measure the snow that lies beneath the forest canopy.

In a new study published in Remote Sensing of the Environment, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Desert Research Institute (DRI), the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and California State University  described the first successful use of lidar to measure snow cover under forested canopy in the Sierra Nevada.

“Lidar data is gathered by laser pulses shot from a plane, some of which are able to pass light through the tree canopy right down to the snow surface and create a highly accurate three-dimensional map of the terrain underneath,” explained lead author Tihomir Kostadinov, Ph.D., of California State University San Marcos, who completed the research while working as a postdoctoral researcher at DRI. “Passive optical satellite imaging techniques, which are essentially photographs taken from space, don’t allow you to see through the trees like this.  We are only starting to take full advantage of all the information in lidar.”

Researcher surveys snowpack at Sagehen Creek Field Station

Rowan Gaffney (UNR) surveying the amount of snow at Sagehen Creek Field Station during the NASA airborne campaigns in March 2016. Credit: A. Harpold.

In this study, researchers worked with NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory to collect lidar data at the University of California, Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Sierra Nevada by aircraft on three dates during spring of 2016 when snow was present. Additional lidar data and ground measurements facilities by the long-term operation of Sagehen Creek field station were critical to the success of the study.

Analysis of the datasets revealed that the lidar was in fact capable of detecting snow presence or absence both under canopy and in open areas, so long as areas with low branches were removed from the analysis. On-the-ground measurements used distributed temperature sensing with fiber optic cables laid out on the forest floor to verify these findings.

Tree canopies interact with the snowpack in complex ways, causing different accumulation and disappearance rates under canopies as compared to open areas. With the ability to use lidar data to measure snow levels beneath trees, snow cover estimates used by scientists and resource managers can be made more accurate. The importance of this advance could be far reaching, said team member Rina Schumer, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President of Academic and Faculty Affairs at DRI.

“In the Sierra Nevada, April 1st snow cover is what is used to estimate water supply for the year,” Schumer said. “Being able to more accurately assess snow cover is important for California and Nevada, but also all mountainous areas where snowpack is essential to year-round water supply.”

Snow cover estimates are also used by hydrologists for streamflow forecasts and reservoir management. Snow cover data is important to ecologists and biologists for understanding animal migration, wildlife habitat, and forest health, and it is useful to the tourism and recreation industry for informing activities related to winter snow sports.

Researcher surveys snow under forest canopy at Sagehen Creek Field Station.

Rose Petersky (UNR) surveying the amount of snow under the forest canopy at Sagehen Creek Field Station during the NASA airborne campaigns in April 2016. The photo clearly shows the reduced snow cover under the canopy that is difficult to measure with satellites. Credit: A. Harpold.

Although lidar data is currently collected via airplane and not easily accessible by all who might like to use it, the study team believes that information gleaned from this study could be used to correct data derived from satellite imagery, which is already widely available from NASA’s MODIS sensor and NASA/USGS’s Landsat satellites.

“This is proof of concept for the method that we think could really expand the extent that we measure snow at high resolution in forests,” said team member Adrian Harpold, Ph.D., Assistant Professor with the Department of Natural Resources at UNR. “I’m now working with a student to extend this approach across multiple sites to improve our understanding of the relationship between snow cover in the open versus under the tree canopy. Then, we hope to use that information to correct and improve satellite remote sensing in forested areas.”

This study was part of a larger NASA EPSCoR project titled Building Capacity in Interdisciplinary Snow Sciences for a Changing World, which aimed to develop new research, technology, and education capacity in Nevada for the interdisciplinary study of snowpack. Objectives included an educational goal of training the next generation of scientists.

“This project brought together people who look at snow from different scientific perspectives, and generated a conversation amongst us,” said Alison Murray, Ph.D., Research Professor at DRI and principal investigator of the NASA EPSCoR project. “In addition to bringing together expertise from three institutions in Nevada (DRI, UNR, and UNLV) in hydrology, remote sensing, geosciences, atmospheric chemistry and snow associated life, we developed strategic alliances with NASA’s airborne snow survey. Where the Nevada researchers might have been studying snow on our own, this interdisciplinary project allowed us to look at snow in an integrated fashion and make some important advances.”

The full study, titled Watershed-scale mapping of fractional snow cover under conifer forest canopy using lidar, is available online from Remote Sensing of the Environment: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0034425718305467

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. Learn more at www.dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. 

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DRI ice core research makes Discover magazine’s list of top breakthroughs in 2018

DRI ice core research makes Discover magazine’s list of top breakthroughs in 2018

Reno, Nev. (Thurs. January 17th) – For the second time, research out of the Ultra-trace Ice Core Chemistry Laboratory at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nevada, has been named one of the year’s biggest scientific discoveries by Discover magazine.

The research, originally published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science last May, 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 provide new insights for historians about how European civilizations and their economies fared over time.

“Our record of sub-annually resolved, accurately dated measurements in the ice core starts in 1100 BC during the late Iron Age and extends through antiquity and late antiquity to the early Middle Ages in Europe, a period that included the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman civilizations,” said the study’s lead author Joe McConnell, Ph.D., Research Professor of Hydrology at DRI and Director of the Ice Core Lab. “We found that lead pollution in Greenland very closely tracked known plagues, wars, social unrest and imperial expansions during European antiquity.”

The research team on the project included scientists, archaeologists, and economists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), the University of Oxford, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research and the University of Copenhagen.

This is the second time research out of the DRI Ice Core Lab has been recognized in the Discover magazine round up of the year’s top science stories. In the January 2008 issue, findings on rising black carbon levels in Greenland ice cores during the industrial revolution made the magazine’s 2007 top 100 list.

“Selection of these findings as among the world’s top science stories of 2018 is very exciting for the members of our research group and our international collaborators. It is especially rewarding for me in that a largely ice core based study was selected as among the top stories in archaeology rather than in earth or environmental sciences. This all demonstrates the vast potential of highly interdisciplinary research teams working together.”

Other DRI researchers who worked on this study are Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., assistant research professor, and graduate student researcher Nathan Chellman.

Meet Erick Bandala, Ph.D.

Meet Erick Bandala, Ph.D.

Erick Bandala, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor of environmental science with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Erick specializes in research related to water quality and water treatment, including the use of nanomaterials in developing new water treatment technologies. He is originally from Mexico, and holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Veracruz State University, a master’s degree in organic chemistry from Morelos State University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Erick has been a member of the DRI community since 2016, when he moved to Las Vegas to begin his current job. In his free time, Erick says that he enjoys doing nothing – a passion that is not shared by his wife of nearly 30 years, who enjoys doing many things.


DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

EB: My work here is to develop advanced technologies for water treatment, such as processes that can deal with the pollutants in the water that are not removed by conventional water treatment methods.

DRI: We understand that a lot of your work involves nanomaterials. What are nanomaterials, and how do you use them in your research?

EB: Nanomaterials are materials that are so small that if you compare the size of one of these materials with a basketball, it’s like comparing the size of the basketball with the size of the earth. These nano-sized materials have applications in many different fields.

In my case, what I’m doing with the nanomaterials is using them to promote reactions in the water that can produce chemical species capable of destroying contaminants. Not only to remove the contaminants, but to destroy them from the water.

Erick Bandala, Ph.D. at work in DRI's Environmental Engineering Lab. Credit: Dave Becker, Nevada Momentum.

Erick Bandala, Ph.D. at work in DRI’s Environmental Engineering Lab. Credit: Dave Becker, Nevada Momentum.

 

DRI: What type of contaminants do you hope to remove? Can you tell us about one of your projects? 

EB: Right now, we are trying to get nanoparticles made of something called zerovalent iron, which is iron with no charge on it. We are planning to use this to remove antibiotics from water. As you know, we all use antibiotics every now and then. And when you use them, the antibiotics get into your body and you will probably only use about 15 percent of the total amount that is present. Whatever remains is discarded with your feces or urine into the wastewater.

Once the wastewater arrives at the water treatment plant, the conventional water treatment processes will probably not be able to remove the antibiotic. So, the antibiotic passes through the wastewater treatment system and keeps going with the treated effluent. In the case of Las Vegas for example, it goes back to Lake Mead. This is a problem, because we are learning now that bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics just by exposure – and when bacteria in the environment become resistant to the antibiotics, there is no way for people to treat infections.

So, in our work, we hope to use nanoparticles to destroy the contaminants in the wastewater. At the moment we are just running some trials in the lab, but we eventually hope to run the experiment at pilot level to see if we can treat wastewater coming back from plants to the lake, and ensure that we will not have these contaminants going back to our environment.

Another part of my research is on how to use solar energy to remove contaminants from water. This way you can save some money by using an energy source that is common in Nevada, widely available. We have a lot of sunshine here.

Information about nanomaterials from DRI's Environmental Engineering Lab. Credit: Dave Becker, Nevada Momentum.

Information about nanomaterials from DRI’s Environmental Engineering Lab. Credit: Dave Becker, Nevada Momentum.

 

DRI: How did you become interested in working on water treatment and water quality?

EB: My very first job was working in a research institute in Mexico that was devoted entirely to water. The group that I arrived to work with was dealing with water quality and treatment in wastewater and drinking water. So, I started down this path just because it was available and I needed the job – but my plan was to spent two years working on this and now it has been more than 25 years. I feel very passionate about this field of work. I feel like this is the way that I have to try to help people, and I love it.

DRI: You are originally from Mexico. What brought you to DRI?

EB: When the position at DRI opened three years ago, I started learning about the water related issues that Nevada and particularly Las Vegas was facing, and was fascinated. The city gets its water supply from Lake Mead then sends treated wastewater back to the lake — so having almost 100 percent recycling of the water is something that caught my attention immediately. Not only because it’s wonderful, but that it may also result in other problems like the recycling of some pollutants that you probably don’t want in your drinking water. That idea really captured me. So I decided to apply for the job, and have had three years of great fun trying to deal all of those problems and promote some solutions that may help to deal with the reality we’re facing in Las Vegas. Reno is not that different – we all need water when we’re living in places where water resources are so scarce. I was really intrigued by how to deal with all of these problems and how I might help.

Erick Bandala (second from left) and his colleagues from DRI's Environmental Engineering Lab. 

Erick Bandala (second from left) and his colleagues from DRI’s Environmental Engineering Lab.

 


For more information about Erick and his research, please visit https://www.dri.edu/directory/erick-bandala.

Data from DRI ice core lab shows rapid melting of Greenland ice sheet

Data from DRI ice core lab shows rapid melting of Greenland ice sheet

Reno, Nev. (Dec. 5, 2018): The melting of the Greenland ice sheet has increased rapidly in response to Arctic warming, and is likely to continue to do so into the future, according to new research from an international team of scientists including Joe McConnell, Ph.D., of the Desert Research Institute in Reno. Among other findings, their research shows a 250 to 575 percent increase in melt intensity over the last 20 years.

This study team utilized ice cores to reconstruct past melting rates from the present day back to the 1600s, producing the first continuous, multi-century record of surface melt intensity and runoff from the Greenland ice sheet. Previous studies have utilized satellite observations, which only go back to 1978.

McConnell, who is a research professor of hydrology and head of the Ultra-Trace Ice Core Analytical Laboratory at DRI, first became involved in the study in 2003 when his research group drilled and analyzed the contents of a 150-meter (492-foot) ice core from west-central Greenland. This ice core, known as “D5”, was then used by Sarah Das, Ph.D. from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to develop the record of surface melting rates used in this study.

In a subsequent 2016 collaboration with WHOI researchers, McConnell’s group also used DRI’s unique continuous ice-core analytical system to analyze a 115-meter (377-foot) ice core known as “NU”, which was collected in 2015 by the study’s lead author Luke Trusel and colleagues. The detailed DRI measurements of more than 20 elements and chemical species in both the D5 and NU ice cores enabled precise dating of the records that underpin the new findings.

Recovering an ice core from west Greenland. Credit: Sarah Has/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Recovering an ice core from west Greenland. Credit: Sarah Has/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The study, titled “Nonlinear Rise in Greenland Runoff in Response to Post-industrial Arctic Warming”, was published in the journal Nature in on December 5, 2018: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0752-4. A detailed press release from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is below.


 Greenland Ice Sheet Melt ‘Off the Charts’ Compared with Past Four Centuries

Surface melting across Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheet began increasing in the mid-19th century and then ramped up dramatically during the 20th and early 21st centuries, showing no signs of abating, according to new research published Dec. 5, 2018, in the journal Nature. The study provides new evidence of the impacts of climate change on Arctic melting and global sea level rise.

“Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet has gone into overdrive. As a result, Greenland melt is adding to sea level more than any time during the last three and a half centuries, if not thousands of years,” said Luke Trusel, a glaciologist at Rowan University’s School of Earth & Environment and former post-doctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and lead author of the study. “And increasing melt began around the same time as we started altering the atmosphere in the mid-1800s.”

“From a historical perspective, today’s melt rates are off the charts, and this study provides the evidence to prove this,” said Sarah Das, a glaciologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and co-author of the study. “We found a fifty percent increase in total ice sheet meltwater runoff versus the start of the industrial era, and a thirty percent increase since the 20th century alone.”

Meltwater lakes on the Greenland ice sheet. Credit: Sarah Das/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Meltwater lakes on the Greenland ice sheet. Credit: Sarah Das/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Ice loss from Greenland is one of the key drivers of global sea level rise. Icebergs calving into the ocean from the edge of glaciers represent one component of water re-entering the ocean and raising sea levels. But more than half of the ice-sheet water entering the ocean comes from runoff from melted snow and glacial ice atop the ice sheet. The study suggests that if Greenland ice sheet melting continues at “unprecedented rates”—which the researchers attribute to warmer summers—it could accelerate the already fast pace of sea level rise.

“Rather than increasing steadily as climate warms, Greenland will melt increasingly more and more for every degree of warming. The melting and sea level rise we’ve observed already will be dwarfed by what may be expected in the future as climate continues to warm,” said Trusel.

To determine how intensely Greenland ice has melted in past centuries, the research team used a drill the size of a traffic light pole to extract ice cores from the ice sheet itself and an adjacent coastal ice cap, at sites more than 6,000 feet above sea level.  The scientists drilled at these elevations to ensure the cores would contain records of past melt intensity, allowing them to extend their records back into the 17th century.

During warm summer days in Greenland, melting occurs across much of the ice sheet surface. At lower elevations, where melting is the most intense, meltwater runs off the ice sheet and contributes to sea level rise, but no record of the melt remains. At higher elevations, however, the summer meltwater quickly refreezes from contact with the below-freezing snowpack sitting underneath. This prevents it from escaping the ice sheet in the form of runoff. Instead, it forms distinct icy bands that stack up in layers of densely packed ice over time.

The core samples were brought back to ice core labs at the U.S. National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility in Denver, Colo., WHOI in Woods Hole, Mass., Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev. where the scientists measured physical and chemical properties along the cores to determine the thickness and age of the melt layers. Dark bands running horizontally across the cores, like ticks on a ruler, enabled the scientists to visually chronicle the strength of melting at the surface from year to year. Thicker melt layers represented years of higher melting, while thinner sections indicated years with less melting.

Iceberg in Disko Bay, west Greenland. Credit Luke Trusel/Rowan University.

Iceberg in Disko Bay, west Greenland. Credit Luke Trusel/Rowan University.

Combining results from multiple ice cores with observations of melting from satellites and sophisticated climate models, the scientists were able to show that the thickness of the annual melt layers they observed clearly tracked not only how much melting was occurring at the coring sites, but also much more broadly across Greenland.  This breakthrough allowed the team to reconstruct meltwater runoff at the lower-elevation edges of the ice sheet—the areas that contribute to sea level rise.

Ice core records provide critical historical context because satellite measurements—which scientists rely on today to understand melting rates in response to changing climate—have only been around since the late 1970s, said Matt Osman, a graduate student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program and co-author of the study.

“We have had a sense that there’s been a great deal of melting in recent decades, but we previously had no basis for comparison with melt rates going further back in time,” he said. “By sampling ice, we were able to extend the satellite data by a factor of 10 and get a clearer picture of just how extremely unusual melting has been in recent decades compared to the past.”

Trusel said the new research provides evidence that the rapid melting observed in recent decades is highly unusual when put into a historical context.

“To be able to answer what might happen to Greenland next, we need to understand how Greenland has already responded to climate change,” he said. “What our ice cores show is that Greenland is now at a state where it’s much more sensitive to further increases in temperature than it was even 50 years ago.”

One noteworthy aspect of the findings, Das said, was how little additional warming it now takes to cause huge spikes in ice sheet melting.

“Even a very small change in temperature caused an exponential increase in melting in recent years,” she said. “So the ice sheet’s response to human-caused warming has been non-linear.”  Trusel concluded, “Warming means more today than it did in the past.”

Additional co-authors are: Matthew B. Osman, MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography; Matthew J. Evans, Wheaton College; Ben E. Smith, University of Washington; Xavier Fettweis, University of Leige; Joseph R. McConnell, Desert Research Institute; and Brice P. Y. Noël and and Michiel R. van den Broeke Utrecht University.

This research was funded by the US National Science Foundation, institutional support from Rowan University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the US Department of Defense, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the Netherlands Earth System Science Center, and the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research.

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Link to paper (on and after Dec. 5, 2018): https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0752-4  

News media contacts:

WHOI Media Office- 508-289-3340, media@whoi.edu
Sarah Das, Ph.D., Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (508) 289-2464 (office), sdas@whoi.edu https://www2.whoi.edu/staff/sdas/
Stephen Levine, News Officer, University Relations, Rowan University(856) 256-5443 (office), (856) 889-0491 (cell), Levines@Rowan.edu
Luke Trusel, Ph.D., School of Earth & Environment, Rowan University (856) 256 5262 (office), (508) 981-3073 (cell), trusel@rowan.edu, https://cryospherelab.org 

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.  

Nevada Solar Nexus Project: 2013-2018

Nevada Solar Nexus Project: 2013-2018

“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.

This panel discussion, attended by members of the Las Vegas community, featured researchers from DRI and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)–Eric Wilcox, Ph.D. (DRI), Gayle Dayna, Ph.D. (DRI), Dale Devitt, Ph.D. (UNLV), and Bob Boehm, Ph.D. (UNLV)–all of whom have who have spent the last five years working on the Solar Energy, Water, and Environment Nexus in Nevada project, a wide-ranging research project sponsored by the Nevada System Sponsored Programs and Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

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.

The Solar Nexus project has involved a wide range of research over the last five years, all of it collaborative—48 faculty, 14 technical staff, and over 30 graduate students from DRI, UNLV, and UNR have been involved over the five years of the project. Research included but was not limited to the testing of dry cooling methods for solar panels to conserve water resourcesinvestigating the impact of panels on rainwater infiltration into soilsexamining the possibilities for desert soil restoration, and studying the factors that impact solar power generation and may cause it to fluctuate, like cloud cover.

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.

Photo of speakers at the Solar Nexus panel event held at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas.

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.

To hear from DRI’s Markus Berli about the Solar Nexus project on the Shades of Green radio show, hosted by Green Alliance, visit: http://www.greenalliancenv.org/blog/nexus-of-water-and-energy-usage.

To browse an archive of stories about the Solar Nexus project’s research and impact for the state, visit: https://solarnexus.epscorspo.nevada.edu/about/feature-articles/.

DRI ice core data illustrates climate “teleconnection” between Earth’s poles during climate changes in the last Ice Age

DRI ice core data illustrates climate “teleconnection” between Earth’s poles during climate changes in the last Ice Age

Reno, Nev. (Nov. 28, 2018): This week, new research on historical climate changes in the Earth’s polar regions by an international team of scientists was published in the journal Nature. The study, titled “Abrupt Ice Age Shifts in Southern Westerlies and Antarctic Climate Forced from the North,” is underpinned by data provided by Joe McConnell, Ph.D., director of DRI’s Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory in Reno, Nev.

The recently published study explains the interconnection between Arctic and Antarctic climates, tracing how strong currents in the North Atlantic during the Ice Age forced Southern Hemisphere climate on two different timescales: first, by rapidly warming Greenland and triggering immediate atmospheric changes in Antarctica due to shifting wind patterns, and second, by cooling the continent via colder ocean temperatures two centuries later. Researchers liken the atmospheric climate change in the North Atlantic to a “text message,” delivered immediately to the Southern Hemisphere, while the oceanic cooling is more like a “postcard,” not felt in Antarctica for another 200 years.

To identify this climate “teleconnection” between Earth’s poles, researchers relied on detailed chemical analyses of more than 1.5 km of Antarctic ice core, including more than 400,000 individual measurements, made in the Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory using a unique continuous flow system and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Retrieved from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), this ice core sample, known as the WAIS Divide core, was collected by a team including DRI emeritus research professor Kendrick Taylor, Ph.D. Their original research into the connection between the Earth’s polar regions using the WAIS Divide core was first explained in Nature in 2015.

The full text of the study titled “Abrupt ice-age shifts in southern westerly winds and Antarctic climate forced from the north” is available in Naturehttps://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0727-5. A full news release from Oregon State University is below.

Continue Reading DRI ice core data illustrates climate “teleconnection” between Earth’s poles during climate changes in the last Ice Age

First non-polar historical iodine record shows impact of fossil fuel emissions

First non-polar historical iodine record shows impact of fossil fuel emissions

Reno, Nev. (Nov. 13, 2018): A new ice core record from the French Alps shows impacts of fossil fuel emissions in the form of a steep increase in iodine levels during the second half of the 20th century, according to a study released this week by an international team of scientists from the Université Grenoble Alpes-CNRS of France, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev., and the University of York in England.

“Model and laboratory studies had suggested that atmospheric iodine should have increased during recent decades as a result of increasing fossil fuel emissions but few long-term records of iodine existed with which to test these model findings, and none in Western Europe where modeled iodine increases were especially pronounced,” said French researcher and lead author Michel Legrand, Ph.D.

Iodine is an important nutrient for human health, key in the formation of thyroid hormones. It is present in ocean waters, and is released into the atmosphere when Iodide (I-) reacts with ozone (03) at the water’s surface. From the atmosphere, iodine is deposited onto Earth’s land surfaces, and absorbed by humans in the foods that we eat.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was initiated after scientists observed a three-fold increase in iodine between 1950 and the 1990s measured in an ice core from the Col du Dome region of France. The core was collected by French scientists and analyzed in 2017 in DRI’s Ultra Trace Ice Core Analysis Laboratory.

 

Researchers examine an ice core sample drilled from Mont Blanc.

Researchers examine an ice core sample drilled from Mont Blanc. Credit: B. Jourdain, L’Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement.

Although previous modeling simulations had indicated a similar increase in global iodine emissions during the 20th century, this new record provides the first ice core iodine record from outside of the polar regions.

“Iodine has been measured previously in polar ice cores but changes there largely can be attributed to variations in sea ice,” said Joe McConnell, Ph.D., research professor of hydrology and head of DRI’s ice core laboratory. “These variations mask the larger scale trends linked to fossil fuel emissions and changes in ozone chemistry. Our new iodine record extends from 1890 to 2000 and is from the French Alps, a part of the world where there are no sea ice influences.”

As part of this study, more than 120 meters (nearly 400 feet) of ice core from the French Alps was analyzed for iodine and a broad range of chemical species by a group of DRI researchers that included McConnell, Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., Nathan Chellman, and Kelly Gleason, Ph.D., using DRI’s unique continuous analytical system.

The study team then analyzed the ice core record alongside modeling simulations to investigate past atmospheric iodine concentrations and changes in iodine deposition across Europe. According to their results, the observed tripling of iodine levels in the ice during the 1950s to 1990s were caused by increased iodine emissions from the ocean.

An ice core sample is processed in DRI’s Ultra-Trace Ice Core Laboratory in Reno, Nev.

An ice core sample is processed in DRI’s Ultra-Trace Ice Core Laboratory in Reno, Nev. Credit: Joe McConnell/DRI.

Ozone in the lower atmosphere acts as an air pollutant and greenhouse gas. Because iodine emissions from the ocean occur when iodine in the water reacts with ozone in the lower atmosphere, the study results indicate that increased ozone levels are increasing the availability of iodine in the atmosphere – and also that iodine is helping to destroy this “bad” ozone.

“Iodine’s role in human health has been recognized for some time – it is an essential part of our diets,” said Lucy Carpenter, Ph.D., Professor with University of York’s Department of Chemistry. “Its role in climate change and air pollution, however, has only been recognized recently and the impact of iodine in the atmosphere is not currently a feature of the climate or air quality models that predict future global environmental changes.”

According to the World Health Organization, iodine deficiency remains a significant health problem in parts of Europe, including France, Italy and certain regions of Spain – regions that now appear to have received a boost in iodine levels in recent years.

“The silver lining in the findings of this study is that the increase in human-caused pollution during the latter half of the 20th century may be leading to an increase in the availability of iodine as an essential nutrient,” Legrand said.

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To view the study, titled Alpine ice evidence of a three-fold increase in atmospheric iodine deposition since 1950 in Europe due to increasing oceanic emissions, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 12 November 2018, please visit:  http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/11/07/1809867115

Samantha Martin from the University of York contributed to this release.

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. Learn more at dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Q & A with AGU Presenter Rose Shillito

Q & A with AGU Presenter Rose Shillito

Rose Shillito is a hydrologist and graduate student researcher working with Markus Berli, Ph.D., associate research professor of environmental science. Rose has worked at DRI since 2011, and she plans to defend her doctoral dissertation at UNLV and earn her Ph.D. in geosciences this fall.

DRI: In a couple of sentences, what is the ‘plain English’ summary of what are you presenting at AGU? 

Rose Shillito: Fire can cause soils to become water repellent—water will not spontaneously enter the soil. We have developed a physically-based model to understand and predict the effect of soil water repellency on infiltration, thus on the potential for post-fire flooding and erosion.

(Rose was recently featured by the UNLV Foundation for her work on post-fire water repellency. Read the article here: https://www.unlv.edu/news/article/trickle-down-effect.)

DRI: What are you most looking forward to at AGU this year? What do you hope to learn, or who do you hope to connect with? 

RS: At AGU, I like to get an overview of research in my specific topic, but also get a general overview of research directions and methods in my field (hydrology). I get a chance to connect with colleagues and make new connections with other researchers.

DRI: The theme of this year’s meeting is “What Science Stands For.” From your perspective, what does science stand for? 

RS: Currently, to me, science is about answering questions.

Meet Rose at her AGU poster session, “Effective Infiltration Measurements for Fire-Affected Water-Repellent Soils,” happening Tuesday, December 11th during the afternoon session. (Session H23L-2548 in the program.)

This Q&A is part of a series of profiles of DRI scientists who will be participating in the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting, to be held in Washington DC during the week of December 10th. Learn more about this annual meeting of 24,000 scientists from a wide range of disciplines here: https://fallmeeting.agu.org/2018/.

DRI and Collaborators Awarded $6 Million Grant for Innovative Genetic Research

DRI and Collaborators Awarded $6 Million Grant for Innovative Genetic Research

Las Vegas, NV (November 1, 2018):  The Desert Research Institute, in partnership with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and University of New Hampshire, announced receipt of a $6 million National Science Foundation grant today that will fund the development of new genetic research technologies and build economic capacity in Nevada, Maine, and New Hampshire.

The multifaceted effort, which the researchers will launch next week at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., aims to unlock the genomic data of microscopic organisms that  help to degrade environmental contaminants and drive major biogeochemical cycles that shape global climate.

“There has been an explosion of genomics data over the last two decades, and the next step is connecting that data to what’s actually happening in the environment,” said Ramunas Stepanauskas, Ph.D., director of the Single Cell Genomics Center at Bigelow Laboratory and principal investigator on the project. “We need new infrastructure and approaches to harness the power of genomic technologies, which will help solve some of the great biological mysteries of our planet.”

Single-celled organisms make up the vast majority of biological diversity on our planet, but many are found in hard-to-access places such as the Earth’s subsurface or deep ocean environments, can’t be seen with the naked eye, and can’t yet be grown in lab cultures. As a result, much about these organisms – including their potential for production of natural products for bioenergy, pharmaceuticals, bioremediation, and water treatment – remains unknown.

Bigelow Laboratory scientist Ramunas Stepanauskas collects a water sample on the institute’s dock.

Bigelow Laboratory scientist Ramunas Stepanauskas collects a water sample on the institute’s dock. He is the principle investigator on a new $6 million project that will connect the genetic makeup of individual microbes to their environmental roles and build economic capacity in Maine, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Credit: Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

This four-year project will develop and apply new tools and techniques in genetic analysis to learn about links between the genomes (DNA, or genetic material) and phenomes (observable characteristics) expressed by single-celled organisms in diverse marine and continental environments. The main technical innovation of this project is that information is gained at the level of the individual cell sampled directly from the environment in near-real-time.

To achieve their objectives, the team will gather microbes from coastal ocean habitat in the Gulf of Maine, deep ocean and marine subsurface habitat along the Juan de Fuca Ridge of the northwestern Pacific Ocean, and terrestrial deep subsurface habitat in boreholes that intersect geological fault zones associated with Death Valley, Calif.

Duane Moser, Ph.D., head of DRI’s Environmental Microbiology and Astrobiology Labs in Las Vegas, will lead portions of the project related to the continental subsurface. Moser specializes in microbial and molecular ecology, and has studied microbes of deep underground environments in locations ranging from mines of South Africa, Canada, and the U.S., to caves, especially at Lava Beds National Monument of northern California, to deeply sourced springs from around the Great Basin.

DRI scientist Duane Moser collecting dissolved gas samples from the main project borehole near Death Valley, CA.

DRI scientist Duane Moser collecting dissolved gas samples from the main project borehole near Death Valley, CA. Credit: Duane Moser/DRI.

The deep subsurface appears to serve as a unique repository for microbial diversity, preserving an evolutionary legacy that may range back to the early stages of cellular evolution, says Moser.

“Evidence continues to mount that the deep subsurface can be regarded as its own distinct biome, yet we lack the tools to determine how rock-hosted life persists in isolation over geologic timescales,” Moser said. “This project promises to not only teach us about the identities of to-date mysterious groups of microorganisms, but literally allows us to eavesdrop on the activities of individual cells in mixed communities from deep underground. That is truly unprecedented.”

Moser is also leading a task aimed at adapting the new technologies for the applied science of environmental bioremediation, using polyacrylamide as a test case. Polyacrylamide is a ubiquitous substance found in consumer products and used for drinking water treatment, amendment for agricultural soils, well drilling and fracking, and as a sealant for unlined irrigation canals. While generally considered non-toxic, commercial polyacrylamide preparations contain residues of acrylamide monomer, which do possess toxic properties.

“Microorganisms have a role in the degradation of most manmade contaminants, yet our mechanistic understanding of these essential transformations is largely limited to laboratory studies of a handful of easily cultured bacteria,” Moser said. “These new tools will enable us, for the first time, to identify and track the activities of the real actors behind the environmental degradation of contaminants.”

Image taken from within a naturally flowing artesian borehole in Death Valley, Calif..

Image taken from within a naturally flowing artesian borehole in Death Valley, Calif., which will be utilized for the testing of experimental equipment prior to undersea deployment at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Michael King, Hydrodynamics Group, LL.

The project funds come from the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which aims to strengthen the research and technology capacity of states that have historically received low federal research funding. The project leverages Bigelow Laboratory’s state-of-the-art capacity in single cell genomics and flow cytometry, University of New Hampshire‘s expertise in polymer chemistry and synthesis of fluorescently labeled tracer molecules, and the Desert Research Institute’s experience and infrastructure for studying subsurface environments and contaminants of emerging concern.

“Combing single-cell genomics with measurements of microbial metabolism will help us better understand the role of microbes in cycling biologically important compounds,” said Kai Ziervogel, Ph.D., the microbial biogeochemist leading project efforts at University of New Hampshire. “I am excited that this project will provide undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary research that will contribute to environmental science in a unique way.”

In addition to creating new research infrastructure, the project will spur economic growth through skilled workforce training opportunities and several new jobs – including a new postdoctoral scientist at the Desert Research Institute, new senior research scientist and postdoctoral positions at Bigelow Laboratory, as well as a faculty member at University of New Hampshire. The research team will also provide professional development opportunities, including the training of graduate students and bioinformatics workshops in Maine, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

“As we improve our understanding of the critical functions of life, we can also improve our three collaborating states,” Stepanauskas said. “By enabling novel research, educational programs and workforce development, this work will have broad impact on the research community and beyond.”

Rachel Kaplan and Steven Profaizer from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences contributed to this release.

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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. Learn more at dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is an independent, nonprofit research institute on the coast of Maine. Its research ranges from the microscopic life at the bottom of marine food webs to large-scale ocean processes that affect the entire planet. Recognized as a leader in Maine’s emerging innovation economy, the Laboratory’s research, education, and technology transfer programs are contributing to significant economic growth. Learn more at bigelow.org, and join the conversation on Facebook,Instagram, and Twitter.

The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is a public research university in the University System of New Hampshire. With over 15,000 students between its Durham, Manchester, and Concord campuses, UNH is the largest university in the state. The School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, the heart of UNH’s oceanographic research, is the university’s first ‘interdisciplinary school’, designed to address today’s highly complex ocean and coastal challenges through integrated graduate education, research and engagement. As such, it serves as an interdisciplinary nexus for marine science and ocean engineering teaching and research across the University. Learn more at www.marine.unh.edu

DRI faculty teach water, sanitation, hygiene, and environmental issues courses in eSwatini (Swaziland)

DRI faculty teach water, sanitation, hygiene, and environmental issues courses in eSwatini (Swaziland)

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. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.

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.

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. Credit: World Vision eSwatini Communications.

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). 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. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.

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.

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.

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. 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.


Learn more:

Follow CIWAS on Twitter at @driciwas – https://twitter.com/driciwas

For more information on CIWAS, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/ciwas/

For more information on the WASH Capacity Building Program, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/ciwas/wash-capacity-building-program/

Interdisciplinary research team to investigate impact of changing mountain snowpack on agriculture in western US

Reno, Nev. (Friday, Sept. 21) – Mountain snowpack and rainfall are the primary sources of water for the arid western United States, and water allocation rules determine how that water gets distributed among competing uses, including agriculture. Historically, agriculture in the West has benefited from predictable snowmelt, but under changing climate conditions, earlier melting of mountain snowpack is altering the timing of runoff, putting additional pressure on water storage and delivery infrastructure to meet the needs of agricultural water rights holders.

To explore solutions for these critical water problems, a research team led by the University of Nevada, Reno and including interdisciplinary experts from the Desert Research Institute, Colorado State University, Northern Arizona University, and Arizona State University has received $4.97 million from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture for a major research effort into snowpack and water resources in the West.

Over the next five years, the research team will investigate:

  • How changes in mountain snowpack affect available water,
  • Which basins in the arid West are most at risk,
  • The effectiveness of existing water allocation laws and regulation in managing these changes, in comparison with proposed modifications, and
  • How changes in available water, and laws and regulations, affect the economic well-being of various groups in society – including the sustainability of agricultural production in the arid West.

“The impacts of changing mountain snowmelt on water rights holders are profound,” said Kim Rollins, University of Nevada, Reno professor and project director for the grant. “Increased risk affects private decisions to sell irrigation water rights, potentially causing permanent losses in the capacity for food production in the arid West. Decision-making can be improved with a better understanding of how changes in water flows influence agriculture producer decision-making and how laws and regulations can exacerbate or relieve constraints imposed by these changes.”

DRI’s Seshadri Rajagopal, Ph.D., assistant research professor of hydrometeorology, and Greg Pohll, Ph.D., research professor of hydrogeology, will be contributing their expertise in hydrologic modeling to the project. Specifically, Rajagopal and Pohll will be studying three significant watersheds throughout the arid West: the Walker in Nevada, the Verde in Arizona, and the South Platte in Colorado.

“We’ll be utilizing the national water model, a hydrologic model that simulates observed and forecasted streamflow over the entire continental United States, and adapting it for the study area to represent physical processes such as snowmelt, infiltration, and soil water storage,” explained Rajagopal. “This data will allow economists and policy makers to understand how water supply in these watersheds changes and to study its impact on water allocation and institutions.”

This project is one of seven total projects supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) $34 million in grants for research through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Water for Food Production Systems Challenge Area, which is authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

The research team:

  • Kimberly Rollins, professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics and Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources
  • Loretta Singletary, interdisciplinary outreach liaison, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics
  • Adrian Harpold, assistant professor in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Nevada, Reno, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources; Global Water Center
  • Michael Taylor, assistant professor, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics and state specialist in agricultural and resource, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
  • Gi-Eu Lee, postdoctoral fellow, University of Nevada, Reno, College of Business, Department of Economics
  • Seshadri Rajagopal, assistant research professor, Desert Research Institute, Division of Hydrologic Sciences
  • Greg Pohll, professor, Desert Research Institute, Division of Hydrologic Sciences
  • Dale Manning, assistant professor, Colorado State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department
  • Christopher Goemans, associate professor, Colorado State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department
  • Abigail York, associate professor, Arizona State University, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
  • Benjamin Ruddell, associate professor, Northern Arizona University, School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems
  • Bryan Leonard, assistant professor, Arizona State University, School of Sustainability

To learn more about the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant recipients, please visit: https://nifa.usda.gov/announcement/nifa-invests-research-solve-critical-water-problems. Nicole Shearer of the University of Nevada, Reno and Aaron Pugh of Arizona State University contributed to this release. 

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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.

DRI ice core data provides insight into how dust and precipitation reach Earth’s poles

DRI ice core data provides insight into how dust and precipitation reach Earth’s poles

Above: A lone researcher is silhouetted by the summer sun, low in the Antarctic sky. Credit: Bradley Markle, UCSB.


Reno, Nev. (Sept. 20, 2018) – In September, new research by a team from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Washington, Columbia University, and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) was published in the journal Nature Geoscience. The study, titled Concomitant variability in high-latitude aerosols, water isotopes and the hydrologic cycle, utilized data provided by Joe McConnell, Ph.D., director of DRI’s Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory in Reno, Nev.

The study explains an observed connection between concentrations of aerosols (small atmospheric particles such as mineral dust and sea-salt) and the ratios of different isotopes of water (variant forms of H20 in which the atoms carry extra neutrons) found in Antarctic ice cores.

Aerosol measurements for this study, which consisted of more than 500,000 measurements of calcium and sodium in 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles) of Antarctic ice, were made in the Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory using a unique continuous flow system and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Parts of these aerosol records have been published previously, but they are published in full in the new study. The full news release from U.C. Santa Barbara is below.


Researcher on ice in Antarctica.

These shallow cores help us with the interpretation of the deep one,” explained UC Santa Barbara’s Bradley Markle. Credit: Bradley Markle, UCSB.

Dust, Rain and the Poles

Warmer climates will likely decrease the amount of airborne sediments reaching the poles

By Harrison Tasoff, University of California, Santa Barbara

Every year, the global climate transports billions of tons of dust around the world. These aerosols play a key role in many of Earth’s geological and biological cycles.

For instance, wind blows millions of tons of dust from the Sahara Desert across the Atlantic Ocean, where it fertilizes the Amazon Rainforest. The collective action of billions of trees pumping water from the ground then generates its own weather pattern, affecting the whole of South America.

When climate scientist Bradley Markle, at UC Santa Barbara’s Earth Research Institute, spotted a correlation between the ratios of heavy molecules and the concentration of particulate matter in the Antarctic ice cores he was studying, he immediately set out to uncover the deeper connection. His findings appear in the journal Nature Geoscience.

For decades scientists have been puzzled by the relationship between aerosol concentrations and the ratios of different molecules of water in ice cores, and Markle appears to have finally found the connection. His research increases our understanding of the processes at work in Earth’s atmosphere and could help to improve our climate models.

Markle focuses on understanding how climactic processes concentrate atoms of different weights in certain areas. Consider oxygen, for example. Every oxygen atom has eight positively charged protons. That’s what makes it oxygen. However, the number of neutrally charged neutrons it contains can vary from eight to 10. And the greater the number of neutrons, the heavier the isotope.

Water has one oxygen atom bonded to two hydrogen atoms, so water containing lighter isotopes, like 16O — which has eight neutrons — weighs less than water with heavier ones, like 18O — which has 10. Certain processes affect heavier molecules more than their lighter counterparts, leading to varying distributions of different weights across the globe. So even though 99.7 percent of oxygen on Earth is 16O, slight differences in the ratio between 16O and 18O provide scientists with valuable clues about the planet’s climate. In fact, measurements of these ratios in ice cores underlie our most detailed long records of Earth’s temperature history, Markle explained. They span hundreds of thousands of years before humans started measuring temperature directly.

Researchers examine the ice cores, which are backlit by the sun. Credit: Bradley Markle, UCSB.

Researchers examine the ice cores, which are backlit by the sun. Credit: Bradley Markle, UCSB.

Scientists noticed that ice layers with higher ratios of heavy isotopes also contained a greater concentration of trapped aerosols. “And it’s a very unique relationship, too,” Markle said. “It’s very clearly logarithmic … so it seems like it needs a strong, logarithmic process to account for it.

“The correlation between the thing that records the climate (the water isotope ratios) and these aerosols is extremely good,” he continued. “Better than you get in almost anything else in this field.”

Precipitation has the most influence on the percentage of heavy isotopes that make it to high latitudes, since heavier water molecules condense more readily compared to light ones, Markle explained. Warm air holds more moisture than cold air, so as it cools on its way toward the poles, the moisture condenses and preferentially loses the heavier molecules. If the poles become warmer, the air will not cool as much, so a greater number of heavy molecules will make it to higher latitudes. As a result, scientists associate low ratios of heavy isotopes with colder periods in Earth’s history.

Scientists suspected that these climatic conditions impacted the locations these aerosols came from, somehow effecting greater emissions during cooled periods than warm ones. However, years of research had yet to produce a model that fit the data. In addition, source variability is challenging to investigate because it requires looking at myriad factors in many different places. “People have investigated it, and they can’t get the sources to have such large changes in aerosol emissions,” Markle said.

Markle compared aerosol data from the Antarctic ice cores with similarly aged seafloor sediment from the oceans just below South America, which is the dominant source of the airborne dust found in Antarctica. He discovered that aerosol levels in the ocean sediment increased three- to six-fold during the last glacial maximum. However, concentrations in the ice cores soared to levels 20 to 100 times baseline rates. Clearly most of the change seen in the ice cores must be due to factors far from the source of the aerosols.

Then Markle recognized a similarity between the isotope ratios and the aerosol concentrations: The physics of moisture in the atmosphere is driving both of them.

A view of the Antarctic coast from the Southern Ocean. Credit: Bradley Markle, UCSB.

A view of the Antarctic coast from the Southern Ocean. Credit: Bradley Markle, UCSB.

Without aerosols, the world would have no rain. Water vapor needs a surface to condense, or form droplets. This could be a steamy shower window or a fleck of dust floating high in the clouds. In this way, precipitation washes the sky of aerosols. More precipitation between the source of the aerosols and the poles means lower concentrations of aerosols make it to the glaciers, and thus into the ice cores. And more precipitation also leads to lower ratios of heavy isotopes. Markle had discovered the connection.

What’s more, the scouring effect precipitation has on aerosols is exponential, meaning its influence increases the longer, and farther, the aerosols travel from their source. Precisely the sort of relationship Markle needed to match the data.

“This rainout theory ends up solving a whole bunch of things at once,” Markle said. It clarifies the correlation between aerosol concentrations and water isotopes, as well as the greater variability in aerosol levels at the poles than in locations closer to the source of the debris. The effect also explains why dust levels vary more than sea salt levels in the aerosol record: The ocean is closer to Antarctica than the source of dust, so precipitation has less impact on the amount of sea salt that makes it to the West Antarctic ice-sheet.

Markle is cautious about making predictions for our current climate change. “The effect that we saw in the ice cores was a really big effect, but it’s a big effect on multicentury, multimillennium time scales,” Markle said. Other sources of variability may be more prominent over shorter timeframes, he explained.

Nonetheless, warming temperatures would forecast decreasing concentrations of aerosols reaching the Arctic and Antarctic. Since aerosols reflect heat and sunlight, this could exacerbate warming trends over long periods of time. Changes in aerosol distribution could also affect the ocean, since they also contain nutrients and minerals vital to ocean’s food web.

Markle plans to leverage his newfound understanding of these relationships to investigate changes not only in the strength of hydrologic cycle but also in its spatial pattern. “Because the hydrologic cycle is tied to Earth’s temperature gradients, I think we can use these records to understand changes in polar amplification,” he explained. This is the phenomenon where the poles warm more than lower latitudes during climate change.

“This is a big deal in modern climate change,” he added, “and understanding how it has happened in the past would be extremely useful.”

This news release was originally published by the University of California, Santa Barbara. To view the original story, please visit:  http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2018/019185/dust-rain-and-poles

To view the study titled Concomitant variability in high-latitude aerosols, water isotopes and the hydrologic cycle, published in Nature Geoscience on 10 September 2018, please visit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0210-9

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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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Low-severity wildfires impact soils more than previously believed

Low-severity wildfires impact soils more than previously believed

Above: In semi-arid ecosystems such as the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas, which burned as part of the Carpenter 1 fire during July and August 2013, fuel is limited and fires tend to be short lived and low in peak temperature. New research shows that these fires are more harmful to soils than they initially appear. This photo was taken on January 6, 2015 – approximately 18 months after the wildfire. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.


New research shows negative effects of fire on soil structure and organic matter

Las Vegas, NV (August 28, 2018): Low-severity wildland fires and prescribed burns have long been presumed by scientists and resource managers to be harmless to soils, but this may not be the case, new research shows.

According to two new studies by a team from the University of California, Merced (UCM) and the Desert Research Institute (DRI), low-severity burns – in which fire moves quickly and soil temperature does not exceed 250oC (482oF) – cause damage to soil structure and organic matter in ways that are not immediately apparent after a fire.

“When you have a high-severity fire, you burn off the organic matter from the soil and the impact is immediate,” said Teamrat Ghezzehei, Ph.D., principal investigator of the two studies and Associate Professor of Environmental Soil Physics at UCM. “In a low-severity fire, the organic matter doesn’t burn off, and there is no visible destruction right away. But the burning weakens the soil structure, and unless you come back at a later time and carefully look at the soil, you wouldn’t notice the damage.”

DRI researcher Markus Berli, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor of Environmental Science, became interested in studying this phenomenon while visiting a burned area near Ely, Nev. in 2009, where he made the unexpected observation that a prescribed, low-severity fire had resulted in soil structure damage in the burned area. He and several colleagues from DRI conducted a follow-up study on another controlled burn in the area, and found that soil structure that appeared to be fine immediately after a fire but deteriorated over the weeks and months that followed. Berli then teamed up with Ghezzehei and a team from UCM that included graduate student Mathew Jian, and Associate Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Ph.D., to further investigate.

Researcher examines soils in a burned area near Las Vegas.

Researcher Markus Berli from the Desert Research Institute examines the soils at a burned area in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas on January 6, 2015, approximately 18 months after the area burned in the Carpenter 1 fire of 2013. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.

Soil consists of large and small mineral particles (gravel, sand, silt, and clay) which are bound together by organic matter, water and other materials to form aggregates. When soil aggregates are exposed to severe fires, the organic matter burns, altering the physical structure of the soil and increasing the risk of erosion in burned areas. In low-severity burn areas where organic matter doesn’t experience significant losses, the team wondered if the soil structure was being degraded by another process, such as by the boiling of water held within soil aggregates?

In a study published in AGU Geophysical Research Letters in May 2018, the UCM-DRI team investigated this question, using soil samples from an unburned forest area in Mariposa County, Calif. and from unburned shrubland in Clark County, Nev. to analyze the impacts of low-severity fires on soil structure. They heated soil aggregates to temperatures that simulated the conditions of a low-severity fire (175oC/347oF) over a 15-minute period, then looked for changes in the soil’s internal pore pressure and tensile strength (the force required to pull the aggregate apart).

During the experiment, they observed that pore pressure within the soil aggregates rose to a peak as water boiled and vaporized, then dropped as the bonds in the soil aggregates broke and vapor escaped. Tensile strength measurements showed that the wetter soil aggregates had been weakened more than drier soil samples during this process.

“Our results show that the heat produced by low-severity fires is actually enough to do damage to soil structure, and that the damage is worse if the soils are wet,” Berli explained. “This is important information for resource managers because it implies that prescribed burns and other fires that occur during wetter times of year may be more harmful to soils than fires that occur during dry times.”Next, the research team wondered what the impact of this structural degradation was on the organic matter that the soil structure normally protects. Soil organic matter consists primarily of microbes and decomposing plant tissue, and contributes to the overall stability and water-holding capacity of soils.

In a second study that was published in Frontiers in Environmental Science in late July, the UCM-DRI research team conducted simulated burn experiments to weaken the structure of the soil aggregates, and tested the soils for changes in quality and quantity of several types of organic matter over a 70-day period.

They found that heating of soils led to the release of organic carbon into the atmosphere as CO2 during the weeks and months after the fire, and again found that the highest levels of degradation occurred in soils that were moist. This loss of organic carbon is important for several reasons, Ghezzehei explained.

“The loss of organic matter from soil to the atmosphere directly contributes to climate change, because that carbon is released as CO2,” Ghezzehei said. “Organic matter that is lost due to fires is also the most important reserve of nutrients for soil micro-organisms, and it is the glue that holds soil aggregates together. Once you lose the structure, there are a lot of other things that happen. For example, infiltration becomes slower, you get more runoff, you have erosion.”

Researcher collects soil samples in burned area near Las Vegas.

Researcher Rose Shillito from DRI collects soil samples in a burned area in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas on January 6, 2015, approximately 18 months after the area burned in the Carpenter 1 fire of 2013. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.

Although the research team’s findings showed several detrimental effects of fire on soils, low-severity wildfires and prescribed burns are known to benefit ecosystems in other ways — recycling nutrients back into the soil and getting rid of overgrown vegetation, for example. It is not yet clear whether the negative impacts on soil associated with these low-severity fires outweigh the positives, Berli says, but the team hopes that their research results will help to inform land managers as they manage wildfires and plan prescribed burns.

“There is very little fuel in arid and semi-arid areas, and thus fires tend to be short lived and relatively low in peak temperature,” Ghezzehei said. “In contrast to the hot fires and that burn for days and weeks that we see in the news, these seem to be benign and we usually treat them as such. Our work shows that low-severity fires are not as harmless as they may appear.”

The study, “Soil Structural Degradation During Low‐Severity Burns,” was published on May 31, 2018 in the journal AGU Geophysical Research Letters and is available here: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GL078053.

The study, “Vulnerability of Physically Protected Soil Organic Carbon to Loss Under Low Severity Fires,” was published July 19, 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, and is available here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2018.00066/full.

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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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Monica Arienzo receives Board of Regents 2019 Rising Researcher Award

Lead pollution in Greenland ice shows rise and fall of ancient European civilizations

Dr. Monica Arienzo inspects an ice core sample in the ice core lab at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev. Photo credit: DRI.


Reno, NV (May 14, 2018): To learn about the rise and fall of ancient European civilizations, researchers sometimes find clues in unlikely places: deep inside of the Greenland ice sheet, for example.

Thousands of years ago, during the height of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, lead emissions from sources such as the mining and smelting of lead-silver ores in Europe drifted with the winds over the ocean to Greenland – a distance of more than 2800 miles (4600 km) – and settled onto the ice. Year after year, as fallen snow added layers to the ice sheet, lead emissions were captured along with dust and other airborne particles and became part of the ice-core record that scientists use today to learn about conditions of the past.

In a new study published in PNAS, a team of scientists, archaeologists and economists from the Desert Research Institute (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 provide new insight for historians about how European civilizations and their economies fared over time.

“Our record of sub-annually resolved, accurately dated measurements in the ice core starts in 1100 BC during the late Iron Age and extends through antiquity and late antiquity to the early Middle Ages in Europe – a period that included the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman civilizations,” said the study’s lead author Joe McConnell, Ph.D., Research Professor of Hydrology at DRI. “We found that lead pollution in Greenland very closely tracked known plagues, wars, social unrest and imperial expansions during European antiquity.”

Map showing location of NGRIP ice core.

Map showing location of NGRIP ice core in relation to Roman lead/silver mines. Credit: DRI.

A previous study from the mid-1990s examined lead levels in Greenland ice using only 18 measurements between 1100 BC and AD 800; the new study provides a much more complete record that included more than 21,000 precise lead and other chemical measurements to develop an accurately dated, continuous record for the same 1900-year period.

To determine the magnitude of European emissions from the lead pollution levels measured in the Greenland ice, the team used state-of-the-art atmospheric transport model simulations.

“We believe this is the first time such detailed modeling has been used to interpret an ice-core record of human-made pollution and identify the most likely source region of the pollution,” said co-author Andreas Stohl, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at NILU.

Most of the lead emissions from this time period are believed to have been linked to the production of silver, which was a key component of currency.

“Because most of the emissions during these periods resulted from mining and smelting of lead-silver ores, lead emissions can be seen as a proxy or indicator of overall economic activity,” McConnell explained.

Using their detailed ice-core chronology, the research team looked for linkages between lead emissions and significant historical events. Their results show that lead pollution emissions began to rise as early as 900 BC, as Phoenicians expanded their trading routes into the western Mediterranean. Lead emissions accelerated during a period of increased mining activity by the Carthaginians and Romans primarily in the Iberian Peninsula and reached a maximum under the Roman Empire.

Graph of European lead emissions.

Chronology of European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800 in relation to major historic events. Credit: DRI.

The team’s extensive measurements provide a different picture of ancient economic activity than previous research had provided. Some historians, for example, had argued that the sparse Greenland lead record provided evidence of better economic performance during the Roman Republic than during the Roman Empire.

According to the findings of this study, the highest sustained levels of lead pollution emissions coincided with the height of the Roman Empire during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, a period of economic prosperity known as the Pax Romana. The record also shows that lead emissions were very low during the last 80 years of the Roman Republic, a period known as the Crisis of the Roman Republic.

“The nearly four-fold higher lead emissions during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire compared to the last decades of the Roman Republic indicate substantial economic growth under Imperial rule,” said coauthor Andrew Wilson, Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford.

The team also found that lead emissions rose and fell along with wars and political instability, particularly during the Roman Republic, and took sharp dives when two major plagues struck the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The first, called the Antonine Plague, was probably smallpox. The second, called the Plague of Cyprian, struck during a period of political instability called the third-century crisis.

“The great Antonine Plague struck the Roman Empire in AD 165 and lasted at least 15 years. The high lead emissions of the Pax Romana ended exactly at that time and didn’t recover until the early Middle Ages more than 500 years later,” Wilson explained.

The research team for this study included ice-core specialists, atmospheric scientists, archaeologists, and economic historians – an unusual combination of expertise.

“Working with such a diverse team was a unique experience in my career as a scientist,” McConnell said. “I think that our results show that there can be great value in collaborating across disciplines.”

Analysis and interpretation of archived NGRIP2 ice-core samples were supported by the John Fell Oxford University Press Research Fund and All Souls College, Oxford, as well as the Desert Research Institute.

Photo of the project team.

The project team included an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including (left to right) Dr. Audrey Yau, ice core specialist and former DRI post-doc; Dr. Monica Arienzo, ice core specialist, DRI; Elisabeth Thompson, doctoral student, Oxford University; Professor Andrew Wilson, historian, Oxford University; and Professor Joe McConnell, ice core specialist, DRI.

 

Meet Brittany Kruger, Ph.D.

Meet Brittany Kruger, Ph.D.

Brittany Kruger, Ph.D., is a staff research scientist in geobiology with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, NV. She specializes in the study of microbes that live in deep underground environments, such as those found inside of deep mines. Brittany is a Minnesota native, and holds a Ph.D. and Master’s Degree in Water Resources Science from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her work has taken her to diverse environments, including Lake Superior, Lake Malawi in Africa, Woods Hole, MA, Japan, and a mile-deep abandoned gold mine in South Dakota. She has been a member of the DRI community since 2014, when she moved to Las Vegas for a position in Dr. Duane Moser’s Environmental Microbiology Lab. In her free time, Brittany enjoys rock climbing in Red Rock Canyon and making trips into the Sierras.


DRI: What do you do here at DRI?
BK: I am a staff scientist here at DRI. I support a number of different projects that focus on deep biosphere life, which essentially means we try and examine life as deep as we can access it underground. Specifically, we look for microbial life and try and understand how those organisms are functioning given the stresses that they encounter deep underground.

DRI: How do you access deep underground environments?
BK: There are a couple different ways you can access the deep biosphere. One way is to actually go there – you can go down in deep mines, for example. In that scenario we can actually bring instruments and equipment down with us. One of our most recently active field sites is an old gold mine in South Dakota, where we are able to go about a mile underground.

Another option to access subsurface life is to use deeply drilled wells that access water or aquifers that are very far underground. This is the approach that we use at active field sites in the Death Valley and Armargosa Valley areas. There aren’t a lot of places in the world where you can access the very hottest, deepest part of the earth quite as easily as we can in this area, because that surface layer of the earth is a little bit thinner here, particularly in the Death Valley region.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

DRI: We understand that some of your research has implications for life on other planets. Can you tell us about that?
BK: One of the projects that I’ve been focusing on since I started here at DRI is the NASA Astrobiology Life Underground Project. I have served as continental fieldwork coordinator for that project since joining DRI. We try to access the deep biosphere in multiple locations to install experimentation and collect samples, and we use what we learn about the way microbes are metabolizing and surviving in those locations to help us understand how life might be functioning on other planets that experience the same or similar stressors, like extreme heat, temperature, pressure, radiation, lack of sunlight, etc.

Right now, we’re installing experiments that focus on better understanding exactly what chemical reactions microbes are using to live in these deep environments.  If you think about it, the majority of life that we understand well, the life on the surface of the planet, uses sunlight for energy at some point in their food chain. But these microbes deep underground do not.  Instead they’re able to rely on dissolved metals or other compounds to produce the energy they need to live. Sometimes they need to be in actual physical contact with these compounds, and attach to those surfaces to live.  It’d be similar to us having to go touch a rusty car in order to breathe. So we’re installing various mineral materials into these deep biosphere environments and studying the microbial populations that colonize them.

As an additional component to that project, we also work closely with members of the SHERLOC instrument team at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who are developing an instrument slated to fly on the Mars 2020 Rover that uses Raman and Luminescence scanning to detect organics and chemicals. A lot of the field samples and experiment results are analyzed with that instrument to learn more about our samples and to help provide background data for the instrument prior to its Mars deployment.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

DRI: What is it like to work deep underground?
BK: It’s great. I love it. I’m always excited to go down. It’s absolute pitch black, and it gets hotter the deeper you go. At our hottest underground site, it is something like 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. It is uncomfortable to be there for a long time, for sure. But the facility we work in does a really good job of trying to mitigate air flow while we’re there to keep that a little more comfortable.

One of the best parts is also spending time with the old miners. I go to South Dakota every few months, and spend multiple days underground accessing our sites in what was once the Homestake Gold Mine.  Mining has ceased in the facility, and the entire mine has now been dedicated solely to science and is called the Sanford Underground Research Facility.  So it’s a really unique facility where people who previously mined the workings are now employed as underground guides for scientists. There are extremely high-level physics labs located about a mile underground on the deepest accessible level. You’d never know you were underground in those labs; they’re like any state of the art aboveground facility.

But, that’s not where we want to go – we want to go to the far away, dirty, dark, hot places where it’s not maintained and where we can access the unaltered water flowing out of the mine wall. So, we get to hang out with the old miners that know the mine, and know how to access those places and know how to do it safely. So that’s fantastic – we get to see some really exciting things and some really awesome old history. It’s fun.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.