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
Cimate
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. 

For Outdoor Workers, Extreme Heat Poses Extreme Danger

For Outdoor Workers, Extreme Heat Poses Extreme Danger

extreme heat and workforce health
May 11, 2022
LAS VEGAS
Extreme Heat
Outdoor Workers
Workforce Health

For Outdoor Workers, Extreme Heat Poses Extreme Danger

Study explores effects of summertime heat waves on workforce health in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles
Working outdoors during periods of extreme heat can cause discomfort, heat stress, or heat illnesses – all growing concerns for people who live and work in Southwestern cities like Las Vegas, where summer temperatures creep higher each year. But, did you know that female outdoor workers are experiencing disproportionate impacts? Or, that more experienced outdoor workers are at higher risk than those with fewer years on the job? 

In a new study in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, scientists from DRI, Nevada State College, and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities explore the growing threat that extreme heat poses to workforce health in three of the hottest cities in North America – Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Their study results hold important findings for outdoor workers, their employers, and policymakers across the Southwestern U.S.   

To assess the relationship between extreme heat and nonfatal workplace heat-related illness, the study compared data on occupational injuries and illnesses for the years 2011-2018 with heat index data from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Heat index data combines temperature and humidity as a measure of how people feel the heat. 

“We expected to see a correlation between high temperatures and people getting sick – and we found that there was a very clear trend in most cases,” said lead author Erick Bandala, Ph.D., assistant research professor of environmental science at DRI. “Surprisingly, this type of analysis hadn’t been done in the past, and there are some really interesting social implications to what we learned.” 

First, the research team analyzed changes in heat index data for the three cities. They found a significant increase in heat index at two of the three locations (Phoenix and Las Vegas) during the study period, with average heat index values for June-Aug climbing from “extreme caution” in 2012 into the “danger” range by 2018. Over the same period, data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics showed that the number of nonfatal heat-related workplace injuries and illnesses in each of the three states increased steadily, climbing from below the national average in 2011 to above the national average in 2018.  

heat-related nonfatal workplace injuries

According to new research, the number of heat-related nonfatal workplace injuries in Arizona, California, and Nevada increased between 2011 and 2018. The three states now exceed the U.S. average.

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

“Our data indicate that the increases in heat are happening alongside increases in the number of nonfatal occupational injuries across these three states,” Bandala said. “Every year we are seeing increased heat waves and higher temperatures, and all of the people who work outside in the streets or in gardens or agriculture are exposed to this.”

Next, the study team looked deeper into the data to learn about the number of male and female workers being affected by heat-related workplace injuries. At the beginning of the study in 2011, 26 to 50 percent of the people affected across the three states were female. By 2018, 42 to 86 percent of the people affected were female.

Study authors believe that the reason for this increase may be due to more women entering the outdoor workforce, or it could be related to the vulnerability of women to certain heat-related effects, like hyponatremia — a condition that develops when too much plain water is consumed under high heat conditions and sodium levels in blood get too low.

“As the number of female workers exposed to extreme temperatures increases, there is an increasing need to consider the effect of gender and use different approaches to recommend prevention measures as hormonal factors and cycles that can be exacerbated during exposure to extreme heat,” said study coauthor Kebret Kebede, M.D., associate professor of biology at Nevada State College.

The authors examined other variables, such as the length of an employee’s service with an employer. They found that the number of heat-related injury/illnesses tended to increase as the length of service with the employer increased, and that those with more than five years of service were at greater risk than those with less than one year of service. This may be due to employees with more years of service having a reduced perception of risk, or could be a cumulative effect of years of chronic heat exposure on the well-being of outdoor workers.

heat-related injuries/illnesses

New research shows that in Arizona, Nevada and California, the number of heat-related injuries/illnesses tended to increase as length of service with the employer increased.

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

In severe cases, heat-related illness or injury can cause extensive damage to all tissues and organs, disrupting the central nervous system, blood-clotting mechanisms, and liver and kidney functions. In these cases, lengthy recoveries are required. The authors found concerning evidence that heat-related injuries are keeping many outdoor workers away from work for more than 30 days.

“These lengthy recovery times are a significant problem for workers and their families, many of whom are living day-to-day,” Bandala said. “When we have these extreme heat conditions coming every year and a lot of people working outside, we need to know what are the consequences of these problems, and we need the people to know about the risk so that they take proper precautions.”

heat-related injuries

Authors of a new study on the impacts of extreme heat on workplace health found concerning evidence that heat-related injuries are keeping many outdoor workers away from work for more than 30 days.

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

The study also explored connections between heat-related injuries/illnesses and the number of hours worked, the time of day that the event occurred, and the ethnicities and age groups that were most impacted.

Study authors hope that their results will be useful to policymakers to protect outdoor workers. They also hope that the information will be useful to outdoor workers who need to stay safe during times of extreme heat, and employers who rely on a healthy workforce to keep their businesses operating.

“This study underscores the importance of and the need for the work the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is doing to adopt a regulation to address heat illness,” stated Nancy Brune, Ph.D., study co-author and senior fellow at the Guinn Center.

“As temperatures continue to rise and heat-related illnesses and deaths continue to rise, the need for public policies to alleviate health and economic impacts is growing,” Bandala said.  “I hope to continue doing research on this problem so that we can have a better of understanding of the impacts of extreme heat and how to help the people who are most vulnerable.”

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://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13762-022-04180-1

This project was funded by NOAA/IRAP (Grant no. NA18AR4310341) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (GM103440) from the National Institutes of Health. Study authors included Erick Bandala (DRI), Nancy Brune (Guinn Center for Policy Priorities), and Kebret Kebede (Nevada State College).

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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 Nevada State College

Nevada State College, a four-year public institution, is a member of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Nevada State places a special emphasis on the advancement of a diverse and largely under-served student population. Located on a developing 512-acre campus in the foothills of Henderson, Nevada, the college was established in 2002 as a new tier in the state system between the research universities and the two-year colleges and, as such, is Nevada’s only state college. Nevada State College is one of the fastest-growing colleges in the country and the fastest growing in Nevada. It currently has more than 7,000 students and more than 800 full- and part-time employees. For more information, visit http://nsc.edu

About the Guinn Center

The Guinn Center is a policy research center, affiliated with the University of Nevada, Reno, with offices in both Las Vegas and Reno. The Guinn Center provides data-driven research and policy analysis. The Guinn Center seeks to identify and advance common-sense policy solutions through research , policy engagement, and strategic partnerships.

Study Develops Framework for Forecasting Contribution of Snowpack to Flood Risk During Winter Storms

Study Develops Framework for Forecasting Contribution of Snowpack to Flood Risk During Winter Storms

flooding along the South Fork of the Yuba River in California

May 3, 2022
RENO, NEV.

Forecasting
Flood Risk
Winter Storms

Above: During January 2017, a rain-on-snow event caused flooding along the South Fork of the Yuba River in California. Climate change is expected to make such events larger and more frequent.

Credit: JD Richey. 

Study Develops Framework for Forecasting Contribution of Snowpack to Flood Risk During Winter Storms

New research advances effort to create a decision-support tool for reservoir operators and flood managers

Anne Heggli in the snow

Lead author Anne Heggli of DRI digs through deep snow to reach a monitoring site during a 2019 field project at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in the Tahoe National Forest.

Credit: M. Heggli. 

Reno, Nev. (May 3, 2022) –In the Sierra Nevada, midwinter “rain-on-snow” events occur when rain falls onto existing snowpack and have resulted in some of the region’s biggest and most damaging floods. Rain-on-snow events are projected to increase in size and frequency in the coming years, but little guidance exists for water resource managers on how to mitigate flood risk during times of rapidly changing snowpack. Their minute-by-minute decisions during winter storms can have long-lasting impacts to people, property, and water supplies.

A new study by a team from DRI, University of California, Berkeley, the National Weather Service, and University of Nevada, Reno, provides the first framework for a snowpack decision support tool that could help water managers prepare for potential flooding during rain-on-snow events, using hourly data from existing snow monitoring stations.

“During rain-on-snow events, the people managing our water resources always have decisions to make, and it’s really challenging when you’re dealing with people’s lives and property and livelihood,” said DRI Graduate Assistant and lead author Anne Heggli, M.S. “With this work, we’re leveraging existing monitoring networks to maximize the investment that has already been made, and give the data new meaning as we work to solve existing problems that will potentially become larger as we confront climate change.”

snow depth sensor installation

Lead author Anne Heggli of DRI installing a snow depth sensor at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in the Tahoe National Forest for the 2021-2022 winter.

Credit: P. Kucera. 

To develop a testable framework for a decision support tool, Heggli and her colleagues used hourly soil moisture data from UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Laboratory from 2006-2019 to identify periods of terrestrial water input. Next, they developed quality control procedures to improve model accuracy. From their results, they learned lessons about midwinter runoff that can be used to develop the framework for a more broadly applicable snowpack runoff decision support tool.

“We know the condition (cold content) of the snowpack leading into a rain-on-snow event can either help mitigate or exacerbate flooding concerns,” said study coauthor Tim Bardsley of the National Weather Service in Reno. “The challenge is that the simplified physics and lumped nature of our current operational river forecast models struggle to provide helpful guidance here. This research and framework aims to help fill that information gap.”

“This study and the runoff decision framework that has been built from its data are great examples of the research-to-operations focus that has been so important at the Central Sierra Snow Lab for the past 75 years,” said study coauthor Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D., manager of the snow lab. “This work can help inform decisions by water managers as the climate and our water resources change, and that’s the goal – to have better tools available for our water.”

The idea for this project was sparked during the winter of 2017, when Heggli and her brother were testing snow water content sensors in California. Several large rain-on-snow events occurred, including a series of January and February storms that culminated in the Oroville Dam Spillway Crisis.

“I noticed in our sensors that there were these interesting signatures – and I heard a prominent water manager say that they had no idea how the snowpack was going to respond to these rain-on-snow events,” Heggli explained. “After hearing the need of the water manager and seeing the pattern in the data, I wondered if we could use some of that hourly snowpack data to shave off some level of uncertainty about how the snowpack would react to rain.”

Heggli is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at UNR, and has been working under the direction of DRI faculty advisor Benjamin Hatchett, Ph.D., to advance her long-term goal of creating a decision support tool for reservoir operators and flood managers.

The results of this study can next be used to develop basin-specific decision support systems that will provide real-time guidance for water resource managers. The study results will also be used in a new project with the Nevada Department of Transportation.

“Anne’s work, inspired by observation, demonstrates how much we still can learn from creatively analyzing existing data to produce actionable information supporting resource management during high-impact weather events as well as the value of continued investment to maintain and expand our environmental networks,” said Hatchett, DRI Assistant Research Professor of Atmospheric Science.

More information:

The full text of the study, Toward snowpack runoff decision support, is available from iScience: https://www.cell.com/iscience/fulltext/S2589-0042(22)00510-7. 

This project was funded by University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s COMET Outreach program, Desert Research Institute’s Internal Project Assignment program, and the Nevada Space Grant Consortium Graduate Research Opportunity Fellowship. Study authors included Anne Heggli (DRI), Benjamin Hatchett (DRI), Andrew Schwartz (University of California, Berkeley), Tim Bardsley (National Weather Service, Reno), and Emily Hand (University of Nevada, Reno).

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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.

New study shows robust increases in atmospheric thirst across much of U.S. during past 40 years

New study shows robust increases in atmospheric thirst across much of U.S. during past 40 years

Dry Nevada landscape with mountains

April 6, 2022
RENO, Nev.

Atmospheric Thrist
Temperature
Climate

Above:  A dry Nevada landscape. New research led by DRI scientists shows that atmospheric thirst is a persistent force in pushing Western landscapes and water supplies toward drought.

Credit: Riccardo Panella/DRI.

New study shows robust increases in atmospheric thirst across much of U.S. during past 40 years

Largest changes centered over Rio Grande region of Southwestern U.S.

A multi-dataset assessment of climatic drivers and uncertainties of recent trends in evaporative demand across the continental U.S.
The full text of the study, A multi-dataset assessment of climatic drivers and uncertainties of recent trends in evaporative demand across the continental U.S., is freely available from the Journal of Hydrometeorology: https://journals.ametsoc.org/view/journals/hydr/23/4/JHM-D-21-0163.1.xml.

Reno, Nev. (April 6, 2022) –In arid Western states, the climate is growing warmer and drier, leading to increased demand for water resources from humans and ecosystems. Now, the atmosphere across much of the U.S. is also demanding a greater share of water than it used to, according to a new study by a team from DRI, University of California, Merced, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

The study was published in the Journal of Hydrometeorology and assessed trends in evaporative demand across the U.S. during a 40-year period from 1980-2020 using five datasets. Evaporative demand, sometimes described as “atmospheric thirst,” is a measure of the potential loss of water from the earth’s surface to the atmosphere based on variables including temperature, humidity, wind speed, and solar radiation.

The team’s findings showed substantial increases in atmospheric thirst across much of the Western U.S. during the past 40 years, with the largest and most robust increases in an area centered around the Rio Grande and Lower Colorado rivers. These regions have experienced changes on the order of two-to-three standard deviations from what was seen during the baseline period of 1980-2000.

“This means that atmospheric thirst conditions in parts of the country are now verging outside of the range that was experienced 20 to 40 years ago, especially in some regions of the Southwest,” said lead author Christine Albano, Ph.D., of DRI. “This is really important to understand, because we know that atmospheric thirst is a persistent force in pushing Western landscapes and water supplies toward drought.”

Figure showing changes in atmospheric thirst
Figure showing changes in atmospheric thirst, measured in terms of reference evapotranspiration (mm), from 1980-2020. The largest changes are centered over the Rio Grande region of the southwestern U.S.
Credit: DRI.
To learn more about the role that different climate variables play in determining atmospheric thirst, Albano and her colleagues analyzed the relative influences of temperature, wind speed, solar radiation, and humidity. They found that, on average, increases in temperature were responsible for 57 percent of the changes observed in all regions, with humidity (26 percent), wind speed (10 percent), and solar radiation (8 percent) playing lesser roles.

“This study shows the dominant role that warming has played on the increasing evaporative demand and foreshadows the increased water stressors the West faces with continued warming,” said study co-author John Abatzoglou, Ph.D., of University of California, Merced.

For farmers and other water users, increases in atmospheric thirst mean that in the future, more water will be required to meet existing water needs. Some of these changes observed in this study are centered over areas where warming temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation are already creating stress on water supplies.

For example, in the Rio Grande region, the study authors calculated that atmospheric thirst increased by 8 to 15 percent between 1980 and 2020. Holding all else equal and assuming no other changes in management, this means that 8 to 15 percent more water is now required to maintain the same thoroughly-watered crop.

“Our analysis suggests that crops now require more water than they did in the past and can be expected to require more water in the future,” said study co-author Justin Huntington, Ph.D., of DRI.

Other impacts of increased atmospheric thirst include drought, increased forest fire area, and reduced streamflows.

“Our results indicate that, decade by decade, for every drop of precipitation that falls, less and less water is likely to drain into streams, wetlands, aquifers, or other water bodies,” said study co-author Michael Dettinger, Ph.D., of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and DRI. “Resource managers, policy makers, and the public need to be aware of these changes and plan for these impacts now and into the future.”

Members of the team are now developing seasonal to sub-seasonal forecasts of evaporative demand.

“We anticipate these types of forecasts will be important for drought and fire forecasting applications,” said study co-author Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., of DRI.

Additional information:

The full text of the study, A multi-dataset assessment of climatic drivers and uncertainties of recent trends in evaporative demand across the continental U.S., is freely available from the Journal of Hydrometeorology: https://journals.ametsoc.org/view/journals/hydr/23/4/JHM-D-21-0163.1.xml

The study team included Christine Albano (DRI), John Abatzoglou (UC Merced), Daniel McEvoy (DRI), Justin Huntington (DRI), Charles Morton (DRI), Michael Dettinger (Scripps Institution of Oceanography/DRI), and Thomas Ott (DRI).

This research was funded by the Sulo and Aileen Maki Endowment Fund to the Desert Research Institute’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) California-Nevada Climate Applications Program (NA17OAR4310284), NOAA National Integrated Drought Information System California-Nevada Drought Early Warning System (NA20OAR4310253C), the NASA Applied Sciences, Water Resources Program (NNX17AF53G), the U.S. Geological Survey Landsat Science Team (140G0118C0007), and USDA-NIFA project (2021-69012-35916).

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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 UC Merced

UC Merced opened in 2005 as the newest member of the University of California system and is the youngest university to earn a Carnegie research classification. The fastest-growing public university in the nation, UC Merced is on the cutting edge of sustainability in campus construction and design and supports high-achieving and dedicated students from the underserved San Joaquin Valley and throughout California. The Merced 2020 Project, a $1.3 billion public-private partnership that is unprecedented in higher education, nearly doubled the physical capacity of the campus with 11 buildings earning Platinum LEED certification. 

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year. 

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.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.

Agencies collaborate to launch wastewater surveillance dashboard

Agencies collaborate to launch wastewater surveillance dashboard

water waste sampling collection
March 23, 2022
LAS VEGAS
Wastewater
COVID-19
Wastewater Surveillance
Above: Waste water samples were collected at the Waste Water Treatment Plant in Pahrump, Nevada.
Credit: Ali Swallow.

Agencies collaborate to launch wastewater surveillance dashboard 

New dashboard will include COVID-19 concentration data, information about variant testing and more. 
Las Vegas, Nev. (March 23, 2022)The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), Southern Nevada Health District, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and Desert Research Institute (DRI) are partnering to detect early increases of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID) and emerging variants in Southern Nevada through wastewater surveillance. The data will be available on a new dashboard that will be updated weekly at http://empower.unlv.edu. 

The wastewater surveillance program monitors SARS-CoV-2 concentrations from people who contract COVID-19 (with or without symptoms) and shed genetic material in their stools. During the COVID-19 pandemic, wastewater surveillance has tracked, monitored and provided early awareness of increases in volume of the virus as well as changes to the types of variants of COVID-19. Because people who are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 can take several days before showing symptoms, the information provided through this surveillance program can assist with informing public health strategy and ongoing planning efforts.  

In addition to being an early indicator that cases of COVID-19 may be increasing in a community, wastewater surveillance can also indicate when cases are decreasing, and the surveillance program is not dependent on people seeking testing or health care when they are sick.  

“As we move into the next stage of our response to COVID-19, wastewater surveillance is going to be a powerful tool for detecting potential surges in new cases or the presence of new variants in our community. We will be able to alert the public in a timelier manner and support public health mitigation measures that can help slow the spread of the virus,” said Cassius Lockett, Director of Disease Surveillance and Control for the Health District.  

Currently, the SARS-CoV-2 concentration in the wastewater of participating community water systems across Southern Nevada is tested as part of this program. Nevada was one of the first states to initiate testing, and this surveillance project represents one of the largest projects of its kind in the U.S. 

“The collaboration between our community partners has enabled the collection of one of the largest and most diverse wastewater datasets in the country,” said Edwin Oh, professor and director of the Neurogenetics and Precision Medicine Lab at UNLV. The daily and weekly analyses of these samples will help keep us one step ahead of emerging pathogens and variants.” 

Duane Moser wastewater samples
DRI Associate Research Professor Duane Moser collects water waste samples in Pahrump to detect possible increases of SARS-CoV-2 and emerging variants in Southern Nevada. 
Credit: Ali Swallow.
“DRI is contributing to this collaborative effort by organizing sampling from ten wastewater systems across rural Clark and Nye Counties, substantially expanding the geographic reach of the project and providing time-sensitive epidemiological data that would otherwise be lost,” said DRI Associate Research Professor of Microbiology Duane Moser.  The addition of these outlying sites has a great deal to teach us about how quickly and effectively viruses spread from population centers to outlying areas with lower population densities.” 

While wastewater surveillance can provide early awareness of increases in cases and potential outbreaks, the data provided cannot directly indicate the number of people who are currently infected with COVID-19. The data collected are not intended to be used as the sole method of measuring the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. The information will be used along with other data by partner and responding agencies for planning purposes.  

More information about wastewater surveillance, and national wastewater surveillance data, is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/healthywater/surveillance/wastewater-surveillance/wastewater-surveillance.html 

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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 Southern Nevada Health District 

The Southern Nevada Health District serves as the local public health authority for Clark County, Boulder City, Henderson, Las Vegas, Mesquite and North Las Vegas. The agency safeguards the public health of the community’s residents and visitors through innovative programs, regulations, and initiatives focused on protecting and promoting their health and well-being. More information about the Health District, its programs, services, and the regulatory oversight it provides is available at www.SNHD.info. Follow the Health District on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 

Seeking answers from the ashes

Seeking answers from the ashes

Seeking answers from the ashes

January 20, 2022
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Above: A soil collection field site located within the perimeter of Dixie fire. November 18, 2021.

Credit: Vera Samburova.

DRI scientists study soil dynamics in the wake of Sierra Nevada wildfires

After a wildfire, soils in burned areas become temporarily water-repellent, resulting in increased risk of flooding and erosion in the months that follow. Scientists and land managers have never thoroughly understood why or how this happens – but when last summer’s Dixie, Tamarack, and Caldor fires burned through the Sierra Nevada in close proximity to DRI’s Reno campus, scientists Brad Sion, Ph.D., Vera Samburova, Ph.D., and Markus Berli, Ph.D., jumped into action. 

The team, led by Sion, obtained a Rapid Response Research grant from the National Science Foundation for a new project aimed at exploring the impacts of wildfires on physical and chemical properties of burned soils.

Brad Sion
vera samburova

Above, left: Brad Sion, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Geomorphology, holds a frozen chunk of burned soil at a soil sample collection site  near Kirkwood in the wake of the Tamarack Fire.

Credit: Vera Samburova.

Above, right: Vera Samburova, Ph.D., inspects soils in a burned area near Frenchman Lake that was affected by the Beckwourth Complex Fire.

Credit: Brad Sion.

To collect soil samples before the burned areas were impacted by rain or snowfall, time was of the essence. In October, the team made several trips to nearby fire sites to collect soil samples and to conduct field measurements of soil water repellency.

Then, in late October, a major atmospheric river storm came through. The team’s next visit to the fire sites revealed a changed landscape – a real-world example of how wildfires and water repellent soils can impact ecosystems and infrastructure.

“When we first went out into the field, the sites were very dry and ash-covered,” said Samburova. “When we went back out after the atmospheric river storm, we saw lots of mudslides along the roads, and even dirt on top of the road in some places. The soil was very mushy at the surface, but bone dry within centimeters below. And a lot of water was staying on the surface. It was hard to walk on – very slippery.”

water droplet penetration test results
erosion and mudslides

Above, left: The results of a water droplet penetration test on burned soils at the Dixie fire show a high degree of soil water repellency.

Credit: Vera Samburova.

Above, right: After a late October atmospheric river storm passed through the region, researchers observed erosion and mudslides field sites at the Dixie fire. 

Credit: Vera Samburova.

An interdisciplinary approach

Although previous studies have examined impacts of fire on soils in a controlled laboratory setting, the new DRI study will be one of the first to investigate changes in soil properties and their interrelationships using samples collected directly from freshly burned forests. This work builds upon earlier research by co-investigators Samburova and Berli, which investigated the impacts of fire smoke on water repellency of sand samples.

The team, which includes experts from all three of DRI’s research divisions, is approaching their research questions from several angles. Sion is leading the effort to measure the hydraulic (water-related) and thermal (heat-related) properties of burned soils. Samburova is analyzing organic compounds found in the burned soil samples, and Berli is conducting tests to assess the degree of soil water repellency.

Together, their results will provide new insight into linkages between fire burn severity, changes in soil thermal and hydraulic properties, and more.

“Our goal is to understand from a basic science perspective, what the cause is for these various soil characteristics pre- and post- fire,” said Sion. “If we can look at different fire conditions and the soil conditions that result, then we can say something about how a soil may respond in the future, and eventually that information can be extrapolated to different landscape settings.”

At present, the researchers have completed sample collection and are analyzing samples in their respective laboratories in Reno and Las Vegas. They plan to return to their field sites next fall to see how the soil water repellency changes over time.

As climate warms and western wildfire activity increases, Sion and his colleagues believe that understanding how forest fires impact soil properties will continue to be a topic of growing importance.

“Climate change and wildfires are not problems that are unique to the Sierras,” Sion said. “Whether you’re in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Alaska, or elsewhere, you’re seeing increases in fire activity. People are thinking about the landscape responses and what they mean.”

Diana Brown

Diana Brown, Staff Research Scientist of Geomorphology, analyzes samples in the Soil Characterization and Quaternary Pedology laboratory in Reno. The soil samples have been saturated with water and contain tensiometers and heat probes to analyze hydraulic and thermal properties of the soil.

Credit: DRI.

Funding for this study is provided by the National Science Foundation (award # 2154013). Additional DRI scientists participating in this project include Hans Moosmüller, Ph.D., Diana Brown, M.S., Chris Baish, M.S., Janelle Bustarde, Palina Bahdanovich, Shelby Inouye, Adam Hackbarth, Zimri Mena and Kendrick Seeber.

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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.

New USDA Grant to Support Climate Resilience Planning in Indian Country

New USDA Grant to Support Climate Resilience Planning in Indian Country

“Native Climate” project will build relationships and narrow the climate justice gap in Native American communities of the Intermountain West

Above: The new Native Climate project will work to support climate resilience planning in Indian Country. Greenhouses at Salish Kootenai College (upper left), Grey Farrell near Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation (upper right), Pyramid Lake (lower right), a schoolbus on the Navajo Reservation near Tuba City (lower left). Credit: Maureen McCarthy/DRI

Reno, Nev. (Jan 13, 2022) – A collaborative team of researchers led by Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D. of DRI has received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to support and strengthen the role of USDA Climate Hubs in Indian Country.

The USDA Climate Hubs work across ten regions of the U.S. to support agricultural producers and professionals by providing science-based, region-specific information about climate change and climate adaptation strategies. The new DRI-led project, titled “Native Climate: Strengthening the role of Climate Hubs in Indian Country,” will support the Climate Hubs by expanding the reach of their services and outreach to Tribal Extension agents, agricultural producers, and youth educators in the Southwest and Northern Plains regions.

“From heatwaves to extreme winds, droughts, wildfires, and floods, the climate crisis poses huge adaptation challenges to Native American communities in the Intermountain West – and there are huge inequities across the U.S. in providing climate services and resources to Tribes,” said McCarthy, Native Climate program director from DRI. “Many of these communities are incredibly resilient and forward-thinking in terms of finding ways to adapt to this rapidly warming world, and their knowledge of the landscape pre-dates modern science. This project is an amazing opportunity to build connections and sustainable, trusted relationships that support information sharing between Tribal communities, Climate Hubs, Tribal Extension partners, researchers, and educators.”

Native Climate will address long-standing issues related to climate injustice in Indian Country through culturally-appropriate information sharing and by increasing the representation of Native American Tribal members in climate-related research and outreach positions. The project team includes researchers, Tribal Extension educators, and Climate Hub leaders from DRI, the University of Nevada, Reno Extension, University of Arizona, University of Montana (UM), and the Southwest and Northern Plains Climate Hubs.

The project supports the hiring of several Native Climate Fellows, who will work directly with the Southwest and Northern Plains Climate Hubs in coordinating climate data needs, extending outreach to agricultural producers, and sharing youth climate education materials. One Native Climate Data Fellow will be stationed in the Montana Climate Office (MCO) at UM. A second Native Climate Agricultural Producer Fellow will work through UNR-Extension, and a third Native Climate Youth Education Fellow will be hired by DRI.

DRI’s Native Climate Youth Education Fellow will work with mentor Meghan Collins, M.S., to continue growing an existing Teaching Native Waters Community of Practice, which fosters communication between educators, FRTEP agents, and scientists. This Fellow will also work with the Climate Hubs and other NIFA project teams to adapt climate education resources to be place-based and culturally relevant.

“Educators, scientists, decision-makers, and leaders all have important knowledge to bring to the table,” said Collins, assistant research scientist at DRI. “This community of practice creates spaces for us to listen, respond, and innovate. Together, we are seeking solutions that engage youth in closing the gap in climate justice.”

The project will also create a new student internship program for Native Climate Reporters at DRI, which will support three or more Native students a year studying communications, journalism, agriculture or STEM. The interns will report on stories about climate impacts and adaptation by tribes in their regions, and gain experience developing and producing multi-media communications, with mentorship from Native Climate Communications Coordinator Kelsey Fitzgerald, M.A.

“Only a very small percentage of journalists at U.S. news organizations are Native people, which has a huge impact on the news coverage we see or don’t see about climate change and other challenges being addressed by Tribal communities,” said Fitzgerald, senior communications official at DRI. “We are so excited to be able to provide this opportunity for Native students interested in climate reporting to develop their communications experience and skills, so that they can play an active role in providing more accurate news coverage and telling the stories that are important to their regions.”

Other components of the project include a “Native Climate Toolkit” – a web-based interactive resource clearinghouse, and impact reporting and alert tools. A Native Climate Advisory Group will help the team engage tribes in the region, leverage resources from partner organizations, and conduct culturally-respectful project evaluation.

Native Climate builds on partnerships established under previous USDA-funded projects Native Waters on Arid Lands (nativewaters-aridlands.com), the COVID CARE Toolkit Project, All Climate is Local virtual conference, and Teaching Native Waters. Native Climate will begin in March 2022 and run through March 2027.

 

More information:

To view the full award announcement from USDA, please visit: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2022/01/12/usda-invests-9m-expand-reach-and-increase-adoption-climate-smart

 

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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 Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

OCTOBER 27, 2021
RENO, NEV.
Atmospheric Science
Weather
Snowpack

Above: DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli works at the Virginia Lakes SNOTEL station to collect no-snow data for the cosmic ray detector for snow water content observations.

Credit: M. Heggli.
Anne Heggli is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Atmospheric Science at DRI in Reno. She is a Ph.D. student studying atmospheric science at the University of Nevada, Reno. Learn more about Anne and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog!
Anne Heggli at Snow Laboratory

DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli digs through deep snow to reach a monitoring site during a 2019 field project at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in the Tahoe National Forest.

Credit: M. Heggli.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Heggli: The applied and operational approach towards research.

DRI: What are you studying?

Heggli: I am studying the role that present weather and snowpack conditions have on the timing of rain-on-snow induced runoff by looking into hourly data from existing snow monitoring stations. I am curious to find out if we can use these existing snow monitoring networks to recognize patterns and learn more about how different snowpack conditions contribute to runoff as a means to improve reservoir operations and aid in flood management.

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

Heggli: I am working on the development of a Snowpack Runoff Advisory aimed at identifying high risk weather and snowpack conditions that can be synthesized into a decision support tool for reservoir operators and flood managers. Dr. Ben Hatchett is my advisor and the principal investigator on this.

 

Anne Heggli at Sagehen Creek Field Station

DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli connects a prototype snow water content sensor that measures the attenuation of passive cosmic rays at Sagehen Creek Field Station.

Credit: M. Heggli.

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

Heggli: In the short term, I am looking forward to growing my skills around quantifying risk and how to best communicate those results in a meaningful way. I also hope to develop multi-use data products through the Western Regional Climate Center that are ready for analysis to engage with other researchers that could allow me to acquire interdisciplinary knowledge and skills while I am working at DRI.

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

Heggli: In the summer you can find me playing sand volleyball at Zephyr Cove in Tahoe, on my paddle board, or swimming and exploring the American River watershed. I am a beginner at mountain biking and cross-country skiing. I of course love observing the weather and clouds. I also volunteer with Protect American River Canyons and help to engage the community with the stewardship of the recreational area.

Anne Heggli with Hydropower agency in Panama

DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli works with a hydropower agency in Panama to help them upgrade their hydrometeorological monitoring network.

Credit: M. Heggli.
Additional Information:

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

 

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

Oct 26, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Internships
Career Development
STEM
Above: DRI Research Internship Immersion Program students Mary Andres (left) and John Cooper (right) work with faculty mentor Dr. Riccardo Panella in his laboratory on DRI’s Reno campus.
Credit: DRI.
Research immersion internships provide career-building opportunities for students from Nevada’s two-year colleges
From wildflower blooms to microplastics pollution, fourteen students from Nevada’s two-year colleges are spending this fall building career skills in exciting new directions.  The students are conducting hands-on research alongside DRI scientists in Reno and Las Vegas through DRI’s new Research Immersion Internship Program.

Although professional internship opportunities are fairly common in the sciences, many positions are aimed at students who are enrolled in four-year science degree programs. DRI’s new internship program takes a more inclusive approach, creating an opportunity specifically aimed at students from two-year colleges and welcoming those majoring in fields from outside of traditional scientific disciplines.

“Science and innovation thrive when people of diverse skillsets work together, because real-world problems are often very interdisciplinary,” said Internship Program Director Meghan Collins, M.S. “In addition to traditional scientific fields, drawing in students with interests in communications, business, public health, computing, and many other areas can bring new perspectives and new solutions to the table.”

Riccardo Panella and John Cooper in lab

DRI faculty mentor Riccardo Panella, Ph.D., (left) and student intern John Cooper (right) review calculations as part of an ongoing research project that tests a new therapeutic approach to treating metabolic disorders. Panella is an assistant research professor of cancer and genetics with the Center for Genomic Medicine at DRI; Cooper is a student at Truckee Meadows Community College. 

Credit: DRI.
DRI’s internship program began in September and runs for 16 weeks. Students have been placed in teams of two to four people, and are working under the direction of DRI faculty mentors from the Institute’s Reno and Las Vegas campuses on a variety of project themes.

One team of interns is working with Erick Bandala, Ph.D., assistant research professor of environmental science from DRI’s Las Vegas campus, to investigate water security in Native American communities of the Southwestern U.S. His team consists of three students from Nevada State College – two environmental studies majors and one math major.

“Many people in Native American communities lack access to running water in their homes and experience problems with water quality as well,” Bandala said. “We are exploring data that was collected by Tribes and water treatment facilities to learn about the scale of the problem and how it can be improved. I love the challenge and hope that my team will come out with helpful information. Water security is a very complicated issue, but the students that I am working with are very enthusiastic, and I am happy to be interacting with them.”

Other project themes for the program’s inaugural semester include documentation and analysis of wildflower superblooms (above-average bursts of blooming wildflowers) in the Western U.S., an investigation into the effects of wildfire on water repellency of soils, a study on how microplastic particles can be transported through the air, and a study investigating the effects of obesity on health challenges in mice.

Student intern Mary Andres
Riccardo Panella and Mary Andres

Above, left: Student intern Mary Andres from Truckee Meadows Community College prepares reagents needed to analyze lipid profiles and hepatic enzymes in a study being conducted by DRI’s Center for Genomic Medicine. The results of these experiments will pave the way for a new generation of RNA-based therapies to treat metabolic disorders and prevent cancer progression.

Credit: DRI.

Above, right: DRI faculty mentor Riccardo Panella, Ph.D., (left) of the Center for Genomic Medicine and Truckee Meadows Community College student Mary Andres (right) use a bright light to view a sample in Panella’s laboratory in Reno. 

Credit: DRI.
This year’s cohort includes students from Nevada State College, Truckee Meadows Community College, Great Basin College, and the University of Nevada, Reno. Because many of the students are early in their college journeys, or come from fields outside of the sciences, the internship program provides stepping-stones to help them build the fundamental skills they need to succeed, including a month-long period of training prior to implementing their projects.

At the end of the semester, the student teams will deliver their project results and receive feedback from their faculty mentors. The end goal is to help foster the next generation of diverse scientists through mentorship, inclusion, and skill building.

“There are a lot of independent internships available to science majors, but not many  programs that prepare students to be successful working in the sciences in the real world – especially for students who are coming from two-year college programs or from outside of scientific disciplines,” Collins said. “This program aligns with some of DRI’s larger goals of improving diversity and inclusion at DRI and in the sciences as a whole, while also providing important stepping-stones for students to learn to navigate the culture of science.”

Student Intern John Cooper

Student Intern John Cooper from Truckee Meadows Community College prepares reagents in Riccardo Panella’s laboratory at DRI in Reno, as part of DRI’s new Research Internship Immersion Program.

Credit: DRI.

More Information:

For more information on DRI’s Research Immersion Internship Program, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/immersion/.

DRI faculty mentors for the Research Immersion Internship Program include Erick Bandala, Riccardo Panella, Eden Furtak-Cole, Markus Berli, Christine Albano, and Meghan Collins.

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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.

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.

Early Human Activities Impacted Earth’s Atmosphere More Than Previously Known

Early Human Activities Impacted Earth’s Atmosphere More Than Previously Known

Early Human Activities Impacted Earth’s Atmosphere More Than Previously Known

Oct 6, 2021
RENO, NV
By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Climate Change
Earth’s Atmosphere
Ice Cores

Above: After a storm at the drilling camp on James Ross Island, northern Antarctic Peninsula.
Credit: Robert Mulvaney
New study links an increase in black carbon in Antarctic ice cores to Māori burning practices in New Zealand more than 700 years ago
drilling the James Ross Island ice core
The James Ross Island core drilled to bedrock in 2008 by the British Antarctic Survey provided an unprecedented record of soot deposition in the northern Antarctic Peninsula during the past 2000 years and revealed the surprising impacts of Māori burning in New Zealand starting in the late 13th century. Robert Mulvaney, Ph.D., pictured here led collection of the core.
Credit: Jack Triest
nature-article-screenshot

The full text of the study, Hemispheric black carbon increase after 13th C Māori arrival in New Zealand, is available from Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03858-9

Reno, Nev. (October 6, 2021) – Several years ago, while analyzing ice core samples from Antarctica’s James Ross Island, scientists Joe McConnell, Ph.D., and Nathan Chellman, Ph.D., from DRI, and Robert Mulvaney, Ph.D., from the British Antarctic Survey noticed something unusual: a substantial increase in levels of black carbon that began around the year 1300 and continued to the modern day.

Black carbon, commonly referred to as soot, is a light-absorbing particle that comes from combustion sources such as biomass burning (e.g. forest fires) and, more recently, fossil fuel combustion. Working in collaboration with an international team of scientists from the United Kingdom, Austria, Norway, Germany, Australia, Argentina, and the U.S., McConnell, Chellman, and Mulvaney set out to uncover the origins of the unexpected increase in black carbon captured in the Antarctic ice. 

The team’s findings, which published this week in Nature, point to an unlikely source: ancient Māori land-burning practices in New Zealand, conducted at a scale that impacted the earth’s atmosphere across much of the Southern Hemisphere and dwarfed other preindustrial emissions in the region during the past 2,000 years.  

“The idea that humans at this time in history caused such a significant change in atmospheric black carbon through their land clearing activities is quite surprising,” said McConnell, research professor of hydrology at DRI who designed and led the study. “We used to think that if you went back a few hundred years you’d be looking at a pristine, pre-industrial world, but it’s clear from this study that humans have been impacting the environment over the Southern Ocean and the Antarctica Peninsula for at least the last 700 years.” 

Norwegian US East Antarctic Traverse
Four ice cores from continental Antarctica were drilled in East Antarctica, including two as part of the Norwegian-American International Polar Year Antarctic Scientific Traverse.
Credit: Stein Tronstad
Tracing the black carbon to its source 

To identify the source of the black carbon, the study team analyzed an array of six ice cores collected from James Ross Island and continental Antarctica using DRI’s unique continuous ice-core analytical system. The method used to analyze black carbon in ice was first developed in McConnell’s lab in 2007.  

While the ice core from James Ross Island showed a notable increase in black carbon beginning around the year 1300, with levels tripling over the 700 years that followed and peaking during the 16th and 17th centuries, black carbon levels at sites in continental Antarctica during the same period of time stayed relatively stable.  

Andreas Stohl, Ph.D., of the University of Vienna led atmospheric model simulations of the transport and deposition of black carbon around the Southern Hemisphere that supported the findings.  

“From our models and the deposition pattern over Antarctica seen in the ice, it is clear that Patagonia, Tasmania, and New Zealand were the most likely points of origin of the increased black carbon emissions starting about 1300,” said Stohl.  

After consulting paleofire records from each of the three regions, only one viable possibility remained: New Zealand, where charcoal records showed a major increase in fire activity beginning about the year 1300. This date also coincided with the estimated arrival, colonization, and subsequent burning of much of New Zealand’s forested areas by the Māori people.  

This was a surprising conclusion, given New Zealand’s relatively small land area and the distance (nearly 4,500 miles), that smoke would have travelled to reach the ice core site on James Ross Island. 

“Compared to natural burning in places like the Amazon, or Southern Africa, or Australia, you wouldn’t expect Māori burning in New Zealand to have a big impact, but it does over the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Peninsula,” said Chellman, postdoctoral fellow at DRI. “Being able to use ice core records to show impacts on atmospheric chemistry that reached across the entire Southern Ocean, and being able to attribute that to the Māori arrival and settlement of New Zealand 700 years ago was really amazing.” 

 

Graphic showing increase in black carbon at the year 1300 and inset of globe showing the distance ash travelled from new zealand to antarctica
Black carbon deposition during the past 2000 years measured in ice cores from Dronning Maud Land in continental Antarctica and James Ross Island at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Atmospheric modeling and local burning records indicate that the pronounced increase in deposition in the northern Antarctic Peninsula starting in the late 13th century was related to Māori settlement of New Zealand nearly 4000 miles away and their use of fire for land clearing and management. Inset shows locations of New Zealand and ice-core drilling sites in Antarctica.
Credit: DRI
Research impacts 

The study findings are important for a number of reasons. First, the results have important implications for our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere and climate. Modern climate models rely on accurate information about past climate to make projections for the future, especially on emissions and concentrations of light-absorbing black carbon linked to Earth’s radiative balance. Although it is often assumed that human impacts during preindustrial times were negligible compared to background or natural burning, this study provides new evidence that emissions from human-related burning have impacted Earth’s atmosphere and possibly its climate far earlier, and at scales far larger, than previously imagined.  

Second, fallout from biomass burning is rich in micronutrients such as iron. Phytoplankton growth in much of the Southern Ocean is nutrient-limited so the increased fallout from Māori burning probably resulted in centuries of enhanced phytoplankton growth in large areas of the Southern Hemisphere. 

Third, the results refine what is known about the timing of the arrival of the Māori in New Zealand, one of the last habitable places on earth to be colonized by humans. Māori arrival dates based on radiocarbon dates vary from the 13th to 14th century, but the more precise dating made possible by the ice core records pinpoints the start of large scale burning by early Māori in New Zealand to 1297, with an uncertainty of 30 years. 

“From this study and other previous work our team has done such as on 2,000-year old lead pollution in the Arctic from ancient Rome, it is clear that ice core records are very valuable for learning about past human impacts on the environment,” McConnell said. “Even the most remote parts of Earth were not necessarily pristine in preindustrial times.”  

Continuous ice core analyses at DRI

Measuring the chemistry in a longitudinal sample of an ice core on DRI’s unique ice core analytical system.

Credit: Joe McConnell

Additional information: 

The full study, Hemispheric black carbon increase after 13th C Māori arrival in New Zealand, is available from Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03858-9 

Study authors included Joseph R. McConnell (DRI), Nathan J. Chellman (DRI), Robert Mulvaney (British Antarctic Survey), Sabine Eckhardt (Norwegian Institute for Air Research), Andreas Stohl (University of Vienna), Gill Plunkett (Queen’s University Belfast), Sepp Kipfstuhl (Alfred Wegener Institut, Germany) , Johannes Freitag (Alfred Wegener Institut, Germany), Elisabeth Isaksson (Norwegian Polar Institute), Kelly E. Gleason (DRI/Portland State University), Sandra O. Brugger (DRI), David B. McWethy (Montana State University), Nerilie J. Abram (Australian National University), Pengfei Liu (Georgia Institute of Technology/Harvard University), and Alberto J. Aristarain (Instituto Antartico Argentino). 

This study was made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation (0538416, 0968391, 1702830, 1832486, and 1925417), the DRI, and the Swiss National Science Foundation (P400P2_199285).   

To learn more about DRI’s Ice Core Laboratory, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/labs/trace-chemistry-laboratory/

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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 Graduate Researcher Nicholas Kimutis

Meet Graduate Researcher Nicholas Kimutis

Meet Nicholas Kimutis, Graduate Researcher

SEPTEMBER 29, 2021
RENO, NEV.

Public Health
Climate
Epidemiology

Nicholas Kimutis is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at DRI in Reno. He is a master’s student studying public health with a specialization in epidemiology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Learn more about Nick and his graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog!

Nick-net

Graduate research assistant Nick Kimutis prepares to capture Speyeria nokomis (butterflies) at Round Mountain in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Credit: Lauren Redosh.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Kimutis: I was originally brought into DRI by Meghan Collins, who hired me as an undergraduate intern with the Stories in the Snow citizen science program back in 2017. At that time, I was interested in ice crystal formation as well as communicating science and engaging with the public in an accessible way. After Stories in the Snow, Tamara Wall brought me into the Western Regional Climate Center where I have worked since. What keeps me at DRI is two-fold: First, the amazing and talented people that work here. Second, the translational research, co-productions and community engagement that we conduct in the climate center. I truly believe that the research questions DRI addresses leave the world a better place.

DRI: What are you studying?

Kimutis: During my undergraduate program, I studied microbiology and immunology. As a graduate student, I am studying epidemiology. To borrow Friss and Sellers 2012 definition, “Epidemiology is concerned with the distribution and determinants of health, diseases, morbidity, injuries, disability, and mortality in populations.” Specifically, I am interested in the intersection of climate and public health. I believe humanity’s biggest public health crisis is climate change.

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

Kimutis: First and foremost, my job as a graduate research assistant is climate services. Climate Services involves connecting government, academics, media and the public with historical climate data. Tamara Wall serves as my primary mentor at DRI and Lyndsey Darrow serves as my advisor at UNR. I also work with Tim Brown, Greg McCurdy, Dan McEvoy and Pam Lacy.

In addition to climate services, I am working on two projects that involve health. The first is an extreme heat project located in San Diego County. This work is being done with Kristin VanderMolen and Ben Hatchett. This project aims to make a series of recommendations, based on focus group discussions with vulnerable populations, to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency on extreme heat messaging.

Secondly, I am assisting on an EPA Project that will test and install air quality monitoring sensors in rural Nevada. This project will also generate recommendations for Emergency Managers on air quality messaging. This project includes Kristin VanderMolen, Meghan Collins, Yeongkwon Son, Greg McCurdy, Pam Lacy, Tamara Wall and collaborators at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

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

Kimutis: My biggest goal at DRI is to do meaningful work that ultimately helps people. At the same time,  I want to grow and refine my skills as a researcher. I am committed to an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible environment and serve on DRI’s IDEA Committee to help foster and grow that culture.

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

For fun, I enjoy all things outdoors including camping, hiking, rock climbing, swimming, biking and paddle boarding. I also have a Rottweiler, named Simon, who occupies quite a bit of my time.

Nick-and-dog-Simon

Nick Kimutis and his dog Simon enjoy camping, hiking, and other outdoor adventures around Reno.

Credit: Ryan Wong

Additional Information:

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

 

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

Study shows a recent reversal in the response of western Greenland’s ice caps to climate change

Study shows a recent reversal in the response of western Greenland’s ice caps to climate change

Study Shows A Recent Reversal in the Response of Western Greenland’s Ice Caps to Climate Change

Sept 9, 2021
RENO, NV

Climate Change
Polar Research
Ice Cores

Above: A wide view of the Nuussuaq Peninsula in West Greenland. Project collaborators investigate an ice core extracted from this region for signs of change and response to past periods of warming.

Credit: Sarah Das © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Research suggests some ice caps grew during past periods of warming

Although a warming climate is leading to rapid melting of the ice caps and glaciers along Greenland’s coastline, ice caps in this region sometimes grew during past periods of warming, according to new research published today in Nature Geoscience. The study team included Joseph McConnell, Nathan Chellman, and Monica Arienzo of DRI, who analyzed a 140 m ice core from an ice cap on Greenland’s Nuussuaq Peninsula at DRI’s Ice Core Laboratory in Reno, Nevada.

“The use of records from Greenland’s coastal ice caps in climate change research has been hampered by difficulties in creating chronologies for ice-core measurements,” said McConnell. “Here we used a novel approach based on synchronizing detailed measurements of heavy metals in an array of Greenland ice cores.”

“This allowed creation of a tightly constrained chronology in a coastal core for the first time, and it was this chronology that underpinned this climate study,” Chellman added.

The analysis was done using DRI’s unique continuous ice core analytical system, which was developed in McConnell’s lab and funded by grants from the National Science Foundation during the past 15 years.

The full news release from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is below.

Ice capped and snow-covered mountains of coastal west Greenland. (Apr. 2015)

Ice capped and snow-covered mountains of coastal west Greenland. (Apr. 2015)

Credit: Matthew Osman © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Thumbnail image of nature geoscience paper

The full text of the study, “Abrupt Common Era hydroclimate shifts drive west Greenland ice cap change,” is available from Nature Geoscience: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-021-00818-w.pdf 

News release reposted from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

Woods Hole, Mass. (September 9, 2021) – Greenland may be best known for its enormous continental scale ice sheet that soars up to 3,000 meters above sea level, whose rapid melting is a leading contributor to global sea level rise. But surrounding this massive ice sheet, which covers 79% of the world’s largest island, is Greenland’s rugged coastline dotted with ice capped mountainous peaks. These peripheral glaciers and ice caps are now also undergoing severe melting due to anthropogenic (human-caused) warming.  However, climate warming and the loss of these ice caps may not have always gone hand-in-hand.

New collaborative research from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and five partner institutions (University of Arizona, University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, Desert Research Institute and University of Bergen), published today in Nature Geoscience, reveals that during past periods glaciers and ice caps in coastal west Greenland experienced climate conditions much different than the interior of Greenland. Over the past 2,000 years, these ice caps endured periods of warming during which they grew larger rather than shrinking.

This novel study breaks down the climate history displayed in a core taken from an ice cap off Greenland’s western coast. According to the study’s researchers, while ice core drilling has been ongoing in Greenland since the mid-20th century, coastal ice core studies remain extremely limited, and these new findings are providing a new perspective on climate change compared to what scientists previously understood by using ice cores from the interior portions of the Greenland ice sheet alone.

“Glaciers and ice caps are unique high-resolution repositories of Earth’s climate history, and ice core analysis allows scientists to examine how environmental changes – like shifts in precipitation patterns and global warming – affect rates of snowfall, melting, and in turn influence ice cap growth and retreat,” said Sarah Das, Associate Scientist of Geology and Geophysics at WHOI. “Looking at differences in climate change recorded across several ice core records allows us to compare and contrast the climate history and ice response across different regions of the Arctic.” However, during the course of this study, it also became clear that many of these coastal ice caps are now melting so substantially that these incredible archives are in great peril of disappearing forever.

The research team on the ground of a coastal West Greenland ice cap, preparing to extract and examine ice cores.

The research team on the ground of a coastal West Greenland ice cap, preparing to extract and examine ice cores.

Credit: Sarah Das © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Due to the challenging nature of studying and accessing these ice caps, this team was the first to do such work, centering their study, which began in 2015, around a core collected from the Nuussuaq Peninsula in Greenland. This single core offers insight into how coastal climate conditions and ice cap changes covaried during the last 2,000 years, due to tracked changes in its chemical composition and the amount of snowfall archived year after year in the core. Through their analysis, investigators found that during periods of past warming, ice caps were growing rather than melting, contradicting what we see in the present day. 

“Currently, we know Greenland’s ice caps are melting due to warming, further contributing to sea level rise. But, we have yet to explore how these ice caps have changed in the past due to changes in climate,” said Matthew Osman, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona and a 2019 graduate of the MIT-WHOI Joint program. “The findings of this study were a surprise because we see that there is an ongoing shift in the fundamental response of these ice caps to climate: today, they’re disappearing, but in the past, within small degrees of warming, they actually tended to grow.” 

According to Das and Osman, this phenomenon happens because of a “tug-of-war” between what causes an ice cap to grow (increased precipitation) or recede (increased melting) during periods of warming. Today, scientists observe melting rates that are outpacing the rate of annual snowfall atop ice caps. However, in past centuries these ice caps would expand due to increased levels of precipitation brought about by warmer temperatures. The difference between the past and present is the severity of modern anthropogenic warming.

The team gathered this data by drilling through an ice cap on top of one of the higher peaks of the Nuussuaq Peninsula. The entire core, about 140 meters in length, took about a week to retrieve. They then brought the meter-long pieces of core to the National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility in Denver, Colorado, and stored at -20 degrees Celsius. The core pieces were then analyzed by their layers for melt features and trace chemistry at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. By looking at different properties of the core’s chemical content, such as parts per billion of lead and sulfur, investigators were able to accurately date the core by combining these measurements with a model of past glacier flow.

“These model estimates of ice cap flow, coupled with the actual ages that we have from this high precision chemistry, help us outline changes in ice cap growth over time. This method provides a new way of understanding past ice cap changes and how that is correlated with climate,” said Das. “Because we’re collecting a climate record from the coast, we’re able to document for the first time that there were these large shifts in temperature, snowfall and melt over the last 2,000 years, showing much more variability than is observed in records from the interior of Greenland,” Das added. 

“Our findings should urge researchers to return to these remaining ice caps and collect new climate records while they still exist,” added Osman. 

University of Arizona postdoctoral research associate Matthew Osman and U.S. Ice Drilling Program specialist Mike Waszkiewicz move an ice core barrel into place in West Greenland, as part of their work to study ice caps’ response to climate change.

The research team on the ground of a coastal West Greenland ice cap, preparing to extract and examine ice cores.

Credit: Sarah Das © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Additional collaborators and institutions:

  • Benjamin Smith, University of Washington
  • Luke Trusel, Pennsylvania State University
  • Joseph McConnell, Desert Research Institute
  • Nathan Chellman, Desert Research Institute
  • Monica Arienzo, Desert Research Institute
  • Harold Sodemann, University of Bergen and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research 

This research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with further support from the U.S. Department of Defense National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship; and an Ocean Outlook Fellowship to the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research; the National Infrastructure for High Performance Computing and Data Storage in Norway; Norwegian Research Council; and Air Greenland. 

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About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu

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.

From COVID-19 to Drought: Collaborating on Emerging Challenges Across Indian Country

From COVID-19 to Drought: Collaborating on Emerging Challenges Across Indian Country

From COVID-19 to Drought:

Collaborating on Emerging Challenges Across Indian Country

July 27, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

COVID-19
Drought
Emergency Response

Featured work by the Native Waters on Arid Lands project’s COVID-19 Working Group.

On a recent Friday, Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and Vicki Hebb of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) did the same thing they’ve done each Friday since the COVID-19 pandemic began, nearly 70 Fridays ago: they kicked off a weekly Zoom call with the Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL) project’s COVID-19 Working Group, an ever-expanding network of Tribal Extension Agents, agricultural producers, educators, and federal agency leaders from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies across the U.S. that are working together to solve problems and share information across Indian Country.

On the call were many regulars and a few new faces, whom McCarthy and Hebb greeted warmly, chatting about recent hot weather in South Dakota, Montana, and elsewhere around the U.S. before getting into the day’s agenda. First, weekly updates from program leaders of the USDA Office of Tribal Relations, USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), FEMA, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) on new programs, grant opportunities, and upcoming events. Then, a presentation on the week’s featured topic – an update on wildfire projections for the coming summer from Nick Nauslar, Bureau of Land Management fire meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

“Basically, we’re just problem solving and information sharing,” said McCarthy, program director for NWAL. “We have people each week who give regular updates from their agencies, and then we have a featured topic that’s related to the ongoing challenges or interests of the group – which could be anything from food security to COVID vaccine education to drought briefings. We’ve created a platform that didn’t exist before in Indian Country for people to share information among themselves.”

NWAL Team member Kyle Bocinsky presents to the COVID19 Working Group in April 2021.

NWAL Team member Kyle Bocinsky presents information on drought to the COVID-19 Working Group during a Zoom call in April 2021.

Credit: DRI.

New problems, new platform

The COVID-19 pandemic produced unexpected challenges for people in all parts of the world, but hit particularly hard in many reservation communities across the U.S. due to factors such as lack of access to clean water, overcrowded homes, intergenerational families, high rates of disease, lack of access to health care, and economic challenges. In mid-March of 2020, several members of the NWAL team reported to McCarthy that tribes in their regions were facing a number of dire pandemic-related problems; in response, McCarthy, Hebb, Trent Teegerstrom (tribal extension director for the University of Arizona), and Staci Emm (tribal extension coordinator for UNR) began organizing weekly Zoom calls with USDA program leaders and NWAL tribal partners from across Indian Country to facilitate direct communication about urgent on-the-ground issues.

“There were loads of problems,” McCarthy said. “People were confused about what COVID was. They didn’t know what was going on. Hopi and Navajo didn’t have wood, they didn’t have water, they didn’t have PPE (personal protective equipment), they were running out of food. They were running out of hay for their livestock.”

The first several calls provided a platform for tribal members and tribal extension agents from various reservations to communicate their most urgent challenges and needs. They also featured briefings from medical professionals about what COVID-19 was, how it was spreading, and what actions could be taken by tribal communities and educators. From there, connections were made, and the group slowly expanded in size and scope.

“When we started, we thought we would do these calls for a few weeks or a few months,” Hebb said. “It grew from our immediate group – the Native Waters on Arid Lands team – to now having representatives from tribes all over the country, including Alaska, as well as key tribal agricultural organizations and federal agency partners. Now we’re more than a year into it, with close to 200 people on the weekly invite list.”

Linked image: Click to continue to NWAL's "COVID19 in Indian Country" StoryMap

The NWAL team’s ArcGIS StoryMap, “COVID-19 in Indian Country,” tracked impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic shared on the weekly Zoom calls, as well as the group’s COVID-19 response projects. Click the photo above to view the StoryMap

Projects and accomplishments

One of the group’s earliest accomplishments was to develop a list of urgent issues and actionable items for federal agency partners. Requests included reimbursements for farmers who had to keep animals alive during livestock trading shutdowns, loan relief to cover grazing leases, funding for local food production programs, and improved access to medical supplies and COVID-19 test kits.

Certain problems voiced on the calls were solved just by putting the right people in touch with each other. For example, on a call in May 2020, representatives from the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation spoke to the desperate need for firewood to heat their homes. A Forest Service representative offered up a supply of wood from a nearby forest thinning project and others from the Working Group joined forces to locate a trucking company and make it happen, resulting in the delivery of more than 100 cords of wood to Hopi and Navajo communities.

As other challenges surfaced, the Working Group mobilized to assist. When hay was in short supply on the Hopi Reservation last June, the group coordinated a donation of 350 bales to feed hungry livestock. When water quality became a concern in tribal buildings that were left vacant during COVID-19 closures, the group partnered with a water testing and purification company, Nephros, to analyze water samples. When a representative from an Alaskan Native community spoke to the need for essential non-food items in villages hit hard by COVID-19 last December, the group organized a successful donation drive for items such as cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and winter clothing for children. And in February 2021, when call participants voiced concerns about rumors and misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines, the Working Group created a new website called “Facts Not Fear” to supply accurate information and educational resources to individuals in Indian Country.

“I think this group has just done an enormous amount – we’ve changed a lot of people’s lives, in little ways that were really, really important, especially during COVID,” said Erin Riley, national program leader for USDA-NIFA. “A lot of people really needed assistance, and we were able to provide that. I also think that one thing that we did that was special was we were really able to work together between the government, project directors, non-government organizations, and communities in a way that is a model for how things are supposed to work under our particular political structure.”

Linked image: Pam Lalo, Hopi Veterinarian Technician, unloads hay bales after a hay delivery on June 27, 2020. Link will take you to the full story.

Pam Lalo, Hopi Veterinarian Technician, unloads hay bales after a hay delivery to the Hopi Nation on June 27, 2020. Credit: Robinson Honani, Hopi Department of Natural Resources. Click photo above to read full story.

Linked image: Dump truck delivers wood to the Hopi and Navajo reservations during spring 2020. Link will take you to the full story.

In May 2020, the COVID-19 Working Group arranged for the delivery of more than 100 cords of wood to the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation. Click the photo above to read the full story.

Linked image: Donations sent to Alaska by the COVID19 working group and colleagues. Link will take you to the full story.

When a representative from an Alaskan Native community spoke to the need for essential non-food items, the COVID-19 Working Group organized a successful donation drive. Click photo above to read the full story

Linked image: Click to continue to the Facts Not Fear website

In response to concerns about rumors and misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines, the Working Group created a website called “Facts Not Fear.” Click the image above to visit the site. 

Looking forward: From the challenges of COVID-19 to ongoing impacts of extreme drought

Over time, it has become clear that the weekly calls are meeting a need. Although the problems may change from week to week, the benefits of connecting with like-minded partners and tackling big problems together won’t be going away any time soon.

As certain pandemic-related challenges have begun to fade, new challenges are emerging. The southwestern U.S. is now experiencing extreme to exceptional levels of drought, and the Working Group continues to meet weekly via Zoom for a presentation on a timely issue and collaboration on what the group can do to assist. Recent call topics have included drought projections, COVID-19 vaccine information, mental health and farm stress, drought impacts on pollinators and invasive species, and wildfire forecasts.

“I think the most important thing that’s come out of our weekly calls is that there’s a trusted place to exchange information and that we are able to get reliable information out to people on the ground really fast,” Hebb said. “This is really helping tribal producers make decisions that improve their livelihoods.”

More information:

The Native Waters on Arid Lands Project: https://nativewaters-aridlands.com

The NWAL COVID-19 Working Group StoryMap- https://nativewaters-aridlands.com/covid19

Facts Not Fear: https://factsnotfearcovid.com

 

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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.

About Native Waters on Arid Lands

The Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL; https://nativewaters-aridlands.com) project seeks to enhance the climate resiliency of agriculture on American Indian lands of the Great Basin and Southwest by building the capacity within tribal communities to develop and implement reservation-wide plans, policies, and practices to support sustainable agriculture and water management. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute; the University of Nevada, Reno; the University of Arizona; First Americans Land-Grant Consortium; Utah State University; Ohio University; and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture

DRI Scientist Contributes to New Research on Toxic Mercury Deposition in Forests

DRI Scientist Contributes to New Research on Toxic Mercury Deposition in Forests

DRI Research Highlight

Mercury is deposited from the atmosphere into forests worldwide in greater quantities than previously thought, according to new research in the journal PNAS led by former Desert Research Institute (DRI) scientist Daniel Obrist (currently with University of Massachusets, Lowell) and a team that included Hans Moosmüller of DRI in Reno. Moosmüller contributed analytical tools for the measurement of mercury fluxes in this study, and also participated in writing the paper. The full news release from UMass Lowell is below.

The full study, Previously unaccounted atmospheric mercury deposition in a midlatitude deciduous forest, is available from PNAS: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/29/e2105477118 

Study Shows Forests Play Grater Role in Depositing Toxic Mercury Across the Globe

Reposted from UMass Lowell

LOWELL, Mass. – Researchers led by a UMass Lowell environmental science professor say mercury measurements in a Massachusetts forest indicate the toxic element is deposited in forests across the globe in much greater quantities than previously understood.

The team’s results underscore concern for the health and well-being of people, wildlife and waterways, according to Prof. Daniel Obrist, as mercury accumulating in forests ultimately runs off into streams and rivers, ending up in lakes and oceans.

Mercury is a highly toxic pollutant that threatens fish, birds, mammals and humans. Hundreds of tons of it are released into the atmosphere each year by coal-burning power plants, as well as through gold mining and other industrial processes, and the pollutant is distributed by winds and currents across the globe. Long-term exposure to mercury, or consuming food containing high levels of the pollutant, can lead to reproductive, immune, neurological and cardiovascular problems, according to Obrist, chair of UMass Lowell’s Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Forests constitute the world’s most abundant, productive and widespread ecosystems on land, according to Obrist, who said the study is the first that examines a full picture of how mercury in the atmosphere is deposited at any rural forest in the world, including the deposition of mercury in its gaseous form, which most previous studies do not address.

“Trees take up gaseous mercury from the atmosphere through their leaves and as plants shed their leaves or die off, they basically transfer that atmospheric mercury to the ecosystems,” he said.

The results of the project, which is supported by a three-year, $873,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), were published this week in an issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. UMass Lowell student Eric Roy, a double-major in meteorology and mathematics from Lowell, is among the study’s co-authors.

For the past 16 months, the team has measured how mercury in the atmosphere gets deposited at Harvard Forest in Petersham, a nearly 4,000-acre site that includes hardwood deciduous broadleaf trees such as red oak and red maple that shed their leaves every year. A set of measurement systems placed at various heights on the forest’s 100-foot-tall research tower assessed the site’s gaseous mercury deposition from the tree canopy to the forest floor.

“Seventy-six percent of the mercury deposition at this forest comes from gaseous atmospheric mercury. It’s five times greater than mercury deposited by rain and snow and three times greater than mercury that gets deposited through litterfall, which is mercury transferred by leaves falling to the ground and which has previously been used by other researchers as a proxy for estimating gaseous mercury deposition in forests,” Obrist said.

“Our study suggests that mercury loading in forests has been underestimated by a factor of about two and that forests worldwide may be a much larger global absorber and collector of gaseous mercury than currently assumed. This larger-than-anticipated accumulation may explain surprisingly high mercury levels observed in soils across rural forests,” he said.

Plants seem to dominate as a source of mercury on land, accounting for 54 to 94 percent of the deposits in soils across North America. The total global amount of mercury deposited to land currently is estimated at about 1,500 to 1,800 metric tons per year, but it may be more than double if other forests show similar levels of deposition, according to Obrist.

The researchers are continuing their work at a second forest in Howland in northern Maine. Howland Forest, a nearly 600-acre research site full of evergreens that retain their leaves year-round, offers a distinctly different habitat than the deciduous forest in Petersham. Assessing both forests will allow researchers to examine differences in mercury accumulation between different forest types, Obrist said.

The work is providing a hands-on research experience for Roy, a UMass Lowell Honors College student who was invited to become a member of the university’s Immersive Scholar program in 2019. The initiative enables first-year students with outstanding academic credentials to participate in lab work and research right from the start of their academic studies.

“It’s really exciting to be a co-author,” Roy said. “This study allowed us to quantify how much mercury is being accumulated in this type of forest. Modelers can use these results to improve their understanding of how mercury cycles through the environment on a global scale and how that might change in the future.”

Roy helped analyze the data collected in the field.

“Eric’s contributions to the study are tremendous. It’s not very common for an undergrad to play such an important role in a major, federally funded research project,” Obrist said. “His work is really impressive and he has become more and more active in data analysis and doing complex flux calculations and data processing. He really earned himself second author position in the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Other contributors to the study include Asst. Prof. Róisín Commane of Columbia University; students and postdoctoral researchers from UMass Lowell and Columbia University; and collaborators from Harvard University; the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada; and the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Lanzhou. Additional research support was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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UMass Lowell is a national research university offering its more than 18,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe. www.uml.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/

 

Restoration by Drone: DRI and Partners Test New Method for Reseeding Native Forests after Wildfire

Restoration by Drone: DRI and Partners Test New Method for Reseeding Native Forests after Wildfire

Restoration by Drone

DRI and partners test new method for reseeding native forests after wildfire

MAY 3, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Forest Restoration
Technology
Wildfire

Featured research by DRI’s Dave Page, Jesse Juchtzer, and Patrick Melarkey.

As Western wildfires grow larger and more severe, the need for efficient and effective forest restoration techniques is growing as well. In April, scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) partnered with the Sugar Pine Foundation, Flying Forests, and the Carson Ranger District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to test a new method for reseeding burned slopes by drone.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

Patrick Melarkey of the Desert Research Institute flies the drone during a reseeding flight at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

Drones are being tested for use in reseeding projects in other parts of the world, including California and the Pacific Northwest, but this project marks the first time this technology has been tested in the Eastern Sierra. For a trial area, the group selected a 25-acre site in a portion of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest that burned in the Loyalton Fire of August, 2020.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

A hillside burned by the Loyalton Fire during August 2020. On April 22, 2021, the Desert Research Institute, Flying Forests, the Sugar Pine Foundation, and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest conducted a reseeding project at this site using new drone technology. 

Credit: DRI.

Prior to the drone reseeding event, DRI archaeologist Dave Page, M.A., conducted aerial mapping at the burn site. This detailed imagery was used to determine an appropriate flight path for dispersing seeds evenly across the burn area, and was programmed into software that guided the drone during the reseeding mission.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

A drone carrying small seed balls of Jeffrey pine takes flight during a reseeding project at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021. 

Credit: DRI.

On April 22nd and 23rd, 2021, DRI scientists Patrick Melarkey and Jesse Juchtzer provided technical expertise as drone pilots for the reseeding portion of the project. Over the course of two days of flying, Melarkey and Juchtzer dropped 25,000 Jeffrey pine seedballs across the 25-acre burn area. The drone made a total of 35 flights, carrying approximately 700-750 seedballs per flight.

Above: Patrick Melarkey and Jesse Juchtzer from DRI fly a drone carrying small seed balls of Jeffrey pine during a reseeding project at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

The seed balls were provided by the Sugar Pine Foundation, which worked with local community volunteers to collect more than 30 pounds of Jeffrey pine seed during the past year. The seed was combined with soil and nutrients into small balls that could be carried and distributed by the drone.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.
Small seedballs containing seeds of Jeffrey pine were prepared by the Sugar Pine Foundation in preparation for reseeding the Loyalton Fire burn area by drone. Each seedball contains approximately 3 seeds of Jeffrey pine. April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

The technology used on this project to plant with drones was invented by Dr. Lauren Fletcher of Flying Forests. Fletcher is a 5th generation Nevadan and graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, Stanford, and Oxford.    

Above, left: Personnel from Flying Forests load seedballs of Jeffrey pine into a drone prior to a reseeding flight at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021. Above, right: Lauren Fletcher of Flying Forests invented the seed-spreading technology that was used during the drone reseeding project.

Credit: DRI.

Replanting native trees in burned areas can help stabilize slopes, reduce erosion, discourage growth of non-native plant species, and speed up the recovery of critical habitat for wildlife. Reforestation of burned areas is often done by planting small tree seedlings – but in areas far from roads or areas with especially steep terrain, this method can be expensive, labor-intensive, and dangerous. Spreading seeds by drone may provide a safer, cheaper, and easier alternative.

Next, the group will monitor and study the area to observe the success rate of this method of restoration. 
Yuan Luo near a lysimeter tank at DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in boulder city, nevada

Looking west from a hillside burned by the Loyalton Fire during August 2020. On April 22, 2021, the Desert Research Institute, Flying Forests, the Sugar Pine Foundation, and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest conducted a reseeding project on the burn area using new drone technology. 

Credit: DRI

Additional photos: 

For more photos of the drone replanting project, please visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/driscience/albums/72157719000696158/with/51133563971/

Links to Media Coverage:

Restoring area forests one flight at a time, KOLO8 – https://www.kolotv.com/2021/04/23/restoring-area-forests-one-flight-at-a-time/

Drone scatters pine seeds to reforest hillside burned in Loyalton Fire, News4 – https://mynews4.com/news/local/drone-scatters-pine-seeds-to-reforest-hillside-burned-in-loyalton-fire

Pilot drone program helps reseed wildfire-ravaged areas in Tahoe, Sierra Nevada; Reno Gazette-Journal –https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2021/04/26/pilot-drone-program-reseeds-wildfire-ravaged-areas-tahoe-sierra-nevada/7384862002/

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About 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.

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Dylan Person, Graduate Researcher

APRIL 19, 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

By Kaylynn Perez

Archaeology
Cultural Resource Management
Antrhopology

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas. He is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology, Archaeology subfield, at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Learn more about Dylan and his graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog!

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Earth and Ecosystems Sciences at DRI in Las Vegas. 

Credit: Greg Haynes.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Person: I was introduced to DRI through the UNLV Department of Anthropology. I became interested in coming to DRI as a graduate assistant when I learned that a position at DRI gave students the opportunity to perform fieldwork as well as write reports and plan projects for cultural resource management archaeology. In addition to this great opportunity for learning new aspects of this area of archaeology, I jumped at the chance to learn more about Native American archaeology in the Great Basin since my research focus at UNLV is primarily based in New Mexico. I also got really excited when I learned that I’d be working with historic nuclear testing resources since that’s such a major part of America’s scientific history.

DRI: What are you studying?

Person: I study stone tool technology and how it interrelated with cultural and social life at sites in the Mimbres Mogollon region of southwestern New Mexico. The time period I study was around AD 550-1130 and during this time these people changed from highly mobile foragers to living in settled agricultural villages. This resulted in changes in their social organization that I think also impacted the way they made and used stone tools. Though this is not directly related to DRI’s work, experience with similar artifacts in the Great Basin has added a new dimension to my own work.

Archaeology in the Great Basin is very focused on mobile groups and studying here and working with these archaeological sites at DRI has taught me a lot about how mobile people moved around and interacted with their environment. This knowledge has really deepened my understanding of how groups of people in my study area acted when practicing this lifeway and expanded the range of my research.

Above, left: Dylan Person and his boxer, Wiggles, hike along the McCullough Hills Trail in the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area of Nevada. Above, right: One of Dylan’s fieldwork sites in San Bernardino, California. 

Credit: Lizzie Person (left photo); Jared Miles (right photo).

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

Person: I work with the Cultural Resource Management Program team. They’re a great group of archaeologists and historians who have a variety of interesting projects in addition to their cultural resource work. My supervisor is Maureen King, who has been very supportive of my academic progress and has helped me a lot in my professional development. Though I work with a combination of United States history and earlier Native American history, Maureen is great about involving me with program projects that align with my research interests here in Nevada, which I’ll talk a little more about below.

Currently, I am working on my dissertation research which involves the stone tool study that I mentioned previously. At DRI I have mostly been focusing on working with historic nuclear testing activities for cultural resource management. Informally at DRI, I have been looking at how groups moved throughout southern and central Nevada and adjacent regions. I’m interested in how these travel routes map on to environmental features such as water sources like springs, rivers, and wetlands as well as other resource-rich areas. Since these resources included plants, animals, rocks for tools, and culturally significant areas I have a lot to work with when it comes to investigating the how and why of people’s interaction with these areas over a long period of time.

Additionally, our program at DRI has a long history of working closely with Native American groups who live in the region. Being exposed to Native perspectives on the land and environment is a really valuable addition, since they have inherited a cultural understanding of this area that only comes from lived experience and long tradition. Though I don’t presume to fully understand how previous generations of Native Americans of the Mojave and Great Basin thought about their environment and lives, being around these perspectives has really opened up my mind to ideas and viewpoints that I wouldn’t have developed on my own. I’m really grateful for that!

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

Person: In the short term, I hope to continue making contributions to our program and its support of projects through cultural resource management.

In the long term, I want to learn everything I can during my time in our program so that I am well-situated for both academic and non-academic archaeological work. I also want to formalize some of my research interests into a developed research plan, one that ideally would contain public science-focused elements. I’m really interested in public science and supporting science education in general.

Above, left: Dylan Person at the office on DRI’s Las Vegas campus. Above, right: One of Dylan’s field sites in San Bernardino County, California.

Credit: Dylan Person/DRI (left photo), Jared Miles (right photo).

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

Person: I like to get out in nature. So hiking, camping, bouldering, and other types of outdoor activities are always a good time. I’m a sort of amateur geologist, so I also like checking out interesting rock formations and the overall geology of a place. Nevada is a really great place for all that so I have a lot of options!

When I’m not running around outside, I play music. I play a few instruments but I’m best at the guitar and I play just about any style that a guitar can do, so rock/blues, country, bluegrass, jazz and even classical music. I also like cooking and especially grilling, backyard hangouts, and spending time with my wife Lizzie and our Boxer dog Wiggles, who are my companions in all these things I do for fun. One of these days I’ll have the space to get a project car so I can finally finish learning auto mechanics without worrying about messing up my daily driver!

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

In his free time, Dylan enjoys spending time with his wife Lizzie and their boxer, Wiggles. 

Credit: Lizzie Person.

Additional Information:

For more information on DRI’s Cultural Resource Management Program, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/crm/

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.

Drought Conditions Intensify Across California and Nevada

Drought Conditions Intensify Across California and Nevada

Above: WestWide Drought Tracker data for winter 2020-21 show that precipitation levels across California and Nevada have fallen far below normal. Credit: WRCC/DRI.


91 percent of California and 100 percent of Nevada now in drought

Reno, Nev. (Mar 11, 2021) – Drought conditions are intensifying across California and Nevada, with U.S. Drought Monitor showing 91 percent of California and 100 percent of Nevada now in drought, according to a Drought Status Update released this morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), the California-Nevada Applications Program (CNAP), and the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute.

The Drought Status Update is issued every two weeks on Drought.gov as part of the California-Nevada Drought Early Warning System and communicates the current state of drought conditions in California and Nevada using information from sources such as the U.S. Drought Monitor, NOAA, CNAP, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E), and others.

According to today’s update, California and Nevada remain entrenched in moderate-to-exceptional levels of drought, with precipitation totals and snowpack falling below normal. Although recent spring storms have brought moisture to certain areas of the region, those and other potential spring storms are not expected to significantly improve the drought conditions.

“The chance of getting back to an average snowpack for this winter is looking less and less likely,” said Tamara Wall, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor at DRI and Co-Principal Investigator of the CNAP program. “It is time to really start thinking about the impact that this will have across California and Nevada as we move into the warmer months.”

In Nevada, conditions are especially dire, with 40 percent of the state now classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor as “exceptional drought,” or D4 – more area than at any point during the previous drought of 2012-2016. In the Carson, Truckee, and Walker Basins, reservoir storage is also lower than it was this time last year, all currently at less than 40 percent of capacity.

During the last two weeks, the authors have noted a significant increase in drought impact reports from water utilities to agriculture as it has become clearer that drought is here to stay in California and Nevada and the region’s odds of reaching normal are low.

“Recently, we’ve seen confirmation that any remaining storms won’t bring much drought relief and drought impacts are intensifying and expanding,” said Amanda Sheffield, Ph.D., NOAA NIDIS Regional Drought Information Coordinator for California-Nevada.

Seasonal forecasts predict a continuation of warm, dry conditions over the Great Basin and Southwestern U.S. as we head into spring and early summer. As drought conditions intensify, impacts to agriculture, water supplies, and forests are expected, as well as increased wildfire potential.

“The abnormally dry conditions that we’ve had this winter mean a second dry year for much of California and Nevada, which means that working on our drought preparedness right now is essential,” said Julie Kalansky, CNAP Program Manager, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “These conditions have potential implications for agriculture, ecosystem health, water supply, and fire potential.”

Additional information:

To view the full Drought Status Update for March 11, 2021, on Drought.gov, please visit: https://www.drought.gov/drought-status-updates/drought-status-update-california-nevada-2 

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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.

 

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.

Climate change and “atmospheric thirst” to increase fire danger and drought in Nevada and California

Climate change and “atmospheric thirst” to increase fire danger and drought in Nevada and California

Climate change and “atmospheric thirst” to increase fire danger and drought in Nevada and California

New study shows impacts of increased levels of evaporative demand as climate grows warmer and drier

Climate change and a “thirsty atmosphere” will bring more extreme wildfire danger and multi-year droughts to Nevada and California by the end of this century, according to new research from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Merced.

In a new study published in Earth’s Future, scientists looked at future projections of evaporative demand – a measure of how dry the air is – in California and Nevada through the end of the 21st century. They then examined how changes in evaporative demand would impact the frequency of extreme fire danger and three-year droughts, based on metrics from the Evaporative Demand Drought Index (EDDI) and the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI).

According to their results, climate change projections show consistent future increases in atmospheric evaporative demand (or the “atmospheric thirst”) over California and Nevada. These changes were largely driven by warmer temperatures, and would likely lead to significant on-the-ground environmental impacts.

 

Maps showing increases in evaporative demand toward end of next century.

Study results show increases of 13 to 18 percent in evaporative demand during all four seasons by the end of the century.

Credit: Dan McEvoy/DRI.

“Higher evaporative demand during summer and autumn—peak fire season in the region—means faster drying of soil moisture and vegetation, and available fuels becoming more flammable, leading to fires that can burn faster and hotter,” explained lead author Dan McEvoy, Ph.D.,  Assistant Research Professor of Climatology at DRI.

“Increased evaporative demand with warming enables fuels to be drier for longer periods,” added coauthor John Abatzoglou, Ph.D., Associate Professor with the University of California, Merced. “This is a recipe for more active fire seasons.”

The research team found that days with extreme fire danger in summer and autumn are expected to increase four to 10 times by the end of the century. Their results also showed that multi-year droughts, similar to that experienced in California and Nevada during 2012-2016, were projected to increase three to 15 times by the end of the century.

“One major takeaway was that we can expect to see a lot more days in the summer and autumn with extreme fire danger related to increased temperature and evaporative demand,” McEvoy said. “Another takeaway was that even in locations where precipitation may not change that much in future, droughts are going to become more severe due to higher evaporative demand.”

Graph showing increase in extreme fire danger days in 2020.

California and Nevada on average experienced a record-setting number of “extreme fire danger” days in 2020, as indicated by the line on the graph above. Extreme fire danger days were calculated using the Evaporative Demand Drought Index (EDDI), with methods described in McEvoy et al. (2020). Data source: http://www.climatologylab.org/gridmet.html.

Credit: Dan McEvoy/DRI.

Study authors say that the cumulative effects of increases in evaporative demand will stress native ecosystems, increase fire danger, negatively impact agriculture where water demands cannot be met, and exacerbate impacts to society during periods of prolonged dryness. Several members of the research team are part of the California-Nevada Applications Program (CNAP), and will use these study results to provide resource managers with a view of possible future scenarios.

“These results provide information to support science-based, long-term planning for fire management agencies, forest management agencies, and water resource managers,” said coauthor Julie Kalansky, Ph.D., Program Manager for CNAP. “We plan to work with partners to help integrate the findings from this paper to support building climate resilience.”

 

Additional Information:

This study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) California-Nevada Climate Applications Program (CNAP) and the NOAA National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) California-Nevada Drought Early Warning System.

The full text of the paper, “Projected Changes in Reference Evapotranspiration in California and Nevada: Implications for Drought and Wildland Fire Danger,” is available from Earth’s Future: https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EF001736. 

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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.

DRI Archaeologists to document ancient rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett

DRI Archaeologists to document ancient rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett

Caption: Pictographs from a site at Fort Hunter Liggett, processed with D-stretch imagery. DRI Archaeologists will soon travel to Fort Hunter Liggett, in California, to document rock art in high resolution. Credit: Fort Hunter Liggett.


 

Las Vegas, Nev. (Nov. 10, 2020) – Long ago, before widespread European-American settlement, ancestors of the Salinan Tribe left rock art featuring colorful handprints and abstract symbols at various sites located along narrow valleys and rugged hills in southern Monterey County, Calif. This month, a group of Desert Research Institute (DRI) archaeologists will document several of these sites using high resolution photography, in partnership with the U.S. Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett Cultural Resources Management Program.

The project, which is co-led by DRI’s Greg Haynes, Ph.D. and Dave Page, M.A., with technical support from staff at Fort Hunter Liggett, will provide updated photographic documentation and a rock art management plan for pictographs (images painted on rock) and petroglyphs (images carved into rock) at eight different sites located on the grounds of Fort Hunter Liggett. One site, called La Cueva Pintada, or the Painted Cave, is estimated to have hundreds of pictographs and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Many of the pictographs are handprints, but kind of unusual – they look like they were made by people swiping their fingers across the rock face,” Haynes said. “There are also various abstract symbols. They’re multicolored – red, white, black, yellow, and possibly blue or green – so part of our work will be to determine what pigments were used and to advise the Army on how to best preserve them.”

The DRI project team includes Megan Stueve, M.A., who will provide expertise in rock art recording and in the photographic documentation of pictographs using D-stretch imagery, a computer program that helps bring out colors that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

“D-stretch, short for decorrelation stretching, is a type of image processing that essentially stretches or exaggerates the colors to make them easier to see,” Stueve explained. “Images that you can already see become very visible and that those are faint hopefully become more visible.”

Rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett

DRI Archaeologists will use D-Stretch imagery to document rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett in high resolution. The photographs on the left, showing pictographs from a site at Fort Hunter Liggett, have not been altered; The photographs on the right, processed with D-stretch imagery, show the pictographs in greater detail. Credit: Fort Hunter Liggett.

In addition to petroglyphs and pictographs, the Salinan people of this region left behind an abundance of bedrock mortars, circular depressions in rock outcrops that were likely used for grinding food items such as acorns, but may also have been used to grind the pigment to make the pictographs. The extensive use of the area might indicate it was used as a habitation locale or meeting area, or possibly for ceremonial purposes, Stueve said.

Although all of the sites that the DRI team will visit have been documented previously, some site records have not been updated in more than 30 years. As part of this project, they will provide Fort Hunter Liggett with up-to-date site records and photographs, and also make recommendations for future study and preservation of these pictographs and petroglyphs.

“The Army wants a management plan for the preservation of these historical resources,” Haynes said. “In addition to these pictographs, there are a few other important historic sites nearby. There’s a mission called Mission San Antonio de Padua that was founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra, and a hacienda that was built for William Randolph Hearst. It’s an important area with an interesting history.”

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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.

Xiaoliang Wang Receives 2020 Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award for Aerosol Research

Xiaoliang Wang Receives 2020 Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award for Aerosol Research

Reno, Nev. (Oct 7, 2020) – Xiaoliang Wang, Ph.D. of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev. is the winner of this year’s Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award from the American Association of Aerosol Research (AAAR). He was recognized for this honor today at a virtual ceremony during the AAAR’s Annual Conference.

Wang, a research professor with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Science, studies aerosols – tiny solid particles or droplets that are suspended in the air. His research interests include physical and chemical characterization of aerosols, pollution source characterization, air quality measurement, and aerosol instrument development. He is being honored with this award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to aerosol instrumentation and experimental techniques that have significantly advanced the science and technology of aerosols.

Wang is the co-inventor of the nanoparticle aerodynamic lenses and the DustTrak DRX aerosol monitor, an instrument named after him. He developed the new the data inversion algorithms for the TSI Engine Exhaust Particle Sizer Spectrometer (EEPS) for compact shape and soot particles. He led the development of the Aerodynamic Lens Calculator, the DRI portable emissions measurement system, and the DRI Model 2015 multi-wavelength thermal/optical carbon analyzer.

Wang holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota, and B.E. degrees in thermal engineering and environmental engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. He has been a member of the DRI community since 2009.

The award honors Professor Benjamin Liu for his leadership in the aerosol community and his own seminal contributions to aerosol science through instrumentation and experimental research. Professor Liu is a founding father of the AAAR and of the society’s journal, Aerosol Science and Technology, and helped establish the International Aerosol Research Assembly. He received the Fuchs Memorial Award in 1994 and retired as Regents’ Professor from the University of Minnesota in 2002, where he also served as the director of the Particle Technology Laboratory from 1973 to 1997.

DRI Research Professor Xiaoliang Wang received the 2020 Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award in a virtual ceremony during the American Association of Aerosol Research’s Annual Conference on October 7, 2020.

Additional information:

For more information about Xiaoliang Wang and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/xiaoliang-wang/

For more information about the Benjamin Y.H. Liu Award, please visit: https://www.aaar.org/awards/annual-awards/benjamin-y-h-liu-award/ 

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/

Wildfire smoke more dangerous than other air pollutants for asthma patients

Wildfire smoke more dangerous than other air pollutants for asthma patients

Photo caption: Smoke from wildfires covering the city of Sparks, Nevada. Credit: GChapel, Adobe Images.

 

Reno, Nev. (Sept. 22, 2020) – For people who suffer from asthma, wildfire smoke is more hazardous than other types of air pollution, according to a new study from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), the Renown Institute for Health Innovation (Renown IHI) and the Washoe County Health District (WCHD).

The study, which published last month in the journal Environmental Health, examined associations between airborne particulate matter (PM) from sources such as wildfire, transportation and industry, and medical visits for asthma at Renown Health’s emergency departments and urgent care centers in Reno, Nev. during the six-year period from 2013-2018.

According to their results, on days when wildfire smoke was present, elevated levels of PM2.5 (fine particles of 0-2.5 micrometers in size, about 30 times smaller than a human hair) led to a 6.1 percent increase in medical visits for asthma patients when compared with days of similar pollution levels that came from non-wildfire sources.

“Since we found significantly stronger associations of PM2.5 with asthma visits when wildfire smoke was present, our results suggest that wildfire PM is more hazardous than non-wildfire PM for patients with asthma,” said lead author Daniel Kiser, M.S., Data Scientist with DRI and Renown IHI.

 


Above, a timelapse video from DRI’s Western Regional Climate Center shows an impressive smoke front move into the city of Reno on August 18, 2013. The smoke, which rolls in at approximately 1:05 in the video, was from the American River fire near Sacramento, Calif.


An increase in the harmfulness of PM from wildfires compared to PM from other sources may be attributable to differences in the chemical composition of PM or changes in human behavior, since people are more likely to be outdoors in the summer, when wildfires typically occur. The research team notes that caution should be used when applying these results to other areas of the country, such as the Southeastern United States, since the harmfulness of wildfire smoke may be affected by the type of fuel that is being burned. Other factors, such as the distance that wildfire smoke was carried by the wind and burn temperature, may also play a role in the harmfulness of wildfire smoke.

The researchers found that air quality in the Reno area was affected by wildfire smoke on a total of 188 days during the study period. A total of 18,836 asthma-related emergency room and urgent care visits occurred over the same five-year period of time, indicating that the influences of wildfire smoke and other types of air pollution on this medical condition are important to understand.

“In places like Reno, where wildfire events occur regularly during parts of the year and are expected to become more frequent in the future, an accurate understanding of the impacts of wildfire smoke on population health is critical,” Kiser said.

comparison of clear, moderate and smoky days in Stead, NV

From left to right, this series of three photos documents recent air quality conditions on clear, moderate, very smoky days in Stead, Nev. Credit: Daniel Kiser/DRI.

Additional Information:

The full text of the article “Particulate matter and emergency visits for asthma: a time-series study of their association in the presence and absence of wildfire smoke in Reno, Nevada, 2013–2018,” is available from Environmental Health: https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-020-00646-2

To learn more about the Renown Institute for Health Innovation, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/renown-ihi/

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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 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, visit  www.dri.edu.

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

RENO, NEV.
AUG 31, 2020

Valley Fever
Dust
Atmospheric Science

Above: Aerial view of Twentynine Palms, California. Credit: Dicklyon/Creative Commons

Q & A with Vic Etymezian, Ph.D. 

Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., is the Interim Vice President of Research at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and specializes in the study of dust emissions. Vic has been a member of the DRI community since 1999, when he started his career at DRI as a post-doctoral scientist with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences in Las Vegas. He recently published a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health titled “Valley Fever: Environmental Risk Factors and Exposure Pathways Deduced from Field Measurements in California,” working alongside colleagues Antje Lauer, Ph.D. (California State University Bakersfied), George Nikolich, M.S. (DRI), and others, so we connected with Vic to learn more about the project.

DRI: What is Valley Fever?

Etyemezian: Valley Fever is an infection that you can get from breathing in spores of a fungus called Coccidioides. In some people the infection is mild or flu-like, but in others, especially people who are immunocompromised, this fungus can cause a serious or even fatal infection. Valley Fever seems to occur primarily in the southwestern US, but it is also found in parts of Central and South America. The military has a record of people stationed at bases in the southwestern US getting sick from Valley Fever going all the way back to the 1940s, so it does seem to occur in and around the training lands that they use in the southwest. The military also has really good records, so it is likely broadly occurring in the arid southwest –  it’s just that they have great records in these places.

Scientists inspect dust measurement device

DRI’s Vic Etyemezian (left) and Jack Gillies (Right) inspect dust measurement instrumentation mounted onto a telescoping tower at Jean Dry Lake Bed in Southern Nevada. The measurements that ensued were critical for calibrating the TRAKER instrument.

Credit: George Nikolich/DRI.

DRI: How did you originally become interested in studying this disease?

Etyemezian: Six or seven years ago, I was working on a DRI project at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert of southern California related to potential future impacts of climate change on capital infrastructure such as buildings and runways. My colleague, Dr. Antje Lauer from Cal State University Bakersfield, was there at the site working on a different project related to the potential influence of climate change on Valley Fever. Our own Dr. Lynn Fenstermaker (also working on the Armstrong project) and NASA’s now retired Dr. Tom Mace had the foresight to introduce Antje and me to one another and identify that we can leverage each other’s expertise. We got into a discussion of whether there was some overlap between her Valley Fever research and the dust research that George Nikolich and I do. We did a little pilot (exploratory) work together, and then put in a proposal to the DoD SERDP Program to do a project near several military facilities in the Southwest to see if we could say something about how Valley Fever might be changing with climate.

Image of Valley Fever paper

Read the new paper, “Valley Fever: Environmental Risk Factors and Exposure Pathways Deduced from Field Measurements in California”, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

DRI: Tell us a little bit about the paper that you and your colleagues just published. What were your major research questions?

Etyemezian: In this study, we were trying to find out several things, and the paper that was led by my colleague, Dr. Lauer reported our preliminary findings. One, are there any environmental parameters that can help us identify whether or not this Coccidioides fungus will be present at a given site? Can we say that this fungus tends to be found in certain kinds of soils, or on certain slopes of hillsides, or on shaded hillsides, or in soils with a certain chemistry? If so, then we can look at some of these properties and try to identify areas that are fairly high risk for the fungus.

The second goal was to determine whether dust was a possible pathway by which people are getting exposed to this fungus. So, in areas where you find this fungus in the soil, can you also find it in the dust that comes off of the surface during high winds, or in the dust that gets stirred up when someone drives a vehicle along a dirt road? We hypothesized that this study may be of particular relevance for people in the military, because oftentimes they are working in very dusty conditions, especially during training exercises. Our study sites were located around three military bases in southern California, all of which have documented cases of Valley Fever throughout the years.

Researcher conducts a PI-SWERL test near Edwards Air Force Base in California
Researcher preparing the TRAKER instrument for measuring and collecting dust from unpaved roads

Above, left: George Nikolich (Division of Atmospheric Sciences, DRI) notes field conditions as he oversees a PI-SWERL test near Edwards Air Force Base in California. The orange case contains specialized instrumentation for collecting particles that are suspended by the PI-SWERL during its testing cycle. These are later analyzed for fungal DNA. Above, right: George Nikolich preparing the TRAKER instrument for measuring and collecting dust from unpaved roads near Twentynine Palms, California. 

Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

DRI: What was your/DRI’s role in this investigation?

Etyemezian: Our expertise mainly came in in the area of dust. We used an instrument called the PI-SWERL®, which was developed at DRI, on dozens of test surfaces to simulate high winds on that suspend  dust from the surface into the air. Then we collected that dust and gave it to our colleague, Dr. Lauer, for analysis to see if she could find DNA of the fungus. We also used another device that we developed at DRI called the TRAKER™, which is basically a heavily instrumented vehicle that you can drive on unpaved roads . As you drive on these dirt roads and suspend dust behind the vehicle, you can sample this material, and then subject it to analysis to see if there is genetic material from airborne Coccidiodes spores in that dust.

DRI: What were some of your findings?

Etyemezian: It’s important to emphasize that this was really kind of a pilot study. One of the things that was pretty clear from the study was that there are unfortunately no simple parameters you can look at in the soil to determine whether or not this fungus exists at a given location. It appears to be fairly widespread across the southwest. Another finding was that traveling in a vehicle on unpaved roads in these endemic areas is a plausible pathway for exposure, and farmers or military folks who live and train in these areas might get exposed to potentially high concentrations of infectious fungal material.

Overall, it seems that there are sort of two endpoints in the landscape. If you look at a natural desert landscape that hasn’t been disturbed in some time, you could find a lot of the Valley Fever pathogen in the actual soil, but the potential for the fungus to be suspended under normal windy conditions seems to be quite small. And if you look at an extremely disturbed landscape such as a farm, where you’ve completely changed the original ecosystem, it appears that there’s very little fungus or Valley Fever spores – maybe because people apply fungicide to the crops and are creating not a very hospitable environment. But it seems like there’s a period of time in between, when you’re transitioning from a natural landscape to an extremely anthropogenically impacted landscape, that’s probably when and where the exposure happens.

Researchers standing next to PI-SWERL during a test on a disturbed surface

Student Eduardo Garcia (left, CSU Bakersfield), George Nikolich (middle, DRI), and Dr. Antje Lauer (Right, CSU Bakersfield) standing next to PI-SWERL during a test on a heavily disturbed surface near Twentynine Palms, California.

Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

DRI: How do you hope that these findings are used?

All of our research findings are preliminary, but they essentially provide a conceptual model of how we think the exposure happens. We think that most of the time when people are exposed to this, it is probably as a result of a recent land disturbance — maybe a construction or farming activity that disturbs otherwise undisturbed landscapes. So, you have this fungus that’s been growing in the soils at some depth below the surface for who knows how long, and then all of the sudden, something changes. You pull off the vegetation, you turn it over, and as a result you bring a lot of this fungus to the surface. Then as a part of that process, you have an enormous amount of material available for resuspension by wind or even direct resuspension. So, I think a logical next step would be to very specifically target those kinds of activities to see if that hypothesis holds true.

Additional Information

The full text of the paper “Valley Fever: Environmental Risk Factors and Exposure Pathways Deduced from Field Measurements in California,” is available from the International Journal of Environmental Health and Public Research: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/15/5285

For more information on Vic Etyemezian and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/vicken-etyemezian/

For more information on the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab), please visit: https://www.dri.edu/project/pi-swerl/

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

RENO, NEV.
AUG 25, 2020

Anthropology
Meteorology
Climatology
Population Heath

Above: Aerial view of California’s Imperial Valley, where daytime temperatures during summer months can reach as high as 120 degrees. Credit: Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock.com

Featured research by DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, Ben Hatchett, Erick Bandala, and Tamara Wall

 

In July and August, daytime temperatures along parts of the US-Mexico border can reach as high as 120 degrees – more than 20 degrees above normal human body temperature. For agricultural workers and others who live and work in the region, exposure to these extreme high temperatures can result in serious health impacts including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heat-related death.

Although the National Weather Service and public health organizations issue heat warnings to communicate risk during extreme heat events, heat-related illness and death are still common among vulnerable populations. Now, a group of DRI scientists led by Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences, is trying to figure out why.

“With the continued increase in episodes of extreme heat and heat waves, there has been an increase in warning messaging programs, yet there continue to be high numbers of heat-related illness and death in communities along the US-Mexico border,” VanderMolen said. “So, there’s this question – if agencies are doing all of this messaging, and people are still getting sick and even dying, then what’s going on?”

An agricultural field in California’s Imperial Valley

An agricultural field in California’s Imperial Valley, where DRI researchers are exploring questions about heat messaging and vulnerability in populations of agricultural workers and others who are vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. 

Credit: Winthrop Brookhouse/Shutterstock.com

Assessing heat messaging: An interdisciplinary approach

 

In 2018, VanderMolen and colleagues Ben Hatchett, Ph.D., Erick Bandala, Ph.D., and Tamara Wall, Ph.D. received funding from NOAA’s International Research and Applications Project (IRAP) to explore questions about heat messaging and vulnerability in two pairs of US-Mexico border cities, San Diego-Tijuana and Calexico-Mexicali. Collectively these areas form the boundaries of the Cali-Baja Bi-national Megaregion. This unique transboundary location integrates the economies of the United States and Mexico, exporting approximately $24.3 billion worth of goods and services each year.

With expertise in the areas of anthropology, meteorology, climatology, and population health, this interdisciplinary team of researchers is now working on this problem from several angles. They are using climate data to characterize and assess past heat extremes as well as using long-range weather forecasts and climate projections to help improve the ability to put out advance messaging about future heat waves. They are working to identify and map populations that are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat and are collaborating with local agencies to understand why people may or may not take protective action during heat waves.

From initial conversations with local civic organizations and public health agencies, the team has learned that the reasons people may not be following heat warnings are complex. Recommended actions such as “stay indoors and seek air-conditioned buildings,” or “take longer and more frequent breaks,” may not be realistic for agricultural workers or others who don’t have access to air-conditioned spaces. There can even be negative consequences for those who choose to seek medical help.

“A big piece of the story that we’ve heard from some of the independent groups that work with agricultural workers in the region is that if someone gets sick and doesn’t show up for work, they can lose their job,” Hatchett explained. “If they go to the hospital and somebody sees them or hears about it, they can lose their job. There are some really big issues related to people not feeling okay with trying to get the help they need.”

“There is evidence to suggest that cases of heat-related illness and death are underreported, probably severely underreported,” VanderMolen added. “The demographics of the individuals for documented cases don’t reflect the population demographics overall. We know that there are a lot of inequalities in that area that may get in the way of people reporting illness.”

A map of summer maximum near-surface temperatures in Imperial Valley, CA

A map of summer maximum near-surface temperatures over the 30-year period from 1981–2010 shows that Imperial Valley (at the border between Mexico and the southeastern corner of California) is the hottest place in in North America, with an average maximum temperature from June to August of 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). Data is from the North American Regional Reanalysis.

Credit: Ben Hatchett/DRI

COVID-19 complications and next steps

 

Originally, VanderMolen was planning to travel to the US-Mexico border this summer to do one-on-one interviews with members of vulnerable populations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unforeseen complications.

Imperial County has been hit very hard by COVID-19, compounding the effects of extreme heat for the vulnerable populations that VanderMolen and her team hope to work with. The pandemic has also made it unfeasible to travel to the region to do face-to-face interviews, and has created challenges in coordinating with local agencies that are now overwhelmed in their efforts to address COVID-19.

“It’s a really interesting place and time to do this work because there are questions about what it means to be on stay-at-home orders and limited travel orders when it’s 114 degrees outside and you don’t have reliable air conditioning or its cost is prohibitive,” VanderMolen said. “At the same time, because they’re so overwhelmed right now with caseload, most folks in the area can’t really afford to address issues beyond COVID-19.”

As the research team works to navigate a path forward that is safe for both the interviewers and interviewees, they remain committed to developing information that will help vulnerable populations along the border.

“I hope that the information we provide is something decision-makers can use to make the right decision or create legislation that can help protect workers in the field, or at least call attention to the kind of inequalities and risk that the people there are being exposed to,” Bandala said. “Or, if we can produce information to change the mindset of the people to start thinking of themselves as a population at risk, and put more attention on the heat warnings, that will suffice for me to feel satisfied with the results of our research.”

The US-Mexico border is just one of many places around the globe where heat-related illness is a problem, added Hatchett – and many of those places happen to be where a lot of our food is grown or where important industries are located.

“I think this is a somewhat ubiquitous problem around the planet. We have these really important places that are susceptible to environmental extremes and these people that we rely on to have these regions be productive in terms of agriculture or industry. Unfortunately, those people are often the most susceptible and underserved populations to these compound environmental hazards,” Hatchett said. “It’s so easy to forget them, but one of the goals of this project is really to bring to light the importance of aiming much-needed resources at trying to help those populations and those places.”

Additional information

For more information on the members of this DRI research team, please visit: 

This research was supported by NOAA’s International Research and Applications Project (IRAP).

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/ 

 

New USDA Grant Will Fund COVID-19 Rapid Response Toolkit for Tribal Extension Agents

New USDA Grant Will Fund COVID-19 Rapid Response Toolkit for Tribal Extension Agents

Reno, Nev. (July 23, 2020) – Several members of the Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL) project team, led by Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, have been awarded a $300k grant from the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to develop a COVID-19 Rapid Response Toolkit for Tribal Extension Agents (COVID-19 Toolkit).

Tribal Extension Agents with the Federally-Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) normally provide a lifeline of in-person, community-based services to tribal farmers, ranchers, and resource managers – but since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been forced to transition to virtual delivery of critical services with no additional resources, training, or tools. The COVID-19 Toolkit project will support Tribal Extension Programs in Nevada and Arizona by developing a virtual platform for outreach and training materials needed by agents in the field, including webinars and short training videos.

In addition, FRTEP agents in the field will be equipped with ruggedized computer tablets that will allow them to access the virtual platform in advance and during one-on-one technical consultations and small social-distanced group meetings with tribal farmers and ranchers. A COVID-19 CARE Working Group will be established to share timely information and solve needs-based problems for tribal farmers and ranchers and assist reservation communities with food access to lessen the hardships of COVID-19 throughout Indian Country.

The project will run from August 2020 until July 2022, and will be led by McCarthy with support from Alexandra Lutz, Ph.D. (DRI), Kyle Bocinsky (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center), Trent Teegerstrom (Tribal Extension, University of Arizona), and Staci Emm (Tribal Extension, University of Nevada, Reno).

“With this funding, we will translate and share research produced as part of the NWAL project, and tailor it to respond to urgent needs identified by our Tribal partners,” McCarthy said. “Information delivered will be virtually-accessible and place-based and focused on addressing the challenges facing Indian farmers and ranchers during COVID-19 response and recovery. The COVID-19 Toolkit will provide geolocated environmental data, training videos, webinars, and other materials to FRTEP agents working under social distancing constraints and responding to a rapidly increasing demand for water and agricultural outreach support.”

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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.

About Native Waters on Arid Lands

The Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL; https://nativewaters-aridlands.com) project seeks to enhance the climate resiliency of agriculture on American Indian lands of the Great Basin and Southwest by building the capacity within tribal communities to develop and implement reservation-wide plans, policies, and practices to support sustainable agriculture and water management. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute; the University of Nevada, Reno; the University of Arizona; First Americans Land-Grant Consortium; Utah State University; Ohio University; United States Geological Survey; and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

 

Meet Gai Elhanan, M.D.

Meet Gai Elhanan, M.D.

Gai Elhanan, M.D., is a health data scientist with the Division of Earth and Ecosystems Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. He specializes in health care informatics, and is a physician with more than 12 years of experience in internal medicine and infectious diseases. Gai received his M.D from Tel Aviv University and his M.A in Medical Informatics from Columbia University. He also completed a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at the Medical Informatics Department, New York Presbyterian Medical Center/Columbia University. In his free time, Gai enjoys listening to jazz and classical music, flying radio-controlled airplanes, and doing woodwork.


What do you do here at DRI?

I came to DRI in 2017 to work with the Healthy Nevada Project. I am a physician by training, so, I am the guy within the Healthy Nevada Project that gives the clinical perspective on the data and questions. I provide the viewpoint of a health professional, whereas the other people on the team are geneticists, data scientists, or have backgrounds in other scientific fields. We sometimes collaborate with the physicians at Renown, cardiologists or other specialists, but they are very busy taking care of their many patients; we can’t really utilize them to the extent we would like. So, that is exactly where I come in. It might not be that I am the most up-to-date in every field of medicine, but I bring the clinical perspectives and medical knowledge to the team.

One of your specialties is in health care informatics. Can you tell us a little bit about this field of study?

Yes, I’ve been involved with health informatics for 20-something years now. Basically, it’s a very broad field that investigates how data can be used to improve health care. In health care, we have vast amounts of data, and we don’t use it optimally. When you visit a doctor, everything is coded – your diagnosis, procedures, medical services. These codes are mostly used for billing purposes, but we can also extract clinical information for research. For example, We can utilize the genomic information we collect from the HNP participants and correlate it to clinical findings and diagnoses in the electronic medical records to try and predict risk and factors that are associated with outcomes of certain conditions.

In health care informatics, we look at how data should be presented for research or patients or clinicians, and how to draw conclusions from the data. By improving the utilization of the data within the electronic health record, we improve the quality and efficiency of the care provided, we improve the ability to do research on the data and, overall we improve the health of the population. How to get the right data, how to organize it, and how to present it optimally for each task are all very important things.

What are you working on right now with the Healthy Nevada Project?

Right now, with the Healthy Nevada Project, we’re trying to improve participation for specific groups of individuals. Originally the Healthy Nevada Project was testing whoever walked in, they were encouraged to provide their saliva and join the project. But now, for several reasons, we’re also trying to improve targeted recruiting in order to better represent the actual population of the region. So, we’re trying to identify who might be good potential participant for the project, and work with Renown’s research coordinators and ambassadors for the project to reach out to people who we would like to have participate.

I am also working on a project with Gilead, the pharmaceutical company, concerning a condition called NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis). NASH affects a significant portion of the population here in Northern Nevada, and can result in life threatening outcomes. This is a strategic collaboration to collect and analyze genetic and electronic health data that can enhance the understanding of NASH and potentially inform development of treatment options for the disease.

How did you end up here at DRI?

I did my medical training in Israel, and also did my residency there. We ended up in the U.S. because my wife is originally from the States. She is a physician as well, a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist. I decided that I didn’t want to practice medicine in the U.S., I wanted to do something else. So, in 1995, I got a NIH grant to do a postdoc fellowship at Columbia University in New York. I got a master’s degree there in medical informatics. We came to Reno a few years ago when my wife was offered a position at Renown, and that’s when I started at DRI with the Healthy Nevada Project. Her position didn’t work out and she went back to New York, but I like the potential in the Healthy Nevada Project and the group of people I’m working with so I stayed with the DRI team to keep doing my work.  The team here is a really nice group of people.


To learn more about the Healthy Nevada Project, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/project/healthy-nevada-project/

To learn more about Gai’s work with the Renown Institute of Health Innovation (Renown IHI), please visit: https://www.dri.edu/renown-ihi/ 

 

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

The DRI Foundation has just awarded the next round of seed grants to six teams of researchers through the Innovation Research Program (IRP). The IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects.

The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were chosen through a competitive selection process and reviewed by a committee comprised of previous IRP recipients and DRI’s Vice President for Research. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission.


Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Advancing the science behind canine odor detection evidence in criminal trials
Mary Cablk, Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khlystov

Cadaver dogs are often called on to detect the odors of human remains at a crime scene, and the evidence they find—the odor left behind from a body on a killer’s clothing, for example—is treated as hard scientific fact in criminal trials. However, there are currently no physical or chemical forensic methods to verify this kind of evidence. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Mary Cablk and her team are employing a scientific approach to compare the detection of residual odors by dogs and laboratory instrumentation. This research will bolster the scientific foundation for canine evidence used in homicide cases and position DRI to secure future funding for projects investigating a wider span of canine evidence, such as contraband.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Supporting climate adaptation for specialty crop farmers
Kristin VanderMolen 

Climate change impacts like flooding and drought threaten the production of specialty crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables in California, a state that grows more than half of these crops nationwide. DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, PhD, and partners at the Climate Science Alliance at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are investigating how farmers are adapting to these challenges in order to identify how climate research can best support them. This research lays the groundwork for field studies to test and verify the effectiveness of farmers’ adaptation strategies and the development of climate information products to support farmers into the future. Additionally, this project builds relationships between DRI and critical partners, like the Climate Science Alliance and University of California Cooperative Extension.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

Enhancing soil moisture data to improve hydrologic modeling
Ming Liu

Soil moisture is a critical variable when it comes to understanding processes like evapotranspiration, the transfer of water from land surfaces and plants into the atmosphere. Most hydrologic models rely on soil moisture data from satellite remote sensing, but this data lacks ground truthing, especially in remote arid places. In collaboration with Myriota, an Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite startup, DRI’s Ming Liu, PhD, is developing sensor stations by integrating Myriota’s nanosatellite transceiver with custom-made universal dataloggers. The sensor stations will be deployed across Nevada to collect soil moisture readings from the field. This project aims to improve the data used in hydrologic models and build the foundation for broader sensor deployment for environmental research in arid lands.

Researchers sample snow

Researchers sample snow for a previous research project. Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

Tracing the history of atmospheric river events to improve water resource management in the Western U.S.
Joe McConnell, Nathan Chellman, Christine Albano

Atmospheric rivers carry significant amounts of water vapor from the tropics to the Western United States, providing 30-40% of the total precipitation during a typical winter season. However, these rivers in the sky can also result in extreme weather like flooding and wind storms, which pose risks to infrastructure and human safety. Despite the significant impacts of atmospheric rivers, little is known about how their frequency and intensity has changed over the past several centuries. Using chemical analysis in DRI’s state-of-the-art Ice Core Laboratory, Joe McConnell, PhD, and his team are working to identify isotopic signatures that differentiate snow produced by atmospheric rivers from that produced by other storms. If successful, researchers will be able to leverage this work in future projects to develop a history of atmospheric rivers over the last several hundred years. Such a record will be valuable for informing water resource management and hazard mitigation, especially as the climate continues to warm and change.

A cannabis growing facility

A cannabis growing facility, part of a previous DRI air quality study. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Evaluating health risks from cannabis smoking and vaping
David Campbell

The legalization of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use in many states, including Nevada, has resulted in widespread commercial production of non-tobacco smoking and vaping products. However, this growth hasn’t been accompanied by research into the health effects from use of those products—in fact, there has been virtually no analysis of the many chemical compounds that are inhaled by users when smoking or vaping cannabis, due in part to federal research restrictions. Dr. David Campbell is developing a portable sampling system to collect the smoke or vapor for laboratory analysis, and it will be tested with cigarettes made from legal hemp, which is identical to marijuana except for the lower THC content. This research will bolster what we know about the health risks associated with cannabis use and develop intellectual property DRI researchers can leverage in future projects.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast,

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.

Modeling and Analysis of Fluid Flow Interactions with Porous/Permeable 3-Dimensional Forms
Jack Gillies, Eden Furtak-Cole

Dust emissions, particularly from arid regions, directly impact air quality, human health, agricultural production, and the planet’s climate. Windy conditions drive the formation of dust through erosion, and while vegetation and structures like fencing are known to mitigate wind erosion and dust emissions, researchers have been unable to quantify their actual impact in large scale models. Dr. Jack Gillies and his team are working to incorporate the erosion mitigation impact of vegetation and engineered control structures into wind erosion models. These models will provide a cost-effective, efficient way to develop dust control strategies and improve air quality. This work will also position DRI as a leader in the ability to evaluate dust emissions and lay the foundation for future projects, particularly as problems like drought and desertification become more pronounced under a warming climate.

DRI Air Quality Experts Awarded Prestigious Haagen-Smit Prize

DRI Air Quality Experts Awarded Prestigious Haagen-Smit Prize

April 30, 2020 (RENO) – Drs. Judith Chow and John Watson, research professors in the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, were awarded Elsevier Publisher’s 2019 Haagen-Smit Prize for outstanding paper published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Awarded annually, the Haagen-Smit Prize recognizes two outstanding papers out of the nearly 24,000 articles published in Atmospheric Environment since 2001. The 2019 Prize went to Chow, Watson, and their colleagues for their 1993 paper, “The DRI thermal/optical reflectance carbon analysis system: Description, evaluation and applications in U.S. air quality studies,” which has received more than 925 citations. It is the 12th most cited article in Atmospheric Environment since the journal’s inception.

“This paper has had a major influence on the practice of atmospheric science as evidenced by its very high number of citations,” wrote the Haagen-Smit Prize Committee.

The winning paper by Chow, Watson, and their DRI colleagues describes and evaluates instrumentation and methodology developed at DRI. The DRI Carbon Analyzer instrument and their analytical method was subsequently commercialized and adopted in air quality networks in the United States and other countries, including Canada and China. The resulting measurements have been used to determine the contributions to air pollution from sources like domestic cooking and heating, engine exhaust, wildfires, and other emitters, all of which affect human health, visibility, material soiling, and climate.

“We greatly appreciate this recognition for all of the contributing DRI faculty and staff, including Lyle Pritchett, Cliff Frazier, Rick Purcell, and especially our former Executive Director, the late Bill Pierson,” said Chow. “It illustrates the importance of the team efforts that distinguishes DRI.”

Dr. Ari Haagen-Smit was a pioneering air quality scientist who discovered and elucidated the origins of photochemical smog in southern California. He was a colleague of Dr. Frits Went at the California Institute of Technology, who later joined the DRI faculty and is the namesake of DRI’s Frits Went laboratory. Dr. Went developed methods to measure organic emissions from agricultural crops that Dr. Hagen-Smit applied to the engine exhaust emissions that created the smog.

This award is distinct from the California Air Resources Board’s (ARB) Haagen-Smit Clean Air Awards, often termed the “Noble Prize” of air quality science and policy. Dr. Haagen-Smit was the first ARB chairperson. Dr. Chow received this honor in 2011, and the 2018 award was bestowed on Dr. Watson.

At DRI, Chow leads Environmental Analysis Facility, where she, Watson, and her colleagues develop and apply advanced analytical methods to characterize air pollutants, identify sources and their effects on health, climate, visibility, ecosystems, and cultural artifacts.

Prescribed Fire Science Key to Sustaining Fire We Use

Prescribed Fire Science Key to Sustaining Fire We Use

A team of leading fire scientists, including DRI’s Adam Watts, PhD, are advocating for fire research to place a priority on the area of prescribed fire science. In a recently published article in Frontiers in Fire Ecology, Watts and colleagues argue that while the vast majority of fire research focuses on issues related to suppressing wildfires, more attention must be paid to prescribed fires, which behave differently and burn more land each year than wildfire. With a greater focus on “fire we use,” authors argue, fire scientists will be able to maximize the societal and ecological benefits of prescribed burning. 

The press release below is reposted with permission from Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida. 


Fire researchers provide new agenda for a future with safer fire

April 17, 2020  Leading fire researchers join together and advocate for new direction and funding to place a priority on prescribed fire science to address the global challenge of managing wildland fires. Prescribed fires are planned burns that protect communities by clearing out overgrowth that fuels out-of-control wildfires and restores and maintains plant and animal biodiversityThe March 2020 peer reviewed article is published in the journal ​​​​​​Fire Ecology and has been added to the special “Frontiers in Fire Ecology” compilation of manuscripts that represents current advances and directions. 

“You can’t just use wildfire research to address prescribed fire needs, the contexts are fundamentally different,” explains lead author Kevin Hiers from Tall Timbers Research Station. Prescribed fires are increasingly recognized as the solution to minimize impacts from wildfires and maintain ecosystem resilience, but there has been a lack of targeted science to support their expanded use. Most of the research has focused on needs and tools for wildfire suppression, despite the fact that prescribed fires cover more area each year, and there is a demonstrated need for science to guide its application and safely increase its use. 

Grants from the US Joint Fire Science Program are awarded 3:1 in favor of wildfire- to prescribed-fire-focused research, while we use 4 to 4.5 million hectares of prescribed fire in the US, versus only 2 to 4 million hectares of wildfire occurring each year. Prescribed fire is one of the most effective techniques for enabling a future in which people can live sustainably with fire. The article explains, “focus on the ‘fires we use’ has an immediate impact on the ability to safely and effectively achieve natural resource objectives for societal benefit and ecosystem resilience.” 

Watts pilots the UAS, stationed on the ground near the burn area, during the Prescribed Fire Science Consortium’s 2018 research burn, hosted by the Tall Timbers Research Station and the U.S. Forest Service. Credit: David Goodwin/Southern Fire Exchange.

The researchers, from more than ten organizations spanning the US, also highlight the important role of the individuals who actually apply prescribed fire. Prescribed fire managers bear the responsibility of choosing to start a fire, a decision with weighty career and legal consequences. Given the societal and ecological benefits of their actions, we should be arming them with the best available science and technology. As a complicating factor, climate change is challenging decades of firsthand knowledge prescribed fire managers have used to safely apply beneficial burns. The article identifies the research gaps that provide a blueprint to help fire managers worldwide protect our communities and forests.

Technology is likely to play a big role in the future of prescribed fire.  Just as flight simulators are required for airplane pilots, use of such tools for prescribed fire manager training could become a standard supplemental experience to better align fire behavior with prescribed fire planning, implementation, and outcomes.  

Tall Timbers is a research station and land conservancy in Tallahassee, Florida, with a primary research focus on the ecology and management of fire-dependent ecosystems. Author information and affiliations for the paper follow. “Prescribed fire science: the case for a refined research agenda” appears in “Fire Ecology volume 16, Article number: 11 (2020), it is open access and available at the following link https://fireecology.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s42408-020-0070-8. 

  • Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, Florida, 32312, USA.
    Kevin Hiers, J. Morgan Varner, Kevin Robertson & Eric M. Rowell
  • USDA Forest Service Center for Forest Disturbance Science, Athens, Georgia, 30602, USA
    Joseph J. O’Brien, Scott L. Goodrick & E. Louise Loudermilk 
  • USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Missoula, Montana, 59808, USA
    Bret W. Butler & Sharon M. Hood 
  • USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Delaware, Ohio, 43015, USA
    Matthew Dickinson 
  • USDA Forest Service Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, Munson, Florida, 32570, USA
    James Furman 
  • USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, New Lisbon, New Jersey, 08064, USA
    Michael Gallagher 
  • Southern Fire Exchange, University of Florida & Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, Florida, 32312, USA
    David Godwin 
  • USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Moscow, Idaho, 83844, USA
    Andrew Hudak 
  • University of Idaho, Department of Natural Resources & Society, Moscow, Idaho, 83844, USA
    Leda N. Kobziar 
  • Los Alamos National Lab, Los Alamos, New Mexico, 87545, USA
    Rodman Linn 
  • USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, Colorado, 80526, USA
    Sarah McCaffrey 
  • USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Morgantown, West Virginia, 26505, USA
    Nicholas Skowronski 
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada, 89512, USA
    Adam C. Watts 
  • USDA Forest Service Forest Products Lab, Madison, Wisconsin, 53726, USA
    Kara M. Yedinak 

### 

Media Contact: 
Contact: Brian Wiebler
Phone: 850-363-1079
Email: bwiebler@TallTimbers.org 

Dust Control at the Oceano Dunes

Dust Control at the Oceano Dunes

Last May, DRI scientist Jack Gillies, Ph.D. spent three weeks at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), a 3,500-acre area of sandy beach and coastal dune habitat located within the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex on the central California coast. Unlike most visitors to this popular park, Gillies was not there to camp, or to ride OHVs over the miles and miles of beaches and dunes; he was there to measure the dust.

For more than 100 years, people have visited the Oceano Dunes region to drive on the beaches – beginning in the early 1900s with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles, then later with ATVs, dune buggies, dirt bikes, trucks, RVs, and other types of vehicles. All of this activity, however, has not been without impact: Dust emitted by the dunes routinely blows toward the nearby Nipomo Mesa area, violating air quality standards for particulate matter and posing a public health threat to residents.

Last year, the Oceano Dunes SVRA was issued an Order of Abatement, which requires the development and implementation of a management plan to bring the park’s dust emissions back into compliance with State and Federal air quality standards within four years. Now, with new funding from the California State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Division, Gillies and several other DRI researchers – Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., George Nikolich, and John Mejia, Ph.D.—are continuing a long-term effort to help park officials understand and manage dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes. But in order to stop the dust, it would help to know how it forms, and this is still a bit of a mystery.

Researchers measure dust emissions at Oceano Dunes.

The source of the problem

“Dunes are always sandy, but they aren’t normally dusty; at least not to this extent,” said Gillies, who has worked at the Oceano Dunes since 2010. “Part of our research is to actually come up with the scientific reasons why the dunes are so dusty.”

Neither the park nor the town has long-term air quality data to show what conditions were like prior to the presence of vehicles, says Gillies, but there is evidence that suggests that the presence of the vehicles exacerbates the problem. Gillies and Etyemezian hypothesize that the dust emitted under elevated wind speeds could be a result of the re-working of the dunes by the vehicles and re-shaping of the dunes by coastal winds.

Researchers do know that dust is released from the dunes through a natural process called saltation, in which wind-blown sand particles bounce along the surface of the dune, kicking up smaller particles of dust – and that holding the sand in place helps to prevent that dust from being released.

“When the wind blows the sand across the dune surface, it’s like all these little missiles of sand coming in,” Gillies explained. “That’s what kicks out the dust, and then the dust is dispersed by the wind.”

Tools of the trade

To help park officials identify major sources of dust, Gillies and his DRI colleagues are engaged in an effort to map out specific areas of the park where dust originates. This spring, they collected more than 500 dust emissions measurements in a grid pattern through the OHV recreation area using a tool called the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab).

“The last time we did such an extensive measurement of dust emissions at the Oceano Dunes was in 2013, so it was decided that we should go back this year to update the underlying emission grid and see if, or how much, it has changed,” Gillies said.

PI-SWERL at the Oceano Dunes

Pi-SWERL at the Oceano Dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.

PI-SWERL

The PI-SWERL at Oceano Dunes. A flat blade several cm above the surface in PI-SWERL rotates creating a shear stress like the wind created when it blows across a surface, causes the sand to saltate and the dust is emitted. The inset shows the sand surface after a test. PI-SWERL sits on the metal frame to provide a stable surface for testing. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.

The PI-SWERL, which was developed at DRI by Etyemezian and Nikolich, measures the potential for dust emissions from real-world surfaces. It acts as a miniature wind tunnel to simulate the high winds that produce dust storms. The dust emissions measurements are fed into a computer model, developed in part by DRI’s John Mejia, which simulates the action of coastal winds and the subsequent dispersal of dust. Using this model, the team can help park officials identify “hot-spot” areas where dust originates, and target those areas for remediation.

The team has also installed a network of air quality monitors throughout the park, which monitor wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, and particulate matter. These data are adding to their overall understanding of the spatial variability and strength of the dust emissions at the dunes.

“These data will help us answer questions like whether dust emissions levels are different on weekdays versus weekends, when human activity in the park is higher,” Gillies explained. “It will also allow us to see how things are changing over time.”

Researchers gather dust emissions data at the Oceano Dunes SVRA using the PI-SWERL. May 2019. Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

Researchers gather dust emissions data at the Oceano Dunes SVRA using the PI-SWERL. May 2019. Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

Seeking new solutions

As the DRI team works to answer underlying scientific questions about the Park’s dust problem, they are also engaged in efforts to help develop and monitor solutions. They are working with Park officials on various dust control strategies, such as the use of temporary sand fencing, and revegetation with native plants to help hold sand in place and trap moving sand.

“Our aim is to stop the sand from moving, because when you stop the sand moving, you essentially stop the dust from being emitted,” Gillies said.

They are guiding the creation of “vegetation islands” of native plants, similar to that which are found in undisturbed dune areas to the north and south of the SVRA. OHVs are excluded from these areas, as well as from large sections of the park where endangered California least terns and threatened Western snowy plovers breed and nest during spring and summer.

As new dust control measures are added, the team monitors the remediation sites to see if dust emissions levels are reduced. The goal, Gillies says, is to help the park develop a management plan that will bring them into attainment with the Federal air quality standard for particulate matter within four years.

“The park has been ordered to find a solution to this problem, and it’s a problem that has raised a lot of contention among people of the region,” Gillies said. ”There are a lot of people who enjoy OHV recreation at the dunes and their visits contribute to the local economy, and another contingent of people who live downwind of the park and really want to breathe clean air. So, it is an interesting project to work on, both from a scientific perspective and as a project that deals with real-world problems.”

Vegetation islands at Oceano Dunes

At the Oceano Dunes SVRA, native “vegetation islands” are being restored to help reduce dust emissions from the dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.


About Jack Gillies: Jack Gillies, Ph.D. is a Research Professor of Geography with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences. Jack specializes in the physics of sediment transport by wind, and applies this knowledge to solve problems related to air quality. He grew up in Ontario, Canada, and holds bachelors, master’s and doctoral degrees in physical geography from the University of Guelph, Ontario. Jack began his career at DRI as a post-doctoral researcher in 1994, and has been a member of the DRI community for 25 years. To learn more about Gillies and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/5427-jack-gillies 

Science of Place: DRI researchers and teachers develop localized science lessons for Native American classrooms

Science of Place: DRI researchers and teachers develop localized science lessons for Native American classrooms

Climate change, in the abstract, can be a difficult phenomenon to comprehend – but on the ground, youth from Native American reservations in Arizona are already experiencing everyday impacts in the form of droughts and warming temperatures.

To help Arizona teachers develop science lesson plans that relate to the cultures and life experiences of indigenous students, researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) recently held a two-day workshop on place-based education at northern Arizona’s STAR School, as part of the Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL) project.

“Place-based education utilizes elements of the familiar, such as local landscapes, resources, and experiences, as a foundation for the study of more complex topics,” explained Meghan Collins, M.S., Assistant Research Scientist at DRI and NWAL’s Education Lead. “In this case, we worked with teachers to draw meaningful connections to some of our main project themes of water for agriculture and people, drought and climate connections, and solar energy.”

NWAL teacher workshop

Workshop participants engage in a hands-on demonstration related to solar power at NWAL’s teacher workshop in Arizona. September 14, 2019.

Fourteen teachers attended the September workshop, including K-12 and GED adult educators from the Hopi, Navajo, and Tohono O’odham communities of Arizona. The workshop began with a day of seminars, discussions, and hands-on demonstrations led by researchers from DRI and the University of Arizona (UA). Activities were aimed at helping teachers gain a thorough understanding of the subject matter, and incorporated data and information relevant to reservations of Arizona.

Ed Franklin, Ph.D., (UA) led a professional development seminar on solar energy, using locally-appropriate methods and hands-on examples to demonstrate how solar panels can be used to generate energy and pump water. NWAL team member Alex Lutz, Ph.D., (DRI) led the group through a lesson in water quality, with a focus on salinity and total dissolved solids, using maps of water contamination from the Hopi and Navajo reservations and a hands-on exercise with salinity-meters. NWAL team member Kyle Bocinsky, Ph.D., (DRI/Crow Canyon Archaeological Center) led a seminar on climate and weather patterns, comparing modern-day climate conditions with paleo data from the last 1000 years, through an examination of the local tree ring record.

NWAL teacher workshop

Workshop facilitators and participants counted tree rings as part of Kyle Bocinsky’s dendrochronology demonstration at NWAL’s teacher workshop. Sept 14, 2019.

On the second day of the workshop, NWAL team member Meghan Collins facilitated the group to use a template for developing place-based lesson plans. Teachers and scientists then worked together to create place-based lesson plans that incorporated the requirements of Arizona State Science Standards.

The lesson plans connected elements of each school’s local landscapes and resources with the science lessons from the NWAL/UA researchers. One teacher, who came from a community that will soon be constructing a new school, developed a lesson plan that asked students to calculate whether their new school’s energy needs could be met by solar energy. Another teacher developed a lesson plan for students to collect water quality samples from around their community and have them tested for arsenic, which is present in certain areas of the Hopi Reservation.

“One of the most important parts of this workshop was that the teachers had face-to-face contact with the researchers, so they could develop an understanding of the science that was presented and turn that into something they could teach,” said NWAL Program Director Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., (DRI/University of Nevada, Reno). “This workshop was a clear demonstration of our team being able to translate research into tangible outcomes that our tribal partners can use.”

NWAL teacher workshop

Workshop participants gather outside of the STAR school for a demonstration on solar power by Ed Franklin of University of Arizona. Sept. 14, 2019.

The idea for the teacher training was sparked during a climate-agriculture resiliency workshop that NWAL held for members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes during March 2019, which centered around the idea of making climate data useful for farmers and ranchers in native communities. Several teachers were in attendance, and wanted to know how to bring local climate science data into their classrooms for the benefit of young and future generations.

The NWAL team planned the September teacher’s workshop and recruited participants, with help from Trent Teegerstrom (UA Tribal Extension Program), Ed Franklin (UA), and Susan Sekaquaptewa (University of Arizona Hopi FRTEP Agent). The STAR school provided a venue, and the director and teachers from the school participated in the workshop and provided a tour of their impressive facility.

“This workshop was an experiment, but it worked extremely well, so we’re going to build on this to do additional workshops this year or next,” McCarthy said.

NWAL teacher workshop

Facilitators and participants from NWAL’s teacher workshop on place-based education. STAR School, September 14-15, 2019.


The Native Waters on Arid Lands project partners researchers and extension experts with tribal communities in the Great Basin and American Southwest to collaboratively understand the impacts of climate change, and to evaluate adaptation options for sustaining water resources and agriculture. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute; the University of Nevada, Reno; the University of Arizona; First Americans Land-Grant Consortium; Utah State University; Ohio University; United States Geological Survey; and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. To learn more, please visit: http://nativewaters-aridlands.com.

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.

Emissions from cannabis growing facilities may impact indoor and regional air quality, new research shows

Emissions from cannabis growing facilities may impact indoor and regional air quality, new research shows

RENO, Nev. (Sept. 16, 2019) – The same chemicals responsible for the pungent smell of a cannabis plant may also contribute to air pollution on a much larger scale, according to new research from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the Washoe County Health District (WCHD) in Reno, Nev.

In a new pilot study, DRI scientists visited four cannabis growing facilities in Nevada and California to learn about the chemicals that are emitted during the cultivation and processing of cannabis plants, and to evaluate the potential for larger-scale impacts to urban air quality.

At each facility, the team found high levels of strongly-scented airborne chemicals called biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs), which are naturally produced by the cannabis plants during growth and reproduction. At facilities where cannabis oil extraction took place, researchers also found very high levels of butane, a volatile organic compound (VOC) that is used during the oil extraction process.

“The concentrations of BVOCs and butane that we measured inside of these facilities were high enough to be concerning,” explained lead author Vera Samburova, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor of atmospheric science at DRI. “In addition to being potentially hazardous to the workers inside the cannabis growing and processing facilities, these chemicals can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone if they are released into the outside air.”

Although ozone in the upper atmosphere provides protection from UV rays, ozone at ground-level is a toxic substance that is harmful for humans to breathe. Ozone can be formed when volatile organic compounds (including those from plants, automobile, and industrial sources) combine with nitrogen oxide emissions (often from vehicles or fuel combustion) in the presence of sunlight. All of these ozone ingredients are in ample supply in Nevada’s urban areas, Samburova explained – and that impacts our air quality.

“Here in our region, unfortunately, we already exceed the national air quality standard for ground-level ozone quite a few times per year,” Samburova said. “That’s why it is so important to answer the question of whether emissions from cannabis facilities are having an added impact.”

A scientist from the Desert Research Institute measures air quality inside of a cannabis growing facility. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI. 2019.

At one of the four cannabis growing facilities visited during this study, the team measured emission rates over time, to learn about the ozone-forming potential of each individual plant. The results show that the BVOCs emitted by each cannabis plant could trigger the formation of ground-level (bad) ozone at a rate of approximately 2.6g per plant per day. The significance of this number is yet to be determined, says Samurova, but she and her team feel strongly that their findings have raised questions that warrant further study.

“This really hasn’t been studied before,” Samburova said. “We would like to collect more data on emissions rates of plants at additional facilities. We would like to take more detailed measurements of air quality emissions outside of the facilities, and be able to calculate the actual rate of ozone formation. We are also interested in learning about the health impacts of these emissions on the people who work there.”

The cannabis facility personnel that the DRI research team interacted with during the course of the study were all extremely welcoming, helpful, and interested in doing things right, Samburova noted. Next, she and her team hope to find funding to do a larger study, so that they can provide recommendations to the growing facilities and WCHD on optimum strategies for air pollution control.

“With so much growth in this industry across Nevada and other parts of the United States, it’s becoming really important to understand the impacts to air quality,” said Mike Wolf, Permitting and Enforcement Branch Chief for the WCHD Air Quality Management Division. “When new threats emerge, our mission remains the same: Implement clean air solutions that protect the quality of life for the citizens of Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County. We will continue to work with community partners, like DRI, to accomplish the mission.”

This research was funded by the WCHD and DRI. Members of the DRI team included Vera Samburova, Ph.D., Dave Campbell, M.Sc., William R. Stockwell, Ph.D., and Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D.  To view this study online, please visit: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10962247.2019.1654038

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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. 

The Washoe County Health District has jurisdiction over all public health matters in Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County through the policy-making Washoe County District Board of Health. The District consists of five divisions: Administrative Health Services, Air Quality Management, Community and Clinical Health Services, Environmental Health Services and Epidemiology & Public Health Preparedness. To learn more, visit https://www.washoecounty.us/health/  

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.

Into the Plume: Advancing Fire Science Using Drone Technology

Into the Plume: Advancing Fire Science Using Drone Technology

Photo: Drone pilots look toward their aircraft flying through the smoke. Credit: DRI’s Dave Vuono.

Fire science research using drone technology at DRI

“It was sort of like a deep-sea exploration, with a submarine scanning the ocean floor,” said DRI research technician Jesse Juchtzer. “We’d never flown into a smoke plume above a fire like this, no one has. We really didn’t know what we’d find.”

Juchtzer and a team of DRI researchers, along with nearly 35 other scientists, embarked on a unique kind of camping trip this June. The group spent several days and nights in a remote area of central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest to do something that’s never been done before: to light 2000 acres of forest on fire and conduct the biggest prescribed fire experiment yet attempted.

 

 

Led by the U.S. Forest Service, the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE) has been years in the making. Tim Brown, Ph.D., Research Professor of Climatology at DRI and Director of the Western Region Climate Center, began collaborating on the project with colleagues at the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station in 2013, with the idea of giving scientists the unprecedented opportunity to collect a range of data before, during, and after a large wildland fire.

Today, the project has evolved to bring together researchers from several universities and government agencies, including NASA and the EPA, in order to study fire from as many angles as possible, like the characteristics of the burning fuels, the chemistry of the smoke plume, fire behavior, and more. Roger Ottmar, Ph.D., Research Forester with the U.S. Forest Service and FASMEE lead, says the diversity of expertise is essential to the project’s goals.

“This is multi-agency and multi-organizational because we’re trying to collect not just smoke or soil but an entire suite of data that can be used to both evaluate and advance the fire and smoke models we use now,” Ottmar explained.

Fire managers rely on models to make critical on-the-ground decisions, like who to evacuate and when, where to allocate resources on the fire line, and when to issue air quality warnings, to name just a few. However, fires are changing, and the tools designed understand them aren’t keeping up.

“As fires get bigger and more destructive, we’re finding that the tools scientists and resource managers use to understand fires and predict their behavior are becoming inadequate,” explained Adam Watts, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor and director of DRI’s Airborne Systems Testing and Environmental Research (ASTER) Lab. “We need to develop the next generation of tools to help us understand modern wildfires, and that’s what this project aims to achieve.”

 

Adam Watts and a drone at DRI in Reno.

Adam Watts, PhD, outfits a drone in the ASTER laboratory with a custom air sampling canister. Credit Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum.

 

The DRI team, which included Watts and Juchtzer along with Dave Vuono, Patrick Melarkey, and David Page, deployed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) outfitted with scientific instruments over the fire as it burned. This is precisely the specialty of the ASTER lab: developing and refining scientific equipment, installing it on DRI’s UAS fleet, and deploying them in challenging environments like wildland fires.

For this FASMEE burn, the DRI team’s particular focus, among the many research areas explored in the project, was to better understand the chemical and biological components of smoke. To study these elements, DRI collaborated with the EPA and the University of Idaho to fly custom air quality sensors and samplers above and inside the smoke plume.

This research burn allowed the team to not only collect valuable data but also run critical tests of their equipment. The task of getting the UAS loaded with scientific instruments off the ground and into the hot column of smoke was a daunting technical challenge. When asked how this UAS flight compared to others he’s piloted in the past, DRI field technician Patrick Melarkey just laughed.

“It was like night and day,” he said. “During the flight, they’d say, okay, see that dark, black part [of the smoke plume]? Fly into that.”

Now that the burn is over, researchers have returned to the lab to analyze samples and make the necessary updates to their equipment. Though this project was the first of its kind, Watts says it’s definitely not the last.

“In the future, I expect that we’ll incorporate even more sophisticated science teams and work to develop more innovative equipment to collect data,” he explained. “This work is essential if we’re going to create the next generation of tools to help us cope with modern, extreme fires.”

The team will be heading back to central Utah later this year for the next FASMEE research burn. Stay tuned for updates about the project this fall!

 

DRI team at FASMEE research burn in Idaho

The DRI-led team at the June burn included (from left) Dave Vuono, Johanna Aurell of the UNiversity of Dayton Research Institute, Adam Watts, Dave Page, Brian Gullet of the Environmental Protection Agency, Leda Kobziar of the University of Idaho, Patrick Melarkey, and Jesse Juchtzer. Credit: Dave Vuono/DRI.

 

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.

Meet John Watson, Ph.D.

Meet John Watson, Ph.D.

John Watson, Ph.D., is a research professor of air quality science with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. John specializes in air quality measurements, source apportionment (tracing pollutants to their sources), and adverse effects of air pollutants. He recently received the 2018 Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award in honor of his five decades of air quality studies in central California. He grew up in southern California, and holds a bachelor’s degrees in physics from the State University of New York at Brockport, a master’s degree in physics from the University of Toledo, and a Ph.D. in environmental sciences from the Oregon Health and Science University. John has been a member of the DRI community since 1982. In his free time, John enjoys hiking in the mountains; his favorite National Park is Lassen. 

DRI: What do you study here at DRI?

JW: Most of my work involves air pollution studies with a focus on small particles — the inhalable kind that get into your body. The two big pollutants we’re interested in right now are ozone and particulate matter. Most of the other major pollutants have been pretty much brought under control.

Right now, some of our biggest projects are for the national speciation networks, where we prepare and send out air quality filters to locations all over the country, including many sites in national parks and wilderness areas (the IMPROVE program and Chemical Speciation Network). When we get the filters back to DRI, we analyze them for different compounds that impact things like visibility and human health.

Another big thing we’re looking at right now is wildfires. As our climate is changing, we’re getting prolonged periods of droughts interspersed with very extreme storms. We’re seeing that these are becoming not only more numerous, but more intense. We’ve developed a method that separates fire contributions from other sources of the particulate matter. We do this by measuring what we call the brown carbon. It turns out there’s a different color to the smoke. You don’t always know it when you see it, but once you sample it and make a measurement of it, we can separate it from things like engine exhaust.

DRI: You mentioned that you are especially interested in ozone and particulate matter. Why are these two pollutants so concerning?

JW: Air quality standards are based on public health. It should be of concern to most people that they’re taking years off their lives if they live in a polluted environment. These pollutants also cause material damage. Ozone destroys rubber, so windshield wipers, tires, and things like that deteriorate more rapidly.

Particulate matter deposits onto surfaces. Back when we had belching smokestacks, it used to be that you couldn’t hang your clothes out on a clothesline to dry, because they would be covered in black soot. In the mid-80s, we had a tremendous haze here in the Truckee Meadows because of pollution related to residential wood smoke, and even some of the road sanding. They were using a very fine sanding material to improve traction on the roads, which wasn’t effective; it was from volcanic material and it crushed up into very fine particles so it that would get suspended and be a nuisance as well. A more durable granite sand is currently in use.

DRI: What kind of tools and technology do you use to take air quality measurements?

JW: We’re starting to use small air quality monitors, which are battery powered devices that you can put in different places. Some have a wi-fi interface so you can look at the data in real time. Since they’re so small, you can power them with a five-volt charger. There are thousands of them in China, and some in California.

These types of micro-sensing devices are probably one of the areas where we’ll see a lot of growth in the future. Most of our instrumentation is bigger and bulkier, and a lot is based on filters that we take and we run thru different analyses in our laboratory. We can get up to 200 or 300 different chemical components from these samples.

The chemistry is important for several reasons – it’s kind of a fingerprint, so if you have a pattern of chemistry, you can use that to identify where the compounds came from. The other important aspect is the adverse environmental effects on health, ecosystems and other things.

Richard Corey (on left) of the California Air Resources Board congratulates DRI scientist John Watson (on right) on the receipt of the Haagen-Smit Award for air quality research

Richard Corey (on left) of the California Air Resources Board congratulates DRI scientist John Watson (on right) on the receipt of the Haagen-Smit Award for air quality research in February 2019. Credit: California Air Resources Board.

DRI: You were recently awarded the California Air Resource Board’s 2018 Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award for your work in California. Can you tell us about that?

JW: Arie Haagen-Smit was one of the early scientists that worked in air quality in Southern California. He is the one that discovered the mechanism of photochemical smog back in the late 1940s or early 1950s, which linked smog in Southern California to engine exhaust. He came up with some ingenious methods for measuring ozone; he didn’t have all the equipment we have now. He was also the first chair of the California Air Resources Board. The award was established to honor him and those who follow in his footsteps. I received the award for my work in air quality science;  there are also categories for international contributions, policy, and control technology.

I’ve been working in air pollution in California for almost 50 years. California is one of the best air quality laboratories in the world, because it has such diverse terrain, populations, meteorology, and types of emissions. We’ve made some important discoveries over the last few decades. I would say probably the one we learned the most from was the Fresno Supersite, mainly because we kept at it for almost 10 years, from 1999 to 2007.

We had a large array of instrumentation out there, and this allowed us to discover some new phenomena. Probably the most important one from an air pollution control standpoint was seeing that the ammonium nitrate particles, which form from atmospheric gases, are created above the surface at night, then mix down to the surface after sunrise. The implication of this is that oxides of nitrogen emissions need to be reduced  throughout the entire Central Valley, not just in the cities where these emissions from engine exhaust are most intense. The Supersite provided opportunities to experiment with new technologies, try out new things, and interpret the data in ways that revealed new air pollution science.


To learn more about John Watson and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/4861-john-watson

To view his recent presentation from the 2018 Clean Air Leadership Talks, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFhwP72hU6g

Study provides new insight into how microbes process nitrogen

Study provides new insight into how microbes process nitrogen

Reno, Nev. (Feb. 19, 2019): Microbes play a key role in Earth’s nitrogen cycle, helping to transform nitrogen gas from the atmosphere back and forth into organic forms of nitrogen that can be used by plants and animals.

New research from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev. provides new insight into how this process happens, through the examination of a unique species of microbe called Intrasporangium calvum that was found in a contaminated groundwater well at Oak Ridge National Laboratory Field Research Station in Tennessee.

The study, which published in Frontiers in Microbiology in January, examined the response of I. calvum to different concentrations of environmental resources and how those differences impacted the microbe’s nitrogen cycling ability. The study team also investigated the evolution of this microbe, the biochemistry behind the reactions, and how each of those factors interact with the environment.

Although most microbes perform just one step in the nitrogen cycle – converting nitrogen gas (N2) from the atmosphere to ammonia (NH3) in the soil, for example – the research team discovered that I. calvum could perform two types of reactions: respiratory ammonification and denitrification. Respiratory ammonification retains nitrogen in an ecosystem as ammonium in the soil or water, while denitrification sends nitrogen on a path back to the atmosphere as a gas.

“The microbe that we studied is unique because it can essentially ‘breathe’ in nitrogen and then send the nitrogen along one of two pathways, ‘exhaling’ either ammonium or nitrous oxide,” said David Vuono, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher fellow with DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and Applied Innovation Center, and lead author of the new study. “This is kind of like humans breathing in oxygen and then having the ability to exhale either carbon dioxide or methane.”

Sample bottles of I. calvum are sterilized via flame in the Genomics Laboratory at DRi. February 2019. Credit: DRI.

With the ability to perform more than one type of reaction – either sending nitrogen back to the atmosphere or retaining it in the soil or water – Vuono and his team wondered what would trigger the microbe to select one pathway versus the other. Previous studies had concluded that the ratio of carbon (C) to nitrate (NO3) in the surrounding environment was the determining factor, but Vuono wondered if the story wasn’t actually more complex.

In this study, Vuono and his team looked beyond the C:NO3ratio to investigate the importance of the overall concentration of each nutrient. They tested the response of I. calvumunder conditions of both high and low resource availability, while keeping the ratio of C:NO3at a constant level.

According to their findings, it is the resource concentration, rather than the C:NO3ratio, that determines pathway selection. When grown under low carbon concentrations, the team found that these microbes were more likely to process nitrogen by ammonification; under high carbon concentrations, denitrification prevailed.

“As we learned, the concentration of nutrients available to these microbes is what determines where the nitrogen ends up, whether it takes a pathway back towards the atmosphere or returns to ammonium,” Vuono explained. “That is a really important distinction, because depending on the environment that you’re in, you may want to remove nitrogen or you may want to retain it.”

In a waterway, for example, high levels of nitrogen can cause algae blooms and dead zones; by creating conditions that favor denitrification, it is possible that microbes could be triggered to send nitrogen back to the atmosphere. In an agricultural field, on the other hand, nitrogen deficiencies in the soil can lead to poor plant growth; by creating conditions that would promote respiratory ammonification, microbes could be prompted to retain nitrogen in the soils, eliminating or lessening the need for chemical fertilizers.

David Vuono, Ph.D., prepares a sample of I. calvum for analysis in the Laboratory of Molecular Responses at DRI. February 2019. Credit: DRI.

This study was funded by the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), the Desert Research Institute postdoctoral research fellowship program, Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies (ENIGMA), and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research).

Other DRI scientists who contributed to this study included Robert Read, John A. Arnone III, Iva Neveux, Evan Loney, David Miceli, and Joseph Grzymski.

The full study, titled Resource Concentration Modulates the Fate of Dissimilated Nitrogen in a Dual-Pathway Actinobacterium, is available online from Frontiers in Microbiology (22 January 2019): https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2019.00003