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

New research shows impact of using shared language and building public trust in weather forecasts

New research shows impact of using shared language and building public trust in weather forecasts

Reno, Nev. (January 22, 2019): For meteorologists, effectively communicating weather forecasts and their related dangers is essential in maintaining the health, safety, and resilience of communities. A new study published by a team of researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), the Desert Research Institute (DRI), and the National Weather Service (NWS) Reno suggests that effective communication isn’t only about sharing information on upcoming weather events—it’s about building trust and common ground between forecasters and the public.

A common focus of science communication research is the difficulty of communicating technical information about weather forecasts to the public, including the likelihood that the forecasted events will actually come to pass. However, personal risks and uncertainty about potential impacts also affect how people respond to and act upon information about subjects like weather forecasts.

In a study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, researchers sought to investigate the effect of personal uncertainties on people’s responses to weather forecasts by analyzing posts by the NWS Reno on Facebook. Researchers analyzed a total of 470 Facebook posts by the NWS Reno and 6,467 user comments on the posts about high impact weather events from January to May 2017. This range overlapped with the Reno area’s record wet period during from October 2016 to April 2017, a time when the region’s residents were impacted by several high impact weather events.

The team’s analysis showed that the public’s uncertainty about weather forecasts isn’t usually technical—more often, it’s personal.

“The NWS Reno’s Facebook community engages far less with the technical uncertainties of forecasts than with the personal risks implied in those forecasts,” said Kathryn Lambrecht, Ph.D., lead author on the study and Assistant Director of the Composition and Communication in the Disciplines program at UNR. “People in this community frequently use the NWS posts to share their own experiences with weather, express concern, and reach out to family and friends, not to calculate the technical likelihood of a forecast.”

What’s more, this study’s results showed that posts that used “commonplaces”—or expressions of common values or norms among a community—generated the strongest responses, many of which acknowledged a connection or understanding between the NWS Reno and its followers on Facebook.

Graphic from the NWS Reno Facebook page

Most of the population in the Reno area is located in valleys where it only snows occasionally. Feet of snow can fall in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada with the Reno area receiving little to no snow accumulation, so the public often asks “Is it really going to snow down here [in the valley]?” The commonplace “down here” was added to what became a widely shared and commented forecast graphic on the NWS Reno Facebook page.

“Commonplaces speak the language of the community,” explained Ben Hatchett, co-author on the study and assistant professor of atmospheric science at DRI. “We found that the posts using shared language in forecasts helped build a feeling of solidarity among the NWS Reno and followers. Perhaps more importantly, this encouraged sharing of forecasts between users through tagging and comments, broadening the distribution of the posts.”

Because high-impact weather events can severely impact life and property, it is imperative that the public trusts the information coming from the National Weather Service or emergency managers. Commonplaces, this study revealed, can be an effective way for forecasters to build trust with the community and encourage behavioral changes—like changing driving routes or stocking up on sandbags—that ultimately promote public safety.

From here, the team is considering applying for more funding in order to scale up their research and see if their results are consistent in other regions beyond the Reno area.

Researchers on this study included a meteorologist, an atmospheric scientist, a STEM education expert, and a pair of rhetoricians, scholars who study how communication forms communities—an unusual combination of disciplines.

“Past research has shown that science communication benefits from bringing together multiple types of expertise,” Hatchett said. “Our group came together organically, and the result was a highly transdisciplinary project. Personally, I think it is one of the most unique and collaborative projects I have been a part of, which made it even more fun.”

This project was supported by the Nevada NASA Space Grant Consortium and the Desert Research Institute.

The full study, titled “Improving Visual Communication of Weather Forecasts with Rhetoric” is available online from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society: https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/BAMS-D-18-0186.1

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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.

Nevada’s land-grant university founded in 1874, the University of Nevada, Renoranks in the top tier of best national universities by U.S. News and World Report and is steadily growing in enrollment, excellence and reputation. The University serves nearly 22,000 students. Part of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the University is home to the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and Wolf Pack Athletics. Through a commitment to world-improving research, student success and outreach benefiting the communities and businesses of Nevada, the University has impact across the state and around the world. For more information, visit www.unr.edu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researcher surveys snowpack at Sagehen Creek Field Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Learn more at www.dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. 

Northern Nevada Science Center
2215 Raggio Parkway
Reno, Nevada 89512
PHONE: 775-673-7300

Southern Nevada Science Center
755 East Flamingo Road
Las Vegas, Nevada 89119
PHONE: 702-862-5400

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

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

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

The research, originally published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science last May, used ice samples from the North Greenland Ice Core Project (NGRIP) to measure, date, and analyze European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800. Their results provide new insights for historians about how European civilizations and their economies fared over time.

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

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

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

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

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

New study identifies atmospheric conditions that precede wildfires in the Southwest

New study identifies atmospheric conditions that precede wildfires in the Southwest

Reno, Nev. (January 3, 2018): To protect communities in arid landscapes from devastating wildfires, preparation is key. New research from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno may aid in the prevention of large fires by helping meteorologists and fire managers in the Southwestern U.S. to forecast periods of likely wildfire activity.

Each summer, from June through September, a weather pattern called the North American monsoon brings thunderstorms to the Southwestern U.S., with lightning that often sparks wildfires.

The new study, which published in the International Journal of Climatology, examined twenty common weather patterns that occur during the North American monsoon season, and identified relationships between certain weather patterns and times of increased fire activity.

One of the most problematic weather patterns, the team learned, was when dry and windy conditions gave way to lightning storms in May and June – a time when fuels tended to be at their driest and monsoon rains had not yet soaked the region with added moisture. When lightning storms were followed by another hot, dry, windy period, increased fire activity was even more likely.

“A lot of fire meteorologists know from experience that this is how things happen, but our study actually quantified it and showed how the patterns unfold,” said lead author Nick Nauslar, Ph.D., who completed this research while working as a graduate student at DRI under Tim Brown, Ph.D. “No one had ever really looked at large fire occurrence in the Southwest and how it related to atmospheric patterns.”

To identify problematic weather patterns, Nauslar and his team looked at monsoon season weather data collected from April through September over the 18-year period from 1995-2013. They then classified wildfire activity over the same period into days or events that were considered “busy” by fire managers in their study area, and used an analysis technique called Self-Organizing Maps to detect relationships between the two datasets.

In addition to identifying relationships between specific weather patterns and fire activity, their analysis also looked for patterns in wildfire occurrence and fire size throughout the season. Analysis of more than 84,000 wildfires showed that although July was the month that the most wildfires occurred, wildfires that occurred during the month of June (prior to the arrival of much monsoonal moisture) were more likely to develop into large fires. In July and August, when the heaviest monsoonal precipitation typically occurs, the percentage of fires that developed into large fires decreased.

“Our goal with this study was to provide fire weather meteorologists in the region with information to help inform fire forecasts, and I think we were able to identify some important patterns,” said Brown, Director of the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI.

Nauslar, who is now employed as a mesoscale assistant and fire weather forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, hopes that the findings of this study will help fire managers in the Southwest to proactively identify periods when wildfires are more likely to occur, and to allocate firefighting resources accordingly.

“I think a lot of what we learned confirms forecaster experience about the types of atmospheric patterns that are problematic with regard to wildfire occurrence in the Southwest,” Nauslar said. “I hope that people in operations can really use this information, and help refine it and build upon it.

Other DRI scientists who contributed to this research included Benjamin Hatchett, Ph.D., Michael Kaplan, Ph.D., and John Mejia, Ph.D. The full study, titled “Impact of the North American monsoon on wildfire activity in the southwest United States,” is available online from the International Journal of Climatology: https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/joc.5899

 

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Learn more at www.dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. 

Northern Nevada Science Center
2215 Raggio Parkway
Reno, Nevada 89512
PHONE: 775-673-7300

Southern Nevada Science Center
755 East Flamingo Road
Las Vegas, Nevada 89119
PHONE: 702-862-5400

Meet Erick Bandala, Ph.D.

Meet Erick Bandala, Ph.D.

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


DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Meet graduate researcher Meghan Rennie

Meet graduate researcher Meghan Rennie

Meet Meghan Rennie, a Master’s student in atmospheric sciences. At DRI, Rennie is working with Dr. Hans Moosmüller from the Division of Atmospheric Science (DAS) to study aerosols and mineral dust for their optical properties that effect Earth’s energy budget.


What brought you to DRI?
After completing my bachelor’s degree at UNR, I am continuing on into my Master’s and my Ph.D. at UNR. The Desert Research Institute offers students access to amazing faculty and research opportunities at one of the world’s leading research organizations.

What are you studying?
I am studying aerosols (small particles of solid and liquid that are suspended in the atmosphere) and mineral dust for their optical properties that effect  Earth’s energy budget. These properties give insight into how the local and global climate is being affected by the presence of dust and aerosols.

Meghan Rennie, a Master's student in atmospheric sciences at DRI.

Meghan Rennie, a Master’s student in atmospheric sciences at DRI.

What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?
I am working primarily with my graduate advisor, Hans Moosmüller. We are working on publishing a paper on particles of iron oxide, the most predominant mineral in most soils on Earth, that have been suspended in water to determine how much light and energy they absorb and scatter. We are also a project to characterize the optical properties of aerosols that are emitted from the burning of cheatgrass. These optical properties are important to clarify the role smoke from cheatgrass plays in changing the Earth’s energy budget.

What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?
My short-term goal is to publish and get my masters finished. My long-term goal is to complete my Ph.D. at UNR and DRI while building a solid foundation in research.

Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?
When I’m not working or doing homework, I love to go hiking with my husband and our dogs and spending time with my family and friends. I also love to bake and try to read as much as I can.

Meghan Rennie, a Master's student in atmospheric sciences at DRI.

Meghan Rennie, a Master’s student in atmospheric sciences at DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News media contacts:

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

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.  

Nevada Solar Nexus Project: 2013-2018

Nevada Solar Nexus Project: 2013-2018

“I knew our research institutions were doing solar energy research, but I didn’t realize how much they were doing,” said Nevada State Assemblyman Chris Brooks in welcoming attendees to the “Solar Nexus: Nevada’s Research Institutions Supporting our Community” panel event at the Springs Preserve on November 14th.

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

The Solar Nexus project (for short), which also includes researchers from University of Nevada, Reno, began in June 2013, its focus the nexus between solar energy generation, Nevada’s limited water resources, and the state’s fragile environment. Existing industrial solar panel models require water to keep them producing solar power at the rate at which they were intended and alter their surrounding environments, so research is needed to provide solutions to these potential barriers to widespread solar energy adoption in desert environments like Nevada.

Dr. Robert Boehm and Dr. Jacimaria Batista of UNLV describe the original idea for the Solar Nexus project.

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

All areas of study pursued by the project interweaved the goals of promoting economic diversification in Nevada, minimizing the negative environmental impacts of solar energy development while achieving maximum benefits, and developing the cyberinfrastructure and diverse, educated workforce needed to sustain the renewable energy industry in Nevada.

“The Solar Nexus project has put Nevada on the map with regard to the engineering and research related to solar energy,” said Dana, DRI project director and Nevada EPSCoR Director.

During the panel discussion, Dana and her fellow panelists were quick to point out, however, that research goals were not the only ones met by the project: the economic and workforce development outcomes of the project were also significant.

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

Brian Beffort, Director of the Sierra Club, Toiyabe Chapter (standing far left) moderated the discussion at the Solar Nexus panel event held at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas. Speakers, from left: Eric Wilcox, Dale Devitt, Bob Boehm, and Gayle Dana. November 14, 2018.

“Workforce development is a really big part of the Solar Nexus project, and we have a number of different mechanisms built in to develop this pipeline of educators and students,” said Dana. The project helped create new faculty and graduate student positions at each of the state’s research institutions, filling out each institution in terms of research area expertise related to solar energy that hadn’t been represented in the past. In all, nearly forty students graduated with advanced degrees related to renewable energy after working on the Solar Nexus project.

Beyond building capacity in the research expertise of Nevada’s research institutions, the project also helped expand the possibilities for commercialization of new technologies related to solar energy. This entrepreneurial activity has a ripple effect.

“Universities are an economic driver for the community,” explained Wilcox, associate research professor of climatology at DRI and solar forecasting researcher on the Solar Nexus project. “Economic growth draws on the intellectual production of faculty at our research institutions.”

With this project coming to a close this year, researchers are looking ahead to the next round of EPSCoR funding and another project that can build research excellence and drive economic development. EPSCoR is a program run by the National Science Foundation that works to stimulate research capacity and competitiveness in states that receive comparatively less federal funding. Nevada is one of 28 states, in addition to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, eligible for EPSCoR funding.

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

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

Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Receives $4.5M for Continued Research

Reno, Nev. (Nov. 15, 2018) – The Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center (SW CASC), a collaborative partnership between regional research institutions and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), recently received a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the USGS to renew support for the center’s research on climate science and adaption throughout the region.

The SW CASC was established in 2011 to provide objective scientific information and tools that land, water, wildlife, and cultural resource managers and other interested parties could apply to anticipate, monitor, and adapt to climate change impacts in the southwestern United States. Based at the University of Arizona, the SW CASC is a consortium that also includes the Desert Research Institute; University of California, Davis; University of California, Los Angeles; Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego; Colorado State University; and Utah State University.

With its renewed funding, the SW CASC will build on its almost seven years of collaborative research and outreach. Over the next five years, SW CASC researchers are aiming to produce new scientific information alongside decision makers and managers to help make more informed planning decisions about the region’s highest priority issues, including the allocation of resources.

“We go beyond the routine of academic research, where the goal is to advance knowledge by publishing peer-reviewed papers,” said Stephen Jackson, USGS director of the SW CASC and adjunct professor of geosciences and natural resources and environment. “I like to call what we do ‘research plus,’ because we do that, plus create various products that are directly useful to managers.”

The Southwest is an ecologically varied region, with ecosystems including deserts, mountains, forests, and coasts, hosting some of the most iconic vegetation and wildlife in the U.S. Since it encompasses the hottest and driest region of the U.S., the Southwest faces a number of challenges associated with rising temperatures, including record low snowpack, increased flooding, and extreme wildfires. Land and resource managers at every level of government need up-to-date, accessible research on these topics to be prepared for changes and to anticipate future challenges.

“Through the SW CASC, we’re actively broadening the pool of scientists engaged in research related to climate adaptation in the Southwest in order to provide more information and resources to drive the decision-making process” said Tamara Wall, Ph.D., deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC) at DRI and a Principal Investigator for SW CASC.

SW CASC’s portfolio of scientific resources directly available to managers includes the SCENIC web application, developed by WRCC scientists. A searchable database of climate information about the Southwest dating back to 1980, the SCENIC app allows users to visualize and analyze historic data such as precipitation and temperature as well as climate projections.

According to Wall, DRI researchers will soon be launching a new and improved SCENIC 2.0 application that will feature an improved user interface, graphic outputs, and quicker information processing.

For more information on the SW CASC, please visit: https://www.swcsc.arizona.edu/.

Emily Litvack of the University of Arizona Research, Discovery, & Innovation Office contributed to this release.

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

In Memoriam – Dr. John Hallett

In Memoriam – Dr. John Hallett

Please join us for the Celebration of Life for Dr. John Hallett on Monday, December 17th from 3pm-5pm in the DRI Stout Conference Center, located at 2215 Raggio Parkway, Reno, NV 89512.  Please RSVP to Britt Chapman by Monday, December 10th at Britt.Chapman@dri.edu or by telephone (775) 673-7480. 

In lieu of flowers the family respectfully asks that donations be made to the DRI Foundation to support and foster graduate students and young scientists. Donations to support the Dr. John Hallett Memorial Fund can be made to the DRI Foundation online. 


Reno, Nev. (November 15, 2018): Dr. John Hallett, a research professor of atmospheric physics in DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences passed away on Monday, November 5, 2018 at his home in Reno.

John began his career at DRI in 1966 when his research and acquaintance with Dr. Wendell Mordy first drew him to Nevada. As its longest-serving scientist, Dr. Hallett helped start the Desert Research Institute and establish DRI as a leader in atmospheric physics research. He also played a central role in the development of the University of Nevada, Reno’s atmospheric sciences graduate program, which he directed for over a decade.

“There are lots of things that we don’t understand out there. There are still major problems out there to be investigated that have great scientific and practical applications.”Dr. John Hallett, DRI 50th Anniversary Magazine, 2009.

Following his retirement in 2011 and until a few years ago when his health no longer permitted, Dr. Hallett would visit DRI’s research campus in Reno most every day to discuss science and current events with his colleagues, and to mentor graduate students.

Dr. Hallett was the only child of Stanley and Nellie (Veale) Hallett, and was born in Bristol, England on December 2, 1929.  As a child, he survived the Bristol Blitz during World War II, sleeping in his backyard bunker and scavenging for metal after the air raids to help in the war effort.  Always an astute student he dedicated himself to academics and began working as a lab tech at age 14.  Precise and technical in his approach, he built the first TV in his neighborhood from a kit.  Ironically, he never owned a TV as an adult. Inspired by a terrifying ice storm, he chose to study atmospheric physics in college. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Bristol, then a Ph.D. in meteorology at Imperial College, at the University of London. His research interests included cloud physics, cloud electrification, atmospheric chemistry, climate dynamics and physical meteorology.

At Imperial College he met and married Dr. Joan Terry (Collar) Hallett and together they pursued a life of science, exploration, and inquiry. Dr. John Hallett collaborated with numerous researchers throughout the United States and internationally and together Drs. Hallett traveled to many countries including Argentina, Japan, South Korea, France, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia. They were first drawn to the U.S. in 1960 when they acquired teaching positions at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In 1966, Dr. Hallett was recruited to help start the Desert Research Institute (DRI), in Reno, Nevada. With their three daughters, they moved permanently to America where they had a fourth daughter. In addition to being a research scientist at DRI and the director of the DRI ice physics laboratory, Dr. Hallett also taught Physics at the University of Nevada, Reno.

DRI was the perfect environment where Dr. Hallett could do research on how ice forms in clouds and how ice behaves in the atmosphere. He actively worked with NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and other agencies to help understand the earth’s atmosphere. Upon his retirement in 2011, Dr. John Hallett was the longest standing DRI scientist at 45 years.

Although he was a brilliant scientist, he may be best remembered for his mentoring of the younger generation of scientists. He challenged his students and peers. During his time at DRI, Dr. Hallett earned the Edgar J. Marston chair of Atmospheric Sciences, authored over 140 scientific articles and received numerous national and international awards including the DRI Dandini Medal of Science award, the Nevada Regents Researcher of the Year award, a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics and he was elected to be a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society for his many years of outstanding contributions to atmospheric sciences.

In 1980, Dr. Hallett was deeply moved by the loss of his friends and colleagues when a B26 aircraft contracted by DRI crashed on an atmospheric research mission southwest of Lake Tahoe. After the crash, he dedicated his research to improving airplane safety in adverse atmospheric conditions and invented new instruments for measuring them.

He was an avid conservationist, outdoorsman, photographer, and critical observer of the natural world; all passions that he passed down to his daughters and grandchildren. Dr. Hallett was preceded in death by his wife, Joan Terry Hallett.  He will be thoughtfully remembered by his daughters, Jennifer (Chris), Joyce, Elaine, and Rosemary (Rafi), and grandchildren, Morgan, Gillian, Ceilidh, Colin, Alexander, Miles, Cora, Graham, Alison, and Liam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Learn more at dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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

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

Native Waters on Arid Lands project holds DRI Youth Day and Tribal Summit

Native Waters on Arid Lands project holds DRI Youth Day and Tribal Summit

On a Monday morning in mid-October, several small groups of students from Pyramid Lake Junior/Senior High School gathered around tables inside of a conference room at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, sketching ideas, visions, and plans of what they want life on Earth to look like for future generations.

Schuyler Chew, a University of Arizona graduate student who is currently studying climate change resilience and vulnerability with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, encouraged the students to incorporate indigenous language, words, drawings, maps, poems, and stories into their drawings.

“Enlightenment. Growth. Water is life,” one group of students wrote on their poster paper, with key words and themes surrounding a drawing of Pyramid Lake. Another group sketched native wildlife and buildings outfitted with solar panels.

A Youth Day participant sketches his vision for Earth's future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

A Youth Day participant sketches his vision for Earth’s future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

A team of Native Waters on Arid Lands Youth Day facilitators adds their visions for the future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

A team of Native Waters on Arid Lands Youth Day facilitators adds their visions for the future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

The activity, part of a day-long event called Youth Day, was one of many hands-on activities, presentations, and discussions designed to engage the students in thinking about how to embrace the challenges of the future with regard to climate, water, and food.

The event was held as part of the Native Waters on Arid Lands project (NWAL), which partners scientists from research institutions such as DRI and the University of Nevada Reno with extension experts and members of tribal communities from across the Great Basin and American Southwest to explore the potential impacts of climate change and evaluate adaptation options for sustaining water resources and agriculture.

“The young people here today are incredibly gifted and creative, and our communities will rely on them to employ those gifts in facing the challenges of water, food, and climate in the future,” said Meghan Collins, youth engagement coordinator for the Native Waters on Arid Lands project and Assistant Research Scientist in environmental science at DRI.

Although the NWAL project did not initially place an emphasis on youth engagement, early feedback from project participants from various tribes was that they did not want to be talking about issues of climate without including younger voices in the conversation. In response, the NWAL team has held a series of events for tribal youth and college students at locations such as Salish Kootenai College in Montana, Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, and DRI in 2017 and 2018.

Youth Day organizer Meghan Collins of DRI instructs students in the use of Stories in the Snow kits. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

Youth Day organizer Meghan Collins of DRI instructs students in the use of Stories in the Snow kits. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

During the course of their day at DRI, the group heard from Chris Caldwell from the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, who discussed the work that he does with the school’s Sustainable Development Institute. Schuyler Chew, the graduate student from Arizona State University, described his research on climate change resilience and vulnerability with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Steven Chischilly, Associate Professor at Navajo Technical University, described some of the educational opportunities available at his school in New Mexico.

Collins, the event organizer, led the students through an outdoor activity using Stories in the Snow macro-photography kits to explore the environment on the DRI campus and get a taste for scientific inquiry. DRI’s Science Alive Americorps volunteers Brooke Stathis and Chelsea Ontiveros concluded the event with an activity on the salinity and water quality of western rivers.

“The lively and reflective conversations that I heard today were inspiring,” Collins said. “Students brought their best, and we had a lot of intergenerational dialogue that meant everyone in the room walked away with new perspectives on these issues related to the environment.”

DRI Science Alive team members Brooke Stathis and Chelsea Ontiveros lead an activity at DRI Youth Day. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

DRI Science Alive team members Brooke Stathis and Chelsea Ontiveros lead an activity at DRI Youth Day. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

Later in the week, the Native Waters on Arid Lands project hosted their fourth annual Tribal Summit at the Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno. This event featured two days of presentations and interactive discussions related to climate change, water resources, agriculture, traditional knowledge, livestock and ranching, conservation practices, and other topics. More than 90 people attended the 2018 Tribal Summit, travelling from communities and reservations located across Nevada, North Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Wisconsin, California, Ohio, and Hawaii.

Native Waters on Arid Lands is funded by a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute, the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of Arizona, the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium, Utah State University, Ohio University, United States Geological Survey, and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona.

DRI faculty involved in this project include Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D. (program director), Christine Albano, Kyle Bocinsky, Ph.D., Meghan Collins, Richard Jasoni, Ph.D., Alex Lutz, Ph.D., Anna Palmer, Beverly Ramsey, Ph.D., and Kelsey Fitzgerald.

The Native Waters on Arid Lands team at DRI in October, 2017. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

The Native Waters on Arid Lands team at DRI in October, 2017. Credit: NWAL/DRI.

For more information on Native Waters on Arid Lands, please visit https://nativewaters-aridlands.com or follow the project on Facebook and Twitter.

Airborne Systems Research and Environmental Testing at DRI

Airborne Systems Research and Environmental Testing at DRI

Visit DRI’s Northern Nevada campus on a clear afternoon, and you may hear a near-deafening buzzing. A massive swarm of bees? Thankfully, no—it’s an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, being flown by researchers from DRI’s Airborne Systems Testing and Environmental Research (ASTER) laboratory.

Adam Watts, Ph.D., associate research professor of fire ecology and director of the ASTER lab, has worked over the last several years to apply UAS technology in a variety of research projects in dangerous or hard-to-access environments. Perhaps most notably, Watts led a 32-mile UAS flight at 1,500 feet above ground, the longest commercial UAS flight in American aviation history, in 2017. This historic flight was part of a larger effort to determine the feasibility of routinely using UAS for aerial cloud-seeding operations, which until recently have required pilots to fly in dangerous winter storm conditions. (You can read a full write up on the project in Popular Science.)

Drone America's Savant™ sUAS flies with cloud seeding flares at the Hawthorne Industrial Airport in Hawthorne, Nevada on Friday, April 29, 2016. DRI partnered with the Reno-based Drone America and Las Vegas-based AviSight to develop cloud-seeding operations in Nevada.

Drone America’s Savant sUAS flies with cloud seeding flares at the Hawthorne Industrial Airport in Hawthorne, Nev. on Friday, April 29, 2016. The test was successful by igniting the silver-iodide flares at 400 feet and flying for approximately 18 minutes. Photo by Kevin Clifford/Drone America.

More recently, Watts and his team in the ASTER lab have been working in entirely different environmental conditions: above prescribed burns.

“One of the big questions in land management, and in public health, is how smoke from prescribed fires versus wildfires differ, and what the effects are,” said Watts. His team is looking to UAS technology to explore this question and learn more about the differences between prescribed fire emissions and those from wildfire.

Earlier this year, postdoctoral researcher and fire ecologist Kellen Nelson, Ph.D., led the development of an innovative air sampling payload—a set of sensors and sampling equipment installed aboard the UAS—used to collect samples of wildland fire smoke. Traditionally, smoke has been collected by researchers from the air thousands of feet above the fire, or from a safe position on the ground far from the center of the smoke plume. Using a UAS, the research team has the unprecedented ability to collect samples directly from plumes and to move with a fire as its behavior changes, taking real-time measurements of CO2, CO, particulate matter, temperature, humidity, and pressure.

Jayne Boehmler holds up the data logger she designed to track real-time air quality measurements and remotely open the sampling canisters aboard the UAS. Kellen Nelson (left) and Adam Watts prepare the UAS (center) for flight in the background.

Jayne Boehmler holds up the data logger she designed to track real-time air quality measurements and remotely open the sampling canisters aboard the UAS. Kellen Nelson (left) and Adam Watts prepare the UAS (center) for flight in the background. October 2018.

“By collecting air samples, we’ll be able to test for trace gases and other constituents that we don’t have sensors to measure in real-time,” explained Nelson.

To do this work, the ASTER lab team has worked collaboratively with the researchers in DRI’s Organic Analytical Laboratory (OAL), a group that’s conducted ground-breaking air quality research over the last several years, including work to better understand the compounds present in e-cigarette emissions. The OAL provided sampling canisters to be installed on the UAS that are evacuated of all their contents. While in flight, the canisters are opened remotely to suck in the surrounding air, all using a handheld touchscreen controller developed by the team’s research physicist, Jayne Boehmler. Once the UAS is back on ground, the canisters are removed and returned to the OAL for analysis. Researchers hope these air quality data will improve understanding of smoke emissions from different fuel types.

“Smoke is really ephemeral,” explained Watts. “You’ll have a smoke plume moving around, or a little column of smoke coming up from a patch of vegetation that’s burning. Our custom payload on an unmanned aircraft is a powerful tool to make targeted measurements.”

Adam Watts explains how he’ll pilot the UAS for the test on DRI’s Northern Nevada Campus on October 11th, 2018.

Adam Watts explains how he’ll pilot the UAS for the test on DRI’s Northern Nevada Campus on October 11th, 2018.

Nelson and Watts successfully tested the payload at the Prescribed Fire Research Consortium’s research burn in Florida this spring and under laboratory conditions this fall. They’ve shown that the UAS can handle eight pounds of equipment with minimal vibration in flight and that the real-time data measurement is accurate. Going forward, Watts, Nelson, and Boehmler hope to test the payload in the field over live prescribed burns.

Last week, the team traveled to the Sycan Marsh Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property in southern Oregon, to test the UAS in the field with the Missoula Fire Lab and the Nature Conservancy. Unfavorable conditions prevented prescribed burns from happening on this trip, but the team has their sights set on getting the UAS back in the field soon.

Boehmler and Nelson work on the UAS at the Sycan Marsh Preserve in October. Credit: Craig Bienz/The Nature Conservancy.

Boehmler and Nelson work on the UAS at the Sycan Marsh Preserve in October 2018. Credit: Craig Bienz/The Nature Conservancy.

Watch the video to hear from Watts, Nelson, and Boehmler as they prepare for their trip to Oregon and learn more about UAS applications for wildland fire research.

To learn more about the range of UAS research happening at DRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/uas-research.

Meet Henry Sun, Ph.D.

Meet Henry Sun, Ph.D.

Henry Sun, Ph.D., is an associate research professor of microbiology with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Henry specializes in the study of microscopic organisms that live in extreme environments, often using specimens from here on earth to learn about possibilities for life on Mars. He is originally from China and has a bachelor’s degree in botany and master’s degree in phycology (the study of algae) from Nanjing University. He also holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from Florida State University and completed a post-doc in astrobiology (the study of life in the universe) at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA. Henry has been a member of the DRI community since 2004. In his free time, he enjoys playing pickup basketball with friends in Las Vegas, and spending time with his wife and two kids.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?HS: I do quite a few things, all centered around the study of life in extreme environments – places that are in one way or another similar to Mars. We are studying what we call analog environments, trying to understand whether there’s life in these places that are comparable to Mars, learning how to go about detecting life and organisms, and developing ideas for reliable instruments that we can send to Mars to look for life there.

DRI: How did you become interested in this line of work?
HS: It started in graduate school, when I was given the opportunity to go to Antarctica, to a place called the Dry Valleys, to do my dissertation work. Until 1976, this was a place thought to be devoid of all life. But my former adviser, Imre Friedmann, extrapolating from his work in the hot deserts in the southwestern U.S., discovered thriving communities of microalgae and cyanobacteria in the pore spaces in the Antarctic sandstone. Sandstone is translucent, so sunlight can penetrate the first few millimeters. The stone holds onto water in the pore spaces so it doesn’t dry out right away. And that’s all you need to support life. I fell in love with these organisms on my very first trip there.

Henry Sun at work in Antarctica, January 2005.

Henry Sun at work in Antarctica, January 2005.

DRI: What did you learn from studying those organisms?
HS: Probably the most remarkable thing we have learned about these organisms is that they have a very slow growth rate. We have monitored a few rocks closely over the last 50 years and never saw any appreciable signs of growth. In fact, they are so long-lived that their age can be determined by radiocarbon decay. In other words, if you look at their radiocarbon content, you would think they are dead, fossilized organisms. But we know they are alive because as soon as we thaw them to a normal temperature they start to breathe, taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. And because they start to grow and reproduce when we put them in a petri dish and incubate at more favorable temperature conditions.

That said, we still have a lot to learn about these organisms, and the opportunity for a serious study presented itself this year. When my former advisor passed away in 2007, he left behind a large collection of thousands of rocks from Antarctica, amassed over his career, in a walk-in -30oC freezer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. Last year, Florida State decided to decommission that building, and the samples were about to be thrown out. This past June, with a little help from DRI and NASA, we raised some money and purchased three freezers. I drove to Florida and hauled all of the samples back in a cargo van full of coolers and dry ice. I moved the entire collection to Las Vegas without them ever being thawed, so now they are sitting at DRI waiting to be studied.

An outcrop of Antarctic sandstone at one of Henry Sun's field sites.

An outcrop of Antarctic sandstone at one of Henry Sun’s field sites.

DRI: What are you planning to do with these samples?
HS: Inside of the freezers, the samples are kept at temperatures of -30oC (-22oF) and in complete darkness, but the microbes are still alive. As I said, we have thousands of samples. Only two samples have been studied using modern-day DNA analysis. So, the first thing we want to is a comprehensive molecular study and find out what lives in these samples.

We are also working with colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center to look for cyanobacteria that can grow not using the visible light, but using the infrared. Visible light, which photosynthetic organisms prefer, is filtered out by the sandstone. But the infrared is still present. It is not as good as the visible, but that is all the organisms at the bottom of the colonized zone have. We speculate that they may subsist on the infrared.

Closeup of one of Henry Sun's Antarctic rock samples, home to unknown species of microorganisms.

Closeup of one of Henry Sun’s Antarctic rock samples, home to unknown species of microorganisms.

DRI: What do you like best about what you do?
HS: I feel most rewarded when we engage school teachers and their students in what we do. We do this through a program called Spaceward Bound, which was created by Chris McKay, DRI’s Nevada Medalist from two years ago. The goal is to train the next generation of space explorers in remote but scientifically interesting places that are analogous to the moon or Mars. The reason why we need to start this now is because the first human mission to Mars may happen as early as the 2030s. The scientists who will go to Mars to study its environment are still in school today. We have done several Spaceward Bound expeditions in the Mojave and Death Valley area with teachers and students from Nevada. To me, there is no greater reward than to see children get inspired by the work we do so that one day they may become scientists themselves and continue to push back the frontier of knowledge.

Henry Sun talks with a student at DRI's 2018 'May Science Be With You' event in Las Vegas.

Henry Sun talks with a student at DRI’s 2018 ‘May Science Be With You’ event in Las Vegas.

For more information on Henry Sun and his research, continue to his research page: https://www.dri.edu/directory/4764-henry-sun

DRI researchers share projects with Nevada water resources professionals at state-wide symposium

DRI researchers share projects with Nevada water resources professionals at state-wide symposium

Several DRI researchers reported on recent projects at the Nevada Water Resources Association (NWRA) Fall Symposium in Reno this week. They were among engineers, resource managers, water rights professionals, and other stakeholders from across Nevada brought together by NWRA to discuss current water resource management topics, research and technology development, and legal issues related to water in the state.

DRI researchers explored a wide range of topics in their presentations, including drought and fire danger, innovations in irrigation, hydromechanics in mining operations, and more:

  • Tim Brown, Ph.D., research professor of climatology and Director of the Western Regional Climate Center, explored the relationship between fuel moisture and fire danger.
  • Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., assistant research professor of climatology and regional climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center, identified a correlation between drought and dire danger indices and is now working with stakeholders to develop prediction strategies for fire based on EDDI (evaporative demand drought index).
  • Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D., associate research professor of biochemistry, discussed the impacts of wildfire on surface water, including ash deposition, erosion, and declining water clarity.
  • Zhiqiang Fang, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, described two recent projects, including evaluating the effects of stresses on tunnels in mining operations using coupled hydromechanical models, and analyzing constant rate fluid injection into rock in geothermal systems.
  • Hai Pham, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, showed how his team has used groundwater models to examine the effect of groundwater pumping on surface water in the Tahoe Valley South groundwater basin.
  • Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., research faculty in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, Christine Albano, graduate research assistant in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, and Justin Huntington, Ph.D., research professor of hydrology, presented with colleagues from other institution–including the University of Nevada, Reno and USGS–about the Water for the Seasons project, a program that partners scientists with community water managers and water right holders in the Truckee-Carson River System (TCRS), to explore new strategies and solutions for dealing with extreme climate events such as droughts and floods. The four year study is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and uses the TCRS in a pilot study to learn how to best link science with decision-making in snow-fed arid-land river systems. By working collaboratively with stakeholders, Water for the Seasons aims to create a model for improving community climate resiliency, or ability to adapt to extreme climatic conditions.

In operation for more than 70 years, NWRA is a non-profit professional association that provides education, networking, and training opportunities for water resources professionals in Nevada. To learn more about NWRA, visit: http://www.nvwra.org/

To learn more about the wide range of water resources research conducted at DRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/hydrologic-sciences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The research team:

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

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

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Updated California Climate Tracker tool provides more than 120 years of climate data

Updated California Climate Tracker tool provides more than 120 years of climate data

Reno, NV (Sept 10, 2018) – Scientists from the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC) at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, NV are pleased to announce the release of a long-awaited update to a climate mapping tool called the California Climate Tracker (https://wrcc.dri.edu/Climate/Tracker/CA/).

Originally launched in 2009, the California Climate Tracker was designed to support climate monitoring in California and allows users to generate maps and graphs of temperature and precipitation by region. The 2018 upgrade incorporates substantial improvements including a more user-friendly web interface, improved accuracy of information based on PRISM data, and access to climate maps and data that go back more than 120 years, to 1895.

Map of California created with California Climate Tracker tool.

The map above, created using California Climate Tracker, shows mean temperature percentile rankings for different climatological regions in California during June – August 2018. Credit: Dan McEvoy, DRI.

“One really significant change between the old and new versions of the California Climate Tracker is that in the previous version, you weren’t able to look at archived maps,” said Daniel McEvoy, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Climatology at DRI and member of the Climate Tracker project team. “Now you can say for example, ‘I want to see what the 1934 drought looked like,’ and go back and get the actual maps and data from 1934. You can also look at graphs of the data and see trends in temperature and precipitation over time.”

In addition to providing historical and modern data for regions across California, this easy-to-use web-based tool can be used to produce publication-quality graphics for reports, articles, presentations or other needs. It can be accessed for free by anyone with a standard web browser and an internet connection.

“The California Climate Tracker was initially designed and developed for use by the California Department of Water Resources, but we hope it is also useful to a much broader community of water managers, climatologists, meteorologists and researchers in California,” McEvoy said.

Map of California created with California Climate Tracker tool

The map above, created using California Climate Tracker, shows precipitation percentile rankings for various climatological regions in California during October 2017 – August 2018. Credit: Dan McEvoy, DRI

The recent upgrade to this tool was the work of Nina Oakley, Ph.D., Justin Chambers, and McEvoy, all of whom are part of the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI. The original version of the California Climate Tracker tool was developed at DRI and designed by John Abatzoglou, Ph.D., now of the University of Idaho, based on a system for identifying regional patterns of climate variability within the state of California that he developed with Laura Edwards, M.S, now State Climatologist and Climate Field Specialist for the South Dakota State Climate Office, and the late Kelly Redmond, Ph.D., former regional climatologist for WRCC and DRI.

The California Climate Tracker was built with support from and in collaboration with the California Department of Water Resources. The team is currently in the process of building a similar tool for Nevada and are seeking funding partners to sponsor that work.

To access the California Climate Tracker tool, please visit: https://wrcc.dri.edu/Climate/Tracker/CA/

For more information on the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI, please visit: https://wrcc.dri.edu

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Low-severity wildfires impact soils more than previously believed

Low-severity wildfires impact soils more than previously believed

Above: In semi-arid ecosystems such as the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas, which burned as part of the Carpenter 1 fire during July and August 2013, fuel is limited and fires tend to be short lived and low in peak temperature. New research shows that these fires are more harmful to soils than they initially appear. This photo was taken on January 6, 2015 – approximately 18 months after the wildfire. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.


New research shows negative effects of fire on soil structure and organic matter

Las Vegas, NV (August 28, 2018): Low-severity wildland fires and prescribed burns have long been presumed by scientists and resource managers to be harmless to soils, but this may not be the case, new research shows.

According to two new studies by a team from the University of California, Merced (UCM) and the Desert Research Institute (DRI), low-severity burns – in which fire moves quickly and soil temperature does not exceed 250oC (482oF) – cause damage to soil structure and organic matter in ways that are not immediately apparent after a fire.

“When you have a high-severity fire, you burn off the organic matter from the soil and the impact is immediate,” said Teamrat Ghezzehei, Ph.D., principal investigator of the two studies and Associate Professor of Environmental Soil Physics at UCM. “In a low-severity fire, the organic matter doesn’t burn off, and there is no visible destruction right away. But the burning weakens the soil structure, and unless you come back at a later time and carefully look at the soil, you wouldn’t notice the damage.”

DRI researcher Markus Berli, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor of Environmental Science, became interested in studying this phenomenon while visiting a burned area near Ely, Nev. in 2009, where he made the unexpected observation that a prescribed, low-severity fire had resulted in soil structure damage in the burned area. He and several colleagues from DRI conducted a follow-up study on another controlled burn in the area, and found that soil structure that appeared to be fine immediately after a fire but deteriorated over the weeks and months that followed. Berli then teamed up with Ghezzehei and a team from UCM that included graduate student Mathew Jian, and Associate Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Ph.D., to further investigate.

Researcher examines soils in a burned area near Las Vegas.

Researcher Markus Berli from the Desert Research Institute examines the soils at a burned area in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas on January 6, 2015, approximately 18 months after the area burned in the Carpenter 1 fire of 2013. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.

Soil consists of large and small mineral particles (gravel, sand, silt, and clay) which are bound together by organic matter, water and other materials to form aggregates. When soil aggregates are exposed to severe fires, the organic matter burns, altering the physical structure of the soil and increasing the risk of erosion in burned areas. In low-severity burn areas where organic matter doesn’t experience significant losses, the team wondered if the soil structure was being degraded by another process, such as by the boiling of water held within soil aggregates?

In a study published in AGU Geophysical Research Letters in May 2018, the UCM-DRI team investigated this question, using soil samples from an unburned forest area in Mariposa County, Calif. and from unburned shrubland in Clark County, Nev. to analyze the impacts of low-severity fires on soil structure. They heated soil aggregates to temperatures that simulated the conditions of a low-severity fire (175oC/347oF) over a 15-minute period, then looked for changes in the soil’s internal pore pressure and tensile strength (the force required to pull the aggregate apart).

During the experiment, they observed that pore pressure within the soil aggregates rose to a peak as water boiled and vaporized, then dropped as the bonds in the soil aggregates broke and vapor escaped. Tensile strength measurements showed that the wetter soil aggregates had been weakened more than drier soil samples during this process.

“Our results show that the heat produced by low-severity fires is actually enough to do damage to soil structure, and that the damage is worse if the soils are wet,” Berli explained. “This is important information for resource managers because it implies that prescribed burns and other fires that occur during wetter times of year may be more harmful to soils than fires that occur during dry times.”Next, the research team wondered what the impact of this structural degradation was on the organic matter that the soil structure normally protects. Soil organic matter consists primarily of microbes and decomposing plant tissue, and contributes to the overall stability and water-holding capacity of soils.

In a second study that was published in Frontiers in Environmental Science in late July, the UCM-DRI research team conducted simulated burn experiments to weaken the structure of the soil aggregates, and tested the soils for changes in quality and quantity of several types of organic matter over a 70-day period.

They found that heating of soils led to the release of organic carbon into the atmosphere as CO2 during the weeks and months after the fire, and again found that the highest levels of degradation occurred in soils that were moist. This loss of organic carbon is important for several reasons, Ghezzehei explained.

“The loss of organic matter from soil to the atmosphere directly contributes to climate change, because that carbon is released as CO2,” Ghezzehei said. “Organic matter that is lost due to fires is also the most important reserve of nutrients for soil micro-organisms, and it is the glue that holds soil aggregates together. Once you lose the structure, there are a lot of other things that happen. For example, infiltration becomes slower, you get more runoff, you have erosion.”

Researcher collects soil samples in burned area near Las Vegas.

Researcher Rose Shillito from DRI collects soil samples in a burned area in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas on January 6, 2015, approximately 18 months after the area burned in the Carpenter 1 fire of 2013. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.

Although the research team’s findings showed several detrimental effects of fire on soils, low-severity wildfires and prescribed burns are known to benefit ecosystems in other ways — recycling nutrients back into the soil and getting rid of overgrown vegetation, for example. It is not yet clear whether the negative impacts on soil associated with these low-severity fires outweigh the positives, Berli says, but the team hopes that their research results will help to inform land managers as they manage wildfires and plan prescribed burns.

“There is very little fuel in arid and semi-arid areas, and thus fires tend to be short lived and relatively low in peak temperature,” Ghezzehei said. “In contrast to the hot fires and that burn for days and weeks that we see in the news, these seem to be benign and we usually treat them as such. Our work shows that low-severity fires are not as harmless as they may appear.”

The study, “Soil Structural Degradation During Low‐Severity Burns,” was published on May 31, 2018 in the journal AGU Geophysical Research Letters and is available here: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GL078053.

The study, “Vulnerability of Physically Protected Soil Organic Carbon to Loss Under Low Severity Fires,” was published July 19, 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, and is available here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2018.00066/full.

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Significant amount of cancer-causing chemicals stays in lungs during e-cigarette use, Nevada-based researchers find

Significant amount of cancer-causing chemicals stays in lungs during e-cigarette use, Nevada-based researchers find

Above: Dr. Vera Samburova works in the organic analytical lab at Desert Research Institute, in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.
Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum


Reno, NV (August 15, 2018) – E-cigarettes have become increasingly popular as a smoke-free alternative to conventional tobacco cigarettes, but the health effects of “vaping” on humans have been debated in the scientific and tobacco manufacturing communities. While aldehydes—chemicals like formaldehyde that are known to cause cancer in humans—have been identified in e-cigarette emissions by numerous studies, there has been little agreement about whether such toxins exist in large enough quantities to be harmful to users.

Now, a recently published pilot study by a team of researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the University of Nevada, Reno shows that significant amounts of cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde are absorbed by the respiratory tract during a typical vaping session, underscoring the potential health risks posed by vaping.

“Until now, the only research on the respiratory uptake of aldehydes during smoking has been done on conventional cigarette users,” said Vera Samburova, Ph.D., associate research professor in DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences and lead author of the study. “Little is known about this process for e-cigarette use, and understanding the unique risks vaping poses to users is critical in determining toxicological significance.”

Samburova and fellow DRI research professor Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D., have been investigating the health risks associated with e-cigarettes for several years. In 2016, they published findings confirming that dangerous levels of aldehydes are formed during the chemical breakdown of flavored liquids in e-cigarettes and emitted in e-cigarette vapors.

In this study, Samburova and her team estimated e-cigarette users’ exposure to these hazardous chemicals by analyzing the breath of twelve users before and after vaping sessions using a method she and Khlystov have developed over the course of their work together. Through this process, they determined how much the concentration of aldehydes in the breath increased. Researchers then subtracted the concentration of chemicals in exhaled breath from the amount found in the vapors that come directly from the e-cigarette.

The difference, Samburova explains, is absorbed into the user’s lungs.

E-cigarettes in the Organic Analytical Lab

E-cigarettes in the Organic Analytical Lab at DRI.

“We found that the average concentration of aldehydes in the breath after vaping sessions was about ten and a half times higher than before vaping,” Samburova said. “Beyond that, we saw that the concentration of chemicals like formaldehyde in the breath after vaping was hundreds of times lower than what is found in the direct e-cigarette vapors, which suggests that a significant amount is being retained in the user’s respiratory tract.”

The research team took care to ensure that the test conditions of the study mirrored real-life vaping sessions as much as possible. Most participants used their own e-cigarette devices during the study, used e-liquid flavors that were familiar to them, and inhaled for the amount of time that they ordinarily would, which allowed the research team to understand how e-cigarettes are typically used by regular users. Because they tested “normal” vaping experiences, researchers confirmed that the high concentrations of aldehydes found in other studies aren’t limited to laboratory conditions.

“Our new pilot study underlines the potential health risk associated with the aldehydes generated by e-cigarettes,” said Samburova. “In the future, e-cigarette aldehyde exposure absolutely needs to be studied with a larger set of participants.”

The study, “Aldehydes in Exhaled Breath during E-Cigarette Vaping: Pilot Study Results,” was published on August 7th in the journal Toxics and is available here: https://www.mdpi.com/2305-6304/6/3/46/htm#app1-toxics-06-00046. DOI: 10.3390/toxics6030046

This research was independently funded by DRI and conducted in DRI’s Organic Analytical Laboratory located in Reno, Nevada. For more information about the Organic Analytical Lab, visit: https://www.dri.edu/oal-lab.

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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.

Gault site research pushes back date of earliest North Americans

Gault site research pushes back date of earliest North Americans

Stone tool assemblage recovered from the Gault Site. Credit: Produced by N Velchoff, The Gault School of Archaeological Research.


Luminescence dating confirms human presence in North America prior to 16 thousand years ago, earlier than previously thought

July 20, 2018 (Reno, NV) – For decades, researchers believed the Western Hemisphere was settled by humans roughly 13,500 years ago, a theory based largely upon the widespread distribution of Clovis artifacts dated to that time. Clovis artifacts are distinctive prehistoric stone tools so named because they were initially found near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1920s but have since been identified throughout North and South America.

In recent years, though, archaeological evidence has increasingly called into question the idea of “Clovis First.”Now, a study published by a teamincluding DRI’s Kathleen Rodrigues, Ph.D. student, and Amanda Keen-Zebert, Ph.D., associate research professorhas dated a significant assemblage of stone artifacts to 16-20,000 years of age, pushing back the timeline of the first human inhabitants of North America before Clovisby at least 2,500 years.

Significantly, this research identifies a previously unknown, early projectile point technology unrelated to Clovis, which suggests that Clovis technology spread across an already well-established, indigenous population.

These projectile points are unique. We haven’t found anything else like them,” said Tom Williams, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Texas State University and lead author of the study. “Combine that with the ages and the fact that it underlies a Clovis component, and the Gault site provides a fantastic opportunity to study the earliest human occupants in the Americas.”

The research team identified the artifacts at the Gault Site in Central Texas, an extensive archaeological site with evidence of continuous human occupationThe presence of Clovis technology at the site is well-documented, but excavations below the deposits containing Clovis artifacts revealed well-stratified sediments containing artifacts distinctly different from Clovis.

Diagram of soil layers identified at the Gault Site.

To determine the ages of these artifacts, Rodrigues, Keen-Zebert, and colleagues used a process called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating on the sediments surrounding them. In OSL, researchers expose minerals that have long been buried under sediment layers to light or heat, which causes the minerals to release trapped potassium, uranium, and thorium electrons that have accumulated over time due to exposure to ambient, naturally occurring radiation.When the trapped electrons are released, they emit photons of light which can be measured to determine the amount of time that has elapsed since the materials were last exposed to heat or sunlight.

“The fluvial nature of the sediments deposited at the Gault Site have created a poor environment for preservation of organic materials, so radiocarbon dating has not been a useful technique to apply in this region,” said Kathleen Rodrigues, graduate research assistant in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. “This made luminescence dating a natural choice for dating the archaeological materials here.  We are really pleased with the quality of the results that we have achieved.” 

The study was published on July 11th in the journal Science Advances and is available here: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/7/eaar5954.

For more information on DRI’s optically stimulated luminescence dating capabilities, visit https://www.dri.edu/luminescence-lab

Jayme Blaschke of the Texas State University Office of Media Relations contributed to this release.

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

Tesla selects DRI’s Science Alive to develop statewide teacher training infrastructure

Reno, NV (July 19, 2018): The Desert Research Institute is proud to announce that the DRI Science Alive K-12 Outreach Program has been selected as one of several recipients of the first round of funding through Tesla’s new Nevada K-12 Education Investment Fund. This funding is an initial disbursement, part of a multi-year proposed plan Tesla has developed in partnership with DRI to invest in Nevada’s education system.

Because of the proven success and expertise of DRI’s Science Alive K-12 Outreach Program in engaging students in STEM and training Nevada educators, Tesla has looked to DRI to help develop and implement a statewide professional development infrastructure for educators that will give Nevada students the chance to get excited about STEM early on in their education and give them the skills needed to success in a STEM career.

“On behalf of everyone at the Desert Research Institute, we are honored to be a part of this important moment for Nevada students and we are tremendously proud that Tesla has looked to DRI to help develop and implement Nevada’s teacher training infrastructure,” said DRI President Kristen Averyt, Ph.D.

With an initial investment from Tesla of $263,924, the DRI Science Alive program staff will develop a statewide teacher professional development curriculum and onboarding process for new robotics programs in partnership with FIRST, the REC Foundation (VEX), Solar Roller, and the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In addition to coordinating teacher trainings, DRI will also be evaluating the effectiveness of robotics programs in student achievement and attitudes toward STEM.

“Our hope is that after implementing and evaluating this model of encouraging STEM engagement through robotics, we can improve upon current methods and ultimately develop best practices for all schools,” said Amelia Gulling, DRI’s K-12 STEM Education Manager. “If we find that this model is successful in Nevada, where we have some of the worst education rankings in the country, then it’s the model that we need to use across the country.”


Official Nevada Department of Education release:
TESLA ANNOUNCES INITIAL $1.5M IN K-12 EDUCATION GRANTS

CARSON CITY, Nev. – As part of its commitment to contribute $37.5 million over five years to K-12 education in Nevada, Tesla announced an initial $1.5 million in funding grants at today’s Nevada Board of Education meeting. The goal of the investment is to encourage students of all backgrounds to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or sustainability, and to develop the next generation of engineers in Nevada.

“An integral part of our vision for the new Nevada economy is developing an educated workforce that meets the demands of the industries coming into our state,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval. “With this initial investment, even more students in Nevada will be exposed to STEM education and we are grateful to Tesla for their commitment to education in Nevada.”

Tesla announced the following education grants today:

  • $315,550 to FIRST Nevada and $127,100 to Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (VEX) as part of a multi-year investment for the establishment of a quality robotics program at every school in Nevada.
  • $263,924 to the Desert Research Institute for the initial development of a statewide teacher training infrastructure focusing on robotics and STEM, with future collaboration in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
  • $262,700 to The Envirolution, Inc. for the Project ReCharge initiative, a STEM-based program which collaborates with community partners, school districts, teachers and students, to deliver hands-on education related to energy, sustainability, and project-based learning opportunities that empower students to make local schools and businesses more energy efficient.
  • $200,000 to Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (JAG Nevada) to deliver mentoring, employability skills development, career association, job development, and job placement services to students across the state.  JAG Nevada will be developing a new Education to Employment pathway across Nevada industries, and expanding access to 20 percent more students with this first investment.
  • $154,083 to Sierra Nevada Journeys (SNJ) to foster students’ STEM passion and achievement at an early age.  SNJ will provide 250 scholarships for students in underserved communities to attend the Overnight Outdoor Learning program at Grizzly Creek Ranch, increase access to SNJ STEM programs to 900 additional students, and kickstart a new Girls in Engineering camp in partnership with Tesla team members.
  • $76,643 to Energetics Education, Inc. to pilot the Solar Rollers program in Washoe County. This initiative challenges high school teams to design, build, test and race sophisticated solar-powered radio-controlled cars while learning the fundamental concepts of a complete energy system.
  • $50,000 each to the Clark County and Washoe County School Districts as part of the establishment of multi-year special assignment roles in career technical education (CTE) offices to train and implement programming from within, while also supporting neighboring districts.

“The demand for STEM jobs in Nevada will continue to grow dramatically over the next few years,” said JB Straubel, Tesla’s Chief Technology Officer. “That is why we’re investing in initiatives that inspire students to choose a career in STEM and sustainability and give them a foundation for success.”

Tesla selected these entities in collaboration with an advisory group comprised of Nevada education leaders, business leaders, non-profits and government officials.

“Tesla’s commitment supports our vision of becoming the fastest improving state in the nation in education,” said Steve Canavero, Ph.D., Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Lofty goals such as these don’t materialize in a vacuum. In addition to the partners we have in our school districts and charter schools, we have also sought out partners in industry.  Tesla has been incredibly collaborative and thoughtful in providing us data and evidence based material that will help inform our decisions and their investment in the new Nevada economy.”

Tesla will be making continuing investments in existing initiatives, and regularly announcing new entities receiving funding on a quarterly basis, pending investment reviews. In addition to this K-12 investment, Tesla currently has a high school graduate apprenticeship, the Manufacturing Development Program, encouraging Nevadans to learn about manufacturing fundamentals in partnership with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and regularly hosts students and teachers at Gigafactory 1 near Sparks, Nev. Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Tesla builds not only all-electric vehicles but also infinitely scalable clean energy generation and storage products. Entities interested in learning more about this investment and opportunities to partner with Tesla can reach out to educationprograms@tesla.com.

Lead pollution in Greenland ice shows rise and fall of ancient European civilizations

Lead pollution in Greenland ice shows rise and fall of ancient European civilizations

Dr. Monica Arienzo inspects an ice core sample in the ice core lab at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev. Photo credit: DRI.


Reno, NV (May 14, 2018): To learn about the rise and fall of ancient European civilizations, researchers sometimes find clues in unlikely places: deep inside of the Greenland ice sheet, for example.

Thousands of years ago, during the height of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, lead emissions from sources such as the mining and smelting of lead-silver ores in Europe drifted with the winds over the ocean to Greenland – a distance of more than 2800 miles (4600 km) – and settled onto the ice. Year after year, as fallen snow added layers to the ice sheet, lead emissions were captured along with dust and other airborne particles and became part of the ice-core record that scientists use today to learn about conditions of the past.

In a new study published in PNAS, a team of scientists, archaeologists and economists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), the University of Oxford, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research and the University of Copenhagen used ice samples from the North Greenland Ice Core Project (NGRIP) to measure, date and analyze European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800. Their results provide new insight for historians about how European civilizations and their economies fared over time.

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

Map showing location of NGRIP ice core.

Map showing location of NGRIP ice core in relation to Roman lead/silver mines. Credit: DRI.

A previous study from the mid-1990s examined lead levels in Greenland ice using only 18 measurements between 1100 BC and AD 800; the new study provides a much more complete record that included more than 21,000 precise lead and other chemical measurements to develop an accurately dated, continuous record for the same 1900-year period.

To determine the magnitude of European emissions from the lead pollution levels measured in the Greenland ice, the team used state-of-the-art atmospheric transport model simulations.

“We believe this is the first time such detailed modeling has been used to interpret an ice-core record of human-made pollution and identify the most likely source region of the pollution,” said co-author Andreas Stohl, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at NILU.

Most of the lead emissions from this time period are believed to have been linked to the production of silver, which was a key component of currency.

“Because most of the emissions during these periods resulted from mining and smelting of lead-silver ores, lead emissions can be seen as a proxy or indicator of overall economic activity,” McConnell explained.

Using their detailed ice-core chronology, the research team looked for linkages between lead emissions and significant historical events. Their results show that lead pollution emissions began to rise as early as 900 BC, as Phoenicians expanded their trading routes into the western Mediterranean. Lead emissions accelerated during a period of increased mining activity by the Carthaginians and Romans primarily in the Iberian Peninsula and reached a maximum under the Roman Empire.

Graph of European lead emissions.

Chronology of European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800 in relation to major historic events. Credit: DRI.

The team’s extensive measurements provide a different picture of ancient economic activity than previous research had provided. Some historians, for example, had argued that the sparse Greenland lead record provided evidence of better economic performance during the Roman Republic than during the Roman Empire.

According to the findings of this study, the highest sustained levels of lead pollution emissions coincided with the height of the Roman Empire during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, a period of economic prosperity known as the Pax Romana. The record also shows that lead emissions were very low during the last 80 years of the Roman Republic, a period known as the Crisis of the Roman Republic.

“The nearly four-fold higher lead emissions during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire compared to the last decades of the Roman Republic indicate substantial economic growth under Imperial rule,” said coauthor Andrew Wilson, Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford.

The team also found that lead emissions rose and fell along with wars and political instability, particularly during the Roman Republic, and took sharp dives when two major plagues struck the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The first, called the Antonine Plague, was probably smallpox. The second, called the Plague of Cyprian, struck during a period of political instability called the third-century crisis.

“The great Antonine Plague struck the Roman Empire in AD 165 and lasted at least 15 years. The high lead emissions of the Pax Romana ended exactly at that time and didn’t recover until the early Middle Ages more than 500 years later,” Wilson explained.

The research team for this study included ice-core specialists, atmospheric scientists, archaeologists, and economic historians – an unusual combination of expertise.

“Working with such a diverse team was a unique experience in my career as a scientist,” McConnell said. “I think that our results show that there can be great value in collaborating across disciplines.”

Analysis and interpretation of archived NGRIP2 ice-core samples were supported by the John Fell Oxford University Press Research Fund and All Souls College, Oxford, as well as the Desert Research Institute.

Photo of the project team.

The project team included an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including (left to right) Dr. Audrey Yau, ice core specialist and former DRI post-doc; Dr. Monica Arienzo, ice core specialist, DRI; Elisabeth Thompson, doctoral student, Oxford University; Professor Andrew Wilson, historian, Oxford University; and Professor Joe McConnell, ice core specialist, DRI.

 

DRI launches cybersecurity internship program in collaboration with SANS Institute

DRI launches cybersecurity internship program in collaboration with SANS Institute

Program now accepting applications for 2018

Reno, NV (Tuesday, April 24, 2018): From malware infections to attacks on critical infrastructure like electricity grids, cybercrime is a growing concern across all industries and sectors of our world – and the prevention of cyber attacks of the future requires the training of a new generation of internet security specialists, today.

To provide cybersecurity skills and experience for interested individuals, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, NV is seeking applicants for the 2018 DRI cybersecurity internship program. This program has been launched in partnership with the SANS Institute (Sans.org), a world-renowned internet security research and education organization.

The internship, which will run from August through December 2018, is open to residents of northern Nevada, including high school graduates, college students, and/or people interested in making a career change. Applicants will compete to earn one of several positions in the program, which includes a scholarship for the SANS CyberStart Essentials course, the CyberStart Essentials certification exam, and a 120-hour, hands-on cybersecurity internship at DRI.

During the semester-long internship, participants will work under DRI’s Chief Information Security Officer, Brandon Peterson, to gain hands-on experience building cyberinfrastructure using best practices from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The internship will prepare students to install, configure, and harden operating systems; validate operating systems against NIST standards; and cover penetration and testing. Students will learn about treating malware infections, defending against real-time denial of service attacks, and providing security awareness training to end-users. Students will also train in DRI’s new cyber range to practice state-of-the-art hacking tools in our advanced facilities.

“Cybersecurity is incredibly essential to many aspects of our lives and careers, as well as too much of the infrastructure that we rely on in our communities, whether we realize it or not,” said Meghan Collins, Cybersecurity Internship Program Manager for DRI. “This internship will provide a fantastic opportunity for interested individuals to gain hands-on experience and marketable job skills related to cybersecurity, as well as professional certifications that we hope will help participants find employment if they choose to continue down this career path.”

To apply for the cybersecurity internship program, candidates must complete an online application by May 31,2018, and take part in a five-day SANS CyberStart Game held on the DRI campus in Reno on June 18 – 22. The game will help gauge the applicant’s skills in solving puzzles, cracking codes, and creating new software tools to find security flaws.

Successful applicants will be notified of their selection for the internship program by mid-July, and take the five-day Cyberstart Essentials Course in August. The 120-hour internship at DRI will continue from August to December 2018 (interns will work 8-hours per week, on Fridays), and culminate in the completion of the CyberStart Essentials Certification exam. The internship is unpaid, however, can be completed for college credit (the student is responsible for the cost of credits at their respective institutions).No previous cybersecurity training or experience is necessary to apply.

Funding for this new program was provided by a STEM Workforce Challenge Grant from the Nevada Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology. STEM Workforce Challenge Grants seek to create lasting partnerships between Nevada’s STEM industries and workforce training providers focusing on certificate and degree programs of two years or less.

More details about this program, including the application form, are available on DRI’s website: https://www.dri.edu/cybersecurity

For more information about the SANS Institute, visit www.sans.org.

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

Ancient ‘quids’ reveal genetic information, clues into migration patterns of early Great Basin inhabitants

Ancient ‘quids’ reveal genetic information, clues into migration patterns of early Great Basin inhabitants

Above: Cave opening at the Mule Springs Rockshelter in southern Nevada’s Spring Mountain Range. Credit: Jeffrey Wedding, DRI.


 

Las Vegas, NV (April 24, 2018): If you want to know about your ancestors today, you can send a little saliva to a company where – for a fee – they will analyze your DNA and tell you where you come from. For scientists trying to find out about ancient peoples, however, the challenge is more complex.

Research published in the journal PLOS ONE by a team of archaeologists and microbiologists from Nevada’s Desert Research Institute (DRI) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU) showcases the use of modern research methods to uncover clues about the genetic ancestry of Native Americans who inhabited the Desert Southwest during the last thousand years.

“We were surprised by the consistency with which we were able to recover intact human DNA from a common type of plant-based artifact,” explained co-principal investigator Duane Moser, Ph.D., an associate research professor of microbiology at DRI and director of DRI’s Environmental Microbiology Laboratory.

During the Late Holocene Epoch, which began 12,000 to 11,500 years ago and continues through the present, occupants of the Mule Spring Rockshelter in the foothills of the Spring Mountains of southern Nevada commonly gathered agave and yucca plants for food. The artichoke-like hearts and inner leaves of the plants were roasted then chewed to consume the sweet fleshy pulp. This left wads of stringy fibers called ‘quids,’ which were spit out and left behind.

In the late 1960s, researchers from DRI and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) led by Richard Brooks, recovered thousands of quids at the rockshelter. Put into storage for half a century without any consideration for DNA preservation, a DRI-led research team decided to re-examine the quid specimens as possible repositories for ancient DNA.

“The quid’s coarse texture is excellent for capturing skin cells from the mouth, making them the equivalent of the modern-day cheek swab,” explained Susan Edwards, an associate research archaeologist at DRI and co-principal investigator who first thought of applying DNA extraction techniques to the quid samples.

A wad of stringy agave plant fibers commonly called ‘quids’.

A wad of stringy agave plant fibers commonly called ‘quids’. Credit: DRI

The research team used laboratory and computational resources at DRI’s Southern Nevada Science Center in Las Vegas, and later at SIU, to identify changes in the mitochondrial DNA sequences that are maintained in ancestrally related populations called haplogroups. These haplogroups can then be compared to Native American tribes and other ancient DNA lineages.

The study showed that the Mule Spring Rockshelter quid specimens ranged in age from about 350 to 980 years old. Because Mule Spring Rockshelter sits at a crossroads between the southern Great Basin, the Mojave Desert, and the Southwest Puebloan cultures, these results may provide a better timeline for an important but contentiously debated event in human history known as the Numic Spread.

Today’s Numic people contend they have always been here, a position some scientists readily support. However, some evidence suggests that Numic-speaking ancestors of contemporary native peoples spread from southern California throughout the Great Basin about 500 to 700 years ago; a date range which overlaps with the current study. Other studies suggest a much earlier arrival.

This research marks only the second time that scientists have been able to sequence human DNA from plant-based artifacts, expanding upon an approach utilized by Steven LeBlanc of Harvard University.

“Since these materials were also radiocarbon dated, in essence they provide a time-resolved hotel registry for this unique site over a period of hundreds of years,” added Moser.

As an added benefit of utilizing DNA from quid samples (rather than from more traditional sources such as bones or teeth), the research team found that they were able to obtain the information they needed while being respectful of cultural sensitivities.

“The distinct advantage of this genetic technique, is that it does not require the sampling of human remains” said Scott Hamilton-Brehm, lead author on the study and assistant professor of microbiology at SIU who completed his postdoctoral research at DRI.

In the future, the team hopes to continue this work by targeting additional quids from the Mule Spring Rockshelter collection, with the possibility of corroborating evidence of older dates for habitation of the site suggested by prior studies of more traditional cultural artifacts. Plans are in the works to perform similar studies on quids from other Great Basin sites to glean additional information about the movements of ancient peoples and utilize more powerful analytical approaches to obtain greater DNA sequence coverage than was obtained by this pilot study.

“We look forward to learning more about Native American presence in the Great Basin and Southwest area, and how the data compares over time,” added Lidia Hristova, a graduate of the UNLV Anthropology Program who conducted much of the hands-on DNA extraction from the samples while working as an undergraduate research assistant at DRI and studying at UNLV.

The full study, “Ancient human mitochondrial DNA and radiocarbon analysis of archived quids from the Mule Spring Rockshelter, Nevada, USA,” is available online from  PLOS ONE: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0194223 

Mule Spring Rockshelter is a protected cultural resource located on BLM-managed lands. DRI access to the Mule Spring collection was granted under permit and loan agreement. 

Tim Crosby, Communications and Marketing Strategist at SIU Carbondale contributed to this press release. 

Additional photos available upon request.  

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

Meet Brittany Kruger, Ph.D.

Meet Brittany Kruger, Ph.D.

Brittany Kruger, Ph.D., is a staff research scientist in geobiology with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, NV. She specializes in the study of microbes that live in deep underground environments, such as those found inside of deep mines. Brittany is a Minnesota native, and holds a Ph.D. and Master’s Degree in Water Resources Science from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her work has taken her to diverse environments, including Lake Superior, Lake Malawi in Africa, Woods Hole, MA, Japan, and a mile-deep abandoned gold mine in South Dakota. She has been a member of the DRI community since 2014, when she moved to Las Vegas for a position in Dr. Duane Moser’s Environmental Microbiology Lab. In her free time, Brittany enjoys rock climbing in Red Rock Canyon and making trips into the Sierras.


DRI: What do you do here at DRI?
BK: I am a staff scientist here at DRI. I support a number of different projects that focus on deep biosphere life, which essentially means we try and examine life as deep as we can access it underground. Specifically, we look for microbial life and try and understand how those organisms are functioning given the stresses that they encounter deep underground.

DRI: How do you access deep underground environments?
BK: There are a couple different ways you can access the deep biosphere. One way is to actually go there – you can go down in deep mines, for example. In that scenario we can actually bring instruments and equipment down with us. One of our most recently active field sites is an old gold mine in South Dakota, where we are able to go about a mile underground.

Another option to access subsurface life is to use deeply drilled wells that access water or aquifers that are very far underground. This is the approach that we use at active field sites in the Death Valley and Armargosa Valley areas. There aren’t a lot of places in the world where you can access the very hottest, deepest part of the earth quite as easily as we can in this area, because that surface layer of the earth is a little bit thinner here, particularly in the Death Valley region.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

DRI: We understand that some of your research has implications for life on other planets. Can you tell us about that?
BK: One of the projects that I’ve been focusing on since I started here at DRI is the NASA Astrobiology Life Underground Project. I have served as continental fieldwork coordinator for that project since joining DRI. We try to access the deep biosphere in multiple locations to install experimentation and collect samples, and we use what we learn about the way microbes are metabolizing and surviving in those locations to help us understand how life might be functioning on other planets that experience the same or similar stressors, like extreme heat, temperature, pressure, radiation, lack of sunlight, etc.

Right now, we’re installing experiments that focus on better understanding exactly what chemical reactions microbes are using to live in these deep environments.  If you think about it, the majority of life that we understand well, the life on the surface of the planet, uses sunlight for energy at some point in their food chain. But these microbes deep underground do not.  Instead they’re able to rely on dissolved metals or other compounds to produce the energy they need to live. Sometimes they need to be in actual physical contact with these compounds, and attach to those surfaces to live.  It’d be similar to us having to go touch a rusty car in order to breathe. So we’re installing various mineral materials into these deep biosphere environments and studying the microbial populations that colonize them.

As an additional component to that project, we also work closely with members of the SHERLOC instrument team at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who are developing an instrument slated to fly on the Mars 2020 Rover that uses Raman and Luminescence scanning to detect organics and chemicals. A lot of the field samples and experiment results are analyzed with that instrument to learn more about our samples and to help provide background data for the instrument prior to its Mars deployment.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

DRI: What is it like to work deep underground?
BK: It’s great. I love it. I’m always excited to go down. It’s absolute pitch black, and it gets hotter the deeper you go. At our hottest underground site, it is something like 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. It is uncomfortable to be there for a long time, for sure. But the facility we work in does a really good job of trying to mitigate air flow while we’re there to keep that a little more comfortable.

One of the best parts is also spending time with the old miners. I go to South Dakota every few months, and spend multiple days underground accessing our sites in what was once the Homestake Gold Mine.  Mining has ceased in the facility, and the entire mine has now been dedicated solely to science and is called the Sanford Underground Research Facility.  So it’s a really unique facility where people who previously mined the workings are now employed as underground guides for scientists. There are extremely high-level physics labs located about a mile underground on the deepest accessible level. You’d never know you were underground in those labs; they’re like any state of the art aboveground facility.

But, that’s not where we want to go – we want to go to the far away, dirty, dark, hot places where it’s not maintained and where we can access the unaltered water flowing out of the mine wall. So, we get to hang out with the old miners that know the mine, and know how to access those places and know how to do it safely. So that’s fantastic – we get to see some really exciting things and some really awesome old history. It’s fun.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.

 

New research improves prospects for imperiled Devils Hole Pupfish in captivity

New research improves prospects for imperiled Devils Hole Pupfish in captivity

Above: Researchers Joshua Sackett (left) and Duane Moser (right) of DRI help National Park Service officials move scaffolding infrastructure during a routine sampling visit to Devils Hole on December 13, 2014. Credit: Jonathan Eisen.


DRI study finds key differences between artificial habitat and the real Devils Hole

Las Vegas, NV (Tuesday, March 20, 2018): In a first-of-its kind study of comparing the microbiology of Devils Hole with that of a constructed scale replica at the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility (AMFCF), a team of scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas discovered key differences in nutrient levels and species composition that may be impacting the ability of the highly endangered Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) to survive in captivity.

“We were interested in taking a closer look at the chemical and biological factors that control productivity at both sites,” said Duane Moser, Ph.D., an associate research professor of microbiology at DRI who has been involved with research at Devils Hole since 2008. “In studying both, we could gain some insights into how well the artificial refuge actually replicates Devils Hole, and in turn, offer recommendations for ways to make the refuge a better habitat for the pupfish.”

Devils Hole Pupfish (population 115 in autumn 2017) are an iridescent blue, one-inch-long pupfish. They are native only to Devils Hole, an isolated water-filled cavern of unknown depth located in a detached unit of Death Valley National Park within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Amargosa Valley, Nevada. Devils Hole is an extreme environment, with water temperatures and dissolved oxygen concentrations near their lethal limits for most fishes.

Since 2013, scientists have been trying to establish a backup population of these endangered fish in a constructed tank at the AMFCF, which is located a short distance west of Devils Hole. Although the facility was designed to match the climate, water chemistry and physical dimensions of an area of shallow shelf habitat in Devils Hole, the pupfish have had only limited success reproducing and surviving in this artificial environment.

In 2015, Moser and a team of researchers from DRI set out to learn if there were other factors that might be impacting the success of these fish. Their new study, published in the March edition of PLOS One, characterizes and compares water chemistry and microbial communities between Devils Hole and the AMFCF.

Although water temperature and dissolved oxygen at the AMFCF are intentionally maintained at values that are slightly lower and higher, respectively, from those of Devils Hole, this work shows that the nutrient balance between the two sites is also very different, with AMFCF being strongly nitrogen limited – about five times lower than that of Devils Hole.

In the microbial communities, which contribute to the distribution and availability of dissolved nutrients in the water and are also a food source for the pupfish, the research team discovered more than 2,000 microbial species from 44 distinct phyla present in the water at Devils Hole. They detected similar levels of species diversity at AMFCF, but found that different bacterial phyla were dominant at each site. These differences may relate to the observed differences in nitrogen concentrations.

“Nitrogen levels have an effect on the types of organisms that you’ll find, and the types of metabolisms that they have,” said Joshua Sackett, a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute and doctoral student in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “We found a lot fewer of at least one major category of primary producers – the cyanobacteria – in the AMFCF compared to Devils Hole, and we think that’s due to differences in nutrient concentration.”

One of the strengths of the comparative power of this study is that the data from each site were gathered on the same day. This study highlights the potential importance of considering water chemistry and microbiology when constructing artificial fish habitats – and the team hopes that the information will provide a valuable contribution to the continued survival of the Devils Hole Pupfish in captivity.

“This work revealed very different microbial populations, which we infer might correspond to large differences in nutrient dynamics between the sites – especially in terms of nitrogen,” Moser said. “Consequently, some relatively modest tweaks in how the refuge is operated could potentially improve the prospects for continued survival of one of Earth’s most imperiled fishes.”

The full version of the study – A comparative study of prokaryotic diversity and physicochemical characteristics of Devils Hole and the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility, a constructed analog – is available online: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0194404

For more information about DRI, visit www.dri.edu

Photo caption: Researchers Joshua Sackett (left) and Duane Moser (right) of DRI help National Park Service officials move scaffolding infrastructure during a routine sampling visit to Devils Hole on December 13, 2014. Credit: Jonathan Eisen.

Additional photos are available upon request.

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

Healthy Nevada Project announces pilot study insights and phase two enrollment

Reno, Nev. (March 15, 2018) – Eighteen months ago, northern Nevada made history welcoming a first-of-its-kind, community-based population health study combining clinical, genetic and environmental data with the goal of providing personalized, precision medicine for individuals while improving health statewide.

The Healthy Nevada Project is making history again with the opening of phase two genomic sequencing to an additional 40,000 northern Nevadans, bringing the study’s total participation to 50,000 residents and making it one of the largest population health studies in the country. Project leaders are also sharing insights from the 10,000-person pilot study and announcing lessons learned, which are now being integrated directly into patient care.

When healthcare network Renown Health and the world leader in environmental sciences, the Desert Research Institute (DRI), partnered to launch this landmark project in September 2016, the response was unprecedented with 10,000 community members signing up in just 48 hours and DNA sample collection completed in 69 working days.

Today, research teams with Renown Institute for Health Innovation (Renown IHI) – a collaboration between Renown and DRI – announced the first findings from that 10,000-person pilot. Study researchers explained how care providers and scientists will begin working on a number of clinical programs and scientific studies focused specifically on Washoe County’s high age-adjusted death rates for heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease. Collectively, these conditions among local residents stand at 33 percent above the national rate.

In the coming months, Renown IHI will begin providing advanced calcium score screenings to pilot phase participants at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. This will allow researchers to examine the link between genetics and calcium buildup in the heart. Additionally, based on pilot phase data, researchers have seen increased use of regional healthcare correlated with fluctuations in air quality and so-called “bad air events” such as wildfires and atmospheric inversions. In phase two, Renown IHI will evaluate possible links between genetics and increased susceptibility to respiratory ailments.

“From the start, this project has been focused on improving health statewide. We are now not only seeing those results, but also acting on them,” said Anthony Slonim, M.D., DrPH, FACHE, president and CEO of Renown Health and president of Renown IHI. “Healthcare organizations around the country are moving from solely providing care inside hospital walls to improving health outcomes across communities. It starts with health literacy, and this is the largest health literacy project in the country. We are helping people understand their risks and getting involved at the clinical level to help them live healthier lives.”

Leveraging Renown’s forward-thinking approach to community healthcare and DRI’s data and environmental expertise, Renown IHI has evolved and grown its capabilities to lead a larger, more complex research study of significance that will analyze and model public health risks in the Silver State and serve as a model for future population health studies across the country.

“Nevada is leading the country in growth and innovation. But sadly, we continue to rank among the worst in regards to health at 47th in the nation,” said Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, the pilot study’s first participant. “Through the Healthy Nevada Project, we now have the gift of insight to make needed changes not just for ourselves and our loved ones, but for Nevada.”

For the second phase of this monumental project, research teams will have greater depth and quality of DNA data thanks to a partnership with Helix, a personal genomics company that uses Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology instead of genotyping and operates one of the world’s largest CAP- and CLIA-accredited exome sequencing labs. The Helix.com marketplace model will also enable the Healthy Nevada Project to work with other research groups and industry-leading companies at the forefront of using genetics to drive better health outcomes.

“Taken individually, environmental, genetic and clinical data are each powerful tools for advancing health. But a comprehensive picture of these data can be even more powerful – finding new risk factors within populations and further improving community health,” said James Lu, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder and senior vice president of Applied Genomics at Helix. “Each person who chooses to participate in the Healthy Nevada Project will be contributing their genetics to better scientific understanding and ultimately, helping everyone live longer, healthier lives.”

In phase two, an additional 40,000 Nevadans are invited to test using Helix’s proprietary NGS pipeline. Helix’s Exome+ assay testing reads all 20,000 protein-coding genes and other regions in the body important to providing genetic insights which allows for 100 times more data.

Study volunteers will take Helix’s DNA saliva test and automatically receive access to the popular Helix-powered ancestry app, Geno 2.0 by National Geographic, and a Helix.com account that lets them explore additional DNA-powered products on the Helix App store. If study participants choose to complete a follow-up survey from the Healthy Nevada Project, they will have the chance to pick an additional health and wellness app specific to their individual genetic results.

Renown IHI is opening 10,000 testing slots to any northern Nevadan interested in taking part. Once those 10,000 slots are filled, researchers will focus on matching the demographics that comprise northern Nevada. This means study participants will be eligible based on specific demographic variables including: gender, age group, ethnicity and rural versus urban residents.

“Fitting these criteria will ensure this landmark population health study mirrors the people of northern Nevada,” said Joseph Grzymski, Ph.D., senior director of the DRI Applied Innovation Center; co-director of Renown IHI; and principal investigator of the Healthy Nevada Project. “Thanks to years of research, we know gender, age and ethnicity all play key roles in a person’s health risks. By accurately representing our region, we will be able to better understand the health issues we’re seeing communitywide and how to address them.”

In the years ahead, Renown IHI aspires to offer genetic testing through the Healthy Nevada Project to every Nevadan interested in learning more about their health and genetic profile, and ultimately, drive positive health outcomes statewide. Simultaneously, the Healthy Nevada Project will expand the state’s access to leading-edge clinical trials and foster new connections with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

To see if you are eligible to participate in the study, to sign up for study updates and for full details on the Healthy Nevada Project, please visit HealthyNV.org.

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Renown Institute for Health Innovation is a collaboration between Renown Health – a locally governed and locally owned, not-for-profit integrated healthcare network serving Nevada, Lake Tahoe and northeast California; and the Desert Research Institute – a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. Renown IHI research teams are focused on integrating personal healthcare and environmental data with socioeconomic determinants to help Nevada address some of its most complex environmental health problems; while simultaneously expanding the state’s access to leading-edge clinical trials and fostering new connections with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at www.healthynv.org.

Helix is a personal genomics company with a simple but powerful mission: to empower every person to improve their life through DNA. We’ve created the first marketplace for DNA-powered products where people can explore diverse and uniquely personalized products developed by high-quality partners. Helix handles sample collection, DNA sequencing, and secure data storage so that our partners can integrate DNA insights into products across a range of categories, including ancestry, entertainment, family, fitness, health and nutrition. Helix is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area and operates a CLIA-and-CAP-accredited Next Generation Sequencing lab in San Diego, powered by Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN) NGS technology. Helix was founded in 2015 with support from Illumina, its largest shareholder. Learn more at www.helix.com.

DRI Stories in the Snow Project collects over 400 images from local citizen scientists

DRI Stories in the Snow Project collects over 400 images from local citizen scientists

Detailed photographs help local scientists understand regional storms, collect weather data

Reno, NV (Wednesday, March 14, 2018): No two snow crystals are alike, an old saying goes – and this winter, students, and adults from across the Reno-Tahoe region are helping researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) discover exactly what the unique shape of each freshly-fallen snowflake means for Nevada’s changing climate.

As part of a new citizen science project called “Stories in the Snow” (storiesinthesnow.org), DRI researchers are enlisting help from a quickly-growing network of students and volunteers in the Reno-Tahoe region to collect photographs of snow crystals each time it snows.

To date, the project has collected more than 400 photographs and data points from around the region, including more than 40 images from a recent storm that hit Reno-Tahoe in early March. In April, the research team will begin analysis of the data that has been collected this winter.

“To participate, all you need is a smartphone, a magnifying lens, and a flake of freshly fallen snow,” said Meghan Collins, education lead for the Stories in the Snow program and Assistant Research Scientist of Environmental Science at DRI. “We have partnered with 15 classes from schools in the local area and several educational non-profits. We are really excited to get students and community members involved in studying our snow and learning about climate science in our region.”

Project participants use a smartphone and data collection kit (available through the Stories in the Snow crowdfunding site) to capture up-close photographs of snowflakes, then submit the photos along with weather data on time, temperature and location to a DRI research team through the Citizen Science Lake Tahoe mobile app. The app, which was developed in partnership with the U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC), is available for iPhone and Andriod operating systems. Following the Tom’s Shoes philanthropic model, each snowflake picture kit purchased through the project’s crowdfunding site provides a one-to-one matching donation of Stories in the Snow kits and training for local students.

By combining the photographs with common weather information on the time and location from which each snow crystal image was captured, DRI atmospheric research teams are learning about the temperature and water content of winter storm clouds. They are using the pictures and the weather data to better understand how snow storms in our region form and how warmer winters are impacting cloud physics and snow levels.

“We want to unravel what goes on in the clouds as a storm moves over the Sierra Crest and through our region,” said Frank McDonough, research lead for the Stories in the Snow project and associate research professor of atmospheric science at DRI. “The ice crystals tell us a lot about what happened during each snowflake’s journey – from how it first formed in the cloud all the way to how early it might melt and where it could land.”

From star-shaped “dendrites” too pointy “needles” and hexagonal “plates,” the shape and condition of each flake tells a unique story, McDonough explained. And if a flake appears covered in tiny, frozen droplets called “rime”, that is especially interesting to the research team – with possible implications for the aviation industry including research into airplane wing icing.

“If you see a snowflake with rime, you know that cloud had sub-freezing liquid water drops in it,” McDonough said. “Under those conditions, if an airplane flies through, the water droplets freeze on the airplane just like they freeze on the ice crystals. In extreme cases, the airplane can’t fly. Our main goal is to just understand clouds that exist below freezing, and what goes on in them when the water is present or absent.”

DRI initially piloted the Stories in the Snow program in several area schools during the winter of 2016-17 and launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to continue the project in October 2017. Now halfway through the 2017-18 season, Stories in the Snow is working in cooperation with teachers at ten local schools and three educational non-profits from the Reno-Tahoe region to enlist participation from students. They have also distributed more than 75 kits to other interested members of the public.

Data collected by the Stories in the Snow program is being used to support numerous projects, including improvements to climate and weather prediction models, validation of radar and satellite precipitation data, and data and insight for highway snow removal crews, avalanche forecasters, and water use planning groups. The research team also plans to make the data available to the public, so that any student or science-minded citizen can conduct their own investigations.

“If an amateur scientist wants to do a study on snowflakes, to see if they look different in March than in January, for example, we are excited to have them do that,” McDonough said. “We want the community to have access to the data. That’s the whole point with citizen science – giving people the opportunity to use these crystal images for their own projects, or just their own enjoyment.”

Stories in the Snow is supported during the 2017-2018 winter season by the Truckee-Tahoe Community Foundation and Nevada Space Grant.  For more information about the Stories in the Snow program, please visit http://storiesinthesnow.org, or follow along on Facebook (@storiesinthesnow) or Instagram (@storiesinthesnow). 

Additional photos available on Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmfQxuZL

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

Saving the Desert’s Upper Crust

To a casual observer, desert lands may appear a barren vista of sand and soil, sparsely dotted with shrubbery and cacti but, in reality, they are lush with microscopic plants: lichens, mosses, and cyanobacteria. There isn’t an inch of soil that is without these organisms.

“These organisms are a critical component of the desert ecosystem: they stabilize soils against erosion and provide essential nutrients to plants,” says NEXUS scientist Dr. Henry Sun, a research microbiologist at the Desert Research Institute (DRI).

These coverings-known as cryptogamic crusts-while providing essential ecosystem services, are also very fragile. Both the installation of solar farms and regular maintenance activities can disturb and remove this biological layer. “Such activities can destroy the crusts and result in increased dust emission,” Sun says. “And, once destroyed, they take decades to recover.”

Consequently, Sun and his graduate student, Lynda Burns, are trying to understand the impacts that large scale solar farms will have on this component of desert ecosystems and how to develop mitigation strategies to help prevent, or remediate any damage. “The goal of our research is to know the vulnerabilities of the organisms that build these protective crusts and to use the information to guide future restoration mitigation efforts in the context of solar plant impacts,” Sun says.

Banking Biology

The presence of these non-flowering plants is a key indicator of a healthy desert ecosystem. As well as forming a protective soil crust, and a barrier to erosion, they also provide nutrients to plants, mediate the transfer of water and provide a base for seed germination and plant growth.  In addition, the cyanobacteria can convert the nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds that act as fertilizers for other plants, via a process called nitrogen fixation. “So you fix nitrogen using solar energy into a form that is available to plants,” Sun says.

Recognizing the importance of these crusts, and also their vulnerabilities, scientists have been investigating how to protect them. One suggested approach has been to harvest the crusts prior to a disturbance such as the installation of a solar farm, and save them. Once the construction is complete, the researchers’ suggestion is then to use the preserved crusts to inoculate the soil and aid in restoring the new crust.

The desert can prove a harsh environment for plants with temperatures and rainfall fluctuating between extremes. Also, a process called photochemical oxidation, facilitated by the sun’s ultraviolet rays can result in reactive oxygen species that are extremely damaging to life. “For this strategy to be effective, we need to know if the organisms lose vitality during storage, how long they would survive, and how to help them survive and thrive once they’ve been re-introduced to the desert habitat,” Sun says.

The scientific community does not yet know the answers to such questions and it was a knowledge gap that the NEXUS team set out to close. They began by collecting and saving the organisms in the soil crust and set about trying to understand how long those samples could survive and whether they could be successfully reintroduced to the desert environment. “There were two questions we’re trying to answer,” Sun says. “One, whether you can store the organisms and, two, when you reintroduce them what can we do to help them re-establish?”

Putting Crusts to the Test

In the lab, the scientists started their investigations by storing lichen samples from the Mojave Desert for different periods of time. In their natural habitat the lichens in the crusts alternate between drying out and hydration. During the desiccation process, they suffer from cellular damage but once they are hydrated repair and growth is possible. In their experiments, the researchers watered the stored samples and then monitored their recovery. “Healthy specimens become active within a minute of watering and compromised lichens go through a period of repair before they become productive,” Sun says. The researchers assumed that those lichens that showed no activity after 8 hours were dead.

Using this methodology, the scientists found that lichens can be stored dry at room temperature in ambient air for up to a year without any significant decline in vitality.  One-year old samples showed similar behavior to fresh samples: once they were given water they were ready to use light energy and photosynthesize.  Three and even ten-year-old samples were weaker and it would take them between 25 and 200 minutes to restore photosynthesis after the addition of water.

The scientists then attempted to determine how ultraviolet (UV) rays would impact the lichens when they were reintroduced back into the desert. The crust lichens protect themselves from UV light by synthesizing compounds that create a screen that blocks the harsh rays.  Even when the researchers put intense UV source as close as 25 centimeters away for one week the lichens suffered only minor damage. “It was well within their ability to repair,” Sun says. “This level of ionizing radiation resistance is unparalleled in the microbial world.”

The scientists did find, however, that the lichens were vulnerable to high concentrations of ozone. Fumigation in ozone for long periods caused photochemical oxidation, killing Collema, a cyanobacterial lichen, and severely damaging Placidium, a green algal lichen. Previous studies on the stress tolerance of crust-forming organisms considered only the impacts of UV radiation and desiccation. “Our work showed that photochemical oxidation presents a more severe stress than UV and desiccation,” Sun says. “And this has implications for crust storage and restoration.”

Given the evidence that the crust lichens are primarily vulnerable to oxidation, Sun recommends that the samples be stored in a non-oxidizing gas, such as nitrogen, instead of ambient atmosphere, to minimize oxidative stress.  In the field, amending the soil with antioxidants could protect the newly restored “seed” organisms from oxidation and thereby help them grow faster.  Both the ability of the organisms to be stored and their ability to survive typical desert conditions bodes well for the future, Sun says. “The research suggests that crust restoration is feasible and should be considered by land managers and solar companies,” Sun says.


This story was written by Jane Palmer and was originally published by the Solar-Energy-Water-Environment Nexus Project. For more information about the Nexus Project, visit: https://solarnexus.epscorspo.nevada.edu/

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

Helix to help expand Healthy Nevada Project

Reno, Nev. and San Carlos, Calif. (Tuesday, January 9, 2018) – Fifteen months after launching the state’s landmark Healthy Nevada Project, Renown Institute for Health Innovation (Renown IHI) is taking steps toward significantly expanding public enrollment in its community-based population health initiative. Today, executives and research team members proudly announce they have partnered with personal genomics company, Helix, for the next phase of this study.

Utilizing Helix’s proprietary Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology and uniquely personalized suite of DNA-powered products, research teams at Renown Health and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) plan to offer an additional 40,000 Nevadans the opportunity to have their DNA sequenced and participate in phase two of the Renown IHI study expected to open for enrollment in spring 2018.

“From the beginning, our focus with the Healthy Nevada Project has been on delivering personalized health data to our communities that will ultimately drive positive change for our state,” said Anthony Slonim, M.D., DrPH, president and CEO of Renown Health, and president Renown IHI. “We are very excited about the opportunities the next phase of this groundbreaking study will offer. Community participants will be able to gain deeper, actionable insights into their DNA data, while our research teams gain unprecedented access to the largest clinical DNA sequencing facility in the world.”

Unlike other companies that use microarray technology, Helix uses NGS to sequence a proprietary assay called Exome+ that provides 100 times more data than was previously available. Exome+ includes all 22,000 protein-coding genes as well as additional regions known to be of interest. Helix sequences each participant’s DNA sample once, and then securely stores that information so the user can choose to explore many DNA-powered applications throughout their lifetime. All samples are processed in Helix’s CLIA- and CAP-accredited sequencing lab powered by Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN) NGS technology, using the Exome+ assay.

“Our mission is to empower every person to improve their life through DNA. We invested heavily in our Exome+ assay, partner infrastructure, and CLIA- and CAP-accredited laboratory – which is now the largest clinical exome sequencing facility in the world – with the vision of empowering individuals with access to data about themselves and the DNA-powered products that enable them to take a more active role in their health,” said Robin Thurston, CEO of Helix. “Helix is proud to support this important project which will empower people to make better health choices and will contribute to novel genomics discoveries.”

The Healthy Nevada Project offers community members the opportunity to receive a product through Helix.com, at no cost, by volunteering for research. The Healthy Nevada Project will offer study participants a DNA kit from Helix that provides information on personal traits or ancestry, and a Helix.com account which will enable them to explore additional DNA-powered products through the Helix App store if they choose.

Researchers and data scientists leading the Healthy Nevada Project are combining genetic data with health and population data, as well as information from environmental databases to create a large health determinants data set. This health determinants platform is being used to identify and model public health risks ranging from disease and illness to the effects of environmental factors such as air quality on the health of Nevadans. The pilot phase of the study enrolled 10,000 participants in less than 48 hours and then completed subsequent DNA sample collection from each participant in just 60 working days. Participants in the pilot phase of the study range from ages 18-90 years old from 135 zip codes in northern Nevada. Socioeconomic survey information was also collected during the pilot phase using an advanced, confidential online survey tool.

Northern Nevada’s diverse healthcare catchment spans 100,000 square miles, an area the same size as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania combined; and serves almost 1 million community members. These unique elements – the population, the comprehensive provider network offered by Renown Health, generational healthcare data and innovative combination of new research tools – make the region an ideal location for advanced health science.

“Our pilot phase used genotyping, which was a great start, but moving to exome sequencing and inviting an additional 40,000 people to participate will dramatically accelerate what we can learn about the human genome and has the potential to greatly improve preventative health and create incredible potential for new scientific discoveries,” said Joseph Grzymski, Ph.D., an associate research professor at DRI, co-director of Renown IHI, and principal investigator of the Healthy Nevada Project.

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Renown Institute for Health Innovation is a collaboration between Renown Health– a locally governed and locally owned, not-for-profit integrated healthcare network serving Nevada, Lake Tahoe and northeast California; and the Desert Research Institute – a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. Renown IHI research teams are focused on integrating personal healthcare and environmental data with socioeconomic determinants to help Nevada address some of its most complex environmental health problems; while simultaneously expanding the state’s access to leading-edge clinical trials and fostering new connections with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at www.healthynv.org.

Helix is a personal genomics company with a simple but powerful mission: to empower every person to improve their life through DNA. We’ve created the first marketplace for DNA-powered products where people can explore diverse and uniquely personalized products developed by high-quality partners. Helix handles sample collection, DNA sequencing, and secure data storage so that our partners can integrate DNA insights into products across a range of categories, including ancestry, entertainment, family, fitness, health and nutrition. From profound insights to just-for-fun discoveries, Helix is here to help people live a fuller life. Helix is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has a CLIA- and CAP-accredited Next Generation Sequencing lab in San Diego powered by Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN) NGS technology. Helix was created in 2015 with founding support from Illumina, its largest shareholder. Learn more at www.helix.com.

Scientists investigate northern Sierra Nevada snow droughts

Scientists investigate northern Sierra Nevada snow droughts

Above: From the east side of Washoe Lake, the view of Slide Mountain and Mount Rose on January 7, 2018, showed the effects of the ongoing snow drought. Warm wet and dry periods in November and a dry period in December created snow drought conditions throughout the region. Credit Benjamin Hatchett, DRI.


 

Reno, NV (Wednesday, January 17, 2018): The Lake Tahoe Basin and northern Sierra Nevada are currently experiencing a condition known as snow drought, according to new research and data from scientists at the Desert Research Institute (DRI). Snow droughts, or periods of below-normal snowpack, occur when abnormally warm storms or abnormally dry climate conditions prevent mountain snowpack from accumulating.

“As of early January, the snowpack in the Lake Tahoe Basin was only 28 percent of normal,” said Benjamin Hatchett, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences. “We experienced warm wet and dry periods in November and a dry period in December that has created snow drought conditions throughout the region, followed by warm, rainy weather so far in January that has caused snowpack levels to decline further, especially at low elevation sites.”

Snow droughts have become increasingly common in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains in recent years, as warming temperatures push snow lines higher up mountainsides and cause more precipitation to fall as rain.

Hatchett, an avid backcountry skier, began to notice the trend several years ago and recently published research outlining an approximately 1,200-foot rise in the winter snow levels over the last ten years across the northern Sierra Nevada.

Looking deeper into the rising snow levels and a general continued lack of snow in their local region, Hatchett and fellow DRI climate researcher Daniel McEvoy, Ph.D., an assistant research professor of climatology and regional climatologist at DRI’s Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC), sought to expand upon the little that is currently known about snow droughts and their impacts to local watersheds and economies.

In a new study recently published in the journal Earth Interactions, Hatchett and McEvoy explored the root causes of snow droughts in the northern Sierra Nevada, and investigate how snow droughts evolve throughout a winter season. To do this, they used hourly, daily and monthly data to analyze the progression of eight historic snow droughts that occurred in the northern Sierra Nevada between 1951 and 2017.

“We were interested in looking at the different pathways that can lead to a snow drought, and the different implications that each pathway has for mountain systems,” McEvoy explained.

Graph of the snow drought of 2017/2018.

The snow drought of 2017/2018 as observed at Fallen Leaf Lake, Calif. and the Central Sierra Snow Lab in Soda Springs, Calif. Map created by ClimateEngine.org – Powered by Google Earth Engine. Credit Benjamin Hatchett, DRI.

Previous research has used April 1st (the date that snowpack levels, measured as snow water equivalent or SWE, in the Sierra Nevada typically reach a maximum) as the primary date for calculating snow drought, and classified each snow drought as one of two types, warm or dry. “Warm snow drought” years were characterized by above-average levels of precipitation and below-average snow accumulation (SWE); “Dry snow drought” years were characterized by below-average levels of precipitation and below-average snow accumulation (SWE).

Hatchett and McEvoy’s work expanded upon these concepts by examining the progression of snow droughts throughout the entire winter season.

Their results illustrate that each snow drought originates and develops along a different timeline, with some beginning early in the season and some not appearing until later. Snow droughts often occurred as a result of frequent rain-on-snow events, low precipitation years, and persistent dry periods with warmer than normal temperatures. The severity of each snow drought changed throughout the season, and effects were different at different elevations.

“We learned that if you just look at snow levels on April 1st, you miss out on a lot of important information,” McEvoy said. “For example, if you are in a snow drought all winter long and come out of it right at the end due to a few big storms, there are probably implications to that.”

Sometimes, McEvoy explained, snow droughts were found to occur in years with above-average precipitation. For example, in 1997, a powerful atmospheric river storm event led to record-breaking flooding throughout the region – but much of the moisture arrived as rain rather than snow, with detrimental effects on the snowpack.

Climate change is likely to make snow drought an even more common phenomenon in the future, said Hatchett, as temperatures in the northern Sierra Nevada are expected to continue warming.

“There has always been an occasional snow drought year in the mountains, but that was typically the ‘dry’ type of snow drought caused by lack of precipitation,” Hatchett said. “As the climate grows warmer and more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, we are seeing that we can have an average or above-average precipitation year and still have a well below-average snowpack.”

The implications of snow drought have not yet been studied extensively, but may include impacts to water resources, snowmelt runoff, flooding, soil moisture, tree mortality, ecological system health, fuel moisture levels that drive fire danger, human recreation, and much more. In regions such as the Lake Tahoe Basin, where mountain snowpack sustains wildlife, ecosystems, local economies, and provides crucial water resources to downstream communities throughout the year, the impacts of snow droughts could be enormous.

The last four winters, Hatchett and McEvoy noted, have all exhibited some degree of snow drought in the northern Sierra Nevada. Even the recent huge winter of 2016/17, which ended with far above-average snowpack levels (205% of the long-term median on April 1, 2017 in the Lake Tahoe Basin), began with a period of early-season snow drought during a dry November. This winter has been no exception, with snow drought taking hold over low elevation areas in November, and moving to higher elevation sites in December.

Only time will tell how the 2017/2018 winter season will end, but in the meantime, snow drought is affecting the region in ways that have not yet been fully quantified.

Hatchet and McEvoy hope that their research will prompt further investigations into the potentially devastating impacts of snow drought, and will help to inform regional climate adaptation planning efforts.

“We spend a lot of time going out and skiing, climbing, and hiking in the mountains, which is what inspired us to study these things,” Hatchett said. “We’re seeing and experiencing snow drought first-hand, and we have to quantify it and understand it because these are changing patterns on the landscape that will have massive implications for the mountain environments that we experience each day and the mountain communities that we live in.”

The full version of the study—“Exploring the Origins of snow drought in the northern Sierra Nevada, California”—is available online at –http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/10.1175/EI-D-17-0027.1

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

DRI and Scripps Oceanography receive $3 million NOAA grant to help decision makers prepare for extreme events

Reno, NV (Friday, November 17, 2017): A climate research program led by scientists at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego has received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to improve the ability of decision makers in California and Nevada to prepare and plan for extreme weather and climate events such as drought, wildfire, heatwaves, and sea level rise.

NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) Program granted a total of $7.5 million in competitive research awards to four institutions in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Nevada.

The California-Nevada Applications Program (CNAP), a DRI and Scripps collaboration that has spent more than 15 years understanding climate risks and providing cutting-edge climate science to stakeholders in the region, will receive $3 million over the next five years. CNAP has been part of the RISA program since 1999.

“We (CNAP) do both research and work as a boundary organization,” explains Tamara Wall, Ph.D., co-director of CNAP and deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI. “We work with the people who produce climate information and the people who use it on a daily basis. Our online data tools, observational data, and publications make the climate information pipeline both wider and shorter, thereby making the climate data critical to on-the-ground decisions more accessible and easier to understand.”

With the new grant, the CNAP program will focus on climate-driven impacts related to water resources, natural resources, and coastal resources. This includes wildfire warnings and health impacts, sea-level rise and flooding, precipitation events in the Great Basin, climate information for underserved farmers, communication and coordination of the California/Nevada Drought Early Warning System, and research projects related to extreme precipitation, seasonal to sub-seasonal forecasting, and incorporation of new evaporative demand data into water management in Southern Nevada.

“The RISA program helps bridge the gap by partnering scientists and key decision makers,” said Dan Cayan, research meteorologist at Scripps and co-director of CNAP. “The goal is to have informed stakeholders who can use the latest research to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to climate impacts, and for our researchers to be able to directly support on-the-ground decisions to improve climate resiliency and inform policy.”

The new RISA funding will allow CNAP staff to work closely with communities, resource managers, land planners, public agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to advance new research on how weather and climate will impact the environment, economy, and society. These teams will also develop innovative ways to integrate climate information into decision-making.

For more than 20 years, the RISA Program has produced actionable weather and climate research, helping to reduce economic damages that Americans face due to droughts, floods, forest fires, vector-borne diseases, and a host of other extreme weather impacts. A network of 11 RISA teams across the country works hand-in-hand with stakeholders and decision makers across the United States to ensure that research and information is responsive and able to effectively support responses to extreme events. The interagency National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) co-funds drought components of these awards.

CNAP draws together climate and hydrologic expertise at Scripps with physical and social scientists from DRI, as well as other research institutions in California and Nevada. CNAP research teams have developed collaborations with key decision makers across both states. CNAP has worked closely with Washoe County Emergency Management office, California Energy Commission and has taken a leading role in the three completed and now fourth ongoing, California Climate Assessments. In addition, the team has collaborated with California Department of Water Resources on several of their climate focused efforts and plays a key role in supporting the California Nevada Drought Early Warning System (CA/NV DEWS).

CNAP teams also work closely with fire agencies throughout the West to help officials better understand relationships between climate and fire, build institutional knowledge of fire fighters, and provide tools and information to help inform fire agency decisions.

In Nevada, CNAP teams work with Great Basin tribes to understand barriers to climate data and has helped develop a resilience plan with Washoe County. Most recently CNAP is working with Southern Nevada Water Authority, Science Climate Alliance – South Coast, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on climate related projects. RISA is a program in the Climate Program Office, within NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

More information about the RISA program and teams is available at http://cpo.noaa.gov/Meet-the-Divisions/Climate-and-Societal-Interactions/RISA/RISA-Teams.

Learn more about CNPA at – https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/cnap/cnap-program/

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

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest, and most important centers for global science research and education in the world. Now in its second century of discovery, the scientific scope of the institution has grown to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical, and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. Hundreds of research programs covering a wide range of scientific areas are under way today on every continent and in every ocean. The institution has a staff of more than 1,400 and annual expenditures of approximately $195 million from federal, state, and private sources. Scripps operates oceanographic research vessels recognized worldwide for their outstanding capabilities. Equipped with innovative instruments for ocean exploration, these ships constitute mobile laboratories and observatories that serve students and researchers from institutions throughout the world. Birch Aquarium at Scripps serves as the interpretive center of the institution and showcases Scripps research and a diverse array of marine life through exhibits and programming for more than 430,000 visitors each year. Learn more at www.scripps.ucsd.edu and follow us at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

At the University of California San Diego, we constantly push boundaries and challenge expectations. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to take risks and redefine conventional wisdom. Today, 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 www.ucsd.edu.

NOAA’s Climate Program Office helps improve understanding of climate variability and change in order to enhance society’s ability to plan and respond. NOAA provides science, data, and information that Americans want and need to understand how climate conditions are changing. Without NOAA’s long-term climate observing, monitoring, research, and modeling capabilities we couldn’t quantify where and how climate conditions have changed, nor could we predict where and how they’re likely to change.

DRI Science Alive included in Nevada’s newest list of recommended STEM programs

Reno, NV (Weds, Nov. 8, 2017): The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is proud to announce that Science Alive, the Institute’s K-12 outreach program and home of the Green Box initiative, has been selected for inclusion on the Nevada STEM Advisory Council’s new list of recommended STEM programs.

DRI Science Alive provides inquiry-based STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curriculum, classroom supplies, and professional trainings to any teacher in Nevada that is interested, free of charge.

The DRI Science Alive program is the only Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) program and one of only two non-profit programs (out of 16 total) to earn this commendation.

“This endorsement corroborates DRI’s reputation as a STEM education leader in our state,” said Dr. Kristen Averyt, President of DRI. “We are truly honored to be included in this group.”

The Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology (OSIT) and the Nevada STEM Advisory Council (Council) announced 16 STEM programs approved for inclusion on the Council’s list of recommended STEM programs in October 2017. Each program’s application was thoroughly evaluated by a group of trained, Nevada-based reviewers according to a Nevada-specific rubric and questions.

“Educators across the State have a mission to provide the best education possible to their students. This list will help teachers, principals, and school districts select the best STEM resources available to meet the needs of their students,” said Kelly Barber, Co-Chair of the Nevada STEM Advisory Council and STEM Coordinator for the Washoe County School District.

In its State Strategic Plan for STEM, the Nevada STEM Advisory Council established priorities and goals to ensure that all of Nevada’s students have the opportunity to gain a high-quality STEM education. The Strategic Plan recommends that Nevada identify and fund evidence-based, high-quality formal and informal STEM practices and programs. In order to determine which STEM programs meet this evidence-based, high-quality standard, OSIT and the STEM Advisory Council partnered with Change the Equation and WestEd to develop review criteria and vet STEM programs for inclusion on a list of recommended programs for funding. Programs that met the eligibility criteria for the national STEMworks database were eligible for consideration to be included on Nevada’s list.

“I am very impressed with the programs that made the Council’s list. This list of recommended STEM pro-grams will be a great resource for both the State and for our schools to guide funding decisions toward pro-grams that have demonstrated rigor in content, evaluation, replicability, and sustainability,” said Brian Mitchell, Director of OSIT. “I want to thank the evaluators from across Nevada for lending their time and expertise to review the applications.”

Inclusion on STEM Advisory Council’s list does not guarantee funding. In Nevada, schools and school districts make curricular, professional development, and other funding decisions. However, school districts in Nevada may apply for future STEM education funding from the Nevada Department of Education or from OSIT’s K-5 STEM Grant to fund STEM programs on the Nevada STEM Advisory Council’s list. Additionally, the Nevada Legislature, local school districts, and private philanthropy in Nevada may also use the Nevada STEM Advisory Council’s list to guide their own STEM education investments. The list is meant as a resource to school leadership; the list is not exhaustive of all good STEM programs and use of the list is not mandatory.

“Our mission with Science Alive is to extend the amazing science and innovation that happens every day at DRI into Nevada’s classrooms,” said Amelia Gulling, DRI Science Alive program administrator. “This incredible honor will not only allow DRI faculty and staff to enhance their collaborations with local teachers, schools and school districts, but also expand our fundraising efforts and community partnerships.”

Since its inception in 2000, DRI’s Science Alive program has reached over 60,000 students, in more than 400 schools, across every county in Nevada.

Learn more about DRI’s Science Alive program at – https://sciencealive.dri.edu/

Read the official OSIT announcement here – http://osit.nv.gov/uploadedFiles/ositnvgov/Content/News/STEMworks%20Announcement%20Press%20Release%20Final(2).pdf

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

The Nevada STEM Advisory Council: The mission of the Nevada STEM Advisory Council is to increase student interest and achievement in the fields of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics, leading students to rewarding careers in the New Nevada economy. The STEM Advisory Council is charged with identifying and awarding recognition to students and schools throughout Nevada that excel in STEM.

The Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology (OSIT): The mission of OSIT is to coordinate, support, and align efforts by K-12 and higher education, workforce development and employers to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and STEM workforce development so that Nevada’s workforce can meet the demands of its growing economy.

Source of Arctic Mercury Pollution Identified in New Study

Source of Arctic Mercury Pollution Identified in New Study

Researchers monitored mercury levels at Toolik Field Station, northern Alaska, in part, with this meteorological tower (foreground). Credit: Daniel Oberist, DRI.


DRI research team part of international effort to understand global impact

Reno, Nev. (July 14, 2017): Vast amounts of toxic mercury are accumulating in the Arctic tundra, threatening the health and well-being of people, wildlife and waterways, according to a new study published this month by an international team of scientists investigating the source of the pollution.

Led by Prof. Daniel Obrist, chairman of UMass Lowell’s Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, an atmospheric chemist and former lead of the Desert Research Institute’s (DRI) Mercury Analytical Lab, the study found that airborne mercury is gathering in the Arctic tundra, where it gets deposited in the soil and ultimately runs off into waters. Scientists have long reported high levels of mercury pollution in the Arctic.

The new research identifies gaseous mercury as its major source and sheds light on how the element gets there.

“Now we understand how such a remote site is so exposed to mercury,” Obrist said. Although the study did not examine the potential impact of global warming, if climate change continues unchecked, it could destabilize these mercury deposits in tundra soils and allow large amounts of the element to find its way into Arctic waters, he added.

Obrist and his colleagues – including students and researchers from DRI – recently completed two years of field research in the tundra, tracking the origin and path of mercury pollution. Working from an observation site in Alaska north of Brooks Range, he and an international group of scientists identified that gaseous mercury in the atmosphere is the source of 70 percent of the pollutant that finds its way into the tundra soil. In contrast, airborne mercury that is deposited on the ground through rain or snow – a more frequent focus of other studies – accounts for just 2 percent of the mercury deposits in the region, Obrist’s team found.

The new research is the most comprehensive investigation on how mercury is deposited in the Arctic. The full results of the study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, appear in the July 13 edition of the prestigious academic journal Nature.

Mercury is a harmful pollutant, threatening fish, birds and mammals across the globe. The dominant source of mercury pollution in the atmosphere is hundreds of tons of the element that are emitted each year through the burning of coal, mining and other industrial processes across the globe.

This gaseous mercury is lofted to the Arctic, where it is absorbed by plants in a process similar to how they take up carbon dioxide. Then, the mercury is deposited in the soil when the plants shed leaves or die. As a result, the tundra is a significant repository for atmospheric mercury being emitted by industrialized regions of the world.

“This mercury from the tundra soil explains half to two-thirds of the total mercury input into the Arctic Ocean,” Obrist said, adding that scientists had previously estimated mercury runoff from tundra soil supplies 50 to 85 tons of the heavy metal to Arctic waters each year.

Exposure to high levels of mercury over long periods can lead to neurological and cardiovascular problems. The results are being felt by Arctic people and wildlife.

“Mercury has high exposure levels in northern wildlife, such as beluga whales, polar bears, seals, fish, eagles and other birds,” Obrist said. “It also affects human populations, particularly the Inuit, who rely on traditional hunting and fishing.”

Obrist will present the team’s research at the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant, which will be held Sunday, July 16 through Friday, July 21 in Providence, R.I. The event is the largest scientific conference on mercury pollution, involving nearly 1,000 participants from research institutions, governments and other agencies.

Obrist hopes to continue to investigate whether gaseous mercury is also a dominant source of pollution in other remote lands. Scientists, regulators and policymakers need a better understanding of how the uptake of gaseous mercury in plants and soils is affecting the environment, including the world’s forests, he said.

The research findings underscore the importance of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, the first global treaty that aims to protect human health and the environment from the element’s adverse effects, Obrist said. Signed by the United States and more than 120 other countries, the pact will take effect next month, with the goal of reducing mercury emissions caused by industrialization and other human activities.

Other contributors to the study include scientists from the University of Colorado; Gas Technology Institute in Des Plaines, Ill.; Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.; Sorbonne University in Paris, France; and University of Toulouse in Toulouse, France. Additional support for the research was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant and funding from the European Research Council and the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Contributors to this news release included Nancy Cicco, associate director of media relations; and Edwin l. Aguirre, senior science and technology writer/editor, University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 17,750 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, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be ready for work, for life and for all the world offers. http://www.uml.edu

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

DRI Researchers Identify Connection Between Atmospheric River Events and Avalanche Fatalities in Western United States

RENO, Nev. (July 14, 2017) – Recently published research led by atmospheric scientists at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) demonstrates a connection between the occurrence of atmospheric river (AR) events and avalanche fatalities in the West.

Published in the May issue of the Journal of Hydrometeorology, the pilot study assessed avalanche reports, weather station data, and a catalog of AR data from a previous study to determine that AR conditions were present for 105 unique avalanches between 1998 and 2014, resulting in 123 fatalities (31 percent of all western avalanche fatalities during this time frame).

Atmospheric Rivers, as described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are “relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics.”

When ARs make landfall on the West Coast of the US they release water vapor as rain or snow, supplying 30 to 50 percent of annual precipitation in the West and contributing to cool season (November to April) extreme weather events and flooding.

Researchers conclude that the intense precipitation associated with AR events is paralleled by an increase in avalanche fatalities. Coastal regions experience the highest percentage of avalanche fatalities during AR conditions; however, the ratio of avalanche deaths during AR conditions to the total number of AR days is actually higher further inland, in states like Colorado and Utah.

“Although ARs are less frequent in inland locations, they have relatively more important roles in intermountain and continental regions where snowpacks are characteristically weaker and less capable of supporting heavy rain or snowfall,” explained Benjamin Hatchett, a postdoctoral fellow of meteorology at DRI and lead author on the study.

“This means that avalanche forecasters, ski resort employees, backcountry skiers, and emergency managers who have an increased awareness of forecasted AR conditions can potentially reduce exposure to resultant avalanche hazards, particularly if snowpack conditions already indicate weakness,” he added.

The study also reports that shallow snowpacks weakened by persistent cold and dry weather can produce deadly and widespread avalanche cycles when combined with AR conditions. Climate projections indicate that this combination is likely to become more frequent in the mid- to late- 21st century, which could create significant avalanche risk to winter backcountry enthusiasts in the West.

“With increasing numbers of recreational backcountry users and changing mountain snowpack conditions, we might expect the future to be characterized by enhanced exposure to avalanche hazard throughout the western United States,” Hatchett said. “Our results provide motivation to further increase public awareness about avalanche threats during AR events.”

Including integrated vapor transport (IVT) forecasting tools in analyses of avalanche danger, researchers suggest, could potentially allow experts to increase the accuracy of avalanche forecasts when AR conditions are present. These tools can identify structure and movement of ARs when they make landfall, and also model how ARs move inland through gaps in mountainous terrain and cause heavy precipitation further inland.

“Our study provides motivation for additional examinations of avalanche data and meteorological conditions,” Hatchett said. “Our team recommends that following all, but especially fatal, avalanches, as much detailed information should be recorded as possible so that the field can continue to learn about the relationship between atmospheric river events and avalanches.”

The full version of the study – “Avalanche Fatalities during Atmospheric River Events in the Western United States” – is available online at the link below. http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/full/10.1175/JHM-D-16-0219.1

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

DRI secures $47 million to continue work for U.S. Department of Energy

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (May 18, 2017): Building on more than 40 years of service to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) announced today it has been awarded a long-term research contract to support the national security mission of the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS).

The new Technical Research, Engineering, and Development Services contract has a value of up to $47.7 million and extends for up to five years. DRI faculty and staff will provide scientific and engineering services to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Field Office in support of nuclear stockpile stewardship, nonproliferation and counterterrorism, emergency response to radiological and nuclear events, remediation and restoration of legacy environmental issues, cultural resources compliance, and sustainable land stewardship.

“This is the largest multi-disciplinary research program at DRI,” said Dr. Robert Gagosian, DRI Acting President. “We have a superb team of people from across the Institute – on both our Las Vegas and Reno campuses – who are dedicated to serving DOE in this very important effort in support of our nation’s security.”

DRI contributes to nearly all of the DOE Nevada Field Office’s major programs.

DRI faculty and staff apply their expertise to environmental restoration and waste management for activities such as groundwater modeling and sampling, and evaluation of soil stability. Experienced faculty serve as advisors for the stockpile stewardship program ensuring national defense readiness, and contribute to research teams developing new tools for detecting nuclear tests in support of treaty verification and nuclear nonproliferation. Historic and cultural resources scientists support DOE in conducting operations in compliance with regulations and facilitating involvement with affected Tribal groups. DRI scientists also work in Nevada communities around the NNSS to operate a citizen-based environmental monitoring program.

“New research will include seismic hammer experiments to improve detection of foreign underground nuclear tests, and flood hazard assessments for site facilities,” explained Jenny Chapman, Program Manager for DRI’s DOE contract, and a research hydrogeologist. “As well, DRI’s archaeologists will continue their cultural resources evaluations of prehistoric and historic structures and artifacts on the NNSS, including documentation of the significant role the NNSS played in the Cold War.”

Continuing research will include investigating the way groundwater and contaminants move through fractures in rock at the Pahute Mesa underground nuclear test area; and identifying the impact of wildfire on soil erosion to support long-term stewardship of lands with residual surface contamination and ensure the protection of wildland firefighters.

The contract also renews support for the operation of the Community Environmental Monitoring Program in both urban and rural locations throughout Southern Nevada, Utah, and California, with radiation and weather data collection by local community representatives.

Steven J. Lawrence, National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Field Office Manager said, “The Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) looks forward to its continued association with the Nevada System of Higher Education. Through the Desert Research Institute and it’s cadre of internationally known scientists and research efforts, the NNSS will continue to benefit from the wealth of expertise they bring to the table.”

Although much of DRI’s work for the U.S. Department of Energy is directed to the NNSS, DRI also conducts research on other sites through its contract where the DOE Nevada Field Office has responsibilities. DRI performs research for DOE in collaboration with other organizations including Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories; with the U.S. Geological Survey; and with private sector companies including NSTec and Navarro.

For more information about DRI visit www.dri.edu

For more information about the NNSS visit http://www.nnss.gov/

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

New Technology Company Comes to Nevada to Focus on Water Quality

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (Apr. 19, 2017) — With support from WaterStart, Australia-based water technology company STAR Water Solutions announced plans to pilot a new project with researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI).

The project will utilize the company’s state of the art water treatment and reuse technologies that deliver proven, cost effective and efficient water filtration for urban stormwater, industrial mining and agricultural runoff and industrial waste water systems.

The partnership is the result of a connection made by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development during a trade mission to the Queensland Government in 2016.

With assistance from DRI scientists, STAR Water Solutions staff will work to characterize locally available materials in Nevada, identify filtration material performance efficacy and establish manufacturing distribution channels within the state for the development of recycled and sustainably procured bio-filters.

“We are really looking forward to showcasing our unique technologies in Nevada and furthering water innovation for the state,” said Chris Rochfort, CEO of STAR Water Solutions. “This is an opportunity for STAR Water to target large scale projects, with the help of DRI, that will focus on improving water quality in the state.”

The collaboration hopes to create new analytical practices, manufacturing opportunities, new beneficial uses for recycled materials, and advance water filtration system performance outcomes with significant environmental, social and economic results.

“Developing and testing innovative water quality management practices is a priority for researchers at DRI and the state of Nevada, and we welcome this opportunity to develop a new partnership with STAR Water Solutions,” said Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D, a limnologist and leading water quality expert at DRI. “Their advanced water filtration technology and global experience linked with our research capabilities demonstrates how science-driven technological innovation is growing new industries in Nevada.”

With operations across Australia, Singapore, Canada and the U.S., STAR Water Solutions has built a global network in which it provides systems and solutions that address major infrastructure challenges related to water and the environment.

“We are thrilled to welcome STAR Water to Nevada as part of this strategic partnership with DRI,” said Nate Allen, Executive Director of WaterStart. “Their innovative technology will contribute to local business growth and addressing water quality challenges in both Nevada and the U.S.”


International leaders in advanced bio-filtration and bio retention systems resulting from extensive, long term research & development, STAR Water Solutions provide “state of the art” treatment and reuse technologies that deliver proven, cost effective and efficient performance for urban stormwater, industrial, mining and agricultural runoff and industrial waste water systems. STAR Water holds an exclusive worldwide license for Reactive Filter Media™ technology. For more information, visit www.starwater.com.au.

Desert Research Institute (DRI), the nonprofit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education, is a world leader in environmental sciences through the application of knowledge and technologies to improve people’s lives throughout Nevada and the world. For more information about DRI please visit www.dri.edu.

WaterStart operates in a region of proven first adopters, sitting at the nexus of technology, research and economic development. WaterStart provides channels for innovation for various stakeholders and water resource managers; including: technology companies, management agencies and policy makers and provides services ranging from commercialization funding to business development. As it continues to bring together strategic resources and expertise, its core mission will create quality job growth and help diversify the economy of the region. For more information, visit www.waterstart.com

Celebrating over 15 years of science in the classroom

DRI Science Alive Program launches new brand, new tools for Nevada’s teachers

RENO, Nev. (Apr. 13, 2017) – Building on nearly two decades of science education and outreach across Nevada, the Desert Research Institute today announced a new brand and renewed focus for its preK-12 outreach program.

DRI’s Science Alive program – formerly known as Green Power – has expanded its reach to provide Nevada’s preK-12 educators with a comprehensive set of modern tools and resources focused on science-based, environmental education.

“Our mission with Science Alive is to extend the amazing science and innovation that happens every day at DRI into the classroom,” said Amelia Gulling, DRI Science Alive program administrator.

Science Alive provides inquiry-based STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curriculum, classroom supplies, and professional trainings to any teacher in Nevada that is interested.

Green Boxes
Through its Green Boxes, self-contained teaching kits, Science Alive offers educators from any grade level a unit of lesson plans and all of the classroom and field supplies necessary to engage students in hands-on projects that foster critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Science Alive offers more than 100 Green Boxes with Next Generation Science Standards based lessons designed to enhance student literacy in various STEM subject areas – from the water cycle and soil science to the life cycle of garbage and harnessing the sun’s energy.

“Thanks to the generous support from our long-time program sponsors, such as NV Energy, we are able to offer Green Boxes as a completely free resource to any formal or informal educator in Nevada,” explained Gulling.

Since their inception in 2000, Green Boxes have reached over 65,000 students, in more than 400 schools, across every county in the state.

DRI Science Alive Program launches new brand, new tools for Nevada’s teachers

Reno, Nev. – Building on nearly two decades of science education and outreach across Nevada, the Desert Research Institute today announced a new brand and renewed focus for its preK-12 outreach program.

DRI’s Science Alive program – formerly known as Green Power – has expanded its reach to provide Nevada’s preK-12 educators with a comprehensive set of modern tools and resources focused on science-based, environmental education.

“Our mission with Science Alive is to extend the amazing science and innovation that happens every day at DRI into the classroom,” said Amelia Gulling, DRI Science Alive program administrator.

Science Alive provides inquiry-based STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curriculum, classroom supplies, and professional trainings to any teacher in Nevada that is interested.

Green Boxes

Through its Green Boxes, self-contained teaching kits, Science Alive offers educators from any grade level a unit of lesson plans and all of the classroom and field supplies necessary to engage students in hands-on projects that foster critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Science Alive offers more than 100 Green Boxes with Next Generation Science Standards based lessons designed to enhance student literacy in various STEM subject areas – from the water cycle and soil science to the life cycle of garbage and harnessing the sun’s energy.

“Thanks to the generous support from our long-time program sponsors, such as NV Energy, we are able to offer Green Boxes as a completely free resource to any formal or informal educator in Nevada,” explained Gulling.

Since their inception in 2000, Green Boxes have reached over 65,000 students, in more than 400 schools, across every county in the state.

Teacher Trainings
Science Alive also offers a multitude of teacher trainings, professional development workshops, and field sessions centered on science and innovation.

As part of the STEM Stream at DRI – a career-long and lifelong continuum for STEM research, education, and application – Science Alive teacher trainings are designed to expand educators’ possibilities, promote professional networking, and often count toward educators’ continuing education credits and serve as in-service credit days from the Nevada Department of Education.

In early March, Science Alive partnered with Nevada State College and welcomed more than 30 teachers to explore Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) as a fun and engaging way to incorporate STEM into the classroom. Educators who attend this free training developed UAS curriculum that will be turned into a UAS Green Box for state-wide use next school year.

Community Partnerships
Originally developed to promote renewable energy technologies in Nevada’s schools, Science Alive has since secured a depth of community partners and program funding sponsors from across nearly off of Nevada’s key industries and business sectors.

“We are extremely proud to have helped DRI grow this tremendous community resource into the robust program it is today,” Mary Simmons, Vice President of Business Development and Community Strategy for NV Energy. “NV Energy has a strong tradition of community involvement and is committed to improving education at all levels in the communities where we live and work.”

Together, NV Energy customer donations and grants from the NV Energy Foundation have provided more than $1 million in resources to help Science Alive promote renewable energy preK-12 education and conscious living practices since 2000.
Science Alive will continue its advocacy of renewable energy and conservation through its EnergySmart Education Series – which will provide teacher trainings, Green Boxes, school support, field trips, and a speaker series for preK-12 educators with an emphasis on energy, energy efficiency, and related topics.

For more information on DRI’s Science Alive program visit sciencealive.dri.edu

Science Alive also offers a multitude of teacher trainings, professional development workshops, and field sessions centered on science and innovation.

As part of the STEM Stream at DRI – a career-long and lifelong continuum for STEM research, education, and application – Science Alive teacher trainings are designed to expand educators’ possibilities, promote professional networking, and often count toward educators’ continuing education credits and serve as in-service credit days from the Nevada Department of Education.

In early March, Science Alive partnered with Nevada State College and welcomed more than 30 teachers to explore Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) as a fun and engaging way to incorporate STEM into the classroom. Educators who attend this free training developed UAS curriculum that will be turned into a UAS Green Box for state-wide use next school year.

Community Partnerships
Originally developed to promote renewable energy technologies in Nevada’s schools, Science Alive has since secured a depth of community partners and program funding sponsors from across nearly off of Nevada’s key industries and business sectors.

“We are extremely proud to have helped DRI grow this tremendous community resource into the robust program it is today,” Mary Simmons, Vice President of Business Development and Community Strategy for NV Energy. “NV Energy has a strong tradition of community involvement and is committed to improving education at all levels in the communities where we live and work.”

Together, NV Energy customer donations and grants from the NV Energy Foundation have provided more than $1 million in resources to help Science Alive promote renewable energy preK-12 education and conscious living practices since 2000.

Science Alive will continue its advocacy of renewable energy and conservation through its EnergySmart Education Series – which will provide teacher trainings, Green Boxes, school support, field trips, and a speaker series for preK-12 educators with an emphasis on energy, energy efficiency, and related topics.

For more information on DRI’s Science Alive program visit sciencealive.dri.edu