Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Snow Pillows and Snow Plates

In 1949, a record-breaking blizzard swept across Wyoming and surrounding states. Snowbanks rose as high as farmhouse roofs, and roads across all three states were blocked for weeks. One survivor described a “tsunami” of snow sweeping across the prairie, and a farmer recalled digging a pig out of a snowbank three months later. (The pig was alive.) The “Blizzard of ‘49” was one of the most intense snowstorms to hit the Intermountain West.

The official record for blizzard snowfall? Twelve inches. Back then, meteorologists used instruments similar to yardsticks to measure snowfall, and strong winds made it difficult to measure snow accurately.

Snow plate after installation
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
This fall, researchers installed new equipment to measure snowfall in Wyoming’s Snowy Range, in areas of the mountain where there was no snow measuring equipment. Elizabeth Traver, manager of the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics’ (WyCEHG) Surface and Subsurface Hydrology Lab (SSHL), explained how this new snow measuring equipment would work.
New equipment, which was purchased by WyCEHG through a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation, consists of lightweight aluminum plates measuring over two meters on each side. Connected to pressure sensors that measure the weight of the snow on the plate, these “snow plates” are sensors that can track snowfall over a given area.
Air and snow temperature sensors
and solar power source
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
The plates are an improvement over an earlier method, which used “snow pillows.” Snow pillows are like big water mattresses, about three meters square. They’re filled with biodegradable anti-freeze (the same chemical used to make some brands of ice cream, non-toxic to humans and animals), and connected to similar pressure sensors. The antifreeze cushion helps distribute weight evenly over the pillow’s surface.

The snow plates are much easier to carry and set up – Traver said that she and other researchers would carry folded snow plates “two at a time” up the trail. They’re also less fragile, and require less maintenance. In addition, since no chemicals are needed, this method of testing can be seen as more environmentally safe.

Each location is also equipped with a snow depth sensor, an air temperature probe, and five snow temperature sensors. These sensors are placed fifteen centimeters above the ground and then every thirty after that, so they can take the temperature of the snowpack as a whole, allowing researchers to monitor environmental conditions and predict melting patters. Hydrologists and meteorologists can use the data from the snow plates to predict weather and water flow over time.

The plates are connected to a satellite uplink, and will generate real-time data that can be accessed via web. Because the areas where studies occur are remote, the plates are powered by solar panels. As Traver explained, “The idea is that they will require minimal maintenance. ”

I asked Traver about other maintenance concerns and she said, “Well, you might be interested to know that when I first set up these systems, one of them crashed. So when I went to the field, I found that a bear had destroyed the battery, just ripped it apart. Left some nice paw prints on the snow plate.”

Despite the hazards or difficulties of research in remote places, WyCEHG’s new approach to measuring snow will hopefully help managers and others working to understand Wyoming’s water resources and mountain weather patterns.
Closeup of snow plate surface with bear pawprints
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
Posted to the University of Wyoming EPSCoR blog by Jess White.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Documentary Screening: Storm of the Century: The Blizzard of '49

On Wednesday, November 17th, Wyoming PBS is offering a free screening of a documentary, Storm of the Century: The Blizzard of '49.  The screening will take place at Laramie County Community College, at LCCC's Training Center and will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the producer Tom Manning, Jim Ehrenberger, and James Fuller.

The blizzard of 1949 was one of the worst in Wyoming history, killing 12 people in Wyoming and 76 in the Intermountain West.  Farmers were particularly hard-hit by the storm, which rushed in from the northwest and dropped temperatures over forty degrees in a matter of a few hours.  One witness, Dan Corbin, recalls seeing a storm like a "tsunami."

Ranchers despaired of herding livestock in whiteout conditions and took refuge inside.  The next day, winds gusting up to 80 mph created drifts as high as thirty feet.  Archive photographs show relief workers tunneling through mountains of hard-packed snow as steep and crystalline as salt caves.

According to Rebecca Hein at Wyohistory.org, the storm raged for three days, but blizzard recuperation lasted into the early spring.  The U.S. Air Force helped with Operation Hayride (better known as Operation Haylift), transporting hay to Wyoming farms.  The Wyoming Game and Fish Department staged a parallel food drive for local wildlife, delivering hay, cottonseed cake, and alfalfa pellets to deer, elk, and antelope.  Game birds were fed corn and small grain.

The documentary project is sponsored in part by a grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund - a program of the Department of State Parks and cultural Resources; with partial funding by the Wyoming Humanities Council; and with additional funding from Pacificorp, the Wheeler Family Foundation, Rose Brothers Inc. of Lingle, and the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation.

Learn more about the blizzard here and read an eyewitness account here.

Posted by Jess White on November 6, 2015.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Metadata: Continuing the Conversation

Shannon Albeke got into data mapping because of fish. “I worked at the Colorado Division of Wildlife for eight years prior to getting my Ph.D. It started back in 1999. We had lots and lots of information on these little fishes of Colorado. The only way you analyze all that data was to create a database and some tools for searching within it. It turned out I had an aptitude for it, and things just went from there. Now I’m an informaticist.” Albeke creates online archives that are open, accessible, and easy to navigate.
Shannon Albeke

In a way, Albeke is a victim of the internet’s success – by now, we’re so familiar with search engines like Google that we don’t think about the planning and management that makes an algorithm such an indispensable tool. Albeke isn’t just a strong advocate for data sharing – he and his team promote good metadata habits. “Metadata” refers to data about data, like labels on files or tags on blog posts. Just like a phone book, metadata allows a search engine to reach individual datasets in a gigantic archive. When metadata is sloppy or incomplete, data is effectively “unlisted.”

What are the benefits of the “open-data” method? (And why should researchers cultivate good data habits?) Data sharing cuts down on redundancy, or experiments that are needlessly repetitive. This means that scientists waste less time and use resources more effectively. It can be hard for scientists to raise funds for large-scale studies, and using available data can make research much more efficient.

This is especially important for student researchers as Albeke explains, “One student wants to use software to process gut microbes and use their DNA to explore the fauna living in your belly. Before, she could read an article about gut fauna. But now, she can also look at the data those researchers used. She can use the same tools to ask a different question of the same dataset. Could she have done that ten years ago? Absolutely not.”

Data sharing also allows researchers working in the same study area to answer broader, more complex questions by working across disciplines. For example, an ecologist collecting data on snowfall could partner with an entomologist examining bark beetle populations in the same forest. By sharing information, these researchers might be able to better answer questions about how precipitation and weather might impact beetle outbreaks.

Albeke’s team is planning visual maps of a study area, with data sets linked to a particular location. For example, several sets of data could be grouped together as part of a “clickable” multimedia map of the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow National Forest. Researchers could look at a geographical map and see data on any number of measurements including water flow in a stream, plant growth in the forest, or weather records like temperature or wind speed. By creating a system that allows for different sets of data to be viewed on a map, researchers can answer questions on many different levels.

One very basic example of a database map.
Image credit: Shannon Albeke

In addition, Albeke is creating data banks that thousands of people can use – as researchers and contributors. According to him, the biggest problem is ‘searchability,’ or making data legible and visible, especially across disciplines. Different fields of research use different words, even in closely-related areas like botany and biology. This means that a scientist who searches for a word related to their research might not see useful data if it’s been collected and stored by a scientist using a different set of terms. Albeke’s solution is to create search engines that can “translate” terms across disciplines. This is called “semantic searching.”

Aside from data availability, another big problem is security. Does “sharing” data mean that it’s available to everyone? Can multiple people “edit” the data, like a Wikipedia entry or group Facebook page? If the data is available on a website linked to email and password information, what if the site is hacked? What about plagiarism? What if someone deletes four years of data by mistake?

All of these questions need to be answered before data sharing can become the norm, and Albeke’s team partners with IT professionals to find ways to maximize security and flexibility.

Some of these solutions can actually add features to the program. For example, a data archive could allow scientists to track ‘visitors’ to their data, and find researchers with similar interests. In this way, people who use the research will be identified just like if one checked a book out of a library. Tracking could also allow users to network with readers and colleagues around the world, and then a data archive can become a forum where scientists can synthesize results and collaborate on questions.

As Albeke and others find ways to manage data, researchers will need to help to make data available and provide additional information so that it can be understood by others. In WyCEHG, researchers are already making data available and working with Albeke and his team to ensure scientific questions consider the big picture and use all available resources to answer complex questions about water to benefit Wyoming and our water managers.

Posted by Jess White on November 5, 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Geophysics Article Published in Science Magazine!

Last week, we announced that UW doctoral student James St. Clair is lead author on an article that would be published in Science magazine, a leading scientific journal.  Steve Holbrook, a professor of geology and geophysics; Cliff Riebe, an associate professor of geology and geophysics; and Brad Carr, a research scientist in geology and geophysics, are co-authors of the paper.

You can read the paper, "Geophysical imaging reveals topographic stress control of bedrock weathering," here.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

UW Researchers to Publish Geophysics Study in Science

 We at EPSCoR were glad to hear that UW geoscientists will publish research in Science this October 30th.  (Just in time for Halloween!) 

James St. Clair, a UW doctoral student, is lead author of the paper, titled “Geophysical Imaging Reveals Topographic Stress Control of Bedrock Weathering.”  Steve Holbrook, a professor of geology and geophysics; Cliff Riebe, an associate professor of geology and geophysics; and Brad Carr, a research scientist in geology and geophysics, are co-authors of the paper. 
James St. Clair

Geophysical imaging of the subsurface was conducted by UW’s Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG).  Scientists at MIT and the University of Hawaii contributed numerical models of the stress distribution in the subsurface. 

Geophysical imaging uses different tools to create a detailed picture of the composition, shape, and density of subsurface rock strata.  Scientists can use a variety of technologies to take measurements, and then combine those measurements into maps of the mountain surface and interior.  The team performed seismic refraction and electrical resistivity surveys to look at the depth to bedrock at three mountain sites.  These three sites were chosen because they showed variant, or different, regimes of mountain topography and tectonic stress. 

Researchers used geophysical surveys to estimate the volume of open pore space in the subsurface.  This is an indication of how much water the subsurface can hold.  Computer models showing the state of stress at those sites showed striking correlation with open pore space measurements.  This means that scientists may be able to use measurements of the stress in the earth’s crust to see where water can be stored. Stress in the earth’s crust creates fractures in the earth’s subsurface, and those fractures create space to hold water.      

 “We found a remarkable agreement between the predictions of those stress models and the images of the porosity in the subsurface with geophysics at a large scale, at the landscape scale,” Holbrook says.  “It’s the first time anyone’s really looked at this at the landscape scale.” 

St. Clair is excited to be publishing research in Science, a prestigious scientific journal.  He feels lucky to work with such a talented, experienced group of scientists.  He believes that these results may be extremely useful to hydrologists, geomorphologists, and geophysicists. 

Steve Holbrook adds that there is still a lot of work to be done to test this model in different environments.  However, he says, “Now we have a theoretical framework to guide that work, as well as unique geophysical data to suggest that the hypothesis has merit.” 

Written by Jess White

Friday, October 16, 2015

High Plains American Indian Research Institute Event October 19, 2015

This October 19th, the High Plains American Indian Research Institute (HPAIRI) welcomes Walter Echo-Hawk.  Echo-Hawk will give his lecture, "From Self-Determination to the Human Rights Era of Federal Indian Law," at 1:00 pm in the Wyoming Union West Ballroom.  

An attorney since 1973, Echo-Hawk has also served as tribal judge, author, activist and law professor during his distinguished career.  He represents Indian tribes on important issues including treaty rights, water rights, religious freedom, prisoner rights, and repatriation rights.  

Echo-Hawk is the inaugural "Walter R. Echo-Hawk Distinguished Visiting Scholar" at Lewis & Clark Law School for 2015.  He is the author of In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2013); In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided (2010); and Battlefields and Burial Grounds: The Indian Struggle to Protect Ancestral Graves in the United States (1994).  He is a Pawnee Indian with a BA in political science from Oklahoma State University and a JD from the University of New Mexico.

Echo-Hawk's lecture is the first of a two-part program for this Fall.  The second event, "Indigenous RIghts as Human Rights," will be hosted by the Center for Global Studies on November 11, 2015.

For more information, please contact HPAIRI at HPAIRI@uwyo.edu.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bringing Stakeholders Together to Discuss Water Issues in Wyoming

WyCEHG will host the second statewide Water Interest Group meeting this October 14, 2015.  

This community event is an opportunity for people interested in Wyoming water issues to learn about WyCEHG research, provide directions for future studies, and partner with the WyCEHG research team.  

WyCEHG promotes a multifaceted approach to water awareness.  Community outreach and feedback are crucial to this cooperative effort.  WyCEHG is looking forward to building on the work begun by WyCEHG scientists and Wyoming community leaders during the first Water Interest Group meeting, which took place on October 7, 2013.  

You can find registration details here.  For questions, please contact lizn@uwyo.edu