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1200 words to make sense of chaos: The Selker Scheme

1200 words to make sense of chaos: The Selker Scheme

This is an inspiring article by John Selker (Oregon State University) that was first published in the latest AGU Hydrology Section Newsletter (July 2014). John graciously offered to re-post it here… make sure you make it to his rules and a secret at the bottom.

Being elected a fellow of the AGU was an amazing honor, and I thank  those who so kindly nominated me, somehow crafting a silk purse from the assorted bits and pieces I have left behind over 25
years. I take this opportunity to address nontechnical aspects of my experience. After all, the science is easily found on-line, whereas the ins and outs of personal scientific strategy rarely see the light of day.

My research is the outcome of local optimization scheme with the objective of identifying the next approach when faced with calls for proposals which I saw I could address, thus seemed opportune, but did not deeply stimulate my curiosity. I was lured into that trap a few times. But in time, putting greater weight on “the likelihood that I will be excited by the work” than “the chances that the ideas will be successful” and putting “the chances that I would be funded” last,
my research program took a turn for the better (right around the time I got tenure – funny how that works). Behind this all lurks the fact that I am more fascinated by challenges than questions. I do
not see this as an advantage: great scientists seek answers to great questions, not just engaging puzzles. I tend to be hooked on a question, which sometimes take decades to unravel.

This “strategy” (more accurately a propensity) is best understood by an example of a question and its resolution. Here’s one which can be explained compactly, which we could call “the steam water
quality sampling conundrum:” design an ultra cheap sampler of 1-month time-averaged stream chemistry. What a neat problem! So we started with the fact that a sampler must have a vessel to
hold the material collected. Next, if it is to sample from a stream, it would be good if it sank. So at a minimum we must have a weighted brown glass bottle. At this point a little context is needed. David Rupp had just found significant pesticide in runoff and wondered how many stream might have this problem (Rupp et al., 2006), so we needed to sample at hundreds of points for the little money I
could gather: about $1,000 – the cost of the bottles. So we stared at a bottle: the answer must be here. “Fine, let’s just drill one tiny hole in the bottle cap and call it done.” When the stream water warms the
bottles air expands sending out 2% of the air from the hole (PV=nRT and T changes about 6 oK out of 300 oK). Cooling contracts the air, drawing in water. It fills half-way in a month. David and I had a great time making and testing these bottles. By the time we were confident in the design, the project was by over, but we got enough data to publish (Selker and Rupp, 2005). How important
was this work? The paper has been cited twice (and those only citing our work to justify that weird sampling strategies are publishable. A wonderful puzzle solved, but that interested fewer people than
would be invited to a dinner party.

So should we follow the branching Fibonaccian web of passion or a single path? Eternally seduced by the next “cool problem” means that I do not tend to follow otherwise discernible “lines of investigation” and is likely to lead to lost papers such as the sinking bubble bottle. I have been told that this is not the best route to “success,” and that staying focused on a single theme brings greater
recognition of your work. Yes, I agree, in the abstract. But this theory is trumped, in my opinion, by the absolute requirement that a researcher’s spirit be engaged in their work if they are to have a
hope of accomplishing anything truly original and important. If you don’t find yourself dreaming about it, you just aren’t fully engaged: you are just using a tiny fraction of your brain, missing out on
the chance to excel.

How do we balance these factors? Don Nielsen’s question needs to be added to the criteria for selecting a research project: is the problem important to humanity? And he means REALLY important!

Stumbling in the dark you are sometimes lucky enough to bump into a lump of gold. Marc Parlange is uniquely expert at helping people stumble productively. Preparing to come to Switzerland on sabbatical to work with Marc he suggested I work on glacier melting. The problem is that glaciers melt largely due to shortwave
radiation absorption, and if you stick anything in the glacier to measure the radiation or temperature, it gets hot in the sun, and melts the ice. “What if I had an entirely transparent thermometer?” I recalled hearing about fiber optic temperature measurements, so I started to check on that approach. We tried hard to measure the glaciers melt with fiber optic distributed temperature sensing (DTS), but the bottom line is that I never got any important publishable data. I tip my hat to all those studying snow! But the DTS method
allowed measurement of 10’s of thousands of temperatures across scales of 0.1 to 10,000 m. These are precisely the scales at which “point” measurements and remote sensing. This is an obvious gold mine for our science (opportune? Yes!). We have now used DTS to “see” air movement, quantify groundwater upwelling in streams, measure soil water content, observe lake stratification, surface temperatures of the ocean, and flow in deep boreholes. A wonderful aspect of the scientific endeavor is that we move as a community. We (my DTS buddies Scott Tyler and Nick van de Giesen) have now put on 15 hands-on workshops training folks how to use the method, and started an NSF-funded center (CTEMPs.org) where we make the gear and technical support available to others who have ideas that DTS might help address. It has been a delight.

The bottom line is that life is too short to:
1. Study problems that don’t matter;
2. Try to “go it alone” rather than feeling the joy of community;
3. Get stale studying the same old thing. If you feel it is fresh, great. If not, then open your eyes to new problems;
4. Worry about others stealing your ideas!The jokes on them – you are multiplying the number of people who are helping you answer the questions that you can’t wait to understand. Share your ideas, your data, your time.

Here’s a little secret: the coolest problem ever is just around the bend. Take the corner, and enjoy the ride. I can’t point the way, but following a few simple rules I promise you’ll have a great time

Rupp, D.E., K. Warren, E. Peachy and J.S. Selker. Diuron in Surface Runoff and Tile Drainage from Two Grass-Seed Fields. J. Env. Qual. 35:303-311. 2006.
Selker, J.S. and D.E. Rupp. An environmentally driven time  integrating water sampler. Water Resour. Res. 41. W09201,DOI:10.1029/2005WR004040. 2005.

The home of our hearts day 5: The Sydney Tar Ponds and keeping the spark alive

[part six of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

The fifth and final day of the workshop started off with a tour of the Sydney Tar Ponds. The tar ponds are a massive contaminated site originating from the production of coke (a derivative of coal), a popular fuel used by the steel plants in Cape Breton to heat their furnaces. A large remediation effort is being conducted at the tar ponds, with 700,000 metric tonnes of contaminated sediment being trapped over a 31 hectare area.

From the tar ponds, we went on a walking tour of a neighbourhood in Sydney immediately adjacent to the now defunct steel manufacturing plant. Our tour guide gave us the history of the neighbourhood, explaining the deeply discriminatory, destitute conditions the workers lived and worked in; similar in many ways to the plight of the coal miners which we explored in Day 3. One of the most haunting things our tour guide showed us was the tunnels which acted as gates into the steel plant compound. As workers walked through these gates, we were told to imagine the blast of heat and dust they would experience as their long day at the plants began. The tour was yet another remarkable realization of the true difficulty people face in their lives, and the amazing ability for the islanders of Cape Breton to overcome these challenges and maintain an optimistic, innovative perspective.


Tunnel into Sydney Steel Compound. Photo Credit: Mark Ranjram

The day ended with a “kitchen party” at a local restaurant, where we sat at a long table and closed off our week in style. At the end of the night, we completed a final talking circle where we talked about what we gained from the workshop and how we aimed to pay it forward. Again, the circle was emotional, vulnerable, hilarious, and heartwarming. As we went around the circle I was again taken aback by how terrific the entire group was and what great things we could achieve with our entire careers ahead of us; and what could be accomplished by all the other people that weren’t there but have that same fire and that same genuine commitment to making the world even just a hair better than it was when they got here. I made a pledge at that table to find a way to bring some environmental education to my community, for example, helping people in my community understand where their water comes from, where it goes, what climate change is and its consequences, and other things in that vein. If I can bring even a modicum of environmental baseline knowledge to the people in my neighbourhood, I will have made a small contribution towards helping create a sustainability-knowledgeable citizen base and voting public. I’m not sure how I will accomplish what I want to accomplish, but the first nations and non-indigenous people of Cape Breton, our amazing workshop leaders, and the nineteen young researchers and professionals I met at the workshop will forever motivate me to make a positive mark on the world. There is a rising tide in the coming generations of water leaders, and I certainly refuse to be left behind as all these brilliant, committed people spend their time making a difference! Thank you again to everyone involved in the workshop, and thanks to all the people out there who want to see a sustainable world and believe it is possible in spite of all the great challenges we face today on Earth socially, politically, economically, and environmentally.


#CWNSYP Cape Breton! Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

The home of our hearts day 4: the water-energy nexus & deep thoughts on salty water

[part five of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

The focus of the fourth day of the workshop was the relationship between energy and water. Cape Breton, with its long history of coal extraction and its proximity to water, was a great place to explore this relationship first hand. We started our day at a community sports complex in Glace Bay, where a shallow flooded mine is being used to store and generate geothermal energy. This was yet another example of the terrific power of the local Cape Breton communities to generate innovative adaptations using their deep understanding of their environment and local issues.


Geothermal energy at the BayPlex sports complex in Glace Bay. Photo Credit: Shao Hui

From the sports complex, we travelled to the Point Aconi Fire Generating Station, a coal-fuelled power plant. The facility was incredibly massive, and during our tour we stood next to the giant sweltering furnace that burns the coal and looked down the maw of a 300 metre sloping coal conveyor belt, both sights a stark visual reminder of our species’ ability to bend the environment on incredible scales.


Looking down a coal conveyor tunnel at the Point Aconi Fire Generating Station. Photo Credit: Mark Ranjram

From the power plant, we headed to the Great Bras d’Or Channel, which connects the Bras d’Or Lakes (actually a marine estuary) to the Atlantic Ocean. Here we discussed the potential and challenges of tidal energy production from the large tides which pulse through the channel.


Dr. Bruce Hatcher explaining the feasibility of tidal energy in the Great Bras d’Or Channel. Photo credit: Kristen Leal

With the technical side of the day done, we proceeded to Baddeck, a small tourist down adjacent to Alexander Graham Bell’s family estate, for a sailing experience on a real sailing ship. As the cold Atlantic breeze whipped past us, we pointed out jellyfish in the water and eagles in the sky and I could not help but think about the deep connections between water and energy in Canada. What are the mechanisms by which we can take our role as stewards of our environment and balance that with our role as supporters of our families and communities; both being of critical importance to our species’ endeavour on this planet? The Mi’kmaq first nations on the island have an incredible commitment to both their environment and their communal economic success, and the non-indigenous population on the island has shown awesome commitment to sustainability and remediation, but how can we get that perspective to scale up to a population as large and as varied as our entire country? Thinking about Toronto, my hometown of roughly 2.5 million people, where green spaces are relatively plentiful for a city but are not necessarily part of our day-to-day, where the rivers are small and hidden away, and the lake is so large as to suggest infinite abundance, how do we develop that baseline of environmental understanding? And how do we translate that understanding amongst a finely discretized gradient of cultural, social, and economic motivations? The answers to these questions are not straight forward, but sometimes the most important step is to just open the sails and give yourself a chance to catch the wind.


They even let me sail the boat! Photo Credit: Raea Gooding

Next post in series…

The home of our hearts day 3: The coal story – mines and mine water remediation

The home of our hearts day 3: The coal story – mines and mine water remediation

[part four of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

Coal mining is an essential part of the history of Cape Breton Island, and thus was the focus of the third day of the workshop. We began the day by exploring active and passive remediation methods used on Cape Breton to deal with their problems with mine water. Our stops included a very large waste rock pile that had been capped and vegetated; a water treatment facility removing iron- and sulphur-rich water from decommissioned mines; and a wetland facility doing the same. It was such an exciting experience to be able to put a real world picture on some of the theory you learn about in coursework and it was a very motivating thing to see a community attacking their environmental problems with such innovative solutions!


An engineered wetland used to passively remediate iron-rich mine water. Photo Credit: Gary Pardy

On the second half of the day we travelled to the Coal Miners Museum in Glace Bay, where we were treated to a tour down an actual coal mine from an actual coal miner. A relevant caveat here is that the coal mine we toured was never actually worked for coal, but built specifically to give tours. Our tour guide, Wishie “Wish” Davidson, walking around hunched over with a cane in his hand, gave us the history of coal mining in Cape Breton, which is an industrial tale that would make Dickens jealous. Wish described the “company stores” that were the only sources of food, clothes, and other amenities in the coal mining towns, which forced miners into debt by setting exorbitant prices, and the “company homes” which would allow families to stay so long as they had a worker in the mines and were willing to have their wages docked to pay for the privilege. As we travelled into the 150 foot mine (with four foot ceilings at its shortest section), Wish described the suffocating, nightmarish conditions the miners had to deal with, including the pitch blackness, constant coal dust, cacophony of the drill machines, and the aches and physical trauma that came with shovelling tonnes of coal each day. The remarkable struggle of the workers really put into perspective what actual hardship is, and was a stark contextualization for me of how the challenge of finding solutions to our water problems can in no way be as brutal as the challenge of waking up at four in the morning, six days a week, to travel miles into the ground, and work for fourteen hours in dust, noise, darkness, and pain only to get paid for what you brought to the surface, and only then getting to take home pay that the companies didn’t get their hands on first.


Wish Davidson giving us a tour of the Ocean Deeps Colliery. The cement lining quickly ends as you travel down the tunnel, and you are left surrounded by black coal and timber in passageways as small as four feet in height. Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

Following the mine tour, we had an additional opportunity to experience the story of coal mining in Cape Breton at an incredible concert given by the “Men of the Deeps,” a choral group that has toured across the world and is composed entirely of miners who worked in the coal mines at some point during their careers. This added another dimension of awe to the performance, as coal mining has been shut down in Cape Breton since 2001, and so the men on the stage were the last men in Cape Breton that could ever tell us these stories. Indeed, it is difficult to express how moving it is to hear a group of people sing about a way of life that was designed to crush them but is still an indelible component of their personal identity. The chorus of one of the songs they sang, called “Sixteen Tons,” gives a great example of how powerful the concert was: “You load sixteen tons, what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.”


The Men of the Deeps. Photo Credit: Kristen Leal

No matter how much hyperbole we like to kick around, our challenges with apathy, misinformation, and politics are drops in the bucket compared to the daily misery that the coal miners faced. Whenever I feel that spectre of cynicism telling me to throw up my hands and curse at our environmental challenges and stewardship decisions, I think remembering the Sydney coalmines will give me a place to anchor my optimism: it can’t be that bad!

Next post in series…



The home of our hearts day 2: The Unama’ki Institute for Natural Resources and a medicine walk to Glooskap’s cave

[part three of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

After an emotional and inspirational first night together, we had the great privilege to begin the first full day of the workshop at the Unama’ki Institute for Natural Resources (UINR), a collaborative local institution operated by the Mi’kmaq nation dedicated to environmental stewardship on Cape Breton Island. At the UINR we had the amazing opportunity to hear from Charlie Dennis, a senior advisor at the UINR, and Elder Albert Marshall, a senior and influential voice in the Mi’kmaq nation. The clarity of their vision and their expression of the deep, fundamental connection the Mi’kmaq have to their environment was deeply inspiring. Elder Albert described the four R’s that are central to the Mi’kmaq decision making process: reverence, respect, reciprocity, and responsibility, and his concept of two-eyed seeing, or balancing traditional aboriginal knowledge with contemporary western science. The sincerity of the UINR’s efforts and their terrific successes reflect an amazing capacity for a local community to focus their knowledge and energy into real, practical solutions. The power of a deep-seated knowledge of your local environment in developing sustainable social, economical, and environmental solutions is something that really resonated with me, and has got me thinking about how I can apply the profound philosophies of the Mi’kmaq people to environmental education in my home community.


Elder Albert Marshall. Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

From the UINR we headed off to the trailhead of Glooskap’s cave, a sacred place for the Unama’ki and where their creation story begins. Jeff Ward rejoined our group along with Cliff Paul, the Moose Management Coordinator at the UINR; and Tuma Young, an assistant professor at Cape Breton University with a deep knowledge of local flora and fauna. We were invited to clear our minds and spirits by participating in a smudging ceremony, and then proceeded along the roughly 4 km hike to Glooskap’s Cave. Along the way, Tuma identified traditional medicines and cut us all a piece of a branch with a sap that provides a red-bull like energy kick. The trail to Glooskap’s cave ends with you scaling down a ravine and traveling next to (and in) a river which leads to a beach that is Glooskap’s cave. The view of the outlet when you turn past the last bulge of rocks is incredible, and when you realize how important this one stretch of land is to the people who have invited you into their family and traditions, you cannot help but feel like you’ve reached some critical, indescribable intersection between the emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual. We ended our time at the beach by making a food offering and participating in a prayer, a mesmerizing chant led by Jeff’s son and a single beating drum. On the way back to the bus, the entire group was clearly in awe of what had happened and how empowering a sincere, respectful relationship with the natural world can be.


Glooskap’s Cave. Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

Next post in series…

The home of our hearts, Cape Breton – A transformative professional experience with the Canadian Water Network (Part 1 of 6: prologue)

The home of our hearts, Cape Breton – A transformative professional experience with the Canadian Water Network (Part 1 of 6: prologue)


[part one of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia]

Let me start this series off by expressing how life changing this event was for me. I am very much a technical water person, more comfortable expressing my knowledge of water using differential equations than a sequence of coherent, elegant words, but I’ve always loved to hear people tell their water stories, and that ability to instantiate into reality the deep connection our species has with water has always been a powerful motivator for me. After leaving the CWNSYP workshop in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia all I can think about is how the intersection of first nations experience; twenty brilliant students/young professionals from across Canada; five dedicated and inspirational mentors; and the indescribable magic of the community that is Cape Breton Island has given me a mountain of emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual capital that I will fight to carry for the rest of my life.

Before we dive into the daily experiences at the workshop, I want to take a paragraph to express what an impressive job the hosts of the workshop did in providing a framework for us participants to unleash our enthusiasm and experience a moment none of us will soon forget. As I hope I’ve successfully expressed in the posts that follow, the diversity of each day’s itinerary was something special. The commitment to providing a robust discussion of water issues contextualized against historical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of water was constant and elevated the workshop to a remarkable place. So, a sincere thank you to the Verschuren Centre of Cape Breton University and the Canadian Water Network for organizing this event; and a very special thanks to our on-the-ground Cape Breton hosts: David Alderson, Martin Mkandawire, Ken Oakes, and Ashlee Consolo Willox; and our Canadian Water Network liaison Liana Kreamer. If you ever get a chance to work with the Verschuren Centre or the CWN, I would strongly suggest you jump at the chance!

The title of this blog post is from a song called “The Island Song” which is the unofficial anthem of Cape Breton and was the de-facto theme song of our time out there (It also inspired the name of the workshop, “A rock in the stream”). 

Next post in series…

and we have a winner….Coolest Hydrogeology Paper of 2013 Winners announcement

and we have a winner….Coolest Hydrogeology Paper of 2013 Winners announcement

From Matt Currell on  Linkedin:

It is with great pleasure that I can announce the winners of the first ever ‘coolest paper of the year’ competition, organised by the steering committee of the ECHN.

Big congratulations to the authors of our winning paper:sebnem_arslan
Şebnem Arslan et al: Environmental isotopes and noble gases in the deep aquifer system of Kazan Trona Ore Field, Ankara, central Turkey and links to paleoclimate. Quaternary Research, 79(2): 292-303.


The runners up in the competition were:
Ying Fan et al: Global patterns of groundwater table depth. Science, 339(6122): 940-943.
Richard Taylor et al: Ground water and climate change. Nature Climate Change, 3: 322-329.

There was a very high quality of papers nominated, and large number of votes cast in the competition. Overall a great success!
The awards ceremony will take place at the IAH 2014 in Marrakech, Morocco. Thanks to all who participated, and we look forward to next year’s Coolest Paper competition!

One in four of world’s big cities water-stressed

One in four of world’s big cities water-stressed

From the McGill Newsroom

As more people move to urban areas, cities around the world are experiencing increased water stress and looking for additional water supplies to support their continued grow.

The first global database of urban water sources and stress, published online this week in Global Environmental Change, estimates that cities move 504 billion litres of water a distance of 27,000 kilometers every day. Laid end to end, all those canals and pipes would stretch halfway around the world. While large cities occupy only 1% of the Earth’s land surface, their source watersheds cover 41% of that surface, so the raw water quality of large cities depends on the land use in this much larger area.

An international team of researchers from nine institutions, including McGill University in Montreal, surveyed and mapped the water sources of more than 500 cities, providing the first global look at the water infrastructure that serves the world’s large cities. The study was led by Rob McDonald, senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va.

Prof. Bernhard Lehner and PhD student Günther Grill of McGill’s Department of Geography contributed a detailed global map of rivers, lakes and watersheds to help map the water sources of each city, while Prof. Tom Gleeson of McGill’s Department of Civil Engineering conducted analysis for groundwater sources.

The research team used computer models to estimate the water use based on population and types of industry for each city, and defined water-stressed cities as those using at least 40% of the water they have available. Previous estimates of urban water stress were based only on the watershed in which each city was located, but many cities draw heavily on watersheds well beyond their boundaries. In fact, the 20 largest inter-basin transfers in 2010 totaled over 42 billion liters of water per day, enough water to fill 16,800 Olympic-size pools.

There is good news in the findings: Many cities are not as water-stressed as previously thought. Earlier estimates put approximately 40% of cities into the water-stressed category. This analysis has the number at 25%.

The study finds that the 10 largest cities under water stress are Tokyo, Delhi, Mexico City, Shanghai, Beijing, Kolkata, Karachi, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro and Moscow. (Neither of the two Canadian cities analyzed — Toronto and Montreal — was water-stressed, according to the definition used in the study.)

The study also makes clear the extent to which financial resources and water resources are intertwined. It is possible for a city to build itself out of water scarcity — either by piping in water from greater and greater distances or by investing in technologies such as desalinization — but many of the fastest growing cities are also economically stressed and will find it difficult to deliver adequate water to residents without international aid and investment.

“Cities, like deep rooted plants, can reach a quite a long distance to acquire the water they need,” says McDonald. “However, the poorest cities find themselves in a real race to build water infrastructure to keep up with the demands of their rapidly growing citizenry.”

The study also reveals that:

  • Four in five (78%) urbanites in large cities, some 1.21 billion people, primarily depend on surface water sources. The remainder depend on groundwater (20%) or, rarely, desalination (2%).
  • The urban water infrastructure of large cities cumulatively supplies 668 billion liters daily. Of this, 504 billion liters daily comes from surface sources, and that water is conveyed over a total distance of 27,000 km.
  • Land use in upstream contributing areas affects the raw water quality and quantity of surface water sources.
  • An estimated one-quarter of large cities in water stress contain $4.8 trillion of economic activity, or 22% of all global economic activity in large cities. This large amount of economic activity in large cities with insecure sources of water emphasizes the importance of sustainable management of these sources, not just for the viability of individual cities but for the global economy.

The research was supported by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


“Water on an urban planet: urbanization and the reach of urban water infrastructure,” Robert. I. McDonald, et al, Global Environmental Change, published online June 2, 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.04.022

Groundwater extraction can move mountains

Groundwater extraction can move mountains

Contributed by Pascal Audet (webpage or email)


Historic 1977 photo of Dr. Joseph Poland, USGS, considered the pioneer of scientific subsidence studies. Dates on telephone pole indicate previous land elevations in an area SW of Mendota. Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Next time you eat food grown in the San Joaquin Valley of California, think about this: the water used for growing them probably came from under ground. Farmers do not really have a choice because the amount of water from rain and snow can’t keep up with the needs for growing food. Every year more water is drawn out of the ground for irrigation. Because of this, the floor of the San Joaquin Valley goes down as the sediments compact once the water is out (see picture on right).

In the latest work from our team, we find a surprising side effect of groundwater pumping: the mountains surrounding the valley (the Sierra Nevada and California Coast Ranges) are moving up a few millimeters each year, as shown by a large number of GPS instruments. This may seem very small to humans, but for hard rocks it is quite fast. We find that this uplift can be explained by the loss of water out of the ground, as shown by gravity data from the GRACE satellite. The water lost through irrigation lowers the weight on the Earth’s crust, which responds by bouncing back up like a spring.

One interesting implication of this study is the impact on earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault. Uplift of the crust (and mountains) decreases the grip on the fault, making it easier to slip and cause small earthquakes during busier times of groundwater pumping. Perhaps more important, our study shows that humans can really move mountains through industrial agriculture. In California, this effect may get worse because more droughts, earlier snowmelt and different rainfall patterns are expected due to climate change.

This article is the second in a series of plain language summaries on Water Underground (link to first). The 5upgoer word processor showed that ~80% of the words in this post are in the 1000 most common words in the English language. For recent news coverage of this article check out this.

Surprises and lessons learned from co-teaching an inter-university graduate course

Surprises and lessons learned from co-teaching an inter-university graduate course

GrantFergusonContributed by Grant Ferguson, University of Saskatchewan


In an earlier blog post, Tom discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of co-teaching a blended graduate course to students at McGill University, the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the University of Saskatchewan. This course wrapped up last month… we definitely learned a few things during its delivery, some of which were surprises that we hope you can learn from.

Surprise #1: The course outline and structure came together rather quickly and there was minimal debate on the content that we would cover. We did not attempt to be comprehensive in our coverage and chose to teach to our research interests. At the same time, we did not feel that there were obvious gaping holes in the curriculum. We included a review of what we expected the students to understand coming into the course. Although we were teaching students from a variety of backgrounds including civil engineering, environmental science, geosciences and forestry our expectation was that everyone should have been exposed to similar content in their undergraduate hydrogeology course. A recent review on the content of undergraduate hydrogeology courses by Gleeson et al. (2012) indicated that the core content of these courses does not vary that much from university to university.

However, surprise #2: students had very different interests and strengths. Some universities had students that excelled at MatLab while others were far more proficient with GIS. The interests of students also tended to mirror those of their home institutions. Students from McGill tended to be interested in water resource sustainability and large-scale problems, students from Saskatchewan were focused on problems associated with resource-extraction and students from Wisconsin tended to be more interested on hydrological processes and ecosystems. Exposing these biases, strengths and weaknesses was valuable for both instructors and students.

Surprise #3: this may not be a more ‘efficient’ way to teach since we spent far more time preparing lectures for this course than we normally do for other courses. Teaching to students and other universities with other instructors present brought teaching to a different level.   This effectively negated the initial thought that this would be a more efficient way of teaching because we were only on the hook for a third of the lectures. Part of this preparation was related to knowing that we would be forced to rely on slides more heavily than in a conventional classroom. However, the greater motivation was knowing that this presentation was going outside the walls of the home institution and that colleagues from other universities would be following along.

Surprise #4: Communication during the course went more smoothly than expected. Aside from a few momentary hiccups, there were few problems hearing the lecturer. Talking between institutions during the lecture went well, although questions were generally repeated by the lecturer or someone nearer to the microphone at other schools. The biggest obstacle might have been for the lecturers. Despite some efforts to situate cameras and explore different views within Microsoft Lync, it was difficult for the lecture to see the remote classrooms. Without being able to see facial expressions or body lan20140325aguage, it was difficult to assess how the material was being received at the other locations. This problem can likely be resolved to some extent with additional monitors and better cameras.

The feedback from the students was largely positive. Most of them seemed happy to participate in this experiment and get some exposure to other institutions. Tom, Steve and I all agreed that we would do this again given the chance. However, it appears that the stars might not align for us in 2015 due to some other commitments. We will see if we still feel this way in 2016.

Re-posted on Inside Higher Ed blog.


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