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Have you ever wondered if groundwater is connected to climate?

Have you ever wondered if groundwater is connected to climate?

Post by Tom Gleeson Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering at the University of Victoria.


‘Groundwater-surface water interactions’ has become standard hydrologic lexicon and a perennial favorite session title at various conferences… but how often do you hear the phrase ‘groundwater-climate interactions’?

A group of hydrologists, hydrogeologists, atmospheric scientists and geodesists that met in Taiwan this week would say ‘not enough!’ We met to discuss how groundwater, the slow-moving grandparent of the hydrologic cycle interacts with the atmosphere, the fast-moving toddler. The 2nd international workshop on Impacts of Groundwater in Earth system Models (IGEM), was a follow-up of a 2016 workshop in Paris in 2016 (and part of a the bilateral French-Taiwanese IGEM project).

Sessions were focused around a few themes:

  • Groundwater use and its impacts
  • Groundwater representation, assimilation and evaluation in climate models
  • Remote Sensing and in-situ observations on groundwater
  • Groundwater-climate interactions with a special focus on Nebraska

 

And in the afternoons we convened discussion groups focused on ‘groundwater representation in continental to global hydrologic models’ and ‘groundwater-climate interactions’ and arguably just as importantly we ate lots of great food including an awesome fusion dinner and dumplings at the famous Din Tai Fung.

I would love to say that we could provide you with a simple, robust answer to the leading question of how and where groundwater is connected to climate – a holy grail of Earth System science. But like all good questions, the answer at least right now is ‘a little bit in some places, and it depends how you look at it’. We discussed the first enticing but preliminary results of potential hotspots of groundwater-climate interactions, expounded on the importance to water sustainability and dissected vadose zone parameterizations in land surface models but the quest for this holy grail goes on… We plan to meet again in a few years in Saskatchewan and maybe have a few more answers. Do you want to join us on this holy grail quest, and maybe end up making ‘groundwater-climate interactions’ more standard lexicon?

P.S. Thanks to Min-Hui Lo and his group at National Taiwan University for the excellent hospitality and organization!

P.S.S. Just in case it goes viral, the term ‘baddest-ass model’ was first used by Jay Famiglietti (see below).

Groundwater and drought

Groundwater and drought

Post by Andy Baker, Professor researching groundwater, caves, past climate, organic carbon and more at the University of New South Wales, in Australia.

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Drought is in the news here in New South Wales, Australia. But how are rainfall, drought and groundwater related?

First, we need to understand what drought is. Is it a water shortage? Or a lack of rainfall? Or something else? In the USA, the National Climatic Data Center define drought as the ‘absence of water’. They identify four types of drought: 1) meteorological drought (a lack of rainfall), 2) hydrological drought (a loss of surface water or groundwater supply), 3) agricultural drought (a water shortage leading to crop failure), and 4) socioeconomic drought (where demand for water exceeds availability).

Here in Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as ‘a prolonged, abnormally dry period when the amount of available water is insufficient to meet our normal use’.  They add that ‘drought is not simply low rainfall; if it was, much of inland Australia would be in almost perpetual drought’. Much of inland Australia depends on surface and groundwater for their economy. If those regions experienced a groundwater drought, it would therefore be bad news.

Let’s look at New South Wales again. It covers both coastal regions, such as Sydney (where I am writing this), as well as a vast interior (where most of my research is based). The Bureau of Meteorology produces meteorological drought maps based on rainfall amounts over recent months. The current map shows large areas of New South Wales are experiencing rainfall totals that are in the lowest 10 percentile (‘serious’), lowest 5 percentile (‘severe’) and the lowest on record.

How does this deficiency in rainfall affect groundwater? And is there a groundwater drought? Long-term measurement of groundwater levels in boreholes (also called wells, depending on your country) can tell you whether water levels are rising or falling. Wells integrate groundwater recharge that comes from both surface water (e.g. rivers that lose water through their base) and from rainfall (also called diffuse recharge).

Real-time data of water levels from telemetered boreholes can provide timely information on groundwater drought (for example, here for NSW). Satellite products such as GRACE, which can infer groundwater levels from small changes in gravity over time, can provide large scale spatial coverage. Modelling products can calculate water balance from meteorological, soil and land use data.

The current Bureau of Meteorology map shows that deep soil moisture is very much below average across New South Wales. If we assume that deep soil moisture levels are only determined by rainfall recharge, then from this we would expect no rainfall recharge of groundwater to be occurring over large parts of New South Wales. From one location, Wellington, close to the middle of the drought region, we have the measured evidence from inside a cave that shows that rainfall recharge hasn’t occurred for 18 months (and counting).

Since 2011, forty loggers have been measuring the water percolating through the unsaturated zone of the limestone at a depth of 25 m at Wellington Caves. This winter, I did the latest download of the data. Or rather, the lack of data, as only four drip water sources were still active. Conditions in the cave are the driest since we started collecting data in 2011.

Drip rates have been on the decline since the winter of 2016. But note the decline temporarily slowed in 2017, starting in early April. That is the response to the last time there was rainfall recharge there – owing to almost 70 mm of rain falling over three days in late March 2017. Eighteen months ago.

In the inland of New South Wales, it is clear that in dryland farming regions, the lack of rainfall has now led to an agricultural drought. In contrast, latest available data from our groundwater monitoring networks shows that there is currently no decline in groundwater levels in the major irrigation districts, which is where river recharge occurs. But for our dryland farmers, and ecosystems that rely on rainfall recharge, the karst drip data show that the groundwater drought has hit. Australia is often called a country of drought and flooding rains. Flooding rains are what we need next so that we also have some river recharge to replenish our groundwater resource.

 

Wellington, NSW. July 2018. This is the UNSW Research Station, normally stocked and cropped, but not this year.

How deep does groundwater go? Mining (dark) data from the depths

How deep does groundwater go? Mining (dark) data from the depths

Post by Kevin Befus, Assistant Professor at the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Wyoming, in the United States.

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3D geologic data can be hard to come by, and can be even more difficult to combine into a continuous dataset. The cross-sections shown here are directly from 3D groundwater models that I compiled [Befus et al., 2017], primarily from USGS groundwater models, for the U.S. East Coast. I kept each of the regional domains (different color swaths on the map) separate, since I ran into the issue of “border discontinuities” between different models where naming conventions and hydrostratigraphic structure didn’t match up. Kh is the horizontal hydraulic conductivity.

We’ve all been asked (or do the asking), “where does your water come from?” This is a fundamental question for establishing a series of additional questions that can ultimately help define strategies for valuing and protecting a particular water resource.

For groundwater, we could phrase this question differently, and I often do when talking to well owners: How deep is your well? If I get an answer to this, then I can dive into additional questions that can help define more about the local groundwater resource: How deep is the well screen? How long is the screen? Do you know what the water level in the well is? Has it changed over some given time? Seasonally?

These are all useful questions, and they serve to begin establishing the hydraulic conditions of a particular aquifer. I ask these whenever I can.

To do this at a larger scale, we can turn to various governmental agencies that regulate groundwater resources and/or water well drilling and often collect and store groundwater data (e.g., www.waterqualitydata.us/, http://nlog.nl/en/data, http://gin.gw-info.net/service/api_ngwds:gin2/en/gin.html, or http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/groundwater/datainfo/NWRA.html). There is a wealth of information out there internationally on wells when they were drilled and where the driller first hit water. These driller logs can provide a snapshot in time of the water table elevation and can be extremely useful for tracking hydrologic variability [Perrone and Jasechko, 2017], extracting hydraulic parameters [Bayless et al., 2017],  and for testing model results [Fan et al., 2013]. Unfortunately for us earthy nerds, some governments have restricted access to well installation data for either certain types of wells (i.e., municipal) or for all wells, usually for privacy or safety concerns.

Back to the original question. How deep is groundwater? I keep this question broad. We can usually answer this question for particular areas where we have access to the right data, but for large parts of the globe, and potentially underneath you right now, we cannot answer this question. The “right data” for a hydrogeologist is some form of information on geologic/stratigraphic layer (or lack of layering) that can be tied to the rock properties. For a surficial, unconfined aquifer, this can be relatively easy, but when we start stacking several geologic units on top of each other or start actually using the groundwater, this question of how deep groundwater is becomes tricky. We could qualify this question by asking how deep “usable” groundwater is, which, of course, depends on our definition of usable water for a specific purpose. Or, we can point (or integrate) through the Earth’s crust, core, and right back to its crust and calculate the huge value of how much water is “in the ground” (and minerals)[Bodnar et al., 2013]. And I haven’t even brought up porosity yet! Or specific storage!

A example of a great public 3D interactive web viewer (https://wateratlas.net/) that integrates groundwater data, geological information, and well construction details produced by the Centre for Coal Seam Gas at the University of Queensland (https://ccsg.centre.uq.edu.au/), which is supported by the University of Queensland and industry partners. For more information on this water atlas, please contact Dr. Sue Vink (s.vink@smi.uq.edu.au) or Alexandra Wolhuter (a.wolhuter@uq.edu.au).

Don’t worry. I won’t go there. I want to harass/encourage the hydro[geo]logic community to get serious about sharing their hydrogeologic data. This does mean metadata (do I hear a collective groan?), but metadata and data management plans are increasingly required to secure funding. CUAHSI’s Hydroshare site (www.hydroshare.org) provides a platform uploading hydro models, and the U.S. Geological Survey has developed a slick web system for exploring hydrogeologic models. But, I’d like to take this further, or at least get a service like that going for anyone who wants to share their models. There is a wealth of crustal structure data out there, and groundwater models are unique in often containing some representation of three-dimensional geology/hydrostratigraphy along with Earth properties. There are some great deterministic, published datasets and models of global hydrogeology [De Graaf et al., 2015; Huscroft et al., 2018], but we can do better. Wouldn’t it be great to have a centralized database to extract an ensemble of hydrogeologic structure used in previous regional or local studies? How about be able to draw a model boundary on a web interface and extract 3D structure for your next model? And compare cross-sections between models in the same area? Want to start fitting your puzzle pieces into the international hydrogeologic puzzle? The question now becomes, how do we do it? A “DigitalCrust” has been proposed [Fan et al., 2015], but is not yet in reach.

Join the movement of a “Digital Earth” [Gore, 1998]!

Here are some examples, initiatives, and free 3D [hydro]geology resources to get you started:

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Kevin Befus leads the groundwater hydrology group in the Civil and Architectural Engineering Department at the University of Wyoming. With his research group, he studies how groundwater systems respond to hydrologic conditions over glacial timescales and in mountainous and coastal environments.  You can follow along with Kevin’s research through any of the links below:

Personal WebpageTwitter Research Group Page | UW Faculty Page

 

 

 

 

 

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References

Bayless, E. R., L. D. Arihood, H. W. Reeves, B. J. S. Sperl, S. L. Qi, V. E. Stipe, and A. R. Bunch (2017), Maps and Grids of Hydrogeologic Information Created from Standardized Water-Well Driller’s Records of the Glaciated United States, U.S. Geol. Surv. Sci. Investig. Report2, 20155105, 34, doi:10.3133/sir20155105.

Befus, K. M., K. D. Kroeger, C. G. Smith, and P. W. Swarzenski (2017), The Magnitude and Origin of Groundwater Discharge to Eastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico Coastal Waters, Geophys. Res. Lett., 44(20), 10,396-10,406, doi:10.1002/2017GL075238.

Bodnar, R. J., T. Azbej, S. P. Becker, C. Cannatelli, A. Fall, and M. J. Severs (2013), Whole Earth geohydrologic cycle, from the clouds to the core: The distribution of water in the dynamic Earth system, Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap., 500, 431–461, doi:10.1130/2013.2500(13).

Fan, Y., H. Li, and G. Miguez-Macho (2013), Global patterns of groundwater table depth, Science, 339(6122), 940–943, doi:10.1126/science.1229881.

Fan, Y. et al. (2015), DigitalCrust – a 4D data system of material properties for transforming research on crustal fluid flow, Geofluids, 15(1–2), 372–379, doi:10.1111/gfl.12114.

Gore, A. (1998), The Digital Earth: Understanding our planet in the 21st Century, Aust. Surv., 43(2), 89–91, doi:10.1080/00050326.1998.10441850.

De Graaf, I. E. M., E. H. Sutanudjaja, L. P. H. Van Beek, and M. F. P. Bierkens (2015), A high-resolution global-scale groundwater model, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19(2), 823–837, doi:10.5194/hess-19-823-2015.

Huscroft, J., T. Gleeson, J. Hartmann, and J. Börker (2018), Compiling and Mapping Global Permeability of the Unconsolidated and Consolidated Earth: GLobal HYdrogeology MaPS 2.0 (GLHYMPS 2.0), Geophys. Res. Lett., 45(4), 1897–1904, doi:10.1002/2017GL075860.

Perrone, D., and S. Jasechko (2017), Dry groundwater wells in the western United States, Environ. Res. Lett., 12(10), 104002, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa8ac0.

 

Socio-hydrology meets Broadway: Can we survive drought if we stop using the toilet?

Socio-hydrology meets Broadway: Can we survive drought if we stop using the toilet?

Post by Samuel Zipper, postdoctoral fellow at both McGill University and the University of Victoria, in Canada. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @ZipperSam.

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How can society best cope with water scarcity?

With Cape Town on the verge of being the first major city to run out of water (a topic for a future post here on Water Underground), this is a question on the minds of many water managers and scientists within the emerging fields of socio-hydrology and socio-hydrogeology.

Low levels in Cape Town, South Africa’s reservoir system. Image source: University of Cape Town News.

Recently, my wife & I had the opportunity to see a more musical exploration of this question at the Langham Court Theatre’s production of Urinetown here in Victoria. This satirical musical envisions a future in which severe droughts have limited water supplies to the point that government (controlled by a corporation) decides the best way to conserve water is to charge people to use the restroom, thus limiting both direct and indirect human consumption (by people drinking less and flushing the toilet less, respectively).

As a scientist, I naturally found myself wondering: how effective would this tactic be?

Fortunately, the data exist to give us at least a rough approximation. Globally, only about 10% of water is used in households; the vast majority (about 70%) goes to agriculture. Once the water reaches your household, however, Urinetown may have a point; in an average US household, toilets are the largest water user, averaging ~1/4 of domestic water use (33 gallons per household per day). Since the US has among the largest per-capita water use of any country, we can use this number as an upper bound for a back-of-envelope calculations: globally, if we collectively stopped flushing toilets today, we’d reduce water use by a maximum of 2.5%.

In contrast, switching to diets with less animal protein (particularly beef) can have a far greater impact, saving well over 10% – it takes 660 gallons of water to make a burger, equivalent to about 180 flushes of a standard toilet (see the water footprint of various foods here). However, water is inherently a local issue – most of the water that goes into your burger was used to grow crops, potentially far away from wherever you live, and does not consume local water resources. Also, the numbers we used for the above calculations have a lot of local variability, with up to ~1/3 of total water use in Europe and Central Asia in the household.

Percentage of indoor water use by different fixtures. Source: Water Research Foundation.

So overall, does the math add up for Urinetown? At a global scale, reducing agricultural water use through improvement in irrigation practices and changes in diet is going to have a much bigger impact. Locally, however, toilets do use a lot of water and restricting their use during times of crisis is a smart approach – and Cape Town has had an “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” recommendation since September. Replacing your toilet with a high-efficiency fixture can help as well – many cities and states have rebate programs to help reduce the costs of this switch.

And how does it turn out for the residents of Urinetown? To answer that question, you’ll have to see the show yourself. Urinetown had a three year run on Broadway, including winning three Tony Awards, and is now a popular choice for theatres all around the world.

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Sam Zipper is an ecohydrologist. His main research focuses broadly on interactions between vegetation and the water cycle, with a particular interest in unintended or indirect impacts of land use change on ecosystems resulting from altered surface and subsurface hydrological flowpaths. You can find out more about Sam by going to his webpage at: samzipper.weebly.com.

Happy birthday plate tectonics!

Happy birthday plate tectonics!

Post by Elco Luijendijk, a junior lecturer, and David Hindle, lecturer and head of geodynamic modelling, both at the Department of Structural Geology and Geodynamics at the University of Göttingen, in Germany.

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As we’ve firmly moved into 2018, we can say happy 50th birthday to one of the most revolutionary scientific theories of the last century: plate tectonics. Here we discuss the birth of plate tectonics and what it means for hydrogeology.

Plate tectonic theory explains the how the Earth’s surface is formed and how it consists of rigid plates on top of a layer that is called the asthenosphere and that behaves like a slow-moving liquid. The plates move around, collide and subduct beneath each other. Plate tectonics successfully explains many features of the surface of the Earth, such as mountain belts at the collision zones of plates, ocean basins at places where plates move apart and the concentration of earthquakes near plate boundaries. For instance it is quite easy to recognize the boundaries of tectonic plates if you look at the earthquake distribution in Figure 2.

Plate tectonics birthday cake, showing one tasty tectonic plate (left) subducting below another (right). Source: http://sara-geologicventures.blogspot.de/2012/05/cake-subduction-zone.html

Actually, depending on your definition either 2017 or 2018 is the 50th birthday of plate tectonics. The story why this is the case is a bit complex. Jason Morgan first presented the theory at meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 1967. However, the first paper on the mathematical principle of the movement of tectonic plates was published in the same year by McKenzie and Parker (1967). Jason Morgan’s paper (Morgan 1968) is the first one to clearly demonstrate the global geometry of all the major tectonic plates, but had got delayed by peer-review for over a year. The development of plate tectonics involved many scientist and several earlier theories, such as seafloor spreading (which showed that ocean basins were split in two halves that were moving apart). There are surprisingly few books available on the history of plate tectonics, but one that is definitely an enjoyable read is “Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History Of The Modern Theory Of The Earth” (Oreskes 2003). It is a fascinating collection of stories by most of the scientist that were involved in the development of the theory.

Figure 2 Plate boundaries on earth, with earthquakes > M6.5, since the year 2000, and with selected relative motion arrows for plate pairs – the motions shown are always those between adjacent plates. Double arrows imply spreading – moving apart of plates, mostly on oceanic ridges, while single arrows imply either strike slip motion (California and the San Andreas fault for instance) or convergence (either subduction of an oceanic plate under a continental one – under the Andes mountains in South America as an example, or collision of two continental plates as between India and Eurasia in the Himalayas for instance). Earthquakes are clearly concentrated on plate boundaries. This map was made using GMT (http://gmt.soest.hawaii.edu/).

Ok, that is all very interesting, but you could ask the question: what does plate tectonics have to do with Water Underground?

In some regards not much. We can often ignore plate tectonics when looking at groundwater flow. Hydrogeologists tend to study groundwater supply and pollution on human time and space scales. Because plates move very slowly (up to tens of mm per year), on short timescales the subsurface can be regarded as static layer of rocks that does not move or deform. However, most of the groundwater on our planet is old, and has infiltrated to the subsurface ten thousand years ago or earlier (Jasechko et al. 2017). The oldest groundwater that we know is 1.5 billion years old and was found at 2 km depth in a mine in near Timmins, Canada (Holland et al. 2013). Over its long history it was part of ancient and long disintegrated continents and the plate that holds this water moved from an area south of the equator to its present position.

Plate tectonics affect groundwater. Especially in deeper (several kilometers) parts of the crust, the groundwater pressure, salinity and composition that we encounter today are often the result of a long geological history. Over time, sediments were added and removed by erosion, layers were compacted, folded and/or faulted, which affected groundwater flow and its interaction with the rocks that contain it.

The reverse is also true: groundwater affects plate tectonics. This is perhaps most important near mid-ocean ridges, where two plates move apart, and new crust is being added to these plates all the time. There is abundant evidence for strong circulation of seawater through the subsurface, which cools the hot new crust, reacts with the rocks around it and changes the chemistry of the crust and the ocean. The most visible evidence are so-called black smokers (Figure 3), where hot (350 ˚C) water discharges into the ocean through fissures in the crust and carries along black plumes full of dissolved minerals. At the opposite end of the plates, the presence of water underground changes how easy or hard it is for one plate to subduct beneath another in a plate collision zone, as was discussed at a recent AGU conference (link to session), 50 years after the AGU conference where Jason Morgan presented his theory. On a smaller scale, faults that enable the stacking of rocks in plate collision zones (mountain belts) or the breaking apart of rocks in rift zones (where plates split up), are dependent on the presence of groundwater. Even before the advent of plate tectonics Hubbert and Rubey (1959), showed that water in fault zones can act as a kind of lubricant that enables two adjacent blocks of rocks to move past each other. Because this movement gives rise to earthquakes, groundwater may also play an important role in the earthquake cycle. This role is still heavily debated and is researched by drilling deep wells in faults at plate boundaries, such as at the San Andreas fault in California (Zoback et al. 2010) or the Nankai through (Hammerschmidt et al. 2013).

Without sufficient groundwater plate tectonics may not exist on our planet. The movement of tectonic plates depends on how easily the rocks below these plates can deform. At these depths, high pressures and temperatures promote the slow deformation of the crystals that make up the rocks at this depth. The mechanisms that cause the deformation of crystals are termed “creep”. Whether or not the rock contains water (in the form of -OH groups) affects creep: generally, “wet” minerals are up to a factor of 10 “softer” than “dry” ones. The actual physics and chemistry of how -OH affects and weakens different minerals is not entirely clear. Creep is also essential for the convection of the earth’s mantle, which controls the escape of heat from our planet’s interior and provides the energy to drive plate tectonics. Without convection, there would be no plate tectonics, so the presence of water throughout the earth’s crust, and its continued reintroduction to the earth’s mantle by the subduction of tectonic plates seems to be a key component driving the system, or at least, helping it to keep moving along.

There are many more links between groundwater and geologic processes, too many to cover in a short blog item like this. However, the current state of our understanding is summarized in a highly recommended book “Groundwater in geologic processes”. Many aspects of groundwater flow and its links with geological processes in newly formed, colliding or subducting plates are still uncertain and studied by hydrogeologists, which means that 50 years after the publication of the theory of plate tectonics, many discoveries still lie ahead.

Figure 3 A black smoker at the mid Atlantic ridge emitting hot groundwater into the ocean from newly formed oceanic crust. Copyright: MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen.

Links:

1: McKenzie and Parker (1967) https://www.nature.com/articles/2161276a0

2: Morgan (1968): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/JB073i006p01959/full

3: Oreskes (2003): https://www.routledge.com/Plate-Tectonics-An-Insiders-History-Of-The-Modern-Theory-Of-The-Earth/Oreskes/p/book/9780813341323

4: Jassechko et al. (2017): https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo2943

5: AGU fall meeting session (2017): http://agu.confex.com/agu/fm17/meetingapp.cgi/Session/31184

6: Hubbert and Rubery (1959): https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsabulletin/article-lookup/70/2/115

7: Zoback et al. (2010): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010EO220001/full

8: Hammerschmidt et al. (2013): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004019511300098X

9: Ingebritsen et al. (2006) Groundwater in geologic processes. http://www.cambridge.org/de/academic/subjects/earth-and-environmental-science/hydrology-hydrogeology-and-water-resources/groundwater-geologic-processes-2nd-edition?format=PB&isbn=9780521603218#RcR6adP330ESbBPk.97

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David Hindle (L) is a lecturer and the head of geodynamic modelling in the Department of Structural Geology and Geodynamics at the University of Göttingen, and Elco Luijendijk (R) is a junior lecturer also in the Department of Structural Geology and Geodynamics at the University of Göttingen.

An alternate career path for Groundwater Science-Engineering PhDs

An alternate career path for Groundwater Science-Engineering PhDs

Post by Jim Roy, Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

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A recent editorial in Nature highlighted the relative scarcity of academic positions available to graduating PhD students (Many junior scientists need to take a hard look at their job prospects; 25 October, 2017). It notes that “it has been evident for years that international science is training many more PhD students than the academic system can support”. Firm figures aren’t available, but the article suggests maybe < 5 % will land a full-time academic job. That number may be somewhat higher for Groundwater-related disciplines, but the point remains that many should “make plans for a life outside academic science.”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom; indeed the article goes on to state that “it is good for PhD students and postdocs to pursue careers outside academia. Many will find similar challenges and rewards in industry.” There are a lot of options for Groundwater PhDs in industry and the plethora of supporting consulting firms: in mining, oil and gas, tunnel and dam engineering, municipal water supply, and contaminated site remediation, to list a few. However, there is an additional career path to consider, especially if you want to continue doing research – the government scientist, like me.

According to Wikipedea: A government scientist is a “scientist employed by a country’s government, either in a research-driven job (for example J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project), or for another role that requires scientific training and methods.” I’ll be focusing on those that do research (encompassing science and engineering), at least for much of their work.  And in this blog, I’ll be comparing their job duties and conditions to that of the professor, the research job with which the majority of students and post-docs are most familiar and traditionally aiming for.  It’s what I thought I would be too, coming out of grad school. Now it’s been 10 years since I took up my position as a Research Scientist focusing on groundwater contamination/quality with Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada) – enough time to have experienced the ups and downs of the Canadian economy and the changing of the governing party, with repercussions of both for federal science priorities and budgets. The discussion below is based largely on my own experience, with insight gleaned from talking with colleagues in other government agenciesa over the years. It’s also highly generalized; the exact situations will vary by country, agency, and even by individual scientist, and may change over time. But hopefully it’s good enough for a light-hearted introduction to this alternate career area.

So here goes – my Top 10 list of how a government scientist job is different than academia:

  1. Freedom

                All scientists want to do work that is meaningful, but not all scientists get to choose on what topic that work will focus. In general, government scientists undertake research on issues of government priority that will advise on federal policy, regulations, and management activities, or that will provide service to important national industries or the public. So their work should have a meaningful impact on their country, if not more broadly; they just don’t get to decide on the priority topics (with exceptions for certain agencies or programs). However, often these priority topics are general enough that there is some range of projects that can fit within them, giving the scientist some flexibility on their research focus. Also, by advising their management and government representatives of important topics, government scientists may influence the direction of government priorities. Also, a government scientist may be afforded some leeway to work on additional topics outside these priority areas with a small fraction of their time. Government research usually targets short- to intermediate-term achievements, as fits the common government election cycle. However, some priority topics may last for decades – see North American Great Lakes eutrophication and algal blooms – waxing and waning in importance with the severity of the problem (costs!) in relation to the other pressures on the government (the economy!). For those who choose this career path – beware, though, when government priorities change, your research area may have to change too.

                For academics, their options are typically much broader, encompassing everything between applied research with immediate implications to research so basic that nobody can predict what may eventually come of it. The caveat to this is that an academic’s research topic often has to be deemed important enough and applied enough for “someone” to fund it. Industry funding is usually quite applied. But even government funding agencies, which are usually the primary support for more basic academic research, are increasingly imposing greater direction over the acceptable topics of proposed research. So perhaps this extra freedom isn’t so vast in practice.

  1. Trading places?

                Many government scientists are appointed to one or more adjunct professor positions at universities where their academic collaborators reside. These could be at nearby universities or those across the globe, and these locations may change over a career. It isn’t a paid position, but allows for closer research ties, including the (co-)supervision of undergraduate and graduate students, which benefits both the university and the government agency. Such positions may also afford access to laboratory space on campus or to additional research funding (held at the university, but directed by the adjunct professor).

                I haven’t heard of a case of the opposite arrangement – adjunct government scientist – but it might exist. Academics may pop in and be given some office space and support during a sabbatical while collaborating with a government scientist, but they’re really just temporary squatters.  If anyone out there knows of such a situation, feel free to post below.

  1. No teaching ( 🙂 or  🙁 )

                An obvious difference, this can be viewed as good or bad news depending on how much you like it.  I enjoyed teaching while I was a grad student. Many scientists give guest lectures or even short-courses at local universities. I taught an entire hydrogeology course for a university colleague during his sabbatical – so this can be an option for some in government who have an interest. Not having required teaching does provide greater flexibility in scheduling your work (especially field trips) and leaves more time for research and/or other important activities, like playing hockey or “family life”.

  1. Professors have grad students; government scientists have technicians

                The model for academic research is based on students and post-docs (a team of them often) carrying out the primary duties of research under the supervision of their professor. Certainly there are exceptions where the professor carries out their own study, but generally they lack the time for this. However, professors may have technicians too. It’s common for some to hire current or past students as technicians for a few years after they graduate, while (senior) professors may have dedicated technicians.

                In contrast, the model for government scientists is to have one or more dedicated and highly-experienced technicians available to assist in their research. Separate analytical laboratory or field teams may also be available. Although, with tightening budgets this technical support seems to be dwindling. It’s also fairly common for post-doctoral fellows to be hired by government agencies to work with their scientists – I’ve worked closely with 2 post-docs over my 10 years at Environment and Climate Change Canada. And what’s more, through adjunct professor positions or just collaborations, government scientists may also work with and (co-)supervise students from a partner university, just not to the same extent as for the academics.

                Thus, there can be a fair bit of overlap between these two models, especially when collaborations extend between academics and government researchers; and this integration, I think, makes for better science all around.

  1. Both are sought out by regulators and policy-makers

                Government scientists might have the inside track to the ear of policy-makers, but advice from academics is often gathered via workshops and contracts for reviews and reports as well.  Sadly, in large departments especially, some bureaucrats may not realize they have internal expertise in an area like hydrogeology. Which leads us to the next point…

  1. Governments typically do a poorer job of selling/showcasing their scientists

                Academics have much more freedom to showcase themselves and their work to the public, the science community, and business/industry. This can be through personalized research web pages, starting a blog (like this one!), and greater freedom to speak to the media (depending on the presiding-government’s rules for their scientists).  They also tend to attend more scientific conferences, where they and their students can advertise their scientific wares to a range of audiences.

  1. No consulting on the side

                Not all professors consult, but many do, which can provide a boost in income and lead to funding or in-kind support opportunities for their research or to job opportunities for their students. I haven’t heard of any government agencies that allow their scientists to consult as a side profession. In part, they want all your time devoted to your job working for them; but it also runs into “conflict-of-interest” concerns.  Now that doesn’t mean you can’t have a side-job (e.g., selling pottery, repairing dishwashers, stand-up comedy, teaching Yoga), but it can’t relate to your science profession.

  1. Border-crossing restrictions

                Working on national (or state/provincial) priority research commonly means government scientists work predominantly on sites in their own country (region), unless inter-jurisdictional agreements are made to combine or share research expertise. In contrast, academics are able and encouraged to work at international sites, which can expand the range of research topics and potentially funding sources available to them.

  1. Less competition for funding (except when the coffers are bare)

                Much of my funding is internal, requiring much shorter (i.e., less onerous) proposals than is typical for my academic colleagues seeking funding through centralized national funding agencies (e.g., NSERC in Canada) or from industry partners. My proposals may still go through a competitive process, though, sometimes with external reviews.  How substantive this internal funding is compared to academic funding will depend on the agency, how science is viewed by the current government, the state of the economy, and the importance of the topic. When internal research budgets are tight, there may not be sufficient funding to go around, especially for those not working directly on key priorities. Of note, some government agencies allow their scientists who have adjunct status at a university to apply for the same set of grants as academics. Whether such proposals are frowned upon or judged differently by funding agencies is up for debate.

  1. Joy in their work

                Frustrations with too-much time devoted to administrative tasks and seeking funding are prevalent in both government and academic research areas. But still, the opportunity to do research on interesting, challenging, and important topics at the edge of our current scientific understanding brings enjoyment / fulfillment to both government scientists and academics. We all feel that slight quickening of the pulse when “the data is in” and we learn if the expected outcomes were realized or (better yet) something different (new!) might be going on.  It’s why we do what we do. In hydrogeology, there remains much to explore, especially at the inter-disciplinary mixing zones around the edges of our specialty. And we’ll need new concepts, new methods, and new connections to move our understanding forward. Scientists from academia and government and industry and other groups can all contribute to this quest. For graduating PhDs, hopefully this leaves you with multiple career path options for joining in the fun.

a In Canada, besides Environment and Climate Change Canada there are also PhD-holders doing groundwater-related research in Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the National Research Council. In the U.S., much great groundwater research is carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey, with research also carried out by other federal and state agencies. Many other countries have similar geological or environmental departments or agencies with PhDs doing some or much research.  You can look these up on the web, though often government scientist pages aren’t nearly as good as those for academia.

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Jim Roy is a Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. His current research focuses on: groundwater contaminant impacts on surface waters and aquatic ecosystems, groundwater contributions of phosphorus to surface waters, potential leakage of Alberta oil sands tailings ponds to the Athabasca River, and groundwater and gas systems. Find out more about Jim by clicking on the links below.

Twitter Page | Research Profile

Humanitarian groundwater projects; notes on motivations from the academic world

Humanitarian groundwater projects; notes on motivations from the academic world

Post by Margaret Shanafield, ARC DECRA Senior Hydrogeology/Hydrology Researcher at Flinders University, in Australia. You can follow Margaret on Twitter at @shanagland.

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What led me down the slippery slope into a career in hydrology and then hydrogeology, was a desire to combine my love of traveling with a desire to have a deeper relationship with the places I was going, and be able to contribute something positive while there. I figured everyone needs water, and almost everyone has either too much (flooding) or too little of it.

But, from an academic point of view, aid/humanitarian/philanthropic projects can be frustrating and offer few of the traditional paybacks that universities and academia reward.  Last week, for example, I spent much of my time working on the annual report for an unpaid project, and I am soft money funded. And what’s worse, I couldn’t even get the report finished, because most of the project partners hadn’t given me their updates on time. When I went across the hall to complain to my colleague, he admitted that he, too, was in a similar situation.

So what is the incentive?

Globally, the need for regional hydrologic humanitarian efforts is obvious. Even today, 1,000 children die due to diarrhoeal diseases on a daily basis. Water scarcity affects 40% of global population, with 1.7 billion people dependent on groundwater basins where the water extraction is higher than the recharge.  And, the lack of water availability is only going to get worse into the future.

But being a researcher with pressure to “publish or perish” and find ways to fund myself and my research, what was/is my incentive to address these problems? From an academic point of view, water aid projects are often time-consuming, with expected timelines delayed by language and cultural barriers, difficulties in obtaining background data, expectations on each side of the project not matching up, and activities and communication not happening on the timescales academics are used to. And the results are typically hard to publish.

An online search revealed numerous articles discussing the pros and cons of pursuing a career in development work, including: having a job aligned with one’s morals and values, an exciting lifestyle full of change, motivated co-workers, the opportunity to see the world and different cultures, the opportunity to make a difference, and last but not least, because it is a challenge (in a good way).

As a scientist, I get elements of all these pros in my daily work. But, while much of what academics do fits under the umbrella of “intellectually challenging”, aid projects provide applied problems with real-world implications that can sometimes be lacking in the heavily research-focused academic realm, except for the creative “broader impacts” and outreach sections of grant proposals. They are therefore an opportunity for scientists to have an impact on the world by contributing to the collective understanding of water resources and hydrologic systems. And hey, many of us enjoy travelling and get to visit interesting places for work, too.

Pulling myself out of my philosophical waxings, I focused on these highlights and the benefits of working in an interdisciplinary project to address some of those global problems I mentioned earlier – and got back to report writing.

Training project partners in Vietnam to take shallow geophysical measurements (left). Sweaty days in the field are rewarded by cheap beers, magnificent sunrises, and relaxing evenings at the coast where the river meets the sea (right). Photos by M Shanafield.

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Margaret Shanafield‘s research is at the nexus between hydrology and hydrogeology. Her current research interests still focus on surface water-groundwater actions, although she work’s on a diverse set of projects from international development projects to ecohydrology. The use of multiple tracers to understand groundwater recharge patterns in streambeds and understanding the dynamics of intermittent and ephemeral streamflow are her main passions. Since 2015, she has been an ARC DECRA fellow, measuring and modelling what hydrologic factors lead to streamflow in arid regions. You can find out more about Margaret on her website.

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

Post by Samuel Zipper, postdoctoral fellow at both McGill University and the University of Victoria, in Canada. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @ZipperSam.

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Dedicated Water Underground readers know that this blog is not just about water science, but also some of the more cultural impacts of groundwater. Keeping in that tradition, today’s post begins with a joke*:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Your neighbor

Your neighbor who?

Your neighbor’s groundwater, here to provide water for your plants!

Figure 1. Typical reaction to joke written by the author.

Ahem.

Perhaps this joke needs a little explanation. As we’ve covered before, groundwater is important not just as a supply of water for humans, rivers, and lakes, but also because it can increase the water available to plants, making ecosystems more drought resistant and productive. However, we also know that groundwater moves from place to place beneath the surface. This means that human actions which affect groundwater in one location, like increasing the amount of paved surface, might have an unexpected impact on ecosystems in nearby areas which depend on that groundwater.

Imagine, for example, two neighboring farmers. Farmer A decides retire and sells his land to a developer to put in a new, concrete-rich shopping center. Farmer B continues farming her land next door. How will the changes next door affect the groundwater beneath Farmer B’s land, and will this help or hurt crop production on her farm?

In a new study, my colleagues and I explored these questions using a series of computer simulations. We converted different percentages of a watershed from corn to concrete to see what would happen. Our results showed that the response of crops to urbanization depended on where the land use change occurred.

Figure 2. Conceptual diagram showing how urbanization might impact crop yield elsewhere in a watershed. From Zipper et al. (2017).

In upland areas where the water table was deep, replacing crops with concrete caused a reduction in groundwater recharge, lowering the water table everywhere in the watershed – not just beneath the places where urbanization occurred. This meant that places where the ecosystems used to be reliant on groundwater could no longer tap into this resources, making them more vulnerable to drought. However, places where the water table used to be too shallow saw boosts in productivity, as the lower water table was closer to the optimum water table depth.

In contrast, urbanization happening in lowland areas had a much more localized effect, with changes to the water table and yield occurring primarily only in the location where land use changed, because the changes in groundwater recharge were accounted for by increased inflows from the stream into the groundwater system.

So, what does this mean for the neighboring farmers we met earlier?

For Farmer A, it means the neighborly thing to do is work with the developers to minimize the effects of the land use change on groundwater recharge. This can include green infrastructure practices such as rain gardens or permeable pavement to try and mimic predevelopment groundwater recharge.

For Farmer B, the impacts depend on the groundwater depth beneath her farm. If the groundwater beneath her farm is shallow enough that her crops tap into that water supply, she should expect changes in the productivity of her crops, especially during dry periods, and plan accordingly.

*Joke written by scientist, rather than actual comedian.

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For More Information:

Zipper SC, ME Soylu, CJ Kucharik, SP Loheide II. Indirect groundwater-mediated effects of urbanization on agroecosystem productivity: Introducing MODFLOW-AgroIBIS (MAGI), a complete critical zone model. Ecological Modelling, 359: 201-219. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2017.06.002

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Sam Zipper is an ecohydrologist. His main research focuses broadly on interactions between vegetation and the water cycle, with a particular interest in unintended or indirect impacts of land use change on ecosystems resulting from altered surface and subsurface hydrological flowpaths. You can find out more about Sam by going to his webpage at: samzipper.weebly.com.

The great American groundwater road trip: Interstate 80 over the Ogallala Aquifer

The great American groundwater road trip: Interstate 80 over the Ogallala Aquifer

 


Authored by: Sam Zipper – Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison


In late July, my wife and I loaded the dog into the car, cranked up the water-related tunes, and drove over a few million cubic meters of water. No, we haven’t traded in our sedan for an amphibious vehicle – rather, we were driving west, across Nebraska, on the Interstate 80 highway. While this may be a relatively boring road trip by conventional standards, it does provide an opportunity to drive across the famous Ogallala Aquifer, a part of the High Plains Aquifer system.

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The wide reaching Ogallala Aquifer 1. The red line shows Interstate 80’s route.

While the geological history of the Ogallala is described in more detail elsewhere; the short version is that sediment, eroded off the Rocky Mountains over many millions of years, filled in ancient river channels, eventually creating the flat plains that characterize much of Nebraska today. Despite the flat landscape, however, the sights you’ll see along I-80 exist in their present form almost entirely due to this vast underground supply of water.


Irrigation

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A center-pivot irrigation sprinkler. A common sight over the Ogallala 2.

It’s estimated that upwards of 90% of the water withdrawn from the Ogallala is used for agricultural irrigation. Driving through western Nebraska, 90% seems like an underestimate. Center-pivot systems stretch away from the interstate as far as the eye can see, and it’s hard to imagine what this landscape would look like without the water from the Ogallala. While groundwater levels have declined in the most heavily irrigated parts of Nebraska compared to predevelopment conditions, they’ve fortunately stabilized over the past ~30 years; the most serious drawdowns are occurring further south, in Western Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle.


The Mighty Platte

PlatteRiver

The mighty Platte River. Photo by Sam Zipper.

The Platte River stretches from the Rockies to its confluence with the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska, and I-80 follows the Platte through most of Nebraska. Along the way, the Platte is receiving water from surrounding groundwater systems.  This process of groundwater discharge to streams (often called baseflow), is particularly important for sustaining flow in the river during dry periods, along with the ecosystems, agriculture, and municipalities that depend on this water supply. For a more beautiful look at the Platte than my cell phone camera offers, check out the Platte Basin Timelapse project, which uses photography to explore the movement of water through the basin.


The Namesake

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Ogallala Nature Park welcome sign. Photo by Sam Zipper.

The Ogallala is named after Ogallala, NE, a tiny town about a half hour’s drive from the Colorado border. The aquifer is named after Ogallala because that’s where the geologic “type locality” is – a fancy way of saying, they found the Ogallala formation here first. While we didn’t venture into the town of Ogallala itself, we did stop at the lovely Ogallala Nature Park just off the interstate for a stroll among the phreatophytic vegetation lining the banks of the Platte. Phreatophytes, such as the cottonwoods common to Nebraska, have evolved to have special roots which can extract water directly from groundwater when soil moisture supplies are low, thus allowing them to survive in the sandy, well-drained banks of the Platte.

Do you have any hydrogeologic highlights we should investigate on our drive back to Madison? Let me know via the comments below!


Picture Sources

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/44/Ogallala_saturated_thickness_1997-sattk97-v2.svg/2000px-Ogallala_saturated_thickness_1997-sattk97-v2.svg.png

http://water.usgs.gov/edu/pictures/full-size/irrigation-sprinkler-large.jpg


About the author:

Sam Zipper‘s research interests lie broadly at the intersection of humans and the environment, focusing on feedbacks between subsurface hydrology, vegetation dynamics, soil water retention characteristics, and climate & land use change that cut across the disciplines of hydrology and hydrogeology, soil science, agronomy, and ecology.  He is an ecohydrologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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What caves can teach us about climate, past and present

What caves can teach us about climate, past and present

Authored by:

Gabriel C Rau, Associate Lecturer in Groundwater Hydrology at UNSW, Australia

Andy Baker, Director of the Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre at UNSW, Australia

Mark Cuthbert, Research Fellow in Hydrogeology at the University of Birmingham, UK

Martin Sogaard Andersen, Senior Lecturer at UNSW, Australia


Have you ever enjoyed the cool refuge that an underground cave offers from a hot summer’s day? Or perhaps you have experienced the soothing warmth when entering a cave during winter?

When descending into a cave, you may not only enjoy the calm climate, you may also admire the beauty of cave deposits such as stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones, known by cave researchers as speleothems.

Perhaps you already know that they grow very slowly from minerals in the water that drips off or over them. This water originates from rain at the surface that has travelled through soil and limestone above, and seeped into the ground and ended up in the cave.

As speleothems grow, they lock into their minerals the chemical signatures of the environmental and climatic conditions of the time the rainwater fell at the surface. So, as a stalagmite grows, the surface climate signature is continuously trapped in the newly created layers.

Some very old stalagmites hold climatic signatures of the very distant past, in some cases up to millions of years. They contain an archive of the past climate as long as their age, often predating global weather station records.

Installation of high-resolution temperature sensors inside the cave.

Above and below

But if a cave remains cool during summer and warm during winter, how is its climate related to that of the surface? And how does this affect the chemical signature recorded by speleothems?

To understand the relationship between surface and cave climate, our research group, Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre at UNSW Australia, conducted multiple field experiments at the Wellington Caves Reserve in New South Wales.

During the experiments, the surface and the cave climates were measured in detail. For example, highly accurate temperature sensors were used to measure the water temperature at the surface, and at the point where water droplets hit the cave floor forming stalagmites.

The research team initiated controlled dripping in the cave by irrigating the surface above the cave with water that was cooled to freezing point to simulate rainfall.

The cold water allowed us to determine whether the drip water in the cave is affected by the conditions at the surface or those along its pathways through the ground.

We also added a natural chemical to the irrigation water, which allowed us to distinguish whether the water in the cave originated from the irrigation or whether it was water already present in the subsurface.

Our results revealed a complex but systematic relationship between the surface and the cave climate. For example, surface temperature changes are significantly reduced and delayed with depth.

Our research illustrates how to decipher the surface temperature from that in the cave. Understanding this is necessary to correctly decoding past surface temperature records from their signatures preserved in stalagmites.

Keeping it cool

We also discovered that air moving in and out of the cave can cool cave deposits by evaporating water flowing on the cave deposits. This cooling can significantly influence the chemical signature trapped in the cave deposit and create “false” signals that are not representative of the surface climate.

In other words, it will make the surface climate “look” cooler than it actually was, if not accounted for. While this is more likely to occur in caves that are located in dry environments, it may also have to be considered for stalagmites in caves that were exposed to drier climates in the distant past.

Temperature loggers installed on stalactites to measure the drip water temperature.

Our new knowledge can also help scientists select the best location and type of stalagmite for the reconstruction of past climatic or environmental conditions.

This new discovery is significant because it can improve the accuracy of past climate signals from cave deposits. It may also help us understand previously unexplained artefacts in existing past climate records. By improving our understanding of the past climate we can better understand future climate variations.