Preparing Ground for Global Warming

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Preparing Ground for Global Warming


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


Scientists from several California universities are engaged in what the National Science Foundation anticipates will be a prototype for a nationwide program of water research. The project focuses on a research site under construction in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range; it has an ambitious goal that spans fundamental research and practical application. Located southeast of Shaver Lake, the so-called critical zone observatory covers an area in which snow, ground water, soil, rocks, and plants interact to create the complex system that delivers more than half of California's water.

The system is particularly vulnerable to changes in Earth's climate. So the observatory has the goal of understanding how global warming will affect the management of water. Roger Bales, acting director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and professor of engineering at the University of California, Merced, explains. "We want to get a process understanding of the water and the geochemical cycle in this typical range area," he says. "It's important in terms of climate change because the transition from snow- toy rain-dominated systems will affect response."

Temperatures Rising

Current climate models suggest that average temperatures across the Western United States will rise by anywhere between 1 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades. That increase will gradually cause the annual snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges to start earlier. At the same time, the transition zone between areas in which rainfall and snowfall dominate precipitation will shift to higher elevations.

The Sierra Nevada observatory will measure those changes and their impact on water resources at lower levels. The observatory's proposed research program addresses four specific points: the compelling scientific need for new hydrologic understanding in the semi-arid Western United States; significant existing infrastructure and synergistic activities in regionally representative environments; urgent societal need; and broad participation from both the scientific and the applications communities.

As the last two items indicate, the research has clear implications for the region's commercial sector. "Our better process understanding will improve the predictive ability of how the forest and the water and other natural resources will respond to climate warming," Bales explains. "We are also providing prototypes for what can be implemented across the Sierra Nevada and other mountains in the West for adaptive support."

As financial backing for the new observatory, the NSF has provided a grant of $4.6 million. "Our critical zone observatory will be a prototype of what NSF hopes will become a nationwide program," Bales explains. "A lot of people will be looking at us to see how to do it right." The grant will run for five years.

The Sierra Nevada Hydrologic Observatory is one of three recently facilitated with NSF funds. The Boulder Creek Critical Zone Observatory is located in the Front Range of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. And in Pennsylvania, Shale Hills hosts a critical zone observatory that has already experienced more than three decades of hydrological study. "They are related in two ways," Bales says. "They come from the same NSF program. And investigators from the three plan to have some degree of coordination and exchange of information."

Vulnerable Climate Zone

Why site the California observatory in the Sierra Nevada? One obvious advantage is that the region has already served as a research center. The U.S. Forest Service has studied the area for several years, to understand more about the health and management of local forests. More important, the altitude of the site--between 5,000 feet and 6,500 feet above sea level--marks the transition zone between areas in which rain and melting snow provide the bulk of water.

"The rain-snow transition zone in mountains of the Western United States is particularly vulnerable to large and potentially rapid changes in climate and land cover," states the University of California, Merced's abstract of the project. …

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