Roanoke Drinking Water Ensured By Experts Who Forecast Health of Lakes and Reservoirs

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A water quality monitoring buoy on Carvins Cove Reservoir in Roanoke. This is one of the five field sites that the Virginia Tech researchers will be investigating. Photo courtesy of Cayelan Carey.

During the 21st century, people around the world will continue to face grand challenges at the environment-human condition interface. Aquatic ecosystems in the United States and around the globe are experiencing increasing variability due to human activities.

The National Science Foundation has recently invested over $1 million grant dollars in the paradigm-shifting science of aquatic ecosystem forecasting and the development of new scientific leaders in an undergraduate training program in macrosystems science and ecological forecasting, led by Virginia Tech associate professors Cayelan Carey and Quinn Thomas.

Provisioning drinking water in the face of rapid change in environmental conditions motivates the need to develop forecasts of future water quality. Carey and Thomas’ aquatic ecosystem forecasting resembles a weather forecast. But instead of predicting weather, it forecasts 16-day water quality conditions that can be shared every day with water utilities, drinking water managers, and many other decision-makers.

“This project’s development of scalable and open-source cyberinfrastructure tools for creating iterative aquatic forecasts will provide a critical resource for advancing ecological forecasting and drinking water management, as well as provide a template for forecasting in other ecosystems,” said Carey, associate professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Science.

The forecasting system deploys open-source software called Forecasting Lake And Reservoir Ecosystems (FLARE) which was developed by Thomas and Carey in collaboration with Renato Figueiredo, a computer scientist at the University of Florida (UF), and his team. FLARE has already proven to be useful for Roanoke’s drinking water utility, the Western Virginia Water Authority.

With this new grant, Virginia Tech researchers have received $635,677 and plan to scale the operation to four different lakes in the United States and one in Ireland. This software will be tested and widely disseminated to water utilities, drinking water managers, and many other decision-makers.

“Ultimately, this project will develop scalable, robust, and secure workflows that will advance the capacity, practice, and training opportunities for ecological forecasting worldwide,” said Thomas, associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Results from this project can be found here.

“I am also excited that this collaboration is leading to novel techniques that can be applied in other science domains, by developing systems that can enable integration of sensors, computation near sensors, and cloud computing in end-to-end near real-time workflows,” said Figueiredo, one of the project’s principal investigators and a collaborator at the University of Florida. Figueiredo leads the overall project and is in charge of the cyberinfrastructure development efforts that provide the computational foundation for the FLARE software.

In addition to the aquatic forecasting grant, Carey and Thomas also received a $300,000 grant to expand an undergraduate training program in macrosystems ecology and ecological forecasting called Macrosystems Environmental Data-Driven Inquiry & Exploration (EDDIE). Macrosystems ecology is the study of interacting ecological dynamics at local to continental scales.

“This new project builds upon a previous grant to help undergraduates learn the data analysis and modeling skills needed to successfully develop ecological forecasts rarely taught in undergraduate classrooms,” Carey said.

Through Macrosystems EDDIE, students and instructors will learn how to use models, develop forecasts for sites across the U.S., assess forecast accuracy with observational data, and communicate forecasts to managers and decision-makers. These skills will be embedded in stand-alone teaching modules that will be widely applicable to multiple disciplines and student experience levels.

Macrosystems EDDIE provides an innovative new approach for teaching macrosystems ecology and has the potential to advance undergraduate science education across the U.S. By strengthening both students’ quantitative skill sets and understanding of macrosystems ecology, this project will help develop a diverse, globally-competitive scientific workforce and enhanced infrastructure for macrosystems research and education.

The teaching modules will analyze aquatic and terrestrial data from the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON) to explore how the predictability of ecological dynamics varies among ecosystems and across different spatial scales.

All teaching modules will be rigorously assessed, revised, and disseminated broadly for maximum impact through the Science Education Research Center. Previous Macrosystems EDDIE teaching modules have been taught to thousands of students across the U.S.

By teaching ecologists how to retrieve, analyze, and visualize NEON and GLEON data, Carey and Thomas’ goal is to enable widespread use of computational research approaches while advancing macrosystems ecology and ecological forecasting.

“Right now, between weather forecasts and COVID-19 forecasts, I think that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the essential need to predict the dynamics of natural systems. And that this work is foundational to our progress as a society,” Thomas said.

Written by Kristin Rose Jutras and Kendall Daniels