What can a delta’s history tell us about groundwater’s future?

Feature image: Mosiac of the the Ganges Delta in false color created with imagery from the Sentinal 2 satilite. CC-By Annamaria Luongo, via Wikimedia Commons


Article: Linking the Surface and Subsurface in River Deltas—Part 2: Relating Subsurface Geometry to Groundwater Flow Behavior
Authors: Xu, Z., Hariharan, J., Passalacqua, P., Steel, E., Paola, C., & Michael, H. A.

Deltas are striking features on Earth’s surface, where rivers meet large water bodies. Their flow spreads out into many channels, depositing the sediment they have been carrying, potentially since their headwaters. This sediment creates and sustains the delta, which can be hundreds of miles across. Beyond being mesmerizing, deltas are essential to human civilization, past and present. Nearly half a billion people live on deltas around the world, where the deposited sediment hosts some of the most fertile agricultural land available.

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Ancient trees tell the story of modern climate change

Featured Image: Larch trees.  Image courtesy North Cascades National Park, used with permission.

Paper: Spring arctic oscillation as a trigger of summer drought in Siberian subarctic over the past 1494 years

Authors: Olga V. Churakova Sidorova, Rolf T. W. Siegwolf, Marina V. Fonti, Eugene A. Vaganov, Matthias Saurer

Seemingly straight out of a fairytale, ancient trees are able to convey details about Earth’s complex history to the scientists willing and able to listen.  Deep in the Siberian Arctic lie the secrets of past weather events, ocean currents, and droughts that occurred thousands of years ago, locked away in petrified wood and in the oldest living larch trees.  We often hear in the news how the Siberian forest is victim to extreme drought and fire—something that is new as of the recent century.  But how “new” are these events, and what exactly is perpetuating this new cycle? 

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Landscapes get depressed too: limestone depressions pattern a wetland landscape

Aerial view of the Big Cypress National Preserve

Feature Image: Limestone depressions cover the landscape in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, USA. (C) Google.

Article: Competition Among Limestone Depressions Leads to Self‐Organized Regular Patterning on a Flat Landscape
Authors:
Dong, X., Murray, A. B., & Heffernan, J. B.

Patterns are abundant in nature, from evenly spaced termite mounds and vegetation patches to repeating series of ridges and valleys to sand dunes. The questions of why these patterns are so uniform and why they are found in disparate settings has been the subject of intense scientific interest over the last decades. Mathematical tools have given scientists the ability to study these “complex systems,” where behavior of the whole system emerges from interactions between smaller parts. While many different systems have been studied, recently researchers from the Duke University and the University of California at Davis investigated a patterned landscape with mysterious origins: the large, evenly spaced depressions in limestone bedrock that cover nearly 3000 square kilometers of the Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades.

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Wet Feet? No problem: sandy humid forests grow best with access to groundwater

Pine forest in Governor Thompson State Park, WI, USA

Feature Image: Pine forest in Governor Thompson State Park, WI, USA. Yinan Chen, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Article: Groundwater subsidizes tree growth and transpiration in sandy humid forests
Authors: D. M. Ciruzzi and S. P. Loheide

Drought is often in the news these days, especially in places with arid and semi-arid climates where water is already scarce. While ecosystems have adapted over millennia to cope with dry climates and seasonal droughts, the increasing intensity and frequency of drought due to climate change and human demand for water can pose significant threats to ecosystem health and survival.

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Water in the rocky layer cake beneath us

Konza Prairie Biological Station

Featured Image: Konza Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas, USA. Credit: David Litwin.

Paper: Toward a new conceptual model for groundwater flow in merokarst systems: Insights from multiple geophysical approaches.

Authors: Sullivan, P. L., Zhang, C., Behm, M., Zhang, F., & Macpherson, G. L.

The dissolution of limestone by atmospheric water forms a set of recognizable features collectively known as karst: enormous caves with stalactites and stalagmites, sinkholes, chasms, and narrow, towering  columns of rock. The hydrology of karst landscapes is often incredibly complex, as water can flow rapidly through dissolution-formed conduits below ground, and topography offers fewer clues to groundwater flow than in most other landscapes. While dramatic karstic landscapes have received a lot of scientific attention, even smaller limestone units can host karst features that affect hydrology.

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Looking below ground for secrets to drought resilience

Santa Ynez Mountains

Featured image: Oak savanna near the Santa Ynez mountains in California. Clyde Frogg, public domain.

Paper: Low Subsurface Water Storage Capacity Relative to Annual Rainfall Decouples Mediterranean Plant Productivity and Water Use From Rainfall Variability

Authors: Hahm, W. J., Dralle, D. N., Rempe, D. M., Bryk, A. B., Thompson, S. E., Dawson, T. E., & Dietrich, W. E.

Between 2011 and 2016, a severe drought killed over 100 million trees in California. However, not all places responded to this drought in the same way. In some locations, trees and other plants seemed hardly affected, while in other places mortality was widespread. What caused this difference? In a 2019 study, Hahm and colleagues explored the role that water storage in ecosystems has on their resilience to drought. With extreme droughts becoming more common due to climate change, understanding why certain areas are more vulnerable is important for making predictions and improving forest management.

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When space is time: evolving soil hydrology on glacial moraines

Featured image: The Stein Glacier in the central Swiss Alps, where the study was conducted. Left panel © Google, right panels CC BY Florian Lustenberger in Hartmann et al. 2020.

Paper: Field observations of soil hydrological flow path evolution over 10 millennia

Authors: Hartmann , A., Semenova, E., Weiler, M., & Blume, T.

The way water flows through soil and sediments can be incredibly diverse. In the simplest case, water flows uniformly through all of the pore space between grains. Most soils act very differently though. Water moves quickly through certain pathways and not at all through other areas. This preferential flow of water has important consequences for the ability of the soil to hold water, and for the movement of nutrients and contaminants. Understanding what factors affect the evolution of preferential flow pathways can help scientists better understand how soils work now, and how they will respond to human induced changes into the future.

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Water, but not a drop to drink: multiple salty lakes beneath the south pole of Mars?

Featured image: The south pole of Mars as seen by the HRSC Camera onboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission. Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin.

Paper: Multiple subglacial water bodies below the south pole of Mars unveiled by new MARSIS data.

Authors: Sebastian Emanuel Lauro, Elena Pettinelli, Graziella Caprarelli, Luca Guallini, Angelo Pio Rossi, Elisabetta Mattei, Barbara Cosciotti, Andrea Cicchetti, Francesco Soldovieri, Marco Cartacci, Federico Di Paolo, Raffaella Noschese and Roberto Orosei.

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink”- or at least that might be the case beneath the south pole of Mars. In 2018, a team of scientists reported a potential subsurface lake of liquid water 1.5 km beneath the Martian south polar cap. Now, using more observations as well as new analysis methods previously used for ice sheets on Earth, the same team presents new evidence for a large subsurface lake as well as three other lakes in the same area. This raises further questions about how such lakes could be kept liquid in the cold environment of Mars, and whether they could provide a habitable environment for astrobiology.

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The Extraction of Hidden Waters: 11th century Persian scientist laid the foundations for hydrology and water engineering

Qanat: Aerial View

Featured Image: Areal view of the vertical shafts of a qanat in Jupar, Iran. S.H. Rashedi / CC BY-ND via UNESCO.

Paper: The millennium-old hydrogeology textbook The Extraction of Hidden Waters by the Persian mathematician and engineer Abubakr Mohammad Karaji (953 CE–1029 CE)

Authors: Ataie-Ashtiani, B., & Simmons, C. T.

Reliable sources of water are essential for every civilization. However, the Western science of hydrology is relatively young. It started perhaps at the turn of the 19th century when John Dalton completed the first water balance for England and Wales by estimating the amount of water that fell as precipitation and left as evaporation and flow from rivers to oceans. Since ancient times, civilizations have built water infrastructure like aqueducts and wells, and writings by Aristotle and Plato suggest that the ancient Greeks had a basic understanding of the water cycle. Though in many respects, the study of hydrology in Europe and the Mediterranean stagnated between the time of these early philosophers and the 19th century.

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Satellites Predict Forest Fires Better Than Experts

Featured image: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Paper: Satellite Hydrology Observations as Operational Indicators of Forecasted Fire Danger Across the Contiguous United States

Authors: Alireza Farahmand, E. Natasha Stavros, John T. Reager, Ali Behrangi, James T. Randerson, and Brad Quayle.

Forest Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem that clear out old and overgrown vegetation and recycle nutrients back into the soil.  However, increasing growth into these forested areas has increased the wildland fire hazards to people and their homes and businesses. This has subsequently increased the use of resources and funds to battle and restore damage from these fires. In the United States alone, federal wildfire suppression expenditures tripled from $0.4 billion per year to $1.4 billion per year in the last century. These economic impacts inspired researchers from the California Institute of Technology, University of Arizona, University of California – Irvine and the United States Department of Agriculture to see if they could improve wildfire prediction beyond our current limited methods using subjective expert knowledge and weather forecasts.

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