Watching the Snow: monitoring Oregon’s water supply

Travis Roth is a PhD student working in water resource engineering. Here he answers questions about his research in groundwater movement and snowmelt, and how future climate change may affect both. Roth’s work is just one way Oregon State’s researchers use Inventions that Serve the Public Good.

How do you describe your work?

My research is focused on snow pack accumulation and melt dynamics as well as groundwater storage change over time. I try to understand how water is moving through mountainous systems, and how any future changes in the volume of water from global climate change will affect us and our water resources here in Oregon.

Generally we think of these low-elevation mountains we have in the western Cascades as holders of water. During the spring the snow slowly melts, is distributed through the system and ultimately drains into the streams. In the future we’re seeing scenarios in which these mountains are going to see less precipitation in the form of snow and more as rain, a much faster delivery mechanism.  Our job is to see how that change will affect streams, groundwater storage and ultimately downstream users in agriculture and in urban settings.

What kinds of tools and technology do you use?

I’m working with basically the same fiber-optic cables that you see in the tele-communications industry, with slight differences adopted for our use. We lay them down in streams in various river systems and can measure temperature at meter intervals along the length of the cable within a hundredth of a degree-Celsius. We can see where the groundwater is coming in because it’s typically a different temperature than surface water. We pinpoint where the colder waters are coming in and learn the mechanisms that drive these exchanges.  From there we can model the surface and subsurface temperature interactions and we can better understand the system as a whole. It helps us make better management decisions in the future.

What are your goals with this technology?

We’re working closely with industry to develop a way of moving these cables into ecological settings. We’re using it in a hydrological setting in streams, in snowpacks, and down wells, we’re using it to see movements of airflow in valleys, and we’re using it in the agricultural realm to measure soil moisture. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our job is to expand this technology.

How did using this technology come about, and what’s different about it?

My adviser, John Selker, understood that fiber optic technology could be used to measure temperature. He thought, ‘why can’t we use that in the ecological field? You can measure temperature at a much finer scale and at much higher frequency than traditional point measurements.

The unique thing about this fiber-optic technology is that without it we typically measure temperature at one probe at a time, and we normally can’t continually monitor it. But with the cables we get thousands of measurements in real time, continually. It’s a richer data set, so we can really visualize the whole stream components at a finer scale and illuminate otherwise overlooked stream processes.

What’s significant about understanding water temperature?

Temperature is important in Oregon, especially for fish habitat. Salmon migrate from the ocean back up into these mountain streams so they can spawn. Being a temperature-dependent species, the salmon are susceptible to adverse health affects including massive die-offs.  Increases in late summer stream temperature can lead to a large drop in salmon reproduction, which has a big impact on a big industry in Oregon.

What kind of impact does your work have?

We have an interesting climate here in Oregon, a lot of precipitation in winter, but very little in the summer. If there are changes in the global climate and the precipitation regime changes in the future as a result, how will that affect our groundwater storage, or our surface water discharge, in both volume and in seasonal timing? How will it affect us in the future as a? Will our water be there for use for future generations?

6 Responses to “Watching the Snow: monitoring Oregon’s water supply”

  1. Thank you, Travis, for the clear introduction to both the complicated issue of local impact of climate change, and the rather complex technology you are using.

  2. Joseph Hayse says:

    I am very critical of changes in policy based upon theorys that have no proof and mostly propganda such as climate change. When no temperature increases of our atmosphere have actually been measured but only modeled, this is a large problem. Funding programs to research if climate change is actually hapening with the notion that it might not be is vitally important. Innocent until proven guilty type of deal only with science.

  3. Dave says:

    Hi Joseph, not censoring, just slow in moderating comments. It sometimes takes up to a day for us to approve them. We encourage healthy dialog that is relevant to the topic.

    As for the subject of climate change, OSU has long been a leader in this field of research, especially in our College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. In fact, one of the first global circulation models was created at OSU some 30 years ago, laying the foundation for modern climate change studies that dominate science today.

    Our new Oregon Climate Change Research Institute is directed by Philip Mote, nationally recognized climate researcher and a lead author for one of three major reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

    Our scientists also study low-oxygen areas or “dead zones” off the Northwest coast. The central Oregon coast may become a “canary in the coal mine” in providing an early warning system on how the ocean will respond to climate change.

    Travis Roth and John Selker are adding a new layer of understanding to the impact that climate change has on our water resources and the people who depend on them.

  4. Joseph Hayse says:

    I apologize for my second comment as it was far to premature for the system. I’m sure that as your researchers are working quite hard on climate change the reality of it is, there can’t be a climatologist that is unbiased. There must be something to report in order for them to get continual funding from grants etc. Thus why most of the “climate change” is either fabricated or in a fancier way of saying made up “modeled”. Also note that the IPCC is a governmental panel thus compiled mostly of representatives not scientists. The scientists who disagreed with the “climate change” movement previously named the “global warming movement” were banned from the IPCC and such as called deniers etc. Its just frustrating to see that any vocal dissent in what is popular is sought to be eradicated or silenced. This is not science as it was meant to be, if this was the case then we would still have an Earth centered galaxy (a Galileo reference). Thank you Dave however for responding to my posts and keeping a discussion going. I again apologize for my second comment which was a mistake when I had seen my post but then refreshed the page and it disappeared.

  5. Kara Hitchko says:

    I’d like to point out the by the very nature of the word (semantically speaking) a theory is a principle based on a set of facts. Theories are well supported by scientific literature and by data. I am quite relieved that policies are influenced by theories.

    To say that there is no data in support of global climate change is completely incorrect. There is a great deal of modeling going on, but this should give us all a clue that there is also a great deal of data. Models after all, require the input of real data. Though we can’t be certain how exactly our climate will change, by how many degrees, etc. there is no question the climate is changing. (Global warming is not an appropriate term technically speaking.) There is ample data to support this from ice cores to stratospheric cooling.

    The world of modeling is hazy compared to the reality of the natural world but it can still provide us with valuable information. Policies have to be made and they should be influenced by the best available science. When we are talking about the future, the best available science comes from models.

    Joseph, your reference to Galileo is ironic. I’m quite certain he would be supporting global climate change. Though I do agree, it is important to hear dissent. It is also important to be aware of your sources, and their sources of funding.

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