Science Story September 2022
SPLASH flows on
You may remember the story in our spring printed newsletter about two important studies at RMBL that are going to great depths, and heights, to improve the ability to predict water availability for the western United States. They are SAIL (Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory) and SPLASH (Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology). Their instruments, stationed in and around Gothic, are measuring water sources from ground to sky to spill the secrets of predicting weather and water in the Colorado mountains.
Specifically, researchers are diving into the East River Watershed to mine data on a water resource that ultimately flows into the Colorado River, the main water tap for 40 million people in the West.
We caught up with Dr. Gijs de Boer of the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the principal investigator of SPLASH, to find out about the campaign’s progress and get an update on the role RMBL is playing in the study. Dr. de Boer didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the value of RMBL’s partnership. “We couldn’t have done what we’re doing without RMBL,” he said. As a partner on the ground with connections not only to local electricians, snow machine operators, and other necessary technicians but also to the community at large, RMBL has been invaluable to SPLASH.
Dr. de Boer is especially grateful for the help of Erik Hulm and Dr. Jennie Reithel, who have done much of the heavy lifting regarding logistics and community relations. RMBL has also enlisted Benn Schmatz, the lab’s go-to maintenance wizard, to help maintain the instruments’ performance, ensuring that they continue delivering data through snow, rain, heat, or dark of night. Non-stop data collection is essential to the study’s accuracy.
RMBL has facilitated the campaign’s educational outreach as well. At a K–12 teacher workshop this past summer, educators learned about the SPLASH research and built curriculum around it. Further, a group of middle school students from Gunnison ISD spent a week of activities immersed in the science. Led by the Cooperative Institute for Environmental Sciences (CIRES) Education and Outreach team, these sessions took place in RMBL facilities, where the students learned about SPLASH and other RMBL-supported projects.
Community engagement has been critical, too, and RMBL is uniquely gifted at earning the public’s trust. Part of the SPLASH research involves flying drones to measure soil moisture over broad areas. RMBL aided the careful coordination of flights with the U.S. Forest Service and with the local ranching community to ensure that flights would not interfere with seasonal cattle drives and grazing in the valley.
To date, the campaign has been very successful. In fact, NOAA recently confirmed that what was intended to be a one-year study has been extended for a second year. Dr. de Boer says that the additional time will give the research team perspective that they otherwise wouldn’t have, offering additional context to what they observed during the past year, which at times turned out to be an unusual one. For example, although the snowpack was generally average in volume, an exceptional amount of dust blew in, mixing with the snowfall and leaving the surface darker. Researchers believe that this allowed the snowpack to absorb more solar energy and melt faster than normal. With drones in the right place at the right time, researchers were able to witness the transition from clean snow to dusty snow. What’s more, the team was showered with a robust monsoon season this past summer, and researchers were thrilled at the chance to capture scientific measurements of the extra precipitation and the environment supporting it.
With one year’s worth of data under their belts, researchers are eager to see what their measurements reveal. Interns at the NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory have already plunged into the data to begin evaluating it. SPLASH may even yield data useful to the broader scientific community. Dr. de Boer noted that SPLASH’s radar returns have revealed the signatures of what are likely insects or bats lofting up to high altitudes, and the team is excited about the potential to work with biologists who have interest in such data.
SPLASH also maintains a relationship with SAIL researchers, who have similar observing systems deployed in the valley. Dr. de Boer and Dr. Dan Feldman, SAIL’s principal investigator, have ongoing discussions about ways to blend parts of their data sets to make the research available to any interested scientist. RMBL’s connection with a global network of scientists could easily open that floodgate.
That’s the beauty of science at RMBL. One investigation leads to another. One field of study overlaps another. And soon, scientists of every stripe are asking different questions about the same phenomenon from every angle imaginable. SPLASH has become part of a vast river of knowledge that perpetually flows through this valley.
Gijs de Boer, PhD, is a Research Scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory. He is the Principal Investigator of the Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology (SPLASH). His work is focused on making detailed observations of the lower atmosphere to better understand physical processes governing weather and climate, with a focus on supporting the advancement of prediction of weather and water.