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UW’s Ogden Receives Pentagon Grant to Research Subsurface Soil Flows Along Panama Canal

June 29, 2012
Two people examining tree
On a 2010 research trip to Panama, Fred Ogden (right), a UW professor of engineering, holds up a chain that leads to a water level sensor that was buried in the Chagres River region in central Panama. Jesse Creel, a UW master’s student from Casper, also is pictured. With the help of a $68,000 Pentagon instrumentation grant, Ogden returns to Panama in August to study subsurface soil flows there. (Photo provided by Fred Ogden)

By this time next year, a sea captain who safely navigates his cargo ship through the Panama Canal may want to tip his cap to Fred Ogden.

The University of Wyoming engineering professor has received a $68,000 instrumentation grant from the Pentagon to help study subsurface flows through soil along the Panama Canal.

Ogden, UW’s Cline Distinguished Chair in the Department of Civil & Architectural Engineering and Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, will travel to Panama in August to study rainfall infiltration in different land uses, including old-growth forest, pasture land and areas where teak trees (tropical hardwoods) have been planted in the Panama Canal watershed.

Panama is located in a seasonal tropic, meaning the country receives heavy rains (sometimes as much as three feet in one month) from May through December, with scant precipitation the rest of the year, Ogden says. Because approximately 5 percent of the world’s global trade -- much of it to/from the United States -- is shipped through the Panama Canal each year, it is vital that cargo ships are able to navigate through the canal without getting stuck during the dry season, Ogden says.

To avoid that potential dry-dock scenario, Ogden says one hypothesis being tested is this: Converting land from pasture to forest will increase wet-season infiltration into the soil and increase groundwater recharge which, in turn, will help increase dry-season water flows into the canal and ensure adequate water-depth levels for shipping.

“The big objective is land management in the Panama Canal watershed,” Ogden says. “The Panama Canal Authority is paying people to plant trees in the watershed in the hopes more water is returned (to the canal), and we’re doing research to see if this works.”

The Pentagon grant will allow Ogden to purchase a $50,000 Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) system and two large, above-ground rainfall simulator systems (each with four nozzles) to assist his Fred Ogden, a UW professor of engineering, will use this sprinkler system to simulate heavy rainfall and visualize water run-off during his research of subsurface soil flows along the Panama Canal. research. ERT is an innovative technology that allows onsite researchers to view two- or three-dimensional images of the subsurface on an on-site computer within minutes of data acquisition. The data can be used to verify the effect of subsurface preferential flow paths, such as decayed tree roots.                    

“Water management requires modeling. Modeling requires accurate data and an understanding of what’s going on,” Ogden says. “This equipment will allow us to visualize flows in the soil under pastures and forests. We’ll use the model we develop with the (UW) campus cluster to simulate these processes.”

The sprinkler system, which Ogden is constructing at UW with the help of collaborators Ginger Paige and Scott Miller (both from UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management), will allow him to simulate heavy rain and visualize subsurface flows. The sprinklers will be used to test the “sponge hypothesis.” Under this theory, an area where trees have been cut and grazed results in surface soil being compacted. This increases surface water run-off and decreases groundwater recharge. As a result, the canal suffers during the dry season because there is less groundwater flowing into the streams that feed the canal, Ogden says.

Ogden, who has conducted hydrology research in the Chagres River area in central Panama for the past decade (starting with his days as a researcher at the University of Connecticut), says the Smithsonian Institution recognized his previous work in the region and asked him to help study subsurface soil flow in the Panama Canal. As a result, Ogden says he received the grant funding for the specialized research equipment. The organization has a branch office, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in Panama, where Ogden is a senior research associate.

“I like working in the tropics. The rain there ensures something always happens,” Ogden says.

Much of Ogden’s research is much closer to home, as he will use the National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputing Center supercomputer in Cheyenne this fall to model the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin. For more information on that research, click here.

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