Jackson State University Group Learns About Wyoming’s Hydrology, Geology
June 27, 2013 — For Carlos Martinez, the University of Wyoming is worlds away from his home in Bogota, Colombia. But for the Jackson State University (JSU) junior, the skills he developed and experience he gained using new hydrology equipment will be invaluable to his future plans.
Martinez strongly wants to address environmental problems that result from the mining of gold by European companies near a number of villages in the Andes Mountains which, like Wyoming, has terrain at high altitudes.
“For (mining) a gram of gold, you need 1,000 liters of water,” Martinez says. “They’re taking water out of the rivers that is important to those villages. Usually, those little villages rely on agriculture. That is very rich land.”
Martinez is among eight JSU students -- all earth systems science majors -- who spent the last two weeks studying the hydrology, ecology and geology of the Snowy and Laramie ranges. The visiting students paired up for the research with a mix of eight UW undergraduate and graduate students majoring in ecosystem science, hydrology, botany and geography.
The collaborative field course, which wrapped up June 27, was part of the outreach component of a five-year $20 million grant award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Wyoming Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).
The grant, the largest in UW’s 127-year history, provides for new physical and intellectual infrastructure that enables a comprehensive research program that links surface and subsurface watershed hydrology, geophysics, remote sensing and computational modeling. This highly interdisciplinary award, which brings together researchers and educators from four UW colleges and 11 departments, is led cooperatively by three principal investigators: Anne Sylvester, a professor in molecular biology; Steve Holbrook, a professor of geology and geophysics; and Scott Miller, an associate professor in ecosystem science and management.
One of NSF’s goals for the EPSCoR grant is to find ways to increase diversity in universities that NSF works with. As a result, UW paired with Jackson State, the only historically black college or university (HBCU) that currently offers a degree in earth systems science.
Gaining field experience
In the field, students had the opportunity to use all of the new equipment recently purchased by the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG), a multidisciplinary center established, as part of the grant, at UW in July 2012.
Students used geophysics to understand where water is located in the soil, and even to distinguish what percentage of that water is snowmelt and what percentage is from rainwater. Students collected data in the field and made their analyses in the laboratory.
“I really liked the hydro-physics part,” says Laura Matthews, a JSU sophomore from Vicksburg, Miss. “We tested the (water’s) isotopes, which were different depending on where the plant’s water comes from, the snow or groundwater.”
Mitchell Johnson was impressed with the variety of UW field equipment available and made mention of the ground penetrating radar (GPR), which transmits radar pulses into the ground to image the subsurface.
“I have prior experience with GPR at the Critical Zone Observatory at Penn State,” says Johnson, a recent JSU graduate from Meridian, Miss.
Brandon Rankin, a JSU senior from Clinton, Miss., learned about seismic stratigraphy, in which he used a seismograph to view aquifers and shale fragments to “see the underground at work.” In order to conduct analyses, students also learned different programs that incorporate with the instruments they operated in the field, says Rankin, who sees environmental urban planning and development in his future.
Tyler Mason, a JSU senior, was curious about the recent pine beetle epidemic in Wyoming. Pine beetles destroyed trees on his family’s farm in Madison, Miss., he says.
“That kind of hit home,” Mason says.
Mason adds he has been able to use a lot of hydrology equipment not available at JSU and is impressed with the UW faculty he’s worked with.
UW faculty who participated in the field course included Holbrook, Miller, Brent Ewers, a UW associate professor of botany; Dave Williams, a professor of ecosystem science and management and faculty director of UW’s Stable Isotope Facility; and Brad Carr, a senior research scientist in geology and geophysics. Ezat Heydari, a Jackson State professor of geoscience, accompanied the JSU students.
“Everybody here are renowned professors and known throughout the industry,” Mason says. “If I put this experience on my resume, it will carry a lot of weight.”
On one of the last days of the field course, Ewers demonstrated how to use a device called an L16400, which is used to conduct gas exchanges of leaves. In a small garden area outside the Aven Nelson Building, students took turns hooking a small clamp to leaves on a plum tree and columbine flowers. The instrument allowed students to take photosynthesis and stomatal conductance readings of the plants.
Inside a nearby laboratory, students used a centrifuge, which resembled an old clothes dryer, to measure how efficiently water moves through a stem.
“They seem as equal to the Wyoming students,” Ewers says of the JSU students’ knowledge and skill set. “They are just as curious and just as rigorous.”
During the June 25 afternoon session, Williams led the students through a laboratory exercise that involved cryogenic extraction of water from soil, stem and leaf samples the students collected in the Snowy Range. The students were to conduct a stable isotope analysis of their samples the following day.
The laboratory work signaled the tail end of their two-week experience. Along the way, the group also had the opportunity to ride horses at a local ranch, trek mountainous landscapes and catch glimpses of Wyoming’s wildlife.
“I saw a lot of antelope and prairie dogs,” Rankin says. “We saw a big black bear crossing the road at the border of Colorado and Wyoming.”
Compared to the hot, sticky summers of Mississippi, the JSU students discovered working out in Wyoming’s arid climate has its advantages.
“I love that whenever we go out in the field, we can just sit on the ground and you don’t get bitten by bugs,” Matthews says. “No chiggers.”
It’s those different perspectives that have helped make the field course rewarding for Heather Speckman, a UW graduate student majoring in ecology.
“We work a lot with hydrology” in Wyoming, says Speckman, of Laramie. “In Mississippi, they work to get rid of water by building levees. Here, it’s turning rocks and stones over to find water.”
Ewers noticed one other difference.
“When It gets shady, I notice they (JSU students) get colder than the UW students,” he says.
Brent Ewers, a UW assistant professor of botany, explains to Jackson State University (JSU) students how to operate the L16400, which is used to conduct gas exchanges of leaves. Brandon Rankin (left) and Mitchell Johnson (right) were two of the eight JSU students who participated in a two-week hydrology field course at UW. (UW Photo)