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Published August 29, 2023
The global atmospheric circulation carries moisture from warm, tropical regions and deposits it as precipitation far from its sources. Changes in evaporative fluxes and atmospheric circulation can bring either deluges or drought. The amount of water availability and stress can have profound regional consequences to Wyoming’s outlook for agriculture, tourism and quality of life.
To tackle this issue, a team of University of Wyoming researchers, led by Shawna McBride, is looking at using Earth system models (ESMs) to understand how moisture gets into the Rocky Mountain West and Wyoming. The end goal: understand how this moisture affects the state’s water resources to predict how moisture fluxes will change on the scale, ranging anywhere from decades to centuries.
McBride, director of the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium and NASA EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), received a three-year, $750,000 NASA grant for her project titled “Global to Regional: Origins of Water Stress (GROWS).” The grant began June 1 and will end May 31, 2026. The project is among 15 funded through a NASA-EPSCoR grant program.
“The NASA-EPSCoR research grants are intended to further NASA research goals, as well as strengthen research capabilities within the state,” McBride says. “We are very excited about the GROWS project, as it will leverage existing NASA remote sensing technologies and address key concerns -- water scarcity and precipitation modeling -- that are important to NASA, the Rocky Mountain West and Wyoming.”
McBride is the administrative principal investigator (PI) on the grant project. She will focus on grant management, reporting and administration. Daniel McCoy and Dana Caulton, both UW assistant professors of atmospheric science, serve as science PIs on the grant and will lead the research efforts. The group is collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Goddard Space Flight Center and Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
“Water availability and stress can have profound regional consequences for agriculture, tourism and quality of life. Even though the impacts are regional, the global atmosphere and ocean dictate how moisture converges and precipitates,” McCoy says. “To be able to provide accurate predictions of water stress and availability on the time scale of years to decades, we need global Earth system models that are accurate and reliable. To do this, we need to explore many possible ESM configurations and evaluate these configurations with our best observations.”
McCoy will fund Dani Jones, a UW junior from Gillette majoring in environmental systems science, to help with the project. Caulton will advise Samuel Ajibade, a UW Ph.D. student from Nigeria. The group hired Travis Aerenson, a Ph.D. student from the University of Washington, who will start in spring 2024.
“Observations are key to benchmarking model output. However, there is a large mismatch between the scales at which observations are made and global models that produce output,” Caulton says. “We can use the historical record of aircraft and ground observations, along with new observations, to understand how much natural variability exists. This can allow us to understand how much difference between models and observations is acceptable and eliminate future projects that do not conform to reality.”
According to the grant abstract, the research will create a framework for NASA and UW to offer predictions of future moisture convergence for the western U.S. The framework will be designed in a flexible way so that it can be applied to other regions around the globe. This will place UW, in collaboration with NASA, as a center of hydroclimate modeling with global impact.