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UW-Led Study Highlights the ‘Fluid’ Nature of Surface Water

October 5, 2016
woman holding toad
Charlotte Gabrielsen, a UW doctoral candidate in the Program in Ecology and Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, holds a toad she found while conducting research on wetlands in Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming. (Joanna Harter Photo)

Wetlands are critically important for water availability, forage production and maintaining biodiversity. Using satellite imagery, researchers at the University of Wyoming and The Nature Conservancy developed a novel approach to predict the presence of surface water in semi-arid landscapes to identify these crucial wetlands and their change over time.

UW researchers Charlotte Gabrielsen and Melanie Murphy, in collaboration with Jeffrey Evans of The Nature Conservancy, detail their new approach in the October issue of Remote Sensing of Environment. By using field data collected across the U.S. Northern Great Plains and satellite imagery spanning more than 30 years, they provide a way to estimate where and how long surface water persists on the landscape. This approach highlights the inherent variability of wetlands across the landscape and over time.

“It’s important that we don’t think about wetlands as static features. In reality, wetlands exist as a continuum of water on the landscape that fluctuates dramatically across years in response to weather and climatic factors,” says Gabrielsen, a doctoral candidate in the Program in Ecology and Department of Ecosystem Science and Management from Otisville, N.Y. “Our study views wetlands in a new way: as dynamic landscape components, rather than as discrete features.”

The technique provides cost-effective wetland monitoring over large areas, in turn, promoting more informed conservation and management decisions. The approach also lays the foundation to address the effect of climate change on wetlands. 

“Changes to surface water location and persistence has major implications for agriculture, wildlife and biodiversity,” Gabrielsen says.

“While some wetlands may only hold water for a brief portion of the year, these wetlands may be essential for maintaining biodiversity in semi-arid environments like Wyoming,” adds Murphy, associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management.

The project generated numerous opportunities for student researchers. Two UW undergraduate students -- Sierra Jech, of Cody, and Elise Sulser, of Casper -- received Wyoming National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Undergraduate Fellowships to conduct related research projects and assist with fieldwork. Additionally, Joanna Harter, a UW master’s student from Colorado Springs, Colo., is relating wetland persistence to bird diversity.

“Ultimately, we hope this study will promote a shift from viewing landscape features as fixed and toward viewing them as dynamic components with a diverse range of ecological functions,” Gabrielsen says.

The research was funded by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Wyoming EPSCoR, Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium and was completed in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy.

“Using a multiscale, probabilistic approach to identify spatial-temporal wetland gradients” is available at

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