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Predicting the future of water availability in the American West

The devastating drought impacting the Colorado River system affected over 40 million people, making scientists ask themselves whether it could have been predicted and perhaps avoided. A team of experts from the U.S. Department of Energy Berkeley Lab has built the first “bedrock-to-atmosphere” observation system to help scientists predict the future of water availability in the American West.

Scheduled to open on September 1, 2021, the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory (SAIL) will use state-of-the-art instruments to collect a vast array of data on precipitation, temperature, humidity, solar and thermal energy, ozone concentrations and more, in order to predict how, why, where, and when rain and snow will fall. 

“SAIL is a timely campaign because of the ongoing drought in the Western United States,” said Sally McFarlane, DOE Program Manager for the Atmospheric Radiation Management (ARM) user facility. “SAIL is bringing data from ARM and other research programs from within DOE to ultimately help provide insights into the atmospheric processes and land-atmosphere interactions that impact rain and snow in the upper Colorado River watershed.”

This initiative will help scientists understand the physical processes that affect mountain hydrology and discover how phenomena such as droughts, wildfires, dust, or tree mortality influence water availability. It will also help clarify how mountains extract moisture from the atmosphere and process it all the way down to the bedrock beneath the Earth’s surface.

“This is a profound and incredibly unique opportunity and represents a first-of-its-kind experiment in mountainous systems worldwide, bridging the processes from the atmosphere all the way down to bedrock,” said Ken Williams, the lead researcher for SAIL.

Some practical questions that SAIL could help answer include: How are activities and disturbances in the forests affecting water quality and availability? How to plan for a future of low snow, or snowfall transforming to rainfall? Or how to prevent dams from overflowing? 

“Ultimately, this work will help us improve climate models so that they can be used to better understand, predict, and plan for threats to water resources in the arid West and globally,” explained DOE Program Manager Jeff Stehr.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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