Predicting the future of Western U.S. water

Laboratory brings expertise in atmospheric aerosols to new snowpack study

October 5, 2021

Science Water
EES ARM project manager Heath Powers (left) sets up SAIL radiometers with technician Wessley King.

A team from Los Alamos National Laboratory is launching research high in the Colorado Rockies that will help demystify water availability and support predictions across the arid West, including New Mexico. 

Los Alamos is supporting the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Atmospheric Radiation Measurement’s (ARM’s) Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory (SAIL) campaign that kicked off in September near Crested Butte. SAIL will collect data from the East River Watershed in the Upper Colorado River Basin. The Los Alamos team will oversee the SAIL observatory for this period, which ends in June 2023.

The world’s water towers—mountainous watersheds—provide 60 to 90 percent of water resources in the intermountain West. Mountains capture, store, and distribute much of our water, but current earth system models are unable to predict the timing and availability of these water resources. Uncertainties remain high as climate change, extreme weather, wildfire, land-use change, and other disturbances significantly reshape interactions within watersheds.

Led by Daniel Feldman at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, SAIL aims to develop a quantitative understanding of the atmosphere and land-atmosphere interaction processes, at their relevant scales, that affect mountain hydrology in the midlatitude continental interior of the United States.

Through SAIL, researchers will develop detailed measurements of mountainous water-cycle processes to better predict water resources within the East River Watershed. The Colorado River supplies water for 40 million people and 5.5 million agricultural acres in several Western states, and threats to the future of this supply are poorly understood. The study aims to capture water measurements to predict water retention and flow and reveal how the atmosphere varies across seasons and how mountainous watersheds affected by climate disturbances, such as drought and extreme fires, capture and release water.

The Los Alamos team will manage two ARM field sites with advanced instrumentation to bring high-quality observations as a part of SAIL and complement existing surface and subsurface measurements as part of the DOE’s Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) in the East River Watershed. In October, this team will also launch ARM field research as part of a large collaboration studying pollution at sites in Houston.

SAIL will combine ARM atmospheric observations (including a research-grade Doppler precipitation radar from Colorado State University) with surface and subsurface hydrologic observations from the Watershed Function SFA.

The Watershed Function SFA is an ongoing multidisciplinary collaboration of researchers from dozens of institutions. Researchers will study the processes that influence water availability and quality as a result of earth system change.

SAIL collaborators include Los Alamos National Laboratory Scientist Allison Aiken, an atmospheric expert who will study how aerosols—such as those from prolific wildfire smoke—affect mountain snowpack; Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and NOAA.

The SAIL kickoff media roundtable included Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Heath Powers, who manages ARM’s field research facilities and has helped his team deploy and operate them at field sites around the globe. Powers and other participants said that this unprecedented state-of-the-art climate observatory is the key to linking atmospheric processes such as rain and snowfall over two water-years to the extensive surface hydrology study that the DOE has conducted there over several years.  This will allow scientists to form a much more complete understanding of the atmosphere-land hydrological continuum that can be applied to many regions around the world. The SAIL scientists stated that the data will quantify uncertainties about snowpack to fill massive gaps and improve our ability to forecast water availability.