Forecasting the future of water

Laboratory scientists study water availability in the Colorado Rockies

October 19, 2022

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Los Alamos researchers use a tethered balloon system to gather measurements such as temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, turbulence, and aerosol properties.

Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory are working to learn more about how climate change and extreme weather impact mountainous water sources.

Heath Powers, of the Lab’s Earth Systems Observations group, leads a team that is working at the Department of Energy’s Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory (SAIL), which is in the Upper Colorado River Basin and collects data from the East River Watershed. The work began in September 2021 and will last through June 2023.

Powers says that SAIL is an atmospheric observatory with highly advanced measurement capabilities. “It’s very much like a celestial observatory where you use fancy instruments to get a much better detailed view of what’s happening. We use very sophisticated and complex instruments that most people don’t have to get a really comprehensive picture of what’s happening from the ground all the way up to the top of the atmosphere.”

The study focuses on the Colorado River watershed, which provides 60 to 90 percent of the water in the mountainous western United States, but Powers says the results can also apply to mountainous regions across the world. “At the core of this study is understanding what processes lead to impacts on precipitation right now and what those impacts are in future climate scenarios. One of the fundamental parts of this study that we’re hoping to gain information about is how we think the water resources will change in a changing climate.”

Allison Aiken, a Los Alamos aerosol scientist who is part of the SAIL science team, says the information they are collecting will be crucial for forecasting the future. “We need to know and understand if there are going to be areas that we’ve relied on for water supplies that are going to be drying up in the future. That’s a huge national security issue. We need water to survive.”

Along with capturing detailed measurements of rain and snowfall and snowpack, SAIL tracks how dust and wildfires impact clouds and precipitation. “There are lots of variables, but we fortunately come equipped with lots of instruments to get at every one of those variables,” Powers says.

Aiken looks forward to how the information they gather will predict the effect of climate change on water availability. “It’s one of the reasons I went into environmental science,” she says. “I care about the planet and the people that are on it. I’m very proud to be part of the data collections and measurements to try to answer these big questions.”

Powers agrees, but he laughs, saying he hopes to avoid certain questions. “People often ask, ‘So can you tell me what the weather’s going to be? Are we going to get a lot of snow this year?’ I tell them, ‘I can’t tell you about this year, but I’m hoping to be able to tell you what the weather will be in 50 years.’”

> Learn more about the Laboratory’s research on climate topics in the special climate issue of National Security Science magazine.