Stroud™ Scientists at Work
Scientists Tour the Critical Zone Observatories at Fair Hill and Stroud™ Water Research Center
Local bow hunters and about 80 water research scientists from Europe, North America, China, and Australia were among the few humans braving the woods of the 565-square-mile Christina River watershed on a damp and chilly morning November 10.
The scientists were there to learn about the operations of one of the world’s handful of Critical Zone Observatories (CZOs). The hunters, meanwhile, must have wondered what all the fuss was about. They’d most likely seen all the odd looking devices along and in some of the White Clay Creek’s myriad of tiny streams, which rise in Pennsylvania and flow into Delaware and the Christina River.
But if the hunters had joined the tour they would have discovered from the scientists and young graduate students who were manning the various stations that the instruments are monitoring the “critical zone.” The complex natural processes that happen in this zone — from the bottom of the aquifers to the tree tops — are responsible for sustaining life on Earth. And the scientists are seeking to understand them through the CZOs.
The watershed field tour was on the third and final day of a conference for CZO researchers, which started with a series of workshops held at the University of Delaware’s Clayton Hall. The Christina River Basin CZO, a collaboration of the Stroud™ Water Research Center and the University of Delaware funded by a $4.3 million National Science Foundation grant, is one of only six such observatories in the U.S. Europe has four CZOs, which are funded by the European Commission. France, China, and Australia are each establishing CZOs, and the objective of the workshop was to develop networks to coordinate science between all CZOs.
The conference delegates started their bus tour in the morning with a stop at the Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area, a 12-hectare headwater catchment CZO satellite site. The visitors divided into four groups and proceeded into the woods, which were ankle deep in fall leaves. Along some of the streams, four monitoring stations manned by University of Delaware and Stroud Water Research Center researchers involved in the project were set up to demonstrate and explain their research to the visitors.
Next stop was the Stroud Water Research Center — after a quick drop-in to look at the London Grove Meeting’s giant Penn Oak, whose ground was assumed not to have been disturbed for at least four centuries, the estimated age of the tree.
After coffee and doughnuts in the Center’s Meetinghouse, the conference delegates again divided into four groups to visit the half-dozen stations set up at various points along the stream that flows next to and partly through the Center.
The groups were led by Stroud staff members, and at each station, one or two CZO researchers would explain the various critical zone processes they were monitoring.
For the Stroud Water Research Center, monitoring the streams and ground water was the reason for its founding in 1967, and it’s been doing this ever since. What’s new is the development of wireless sensor technology for continuously collecting data throughout the watershed. Until recently, scientists would need to hike out with a backpack full of bottles and return for days of laboratory measurements. New technologies have the promise of enabling researchers to remotely collect data every few minutes or automatically fill bottles during precisely the right moments, which often occur at night and during big storms. Which is why the Center now has an electrical engineer, Steven Hicks, on staff — hired with the help of the NSF funding for the CZO.
Hicks was manning one of the Center’s stations. On his table at the pump house just below the Center’s new building, Hicks had laid out a plethora of gadgets, electronic boards, cell phones, and waterproof boxes.
“What we’re doing here is what every environmental scientist wants to do,” he said, speaking fast because group leader Dave Montgomery was keeping a strict watch on the time allowed for each stop. “We put down a lot of sensors so we can see what’s going on in the watershed.”
He said that some of the name-brand equipment can be bought assembled and ready to use. At a fraction of the price, however, the devices can be assembled from parts developed by the exploding open-source electronics movement, sensors sold directly from original equipment manufacturers (OEM), and even used items found on eBay.
“So for less than a 100 bucks,” he said, he can put together a data logging system that would cost at least $1,800 if bought as a name-brand device. Since there were so many stream sites and wells to monitor, it would be unfeasible and uneconomic to use the manufactured devices, he said.
But “for $10 I can do the same thing here as $600 over there,” he said pointing to various gadgets. “We pay 50 bucks for what would normally be $2,500.”
He demonstrated how to install a $5 cell phone that can be activated for a $5 monthly service fee and attached to the device so that researchers can monitor and instruct remotely.
He discussed installing special chips so that devices can be controlled from a cell phone to do operations like filling a barrel and sending back data. The remote device would, in turn, respond by voice, somewhat like the new iPhone’s Siri.
“You can put one of these boxes anywhere [in the watershed] as long as there’s cell phone coverage,” he said. “And this whole thing cost less than $100.”
Some visitors to his station expressed skepticism about how easy Hicks said his gadgets were to build.
Hicks disagreed. “This [open-source] platform is made for people who are not electrical engineers. The programming is easy,” he said, adding that you just plug it in and push a button. “It’s not complicated,” he said as his audience laughed, still doubtful. “We’re going to make these as easy as possible for others to replicate. You buy the parts, snap them together, and they’re ready to go.”