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Water Watch

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Remember this picture from freshman earth science class? Well, it turns out that the water cycle as you know it (evaporation, condensation, precipitation... you get the idea) is just the tip of the iceberg. There are significant gaps even in the experts’ understanding of what’s going on beneath the surface—for example, when, where, and how water is transformed and distributed in soils and the atmosphere.

That missing data is crucial to making projections of future climate change and water supplies. But using existing tools to answer those questions, says Inez Fung, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, “Is like listening to a Beethoven symphony but hearing only a single note every minute.”

With $1.6 million in funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation, however, Fung and her research team aim to scrutinize Earth’s hydrologic cycle like never before.

Research undertaken at the new Keck HydroWatch Center will help scientists better understand the water cycle and predict its changes. By developing cheap, fast, and accurate sensors and techniques to monitor water pathways, the scientists aim to dramatically expand what observations they can make. Their first step is developing a working prototype of intensive environmental monitoring networks; then the team will take advantage of existing infrastructure at two sites of the UC Natural Reserve System, debuting their new toolkit at the Sagehen Creek Field Station and the Elder Creek Watershed.

The ultimate goal: a system of hardware, software, and analytical methods that can be deployed across the U.S. and the world. Then, Fung hopes, hydrologists will finally hear nature’s full symphony.

-Cyril Manning

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