As Irene hit the northeastern U.S. this past weekend (August 27-28, 2011), scientists from Pennsylvania’s Stroud Water Research Center (SWRC) and the University of Delaware were in the thick of the storm collecting data that will help them better understand the role of big storms in the global cycling of greenhouse gases.
Increasing greenhouse gases – like carbon dioxide – in the atmosphere are thought to be contributing to climate change.
Stroud Center scientist Anthony Aufdenkampe said that scientists were collecting what are called “annual loads” – water, trapped leaves and soil – from streams and rivers. Aufdenkampe explained that Irene let loose lots of material that could be mined by scientists:
It rains on average [in this region] once per week, or 15 percent of the year, but streams and rivers move most of their annual loads on [stormy] days. The bigger the storm, the greater the disproportionate load, so you might have a single 100-year storm event move 25 percent of the material for an entire decade
Dr. Aufdenkampe said analyzing this material is critical because fresh waters and the carbon they move play a major role in the global cycling of greenhouse gases. As a Stroud Center press release explained:
We’re hypothesizing that big storms are a major player in determining what happens to the carbon in a leaf, for example. Does it go back into the atmosphere or does it get buried for decades, centuries, or millennia? That’s the key to global warming and climate change. Irene could [also] reveal much about how soil erosion into rivers might eventually bury carbon and sequester it from acting as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
Scientist Jun Abrajano is another one of the scientists analyzing Irene floodwater in hot pursuit of information about local water, soil and plant cycles, and their connectedness to climate change. Dr. Abrajano works with the Christina River Basin Critical Zone Observatory (CRB-CZO) at the University of Delaware.
Dr. Abrajano said some storm events are major enough to have big effects on the overall processes and fluxes in watershed systems.
To find out more about those effects, collaborating scientists throughout the Northeast set up floodwater collection points along White Clay Creek in Pennsylvania and Brandywine Creek in Delaware last weekend as Hurricane Irene bore down.
The experts installed cell phone remote-operated equipment, so they didn’t have to stick around as the water rose. This type of high-precision collection could never have happened 10 or 15 years ago, the team told the press, but now ” … with open-source hardware and software, anything’s possible. We’re only limited by our imagination.”
Because the storm was so recent, there are as yet no conclusive results. Scientists will be working with the Hurricane Irene stormwater data from months to years, trying to better understand how climate events like Hurricane Irene might fit into climate change’s big picture.
Bottom line: Hurricane Irene provided scientists in Pennsylvania and the University of Delaware with lots of data about water and climate change. Over the weekend (August 27-28, 2011), they collected floodwater from freshwater points in both states.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.