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A valued resource, a shifting landscape: Studying Wyoming's water

The old expression "Whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting" is often used when discussing water in the American west. And for good reason: it's a scarce resource under increasing strain, from climate change, bark beetles, development and more.

Making the best use of this precious supply--by understanding the intricate relationship between water, land and the environment--is the mission of the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG).

The center is part of Wyoming's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The NSF-funded program fuels development of a state's scientific infrastructure via collaborations among academia, government and the private sector.

WyCEHG is based at the University of Wyoming, but works across the state. The center supports a summer apprenticeship program for high school students and a partnership with Mississippi's Jackson State University, plus mentoring and research opportunities for community college students. WyCEHG also trains faculty and students how to use geophysical equipment, loaning it out for individual research projects.

The medley of tools used at WyCEHG map and measure the Earth's surface and subsurface, allowing researchers to peer underground and trace the path of water through its landscape. Equipment shown in the video is listed below:

Electrical resistivity--Using electrical cables implanted in the ground, researchers measure how easily electricity passes through the subsurface. Since water conducts electricity, this is a good way to locate water underground.

Electromagnetic waves--A method for mapping geophysical properties of the landscape. A ring or bar of wire creates a current and shoots an electromagnetic wave into the subsurface. This, in turn, generates another current and shoots back another electromagnetic wave. Making the wire 80 feet across and attaching it to a helicopter allows researchers to map a large area in one swoop.

Magnetic gradiometer--Records the strength of the Earth's magnetic field and how it changes with the landscape, which is a function of magnetic minerals in the earth.

Seismic refraction--A technique for measuring the speed of sound underground, which reveals pockets of air and water beneath our feet. A sledgehammer strikes steel plates, and subsequent sound waves are recorded on portable seismometers inserted in the soil.

Ground penetrating radar--Similar to the spinning radar antennas seen at airports. Instead of spitting radar beams skyward, however, the instrument points below, allowing for detailed subsurface images.

Credit: Produced by Jessica Arriens, National Science Foundation

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