UMass Amherst Scientist Colin J. Gleason Receives Five-Year, $530,000 NSF CAREER Grant to Study Arctic Hydrology Cycle

Artic River student
Artic River student

AMHERST, Mass. – Colin J. Gleason, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has received a five-year, $530,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant to conduct a detailed study of Arctic river flows and how they respond to changes in the climate.

Gleason says this project seeks an unprecedented accounting of the pan-Arctic hydrologic cycle built from the river up that will include field work done by undergraduates north of the Arctic Circle, use of remote sensing from NASA’s Landsat family of satellites for a longer-term perspective, and improvements to open source global hydrology models to better understand Arctic rivers and how they function.

Rivers serve as an excellent indicator of overall Arctic change because the water in the river at any given time, its “discharge,” is a reflection of all of the other components of the water and energy cycles including precipitation, evaporation and groundwater movement, says Gleason.

The unique geomorphology of Arctic rivers, the way rivers shape and are shaped by the landscape, is relatively understudied. Fieldwork to increase understanding of the current condition of rivers will be done through a new program at UMass Amherst called Integrating Geosciences and Engineering in the Arctic (IGEA).

Gleason says, “I will bring UMass Amherst undergraduates from IGEA north of the Arctic Circle so they can design and execute their own experiments to learn more about the nuances of unique Arctic rivers. My graduate students and I will then use millions of satellite images to take what the undergraduates have learned along with techniques I’ve developed over the past decade to make the first ever observation-based map of river flow across the Arctic.”

The satellite images will be used to estimate discharge for every Arctic river wider than 150 meters from 1984 to present. Finally, the IGEA-informed remotely sensed discharge data will be used to calibrate an open source global hydrology model, integrating the other components of this project to reach a fuller understanding of the entire Arctic system achieved through improved process-based understanding of Arctic rivers, Gleason says.

IGEA students will design field experiments in the spring semester as juniors, perform Arctic fieldwork in the summer after their junior year, and then analyze their data and train the next cohort of participants in the fall of their senior year. Undergraduates are purposefully drawn from two different disciplines, engineering and geosciences, to help broaden their experiences and to train, teach and inspire the next generation of interdisciplinary thinkers through this immersive Arctic research program.

Gleason says this work is critical because shifting political priorities at home and abroad mean what little data we do have about bellwether Arctic rivers is disappearing, and as Arctic rivers go, so goes the Arctic in general. The Arctic is undergoing rapid changes as this sensitive region responds to altered energy and water transport at the global scale, deeply affecting its local communities, ecosystems and water cycle.