IML-CZO Investigator Profiles: Adam Ward (Indiana University)

Dr. Adam Ward is an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. (Indiana University)
Nick Fetty | March 18, 2016

This is part of a series of articles featuring investigators and researchers with the IML-CZO project which “works to understand how land-use changes affect the long-term resilience of the critical zone.”

Farming in the Midwest provides food and energy for the rest of the United States and even other parts of the world but some of the agricultural practices used come at an environmental price.

Nutrients – specifically nitrate from fertilizer – is critical to maintaining productivity of farms. Still, a fraction of this nitrate fertilizer is transported into streams, lakes, wetlands, and ultimately through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. High nitrogen levels can be health risks for drinking water, causing concern for drinking water suppliers. Furthermore, these nutrient loads can also affect ecosystems, leading to hypoxic “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and many other locations around the wrold. Studying the transport of nutrients is one of the research foci of Dr. Adam Ward, an investigator for the IML-CZO and an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Dr. Ward is also a CGRER member.

“My work centers around how water and dissolved solutes, such as nitrate, move through landscapes. Our work directly addresses the relative roles of transport and transformation in agricultural landscapes,” said Dr. Ward. “We are learning how human activities alter the fate of water, nutrient loads, and emerging contaminants as they move through the hydrological cycle.”

This emphasis on studying how humans are altering the natural landscape is part of the broader focus of the IML-CZO project. Dr. Ward said the IML-CZO has given him the opportunity to expand upon his previous research and also to work with colleagues who have different but inter-related research foci.

“The IML-CZO is providing the opportunity to study the system in all of its complexity. In many past studies, I have focused on a few processes or contaminants. In the IML-CZO, I have the opportunity to link with experts in soil science, sediment transport and morphodynamics, crop science, social science, and many more. Though these collaborations we are discovering previously unknown couplings in the landscape.”

Dr. Ward’s research has focused largely on the Midwest where he has spent much of his life. The Grand Rapids, MI native holds degrees from Michigan Technological University (B.S., ‘05; M.S. ‘06) and Penn State University (Ph.D. ‘11). Dr. Ward joined the University of Iowa faculty in 2011 as part of the Water Sustainability Initiative (WSI). The WSI is an “interdisciplinary team of researchers and educators” from not only science and engineering fields but also journalism, public health, and others. More recently, Ward moved to Indiana University in 2014, where he is now an Assistant Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

In 2013, Dr. Ward was one of two faculty members honored as a Distinguished Mentor by the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates. Dr. Ward said “Engaging undergraduates in research is a rewarding experience. Helping students ask and answer a question, and discover something previously unknown, is one of my favorite parts of this career.”

Similar to the WSI, the IML-CZO has an interdisciplinary focus and aims to address issues that affect the public. Dr. Ward said that he hopes his research will help farmers, watershed managers, policy-makers, and the general public.

“My work links our actions on the landscape, such as farming practices, with water quality and quantity outcomes. Through this work, we will be able to forecast how different management activities and future climates will interact to potentially limit the availability of water for human use.  By predicting possible impairments to both water quality and quantity, and simulating possible combinations of management responses, we can help shape state-wide and region-wide plans to manage nutrients in the landscape.”

Midwest researchers come together for research project

Doug Schnoebelen, left, explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Doug Schnoebelen explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. From left, Schnoebelen, Praveen Kumar, Thanos Papanicolaou, and Chris Wilson. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | July 30, 2015

Roughly 30 students, professors, and researchers from six different institutions met in Muscatine this week to discuss a collaborative research effort to improve land, water, and air quality in the Midwest.

This Midwestern project is part of a nation-wide project known as the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) an effort by the National Science Foundation to “[study] the zone where rock meets life.” The Midwestern project is called the CZO-IML (Intensely Managed Landscapes) and focuses on watersheds and lands in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station (LACMRERS) in Muscatine hosted the IML-CZO conference which began Tuesday and ends today. This marked the second annual meeting for what will be a five year project.

“The first year was a lot of planning and field campaigns. The second year we’ve collected some data will be able to get that back to look at the results. We finally have some things to discuss, some real science,” said LACMRERS Director Doug Schnoebelen.

Schnoebelen, who also serves as a contributor for the IML-CZO project as well as a member of CGRER, said he hopes this research will be helpful not just for farmers and watershed managers but also for the general public.

“We’re hoping to look at an integrated approach and that’s what the Critical Zone is, being able to say something about water movement, soil conservation, transformation of carbon and energy in the environment. All of these things are really critical to the soil, the water, and the way we live.”

The conference brought together researchers from Indiana University, Northwestern University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Iowa, and University of Tennessee. Schnoebelen said this emphasis on collaboration over competition has been key to the success of the project. He added that he is also grateful the CZO chose to support a Midwestern research project since much of the CZO’s other research takes place on the coasts.

“I think it was important when the national team came out and they realized how managed our landscape was and how important this research really was. It’s not just flyover country in the Midwest, it’s a critical part of our economy for food and energy.”

Indiana University research examines vegetation for river delta resilience

Nick Fetty | August 28, 2014
The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters/Flickr)
The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters/Flickr)

Geologists at Indiana University have found that “goldilocks plant growth” – or not too little, not too much vegetation – is most effective at keeping river deltas resilient.

This vegetation can help “slow the flow of water and cause more sediment to be deposited” which helps to prevent rising sea levels from saturating sensitive marshlands. However, when the vegetation is either too tall or too dense it can prevent sentiment from being deposited in the marsh.

In addition to rising sea levels, population growth, pollution, development and erosion have also had detrimental effects on river deltas. Approximately 10 percent of the world’s population live in river delta regions.

William Nardin (a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geological Sciences at IU-Bloomington) and Douglas A. Edmonds (holds the Robert R. Shrock Professorship in Sedimentary Geology and is an assistant professor of geological sciences at IU) authored the report and used computer modeling to simulate 75 scenarios involving different vegetation densities and river flow rates. Edmonds authored a similar report in 2012.

While the researchers concluded that the ideal level of vegetation helps to retain the greatest amount of sentiment, the vegetation had little effect on sentiment levels when faced with unpredictable conditions such as storms and flooding.

The full report was published in the journal Nature Geoscience earlier this month.

University of Iowa hosts international conference about environmental contamination

Nick Fetty | August 19, 2014
Water pollution in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)
Water contamination in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, the University of Iowa is hosting a conference to discuss emerging contaminants and their effect on the environment.

EmCon 2014: Fourth International Conference on Occurrence, Fate, Effects & Analysis of Emerging Contaminants in the Environment will feature speakers from all across the world, including a keynote speech from University of Iowa engineering professor and CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor. Representatives from various Big Ten schools (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin) as well as Iowa State, Stanford and several other educational and governmental entities are scheduled to give speeches or other presentations. The event “will focus on the most recent developments and findings concerning the source, occurrence, fate, effects, and analysis of emerging contaminants in the environment, providing an ideal venue for exchange of cutting-edge ideas and information in this rapidly evolving research area.”

The first conference, EmCon 2007, was held in York, United Kingdom and brought in more than 100 attendees from all around the world. EmCon 2009 was in Fort Collins, Colorado and EmCon 2011 was in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The National Hydraulic Engineering Conference 2014 is also taking place in Iowa City this week. This event will focus on “sustainability in the design of infrastructure in a rapidly changing environment.”

EmCon 2014 begins at 4 p.m. today and the full schedule of events is available here.