A Kentucky-Montana Consortium

One of the greatest environmental and economic challenges we face this century is to ensure an adequate, high-quality water supply for human use while maintaining the integrity of ecosystems. While humans can survive without petroleum, they can't survive without water [Dr. Arden L. Bement. Jr., Director, National Science Foundation, 2008].

A collaborative project between Kentucky and Montana, and partners from industry and the public sector, that will develop integrated water quality sensors and an ecological informatics system by creating an updated cyberinfrastructure* has been funded by the National Science Foundation. The consortium is composed of faculty, scientists and students at Hancock Biological Station (KY), Flathead Lake Biological Station (MT), the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville, Murray State University, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Montana, and Montana State University. The total effort, denoted as the Virtual Observatory and Ecological Information System (VOEIS), will provide a resource to enhance the environmental expertise in both states and serve as a "test-bed" for similar approaches to be used by other states across the nation.

The consortium team includes two of the most successful biological field stations in the country with a history of 25 years of collaborations; Hancock Biological Station on Kentucky Lake (Dr. David White, Director) and Flathead Lake Biological Station in northwest Montana (Dr. Jack Stanford, Director). Both biological stations have established and presently maintain very active freshwater and ecological research and monitoring programs. Kentucky Lake is the largest man-made lake in the eastern US, and Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. The stations have operated in very similar fashion for 30+ years to collect and analyze data on these large, complex river-lake ecosystems and boast aquatic databases that are among the most comprehensive worldwide. Their respective faculties and staff will draw on their extensive long-term experience in deploying and maintaining field sensors and large field-originated data bases as the stations will serve as the primary field-hubs for sensor deployment.

The information system developed through this project will be designed to manage vast amounts of historical data, as well as new data generated by lake and stream sensor networks. Data will be analyzed through collaboration with software experts at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Urbana-Champaign, IL, that has been designated by NSF as one of the most powerful supercomputing resources in the US. Cisco Systems, Inc., specialists in network equipment and management, will contribute router development and resources. Sensors to be installed in Kentucky Lake and Flathead Lake (MT) will include common water quality components such as temperature, dissolved oxygen concentration, types and amounts of algae, etc.. Ecological models of hydrologic routing, deep currents in lakes, and biological models developed independently at the two biological stations will be refined through application of the field sensors streaming data to the laboratories. Visualization of these data will be led jointly between NCSA and the Kentucky Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. Data from both lakes will be used to develop graphical and 3-D visualization applications through NCSA. New types of sensors will be developed by researchers from UK and U of L, some of which also will be deployed in eastern Kentucky streams by Eastern Kentucky University, and at other Montana sites by Montana State University.

Using comparisons between Kentucky Lake and Flathead Lake will begin to provide answers to three basic questions. First, what are the trends in key climate factors (temperature, precipitation, snow dynamics), which attributes of human demography and land use correlate with changing climate patterns, and can we model these interactions to examine alternative scenarios to help people adapt to environmental changes? Second, what are the individual and interactive effects of climate variability and land use on stream flow (volume, flooding frequency) and water quality (clarity, pollutants, biodiversity)? Third, how resilient are KY/MT lakes and rivers to climate and land use change, and what are the vital signs that forecast economic decline and stagnation, i.e., how can we best use these large lakes as environmental sensors locally and nationally?

The cyberinfrastructure plan further will serve the ecological research communities of our regions, enhance the undergraduate and graduate educational curricula and research experiences at the participating universities, facilitate outreach to underserved and underrepresented members of society, provide relevant and contemporary ecological K-12 education, and offer web-based engagement with public interest groups. Training of students in the use of the cyberinfrastructure will be an important part of this project and will develop local expertise in sensor development, deployment and simulation. Undergraduate curricula in aquatic ecology will be designed and tested in Montana and Kentucky universities. A special effort will be made to include students from underrepresented groups (e.g., economically disadvantaged students from the Appalachian counties of Kentucky and students at the seven Tribal Colleges in Montana). Interaction with the public and K-12 students will be channeled through the outreach programs at the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute (KWRRI) and the Montana Water Center (MWC), which are both part of the national network of water centers. This will raise the awareness of how human activities impact the environment. There can be no more important educational activity than to make the public appreciate the trade-offs which must be faced in the near future, as embodied in the statement at the top of this summary.

The collaboration between Kentucky and Montana will form an information and education network that will be extremely useful in exploring fundamental questions in environmental science, including the effects of climate change and human activities on water resources and the resilience of the nation's water resources. More information can be found at www.murraystate.edu/qacd/cos/hbs/VOEIS.

*The term "cyberinfrastructure" describes the new research environments that support advanced data acquisition, data storage, data management, data integration, data mining, data visualization and other computing and information processing services over the Internet.