Satellites eye Peninsula to help manage its water
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NASA program manager E. Lucien Cox Jr. speaks about how scientific data can be effectively managed to meet a specific result, such as removing a dam. He spoke in the new scientific and technology building at Peninsula College on Tuesday. -- Photo by Chris Tucker/Peninsula Daily News

By Jim Casey, Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM - NASA's eyes in the sky are focused on the North Olympic Peninsula to help it manage its water.

The space agency won't just help planners sort out the competing demands from farms, fish and people.

NASA also will ask the planners to find fresh tasks for its new satellites and new missions for its old spacecraft.

Already, scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Sequim are using NASA satellite data to forecast much more accurately the snowmelt in the Olympic Mountains and its effects on the flow of the Dungeness River.

"We're pretty pleased with some early results," Mark Wigmosta, chief scientist in the Environmental Technology Division of the laboratory's facilities in Richland, said Tuesday.

Wigmosta spoke during a tour of the laboratory's Sequim headquarters by NASA's E. Lucien Cox Jr., a program manager for the space agency based in Washington, D.C.

Cox had come to the Peninsula to monitor results of NASA's $1.6 million grant to the North Olympic Peninsula Natural Resource Conservation and Development Council, which oversees both Clallam and Jefferson counties.

Sharper forecasts
The satellite data, Wigmosta said, corresponds much more closely to observations on the ground than did previous stream forecasts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It also allows scientists to make daily forecasts of stream flow, not the old seasonal predictions.

The Peninsula - like most of the western U.S. - receives 60 to 90 percent of its surface water from melting snow, he said.

Wigmosta described the snowpack as "a natural storage reservoir. Our water management system depends heavily on it."

The old system could measure snow depth and runoff, he said.

NASA can measure the snowpack's water content, evaporation, transpiration and water passing through the soil beneath the snow.

Moreover, understanding all the phenomena will be crucial if snow levels retreat due to climate change, Wigmosta said.

Putting data to use
NASA's Cox said such predictions put a practical spin on data the space agency otherwise would archive.

"Satellites collect a lot of information," he said.

"It's sitting in data bases waiting to be used."

The thrust of the grant - part of NASA's program called Crosscutting Solutions - was to help more people understand the space science, especially in ways they can share with others.

"The ability to do like things in different areas is what we are looking for," he said.

Stephen Gajewski of the laboratory's Seattle division said satellites also could measure invasive plant species like cheatgrass that can increase wildfire dangers, and set standards for development of nearshore areas.

The spacecraft, for instance, could help planners gauge the amount of paved or roofed surfaces against the well-being of coastal habitats and endangered species.

"This is a universal issue," Gajewski said, applicable to Maryland's Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes as well as to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Tough testing ground
The North Olympic Peninsula's steep slopes and deep waters present especially tough tests, said Jeffrey Ward, senior research scientist in Richland.

"If we can use NASA tools here, we can use NASA tools anywhere," he said.

Now that study of the Dungeness River flow is under way, the NASA project will turn to the Elwha River watershed.

There, it will try to gather data that could help predict what will happen when the river's two dams are removed.

Preparation will be crucial, Cox told a gathering Tuesday afternoon at the college.

"It's going to cause some things to happen," he said.

Besides NASA and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the grant project includes Peninsula College students as field observers, the college's facilities as its operations and outreach center, Clallam County water planners and staff of Olympic National Park, the Idaho National Laboratory, Olympic Park Institute and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Western Washington University, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.

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Reporter Jim Casey can be reached at 360-417-3538 or at jim.casey@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: October 23. 2007 9:00PM
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