'I am striving to keep water clean, sustainable and accessible in the future'

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work. 

Q&A with Erin Seybold, assistant scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents. 

I am an aquatic biogeochemist, and that means that I'm interested in understanding the chemistry of natural waters, like rivers, streams or groundwater aquifers. The chemistry of water is an indicator of a lot of different things. It tells us about where water comes from, the sources. It will tell us about the health of that water for organisms that may live in that ecosystem. And it can tell us about how suitable it is for people to use. All of those things combined tell us about the water quality of a river or a stream. And my research is interested in understanding water quality, and how it is changing in our environment. 

What does your research look like? What methods do you use? 

I do a lot of empirical data collection, which means going out in the field and taking water samples from rivers or streams, bringing those water samples back to the lab, where we have a number of different pieces of equipment that we run those samples on to analyze them for different concentrations of elements. We then take that data and use different statistical methods to understand patterns in those data. It's a combination of fieldwork, lab work, data analysis.

One other tool that I use a lot is environmental sensors. So that's sensors that we actually put out in the field that are deployed all the time and can measure the concentration of different elements in water every five minutes, even when we're not there. So this really temporally dense, real-time data, you can essentially log into a website and look at what the chemistry of water in the Kansas River is, or any other system that we're studying. So I do a lot of work with that kind of sensor technology as well. 

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work? 

Access to clean, safe water is a basic human right. We need to understand how people are changing our water quality in order to be able to protect and preserve our natural waters — and in order to predict how they will respond to future changes in our environment, like climate change, land use change or population growth. It's equally important for us to protect and preserve our natural waters for the sake of the many organisms that use them. So that could be birds or fish or bugs that live in rivers and streams.

We also need to protect and understand these systems for the environment’s sake, as well. Making sure that water is clean and healthy is an initial baseline to understanding the health of these systems.

And one other interesting thing, too, that really motivates a lot of my work is that if you think about the image of Earth from space, it looks like so much of our planet is water. But only 3% of that water is freshwater that is available for people to use. And so water is a finite resource that we need to understand how to protect and manage in a sustainable way. A very important consideration of that is the quality of water that we have available, and that really motivates a lot of the work that I do. 

How does your research directly impact your field, society, Kansas and the world? 

My research is broadly focused on understanding the future of water quality. And so many of the projects that I work on are focused here in Kansas, but they serve as analogues for other places in the U.S. or globally that are experiencing similar types of environmental change. So as an example, one project that I'm involved in right now is focused on understanding the future of water quality in the Kansas River basin — particularly, understanding as climate change progresses and agriculture shifts and adapts to those new environmental conditions, what impact will that have on water quality and water quantity.

So this work is very relevant for the state of Kansas, but it also is representative of environmental changes that are happening across large parts of the central U.S. or other systems globally that are experiencing this sort of a ratification with climate change. So while that work tells us a lot about water sustainability in Kansas and how we might expect water quality and quantity to change in the future, we can also use it to move our field forward and understand patterns more globally as well. 

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share? 

One aspect of climate change that my research is interested in is thinking about how extreme events might impact water quality. These are large hydrologic events that may be happening more often with climate change. One type of extreme event is changes in wintertime precipitation. Recently I led a study that looked at how one type of winter extreme event, which is called a rain-on-snow event, might impact nitrogen and phosphorus, or nutrient export to our waterways in the U.S. We found that about half of the U.S. is vulnerable to this type of wintertime nutrient pollution. We also found that we don't currently have the data to really assess the full impact on water quality that these sorts of winter events may have. We hope that this study can draw attention to the need for more research in this area and motivate further monitoring. 

Nitrogen and phosphorus are elements that exist naturally in our environment, and also that humans manipulate and add to the landscape in the form of fertilizer or manure. They're essential elements for crop growth and productivity, so they're tied to our agricultural productivity. But they if they're present in excess, they can cause water quality problems. So this study looked at identifying areas of the U.S. that are vulnerable to this sort of nutrient pollution because of both the existence of large agricultural industries as well as the experience this sort of winter rain-on-snow event. 

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work? 

I hope that my research can help promote development of policy and management strategies that can protect the water quality of rivers, lakes, streams or groundwater ecosystems ... so that as our environment continues to change, we can protect these vital ecosystems for human and environmental health.