The future of water … now

Posted on 01. Sep, 2010 by in Academic Departments, Annual Report, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Environment and Sustainability, Interdisciplinary Degree Programs, Issues, Research

Using a leading-edge forecasting method called nowcasting, water resources managers can use real-time data to monitor, evaluate and respond to changes in everything from algae blooms to water levels in the streams, rivers and lakes under their watch.

While forecasts rely on models built with past data, a nowcast draws on current observations and measurements that provide up-to-the minute information. In Madison, researchers have compiled data from 11 U.S. Geological Service gauging stations; an instrument atop the UW-Madison Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science Building; an oceanographic research buoy on Lake Mendota; and user-generated information from the website Weather Underground to create INFOS (, the integrated nowcast/forecast operation system for Yahara Lakes.

Surface weeds on Madison Lake Monona

Surface weeds on Madison Lake Monona. Photo: Renee Meiller

Developed by a multidisciplinary, multi-university team of researchers led by Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Chin Wu, INFOS combines real-time weather and water data to help Madison, Dane County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regulate water levels, monitor and restore wetlands, evaluate weed growth and cutting practices, and warn of algae blooms in the five-lake Yahara chain.

With $1.35 million from the National Science Foundation, Wu created the real-time system in part because he feels using past data to predict the future is a flawed approach. Currently, INFOS centers primarily around the two largest lakes, Mendota and Monona; however, Wu expects that within three years, it will provide comprehensive data about each body of water in the Yahara chain.

Because INFOS operates on an open-source, plug-and-play concept, water managers worldwide can adapt it. On Lake Superior, for example, researchers funded through the UW Sea Grant Institute are using a similar model to study wave swells in real time. “We’d like to share this so that other people can use it, so that the system is a benefit to society,” says Wu.

His collaborators include PhD student John Reimer, UW-Madison Center for Limnology Associate Scientist Paul Hanson, Computer Sciences Professor Miron Livny and Associate Professor An Hai Doan, Binghamton University Computer Science Assistant Professor Kenneth Chiu, and University of Western Australia Earth and Environment Research Assistant Professor Matt Hipsey.

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