“To look at how do bacteria interact with the snow and the freeze up, and conversely what happens when the snow melts,” he says, “do the bacteria survive over the winter? How do they react over the summer? Because of course that has big consequences for Saskatchewan water quality and agriculture.”
By understanding how E.coli bacteria and other harmful agricultural nutrients may affect water quality through runoff, Hodder hopes to help farmers develop best practices while improving the efficiency of their operation. In the field, Hodder monitors water quality from agricultural run off near Whitewood, and how that run off could affect water quality downstream in Moosomin.
“Some of those Ag operations have some pretty dirty water, and others have less dirty water,” he says. Hodder takes the “farmers first” approach to helping improve environmental impact. “Part of our goal is try and evaluate, as a way of saving funds for farmers, do you need to apply as much fertilizer as you are or is there a way to manage the field differently or to distribute your cattle differently such that it actually benefits you and the water quality. So everybody benefits as opposed to concentrating on the environmental side.”
The research opportunities made possible by Zephyr are more than Hodder says he envisioned. “What started as a very simple environmental monitoring project on the roof of the classroom building has turned into a variety of other things,” he says. “We didn’t envision initially having a social media feed and we didn’t envision initially having cow patties sitting beside it running an experiment, but one good idea leads to another.”
Another good idea made possible by Zephyr allows Hodder and his colleagues to study environmental changes and monitor extremely localized weather conditions.
“Your position within the city can determine as much the way you experience weather as your position within the province,” says Hodder. He says that the Zephyr has tracked differences as large as eight degrees Celsius between the U of R campus and the airport where typical meteorological reports are taken. This doesn’t just allow students living on campus and residents in the surrounding communities to check with the Zephyr for a more accurate weather report through its twitter feed; it also allows Hodder and his colleagues to track when Wascana Lake freezes.
“The timing of freeze up in lakes anywhere, but particularly in the center of the continent is a good indicator of environmental change over time,” he says. By studying when the lake freezes from year to year and whether that begins to happen earlier or later, Hodder hopes to accumulate long-term data to evaluate the timing of freeze up and monitor changes in the environment.
More than a powerful tool for research, physical geography masters student and U of R lab instructor David Barrett says it’s a powerful tool for education as well.
“The reason I used it was so that students were actually getting hands on using real data rather than just doing these theoretical type labs,” he says. “They get to work with data that’s really there and see the trends going on at the university and the weather around here.”
Currently only using it for teaching in the classroom, Barrett says there is a good possibility he will also utilize the Zephyr for work on his masters thesis.
“The station itself is still in its infancy,” he says, “but there’s so much that could be done with it due to the large amount of data that’s there.
“I just see it as a very useful learning tool,” he says, “the more we can utilize it the better. Getting students to use the real data is a lot better than giving them some old made up things that may or may not happen.”Dustin Gill is a fourth year journalism student at the University of Regina who will be graduating in April 2013.