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Our January faculty member of the month is Dr. Holly Michael.
Dr. Michael is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Geological Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Delaware. She is also Associate Director for Interdisciplinary Initiatives for the Delaware Environmental Institute.
She holds a BS in Civil Engineering from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in Hydrology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research interests include water resource management, coastal hydrogeology, groundwater-surface water interactions, and geostatistics. Some of her current projects include investigating groundwater flow into estuaries, modeling groundwater salinization due to climate change, evaluating sustainability of arsenic-safe groundwater in Bangladesh, and application of experimental economics to groundwater resources.
Increasing environmental sustainability is one of our core issues at the Biden Institute. We aim to promote and facilitate discussions that lead to policies geared towards mitigating the effects of climate change, lowering our carbon emissions and ensuring access to clean air and water for future generations. The research conducted by Dr. Michael and her colleagues at the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) is crucial to finding solutions to some of the most pressing environmental issues.
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With sustainability becoming more necessary, given the current state of our environment, what steps would you advise college students take in order to contribute to the environment in a positive way?
I would encourage them to learn as much as possible about the ways that we as humans affect our planet. From there, students (and all of us) can think about our own behaviors and ways that we individually can reduce negative impacts and contribute positively to the environment. And students in particular have the opportunity to make changes not only individually, but to educate others and more broadly influence collective decisions and policy that are made now and in the future.
What is the goal of the hydrogeology group?
The goal of our research program is to understand how water and associated solutes (contaminants, nutrients) move both below and above land surface, and to link the physical flow processes to other aspects of the natural system, such as biogeochemistry and geology, as well as aspects of the human system, such as water use behaviors and economics. In doing this, we seek to better understand both vulnerability of our water resources to over-use and contamination, as also discover ways that we can more sustainably use and manage our water systems.
Does human activity affect groundwater? And if so how?
Absolutely. We affect groundwater in too many ways to count. Anything that we do on land surface can affect the water system below. For example, fertilizers applied to crops or our lawns seep through the soil into the groundwater, affecting the quality of our drinking water and also causing ecological problems when the groundwater eventually reaches our streams and estuaries. Other ways that we contaminate our groundwater include industrial pollution (both current and historic), chemical spills, leaky chemical storage tanks, fracking, and even road salt. All of these contaminants put our groundwater resources at risk, and it is very difficult to clean groundwater once it is polluted. Another way that we affect groundwater is by pumping it. Of course we should pump groundwater to use it as a valuable resource. But in some areas we pump too much, which causes problems such as water scarcity, land subsidence (sinking buildings and cities), and it can even cause salty seawater to seep into our groundwater systems.
What are some of the environmental initiatives that DENIN is focusing on that you have a hand in?
We have a broad initiative in water at DENIN that I am leading, with the goal of developing capacity at UD in the form of strong interdisciplinary research collaborations, new grant proposal development, and student opportunities related to water resources and sustainability. We have a working group that brainstorms research ideas and identifies funding sources, a graduate student symposium series funded by the UD Grand Challenges program, and a faculty cluster search in coastal water security. I am also involved in DENIN's competitive fellowship program for PhD students, and year-round opportunities for undergraduates to carry out research. And, I am excited to be involved in DENIN's partnership with the Biden Institute. We collaborated on an event recently featuring Vice President Biden and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz that generated a lot of enthusiasm.
How has DENIN benefited the work you do?
As a new faculty member 10 years ago, DENIN helped to connect me to other researchers on campus to develop interdisciplinary collaborations that resulted in grant funding and projects that continue on today. DENIN provides support for these collaborations and initiatives by initiating and enabling brainstorming meetings, facilitating proposal writing and project administration, and connecting faculty to stakeholders and collaborators outside of UD –government, industry, and non-profits. This support is critical for large grants and projects that would be too difficult for individual faculty members to manage and has helped me to get involved in, and eventually lead, projects that I hope will make important scientific advances and positive societal impacts. DENIN also provides programs for students that have funded both undergraduate and graduate students to work in my group, and activities that enhance students' experience at UD.
What advise do you have for students who which to one day develop environmental policies?
I hope that in the future we can move science and policy closer together. So that policymakers understand and appreciate scientific data and findings, and so that scientists ask questions relevant for policy and effectively communicate the answers they discover. So I would encourage students interested in policy to study not only that aspect, but to also learn some of the science behind the environmental problems of the future. This was one of the motivations for initiating UD's interdisciplinary Water Science and Policy graduate program, which requires students to have breadth across science and policy, in addition to depth in their area of focus.
What do you see as being the top three issues that need to be addressed from your area of focus?
1) Megacities. Intensifying population density is going to result in water resource crises in the future, if it is not already now. Many mega-cities are over-using groundwater at rates that are lowering water levels rapidly. Not only could this essentially drain aquifers completely, it can also cause major problems of land subsidence and contamination.
2) Coastal vulnerability. The intersection of dense populations, sea-level rise, and increasing frequency and intensity of major storms is threatening not only our surface infrastructure, but also importantly our surface and subsurface water resources through salinization, shallow water tables that impact agriculture and septic systems, and release of contaminants currently bound in soils.
3) The arctic. We have very little understanding of how the rapid thaw of permafrost and glacial melting in the arctic will create feedbacks, such as large-scale release of previously sequestered carbon that can serve to enhance climate change. Groundwater is an important component of this since melting permafrost activates groundwater flow systems that have been motionless for millennia. When that groundwater reaches rivers or the oceans, it delivers carbon and other solutes that will alter global geochemical cycles.
What policies do you think should be enacted on a local, state or national level to address environmental concerns in your field?
I think we need to protect our water resources by carefully monitoring and regulating release of contaminants, and not pull back on regulations that are making positive environmental impacts. I think we need to accurately value our environmental resources and ecosystem services when weighing policy alternatives, as these are often undervalued, leading to inadequate protections. I think we need to pay more attention to water management and allocation, particularly in dry and highly populated areas, so that our resources are available for future generations. And I think that we should promote and support collection, storage, and sharing of environmental data globally so that scientists can most effectively understand environmental systems and develop solutions for the future of the planet.