Science. Communication. Community.
When a wildfire starts, the first things that come to mind are trees, houses, and people. But what else is in harms way? A significant number of critical research instruments.
The Yosemite rim fire is huge, one of the fourth largest in California history and counting. So far over 222,000 acres and 111 houses have burned (1). Media sites are forecasting more devastation and noting concerns for populations, including the fire’s threat to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco’s water supply. But news sites have missed something else in the fire’s path: an array of sensors that measure the state’s most valuable resource–water.
The SierraNet sensors, developed by researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Merced, comprise one of the largest wireless networks established to monitor snow melt and forecast California’s water supply (2). Unlike current methods that require difficult fieldwork–snow shoeing through 10 feet of powder–these sensors can remotely send out data in real time. They sample every 15 minutes, and relay collected data through the network until it reaches the base station, which sends the final signal to researchers (3). Unlike standard sensors, if these were to burn in the blaze, previously collected data would be saved. Fortunately this hypothetical situation did not occur; firefighters removed 20 sensors before the flames could reached them. Unfortunately, this will set researchers back a bit: one site, which includes 10 sensors and 22 repeaters–the electronic device that patches the signal through to the base station–takes at least two days to deploy.
Currently, California’s water supply is predicted from direct measurements of snow pack depth and water content (4). Farmers use the runoff estimate to determine how many crops to plant. Because the estimates are not accurate, farmers have to be conservative and lose potential revenue, rather than risk a water shortage (2).
The need for more accurate estimates is what lead to the wireless network. It not only considers snow pack depth, but also measures soil moisture, solar radiation, matric potential, and the transition from snow fall to rain (3). The collected data could tell industrial and municipal water managers how much usable water they have rather than the total amount of water released from the Sierras.
As of today, the fire is 70 percent contained (1). Hopefully it will be extinguished soon–no longer threatening the environment or the sensors that monitor it.