UVM researchers to analyze lake data

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(Host) University of Vermont researchers hope they can learn some new lessons about Lake Champlain from some old work.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, the scientists think high-speed computers can analyze previous data to solve the lake’s problems.

(Sneyd) Many rivers and streams feed the lake. Water drains into it from farms and from the forest. Add the runoff from homes and businesses and you have a watershed.

The watershed can interact in mysterious ways, causing pollution or affecting plant and fish life in the lake.

Over the years, many different studies have looked at problems from one part of the watershed — think farms and phosphorous.

Now, scientists like Josh Bongard want to pull out that earlier work, merge the disparate data and find out what it tells them.

(Bongard) “If we can do that, if we can model the watershed, then we can start to make predictions about outcomes in the watershed. For example, we can ask questions about policy: What would happen if we implemented this particular land-use policy? What would be the effect on the health of the lake next year, 10 years down the line and so forth.’’

(Sneyd) Bongard teaches computer science at the University of Vermont.

He and other university researchers recently won a $6.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

One of the things they’ll develop is a “complex systems computation’’ program.

Research director Judith van Houten says the program will involve computers that can actually think … artificial intelligence.

The program will take individual threads from different research projects and weave them into a more complete explanation of how the watershed works.

(van Houten) “What we’re really looking for are the rules of the watershed. We’re not doing just one more lake study or watershed study, collecting data. But we’re looking for the underlying rules of this very complex system. If we understand the rules then we’ll know much better where to invest, how to do interventions. Right now we don’t understand the rules.’’

(Sneyd) van Houten says that once the scientists create the computational tools, they believe they’ll be better able to analyze other complex systems.

(van Houten) “This is very generalizable. As the state has other projects, other issues that need looking at – for example climate change or transportation and urban sprawl and all kinds of other things that are complex, as opposed to complicated – this is what we want to build for the state is a resource in computation.’’

(Sneyd) She says that means that, in the future, policy makers could plug a proposed solution to a problem into the program and understand whether it might work and how.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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