Nick Fetty | March 18, 2016
This is part of a series of articles featuring investigators and researchers with the IML-CZO project which “works to understand how land-use changes affect the long-term resilience of the critical zone.”
Farming in the Midwest provides food and energy for the rest of the United States and even other parts of the world but some of the agricultural practices used come at an environmental price.
Nutrients – specifically nitrate from fertilizer – is critical to maintaining productivity of farms. Still, a fraction of this nitrate fertilizer is transported into streams, lakes, wetlands, and ultimately through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. High nitrogen levels can be health risks for drinking water, causing concern for drinking water suppliers. Furthermore, these nutrient loads can also affect ecosystems, leading to hypoxic “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and many other locations around the wrold. Studying the transport of nutrients is one of the research foci of Dr. Adam Ward, an investigator for the IML-CZO and an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Dr. Ward is also a CGRER member.
“My work centers around how water and dissolved solutes, such as nitrate, move through landscapes. Our work directly addresses the relative roles of transport and transformation in agricultural landscapes,” said Dr. Ward. “We are learning how human activities alter the fate of water, nutrient loads, and emerging contaminants as they move through the hydrological cycle.”
This emphasis on studying how humans are altering the natural landscape is part of the broader focus of the IML-CZO project. Dr. Ward said the IML-CZO has given him the opportunity to expand upon his previous research and also to work with colleagues who have different but inter-related research foci.
“The IML-CZO is providing the opportunity to study the system in all of its complexity. In many past studies, I have focused on a few processes or contaminants. In the IML-CZO, I have the opportunity to link with experts in soil science, sediment transport and morphodynamics, crop science, social science, and many more. Though these collaborations we are discovering previously unknown couplings in the landscape.”
Dr. Ward’s research has focused largely on the Midwest where he has spent much of his life. The Grand Rapids, MI native holds degrees from Michigan Technological University (B.S., ‘05; M.S. ‘06) and Penn State University (Ph.D. ‘11). Dr. Ward joined the University of Iowa faculty in 2011 as part of the Water Sustainability Initiative (WSI). The WSI is an “interdisciplinary team of researchers and educators” from not only science and engineering fields but also journalism, public health, and others. More recently, Ward moved to Indiana University in 2014, where he is now an Assistant Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
In 2013, Dr. Ward was one of two faculty members honored as a Distinguished Mentor by the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates. Dr. Ward said “Engaging undergraduates in research is a rewarding experience. Helping students ask and answer a question, and discover something previously unknown, is one of my favorite parts of this career.”
Similar to the WSI, the IML-CZO has an interdisciplinary focus and aims to address issues that affect the public. Dr. Ward said that he hopes his research will help farmers, watershed managers, policy-makers, and the general public.
“My work links our actions on the landscape, such as farming practices, with water quality and quantity outcomes. Through this work, we will be able to forecast how different management activities and future climates will interact to potentially limit the availability of water for human use. By predicting possible impairments to both water quality and quantity, and simulating possible combinations of management responses, we can help shape state-wide and region-wide plans to manage nutrients in the landscape.”