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Gleason Already Changing the Course of River Research Pertaining to Global Water Budget

Colin Gleason

Colin Gleason

Dr. Colin Gleason, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is already making a significant impact on his research discipline. The young but very accomplished faculty member, whose research group focuses on the study of rivers, currently serves as a member of the prestigious NASA Surface Water and Ocean Topography Science Team (SWOT), has completed many adventurous field projects in wilderness locations ranging from Greenland to the Mojave Desert, and discovered a revolutionary set of geomorphic relationships known as “at-many-stations hydraulic geometry” (AMHG).

Gleason, who earned his Ph.D. at UCLA in Geography, has also published more than 16 peer-reviewed journal articles on diverse hydrologic subjects ranging from the geopolitics of international river basins to automated techniques for analyzing fluvial time-lapse imagery in Greenland. 

His research group concentrates on the role that rivers play in the global water budget, particularly as climate change alters our hydrologic cycle and we venture into an uncertain hydrologic future. This interest manifests primarily in studies related to Arctic hydrology and ungauged river basins. His research employs a diverse range of methodologies, including intensive field work, algorithm development, remote sensing, and hydrologic and hydraulic modelling.

About his NASA team, Gleason jokes that “SWOT is not Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (Thanks, Management 101!).”

By contrast, what SWOT actually is encompasses a $1-billion mission shared between NASA the French government space agency, the Centre National D'études Spatiales, and the space agencies of Canada and the United Kingdom. The mission promises to use revolutionary instrumentation that simultaneously measures water surface height and extent, which translates to river width and river surface elevation. From these novel measurements from space, the SWOT team expects to measure river discharge in ungauged basins around the world, monitor volume changes in global reservoirs, and improve our understanding of sub-mesoscale ocean processes.

In his capacity as a SWOT Science Team member, Gleason is currently participating in the development and comprehensive validation of SWOT river discharge algorithms from AirSWOT, simulator, and field measurements. This four year project will see Gleason develop new discharge algorithms designed for use with SWOT and SWOT-like data. This project will also make use of the field data collected in the SWOT project described below.

Another four-year grant funds Gleason and others in a U.S.-Canada collaboration to build SWOT calibration/validation and science capacity for northern hydrology. This project supports Gleason and his collaborators as they travel to Arctic and Subarctic Canada each year to prepare for calibration and validation of the SWOT satellite upon launch in 2021.

Among many other adventurous field projects, Gleason went to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015 to perform various research tasks with many lasting impacts. For example, in 2012, Gleason was the medical lead for a five-day ice camp as part of a team of four researchers who made supraglacial stream measurements atop the ice from a base camp and from extensive helicopter travel. Additionally, he was part of the team that established a tundra camp for several weeks and make proglacial hydrologic measurements.

In 2013, Gleason led a team of three researchers on a 15-day hydrologic measurement campaign in Greenland. There, he was responsible for the safe travel of his team and for all measurement protocol and research designs in back country without vehicular support.

Then, in the winter of 2015, Gleason was part of a two-person Greenland mission in -40C and colder temperatures to drill through ice in proglacial rivers in search of winter discharge.

In addition, Gleason has undertaken similar kinds of research projects in disparate places ranging from the Western Mojave Desert to the Eastern Sierra Range in California and Nevada.

All of these research activities led Gleason to invent AMHG, his recently discovered set of geomorphic relationships showing that the empirical parameters of at-a-station hydraulic geometry (AHG) are functionally related along a river. This conclusion seemingly refutes previous decades of research defining AHG as spatially independent and site specific. Furthermore, AMHG was the centerpiece of an unprecedented recent methodology that successfully estimated river discharge solely from satellite imagery.

In a 2015 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, Gleason provided the mathematical basis for AMHG, showing that it arises when independent AHG curves within a reach intersect near the same values of discharge and width, depth, or velocity. The strength of observed AMHG is determined by the degree of this convergence.

As if all this intensive field research were not enough to keep Gleason busy, he is the Co-PI with CEE Professor John Tobiason while assessing ungauged inputs to the Wachusett and Quabbin reservoirs. This project, running from 2016 through 2018, builds upon previous UMass hydrologic modelling of the reservoirs for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Considering all Gleason has accomplished in his short career, it’s not surprising that the daring research he’s participated in has resulted in some informative and very important media coverage. Gleason has contributed to research projects that have attracted articles in The New York Times twice: Greenland Is Melting Away - The New York Times; Probing a Glacier as It Thaws - NYTimes.com. His research has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times (Ice researchers capture catastrophic Greenland melt - LA Times) and Southern California Public Radio, among other outlets. (January 2017)