UC Merced Connect: Professors’ expertise tapped for policy discussions at drought summit

Two UC Merced researchers are slated to take part in the UC Drought Science, Policy and Management Summit at the state Capitol on Friday.

School of Engineering professor Roger Bales, with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, and Joshua Viers, director of the campus’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, will take part in panel discussions during the daylong summit organized by UC Davis at the request of UC President Janet Napolitano.

The panel experts were chosen to showcase the best the UC has to offer when it comes to water and drought research. UC Merced, the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and CITRIS are making critical contributions to the larger effort throughout the state, from Bales’ hydrology research and advocacy for a unified statewide water information system, to Viers’ work in hydroinformatics.

Hydroinformatics is an emerging field of study that focuses on the intersection of science and policy as it relates to improving the underlying information about water – its collection, storage, synthesis and distribution.

“At present, we have primitive technologies and tools to account for surface and ground water supply, storage, distribution and end use. Further, we have antiquated and inflexible means of rationing this limited resource in times of crisis, such as now,” Viers said.

The primary audience at the summit will be legislative staff members, and Viers said he hopes they come away knowing more about the drought.

The summit at the state Capitol is free and open to the public, though registration is required. Go to

Researchers melt snow to see climate change impacts

In a megadrought such the one California is experiencing, people tend to look at how much rainfall has come along.

But it also matters when the snowmelt releases its cache, because the snowpack is the state’s natural reservoir.

“If you just change when the snow melts, it has huge consequences for the year,” said researcher Joseph Blankinship, a former UC Merced postdoctoral researcher who just published a paper in the journal Water Resources Research with UC Merced professor Stephen Hart, based on their Sierra snow research. “There are definite climate change implications.”

Hart, with the School of Natural Sciences and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, and Blankinship, along with students, worked for three years, hauling bags of black sand into the mountains to artificially melt snow earlier than usual, mimicking the way the snowpack has been releasing liquid earlier and earlier every year. The snowmelt now comes two to three weeks earlier than usual, but by the end of the century, it’s predicted to melt two months earlier than normal.

The work will produce a series of papers, the first of which is “Snowmelt Timing Alters Shallow but Not Deep Soil Moisture in the Sierra Nevada.”

Early snowmelt means surface soils drying earlier in the year, potentially slowing tree growth and the activity of soil organisms. Lower activity of the soil biota can also indirectly slow plant growth by reducing the supply of nitrogen in the soil.

“We definitely expected the result of earlier drying, but we were surprised to find out it was more at the surface and not in the deeper soils,” Blankinship said. “We were also surprised to learn that the effects lasted throughout the dry season.”

The researchers experimented with different techniques to simulate realistic shifts in the timing of snowmelt, finally settling on the black sand, which absorbs the sun’s warmth to passively melt the snow. One result of the experiment is that the technique proved more effective and realistic than others, and can potentially be used anywhere.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email