SMART Watersheds

A little while back, I attended a lecture on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in public parks. A team of people had employed cameras in a Detroit park to determine which parts people used the most in order to improve use of the outdoor space. The extent of AI at the park included a bench with a scale in it that could report when people sat down and how long they stayed. Although it might sound creepy, this kind of monitoring means that people don’t have to rush through lengthy surveys or be bribed for their participation. With AI, park management can tell which areas need more work and which ones people picnic at the most at the click of a button. Another thing scientists are starting to monitor using AI is entire watersheds. Automating the sampling process could save hydrologists time, and a lot of cold hands and feet!

equipment pavement security security camera
Photo by Scott Webb on

SMART watersheds put in place by the Lancaster Environment Centre in the UK and their collaborators are systems of water quality monitoring tools set up across entire watersheds that record data at high-frequency (1-5 minute intervals). Information from the instruments can be used in models that explain how each watershed works. SMART watersheds can also help understand patterns in water quality, flow, and ecosystem dynamics.

photography of river
Photo by Lucas França on

A variety of data is collected from each hydrologic system. Measurements taken include dissolved organic carbon (DOC), dissolved organic matter, blue-green algae, and pH, among others. In this post I share why DOC is important.

DOC originates from decayed plant or animal material and is a factor of the carbon cycle, but it is also at the base of any aquatic food pyramid as a form of energy for microorganisms. DOC can account for up to 10% of total carbon flux in wetland ecosystems and has an impact on stream metabolism, which is code for net ecosystem production, or the amount of organic carbon which can be stored, exported, or oxidated into carbon dioxide by fire. Here’s a schematic I made to explain the process.


“DOC alters aquatic ecosystem chemistries by contributing to acidification in low-alkalinity, weakly buffered, freshwater systems. Furthermore, DOC forms complexes with trace metals, creating water-soluble complexes which can be transported and taken up by organisms. Finally, organic carbon, as well as other dissolved and particulate matter, can affect light penetration in aquatic ecosystems, which is important for the ecosystem’s phototrophs that need light to subsist.” – Microbial Life Educational Resources

For more fun posts about DOC or my time working in a wet lab measuring it, click on any of the links in this post or read my previous tales: SU-mmer Studies, Hubbard Brook, and How Clean Can UV? Thanks for reading and have a great Monday!

One response to “SMART Watersheds”

  1. Ah, the future fast approaches. I wonder if there will even be a need for field work in the distant future, once more and more watersheds become SMART. I hope so, since getting one’s hands dirty in nature is one of the basic pleasures of life.

    Of course, my musings are pointless, because we’ll all be slaves to the very AI’s we’re creating. The Matrix said so.

    Liked by 1 person

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