Rainstorms: Ideal for STEM activities

Steve is education coordinator, Hudson River Estuary Program/NYS Water Resources Institute, Cornell University, NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation.

This week’s rainstorms, particularly the one that moved through on Thursday, should show how events in the watershed affect the estuary.  These effects are likely to extend over several days, providing fodder for classroom activities in STEM-related classes.

Precipitation was predicted to be heaviest in the Mohawk watershed and the Upper Hudson where classes might explore whether the Hudson estuary experienced higher water levels – flooding – due to the storm. Visit the Hudson River Environmental Conditions Observing System (HRECOS) website to find out.







The images above show the Mohawk River at Cohoes Falls, at low flow and in flood after heavy rains. Note the
sediment carried by the river in flood. The falls are  about a mile above the Mohawk’s junction with the Hudson.

Click on Current Conditions. Drop down menu choices there allow you to select the station(s) and parameters of interest. For water level,  choose the (hydro) option for stations that offer separate hydrological and meteorological (met) options; in the parameter menu select Depth or Elevation.

Lots of questions could be asked to frame analysis of these data. The Mohawk River Lock 8 station and Port of Albany hydro station should show any impacts from the rain fairly quickly. Changes in water elevation might be expected due to flooding there.

Would you expect runoff to affect water temperature? Turbidity? Dissolved oxygen levels? Are there likely to be impacts further downriver? Would they be immediate? It can be interesting to compare water elevation at Albany with water elevation further downriver, say at the Marist Pump Station (bottom) in Poughkeepsie. Will runoff impact salinity in Manhattan?

It might be useful to change the Start Date so that you see not the default of four days but a week or two of data, getting a sense of what might be “normal” conditions versus those that occur in conjunction with the storm. That said, keep in mind that what passes for normal in the Hudson can be pretty dynamic and changeable.

Water elevation plotted with daily rainfall totals (daily accumulation) for the last 10 days or so. There’s a pretty good correlation there. Warmer temperatures also are involved, melting winter snow and ice to add to the runoff.

U.S. Geological Survey stream gages in the Hudson Basin track discharge and water levels on many streams – perhaps some near your community. Note that data graphs for many of these streams use a log scale on the Y axis. Some students may have difficulty pulling the actual numbers from such a scale, but any overall patterns of rising and falling water levels should be apparent.

Finally, check out Lesson Plans on the HRECOS site for PowerPoints with more details on using remotely sensed data in your classroom. These include a recently posted offering titled Solving Graph Data Puzzles. This 49-slide PowerPoint offers a collection of graphs that explore the dynamics of water levels, dissolved oxygen, salinity, and turbidity. These case studies expand on the material covered in the Using HRECOS in the Classroom tutorial. Notes for each slide provide background content and instructions for teachers.

I hope you have a few minutes to explore these data on your own and with your students. Feel free to contact me with questions or thoughts about the possibilities or – should you use remotely sensed data in your teaching – your experiences with your students.