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Dr. Virginia Smith Leads Study Examining the Use of Fossils to Model Rivers through Climate Change

Villanova University’s Dr. Virginia Smith, an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, is leading a project with researchers from the University of Connecticut and Temple University on a $538,583 National Science Foundation grant to study the use of fossils to model rivers through climate change. Officially titled “An Interdisciplinary Approach to Constraining Paleogeomorporphic Responses to the Eocene-Oligocene Hothouse to Icehouse Transition,” the goal of the project is to reconstruct the coevolution of paleoriver and ecosystems dynamics with environmental change in western North America during the Eocene-Oligocene transition, perhaps the largest climate state change of the last 65 million years. Success could provide a paradigm shift in utilizing modern and ancient terrestrial geologic archives to quantify environmental perturbations that manifest in the hydraulics, morphodynamics and regional ecosystem responses.

Dr. Virginia Smith
Dr. Virginia Smith

Dr. Smith explains the role of rivers in this research: “Rivers are the arteries of the nation and are vital as sources of water and recreation, and avenues of commerce. They are also bellwethers for change in the landscape. However, a question of fundamental importance for national interest is how river systems respond to major environmental changes. Predicting how changes in environmental conditions affect river processes, such as flooding and erosion, is critical for water resource management.”

This project uses knowledge of the past as a key to better inform the present through examining ~35 million-year-old sediments from an ancient river network in western Nebraska and South Dakota to quantify how changes in precipitation, vegetation and temperature in the past caused changes in river discharge and flood magnitude. These data, integrated with hydraulic models, will improve the ability to predict how rivers flood, sediment is transported and catchments evolve. Results of this work will have far reaching implications for understanding, modeling and planning for changes to river systems in the future.