Modeling Earth's chemistry: Making the invisible visible | 1/2/2019 | Staff
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An incredibly complex system lives beneath our feet, transporting metals to Earth's crust and undergoing a myriad of chemical reactions that influence our daily lives. These environmental interactions affect everything from our ability to use soil to produce food and the cleanliness of our drinking water to how we might mitigate our changing climate. Humans have a huge impact on Earth's subsurface—through mining, fossil fuel extraction, irrigation and energy waste storage—and we have to deal with the environmental problems that ensue. And yet, we can't see it.

To virtually peer into the ground, many researchers use complex modeling approaches that account for factors like the interactions among microorganisms and how plants absorb and return water and nutrients. These biogeochemical approaches—essential tools for the Earth sciences and other fields—are the bread and butter of research by Kate Maher, an associate professor of Earth system science at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

Q - A - Maher - Scientists - Processes

In this Q&A, Maher explains how modern scientists make the invisible visible as they investigate the processes that transport contaminants and shape Earth's surface. To do this, they use modeling and visualizations that incorporate the latest mathematical techniques, sensing technology and massive amounts of data. Maher co-edited the current special issue of Elements Magazine, titled "Reactive Transport Modeling," that provides a more in-depth look at this field.

What is reactive transport modeling?

Water - Part - Life - Groundwater - Water

Most of the water we drink spends a considerable part of its life as groundwater. As water flows through the ground, it interacts with complex mineral surfaces, organic matter and microorganisms that can ultimately influence how nutrients and contaminants are transported through environmental systems. Groundwater systems extend from meters to kilometers below the surface, and thus models are the only tool we have to study the invisible life of water.

Reactive transport models (RTMs) are advanced algorithms that...
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