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Want to Help Study Hurricanes? Stick a Jar Out Your Window

Stable isotopes in the water could help answer questions about how water is being moved around inside this giant storm system.
October 30, 2012, 12:00am

Image: NASA GOES Project

First and foremost, I hope everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy is okay. Presumably, you’re reading this post because you’re alright, so with that caveat I’d like to highlight one of the less obvious ways you can help during the storm: collecting isotopes.

There are these nifty little atoms known as isotopes, and as you may remember from chemistry class, an isotope is an element with a different number of neutrons than commonly associated with said element. There are two basic flavors of isotope: radioactive and stable. You’re probably familiar with some of the heavier radioactive elements like Uranium, but many of the lighter elements like hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. have stable isotopes which exist naturally in nature (carbon is weird because it has one stable isotope and one radioactive isotope) but for the moment I’m only focusing on the stable ones, and you’ll see why in a second.



Because the number of protons is the same, the element itself is the same but the different number of neutrons changes the weight of the atom. This weight change, as subtle as it may seem, affects how these elements move through physical, geologic, and biochemical systems. Scientists can therefore use the ratios of light to heavy isotopes in a system as proxies for all sorts of things including (but not limited to) diet, source water, geologic provenance, and more. Stable isotope geochemists have done some pretty astounding things, like creating isoscapes (or maps of known isotopic ratios) for precipitation around the entire US. And this is where you come in.

Professor Gabe Bowen saw an opportunity in Hurricane Sandy. While he has no desire to put anyone in danger, he did realize that this “frankenstorm” presented an interesting phenomena worth studying, and that stable isotopes in the water (remember both hydrogen and oxygen have stable isotopes) could help him answer questions about how water is being moved around inside this giant storm system. But to start answering those questions he’d need data, and what better way to get that data than to crowdsource it?

Now I realize that for some the storm is, thankfully, already over. However, if you’re still receiving Sandy-induced precipitation I highly encourage you to consider collecting samples of that precipitation to send to Bowen at the University of Utah. This is a really cool opportunity to directly to contribute to science, and it’s as easy as setting a mason jar outside. I’m going to copy the very basic instructions but please got and read Bowen’s blog post about the specifics of sample collections, as well as his updates on how the endeavor is going and the all-important “Why do we care?” FAQ. Anyway, here’s how Bowen wants you to collect:

  • Be safe

  • Start collecting precipitation as soon as possible

  • Try to collect a separate ‘integrated’ sample over each 12-hour period from 8am to 8pm

  • Each time you sample, fill a sample container w/ water from your collector, seal it securely, label it w/ an ID and record the info requested in the spreadsheet

  • See the letter for suggestions for sample collection devices and sample containers

  • Keep on sampling and hang onto your samples until we get in touch later in the coming week

A map from Bowen showing sampling locations.

I’ll plan on getting in touch with Bowen over the coming months to see how the data collection is coming along and follow up here for those interested. Seriously though, stay safe. As cool as this project is, it’s absolutely not worth taking any unnecessary risks. And if you do decide to collect samples (or convince your mom to like I did) let us know in the comments!