As water scarcity becomes an ever larger problem, Felipe de Barros, assistant professor at the University of Southern California, is working to find new methods of predicting pollution in groundwater. He aims in providing reliable predictions of how chemical pollutants in subsurface water has staggering implications for human health and sustainability. His research aims to create a model of subsurface flow and determine how chemicals move in subterranean conditions.
Modeling subsurface flow is no easy task. Unlike surface water like lakes and rivers, subsurface flow follows no set path. Soil, with which the water completely mixes, acts as both a filter and barrier changing both the composition of the water and its direction. Combine this effect with the inability to view the water underground and the problem quickly becomes complex. “We cannot see what is happening below the ground,” de Barros said. “Collecting information about the subsurface is extremely expensive, and predictions always include uncertainty bounds.”
However, if de Barros is able to overcome these challenges, we will be able to understand how chemicals interact with the hydrologic cycle and thus better able to react to them. “Studying how subsurface water flows gives us an idea of how long a contaminant will take to reach an environmentally sensitive target,” de Barros said. “If we could understand and characterize the behavior of subsurface water flows, this knowledge could help us keep our environment sustainable and predict contaminant pathways.
The consequences are not limited to civil and environmental engineering. In extreme events involving potentially dangerous chemicals, a sustainability problem integrates with public health, geology, hydrology, hydrodynamics and more. De Barros himself, who learned from watching his father conduct research, has collaborated with scientists from many disciplines across Brazil, Spain, Germany, and Italy.