Dr. Leila Farhadi: Creating Better Models

Dr. Leila Farhadi leaning against wall

Like many of us, Dr. Leila Farhadi enjoys a challenge. In fact, through her current research, she’s trying to contribute to an understanding of one of the grand challenges of the hydrology field: constructing models that can accurately quantify and map components of the Earth’s water/hydrological cycle and predict the hydrological impacts of climate change.

Many researchers in the scientific community believe that climate change—the change in the Earth’s energy and carbon cycle—may intensify the Earth’s water cycle, the cycle in which water evaporates from the surface of the Earth, cools and condenses to form clouds, and then returns to the surface as precipitation. Understanding the Earth’s water cycle and predicting the impact of climate change on this cycle requires models that can accurately quantify and map its components. This is Dr. Farhadi’s challenge.

Her approach to this task is to combine optimization and numerical modeling techniques with information that satellites provide of the state of the Earth’s surface in order to estimate and map the water cycle components, including evapotranspiration (water that is evaporated from soil or vegetation) and recharge (water that is drained into the subsurface and feeds our aquifers).

Dr. Farhadi explains that due to the complexities and interrelation of Earth’s processes, physical modeling through numerical techniques alone has not been successful in realistically quantifying the water cycle. Using traditional big data techniques alone also has not proved successful, so she has looked for techniques to combine the results of numerical modeling with observational data from remote sensing to produce an optimal estimate of the Earth’s water cycle.

“The uniqueness of our approach is that in improving the models, I am considering the linkage between the water, energy, and carbon cycles through the evapotranspiration flux. This is usually ignored in other studies to avoid the complexity of these computational techniques,” she states.

Last year, Dr. Farhadi received a prestigious NASA New Investigator (CAREER) Award in Earth Science to further investigate this approach. These awards are given to encourage innovative research initiatives and to support outstanding scientific research of scientists and engineers at the early stage of their professional careers.

The results of Dr. Farhadi’s research could contribute to a wide range of important
water resources applications, such as monitoring surface water bodies, maintaining the sustainability of aquifers, and developing flood forecasting and drought hazard mitigation strategies. In the process, her research may also help others better understand how climate change might impact communities through changes in the water cycle.