Purdue project aims to put isotope analysis on the map, and the web

December 2, 2008

Mapping and spatial analysis of isotopes in water, particularly hydrogen and oxygen isotopes, could be used to trace the ultimate source of a city’s water supply, the wintering sites of migrating birds, the trading patterns of prehistoric peoples, perhaps even the travels of an unidentified corpse to a crime scene.

Researchers at Purdue, its Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Library and Statistics departments and the University’s Rosen Center for Advanced Computing are aiming to make it easer for ecologists, environmental scientists, hydrologists and many others, including policy-makers, to use the isotope data for a variety of purposes.

They’re working on a cyberinfrastructure for tapping an extensive, distributed data collection on line, and related Web-based tools allowing real science to be done with it, under a three-year, $831,573 grant from the National Science Foundation, its Division of Biological Infrastructure and the National Ecological Observatory Network.

The system focused on modeling stable isotope data with respect to space and time also will take advantage of the computational and storage resources available through the TeraGrid, the world's largest open science computing network, which is funded by the NSF as well. Purdue through the Rosen Center is a TeraGrid partner and resource provider.

“You need to make it easy for people to use (the isotope data) and incorporate it in their own research,” said Purdue earth and atmospheric sciences Professor Gabriel Bowen, who employs such data in his own research on large-scale, regional to global environmental change. He is a member of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center and co-directs the Purdue Stable Isotope Facility.

The project will include online tutorials to facilitate data access and use by scientists and non-scientists alike.

Water being the stuff of life, and hydrogen and oxygen the stuff of water, that makes hydrogen and oxygen isotopes a handy, useful and near ubiquitous avenue for the research Bowen conducts, which includes potential forensic uses as well as environmental science, and a wide range of other science and policy applications.

The mix of isotopes—atoms with variances in their number of neutrons—varies according to where those atoms have been, allowing someone like Bowen, for example, to trace the water coming from a tap in a town to snow melt from a mountain peak by reading, in effect, its isotope fingerprint. Likewise, water isotope tracers can be used in similar fashion to determine the geospatial origins of biological and geological materials.

In a sense, INPort, it stands for Isotopes Network Portal, will link a large range of scientists and non-scientists transparently to a vast fingerprint file of isotope data with integrated querying and geospatial modeling operations akin to a Geographic Information System, or GIS. Among other things, it will be able to produce maps showing the distribution of isotopes geographically and over time.

Besides Bowen and Lan Zhao, a Rosen Center research scientist, principal investigators on the project include statistics Professor Tonglin Zhang, library science Professor Christopher Miller, a GIS specialist, and Jason West, an ecosystem science and management professor at Texas A&M University, with whom Bowen worked when the two were postdocs.

Bowen and colleagues, in addition to drawing on 40 years of rainwater and snowfall measurements collected at several hundred sites worldwide by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Meteorological Organization, already have put together a large database of regional isotope observations and spatial statistical analysis tools people are using for teaching, research and regulatory purposes.

When he began looking at expanding on the effort and making the data more accessible and easier to use, someone recommended Zhao and the Rosen Center’s scientific solutions group led by Carol Song, which has done similar science “gateway” projects, for instance a Web-based climate modeling system for TeraGrid users. Their approved proposal started in August 2008. Bowen said the plan is for an initial deployment of INPort within the next year.

Zhao said the intent also is to leverage her group's work in serving earth science data to researchers by creating software components that can be used with existing systems and for future projects with similar requirements in biosciences, geosciences and other fields.

The Rosen Center is the research and discovery computing arm of Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), the University’s central information technology organization.

Writer: Greg Kline, (765) 494-8167, gkline@purdue.edu

Sources: Gabriel Bowen, (765) 496-9344, gabe@purdue.edu Lan Zhao, (765) 496-2079, lanzhao@purdue.edu

Originally posted: December 2, 2008