Watershed Moments - Newsletter Article


Kristen Underwood Presents PhD Dissertation

Kristen Underwood, a GRA with the RACC project, delivered her PhD dissertation on Friday, August 24, 2018. The title of the dissertation was "Smart Classification and Bayesian Inference for Evaluating River Sensitivity to Natural and Human Disturbances: A Data Science Approach."

VT EPSCoR members Donna Rizzo and Mandar Dewoolkar served as co-advisors during Underwood's PhD studies. The abstract for her defense can be found below.

Smart Classification and Bayesian Inference for Evaluating River Sensitivity to Natural and Human Disturbances: A Data Science Approach

Excessive rates of channel adjustment and riverine sediment export represent societal challenges; impacts include: degraded water quality and ecological integrity, erosion hazards to infrastructure, and compromised public safety. The nonlinear nature of sediment erosion and deposition within a watershed and the variable patterns in riverine sediment export over a defined timeframe of interest are governed by many interrelated factors, including geology, climate and hydrology, vegetation, and land use. Human disturbances to the landscape and river networks have further altered these patterns of water and sediment routing.

An enhanced understanding of river sediment sources and dynamics is important for stakeholders, and will become more critical under a nonstationary climate, as sediment yields are expected to increase in regions of the world that will experience increased frequency, persistence, and intensity of storm events. Practical tools are needed to predict sediment erosion, transport and deposition and to characterize sediment sources within a reasonable measure of uncertainty. Water resource scientists and engineers use multidimensional data sets of varying types and quality to answer management-related questions, and the temporal and spatial resolution of these data are growing exponentially with the advent of automated samplers and in situ sensors (i.e., “big data”). Data-driven statistics and classifiers have great utility for representing system complexity and can often be more readily implemented in an adaptive management context than process-based models. Parametric statistics are often of limited efficacy when applied to data of varying quality, mixed types (continuous, ordinal, nominal), censored or sparse data, or when model residuals do not conform to Gaussian distributions. Data-driven machine-learning algorithms and Bayesian statistics have advantages over Frequentist approaches for data reduction and visualization; they allow for non-normal distribution of residuals and greater robustness to outliers.

This research applied machine-learning classifiers and Bayesian statistical techniques to multidimensional data sets to characterize sediment source and flux at basin, catchment, and reach scales. These data-driven tools enabled better understanding of: (1) basin-scale spatial variability in concentration-discharge patterns of instream suspended sediment and nutrients; (2) catchment-scale sourcing of suspended sediments; and (3) reach-scale sediment process domains. The developed tools have broad management application and provide insights into landscape drivers of channel dynamics and riverine solute and sediment export.