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April 22, 2015

Warren Wood: Loving Water but Working in the Desert

April 22, 2015

Warren Wood is a visiting professor of hydrogeology in the Department of Geological Sciences. For the past 30 years his research interests have been largely in the hydrogeology of arid areas.

Becoming a hydrogeologist in the early 1960s seemed like a good fit. I loved all things water: sailing, canoeing, swimming, etc.

Then while I was job hunting after graduating from MSU, I realized that my skills weren’t needed in water-rich environments. Instead, I found my calling in the exact opposite landscape: deserts and arid areas. I have worked in Australia, Botswana, China, Israel, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and the western United States.

Early in my career I studied water supply and groundwater contamination problems in arid areas. I soon realized that all the hydrogeology methods and techniques had been developed in areas with much more water and didn’t apply to what I was doing. In watery Michigan, for example, plants use more than half the water that falls on the ground. In arid areas, there are few plants, so the water runs off or evaporates. This and other differences, including a general lack of sustainability and extremely long aquifer residence times, present unique challenges.

To make the transition to arid hydrogeology, I had to develop a number of new techniques to solve practical engineering problems. This included developing ways to sample water in the deep unsaturated zone and ways to measure how much water was moving into the aquifers in areas where it rains maybe once every other year, as well as designing pumps to sample water from very deep, small-diameter wells.

My research gradually expanded beyond water supply issues. I began to look more deeply at how water affected the geology of arid areas. When I was working in West Texas in the 1970s, I proposed that the 20,000 basins that form playa lakes (lakes that fill with water only when it rains) on the southern High Plains were developed as a result of groundwater dissolving minerals, rather than by the wind, as most previous workers had assumed.

Working in Abu Dhabi, I was able to show how dissolved minerals in the shallow groundwater systems would build up over time. The effect is similar to salinization, which is a worldwide problem in agriculture, so this work provides an alternative model for evaluating the salinization issue.

I also solved the mystery of how large, nearly pure salt deposits formed in Detroit and other places. Scientists had been puzzled for more than 100 years because there were no other minerals in the deposits besides salt. If these deposits had been formed by evaporating ocean water as most people suspected, then certainly other minerals besides salt should be there. By using some of the techniques I had developed for arid areas, I was able to show how and why only salt was deposited.

When students ask me how I plotted my career path, I have to confess that it was luck — not some great insight — that this area would offer me so many opportunities. I happened to be in the right places at the right times as the world was realizing the importance and finiteness of water.