Geography Researcher Wins Prize for Work on Water Resources

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Zhiying Li investigates influences on water availability in U.S. streams and rivers.

Zhiying Li
Postdoctoral research associate Zhiying Li studies the factors that impact water variability in watersheds. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

Zhiying Li, a post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Geography, was one of five researchers to win the first annual Women in Science Incentive Prize from Story Exchange, a nonprofit media organization. The $5,000 prize, announced last month, is awarded to scientists working on innovative, science-based solutions to climate impact on water resources.

Li’s expertise is hydroclimatology, an area of research that seeks to understand how climate influences waters on land. Her interest in the natural world, born from an abiding love for the outdoors, dates to her childhood.

“I come from South China, from a place famed for its scenic beauty. Even as a kid, I always wanted to protect that natural beauty,” says Li, who majored in soil and water conservation in college.

Li later moved to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies at The Ohio State University. For her PhD, she investigated the major factors that have driven changes in streamflow—the flow of water in streams and rivers—in the U.S. during the past 60 years and used those historical insights to predict how water volume will change in the country’s watersheds.

Understanding the drivers that influence water variability is crucial to how we manage our water resources and prepare for the future, Li explains. “My research shows that for large parts of the country, especially the southeast, there will be a great decrease of the streamflow in the years between 2040 and 2069.”

Her data, combined with others like projected population increase and efficiency of water use, can foretell whether future water demands can be met, she adds.

For her postdoctoral research at Dartmouth’s Climate Modeling and Impacts Group, Li aims to look at how vegetation and droughts simultaneously shape each other. She will assess the role of vegetation during different stages of drought to understand whether, and when, vegetation alleviates or accelerates drying.

The award, which has given her an opportunity to share her research widely, is a much-needed spotlight on the contributions of women to climate science, says Li. “Going forward, I would like to work more towards connecting my research to policy, especially in drought-prone regions.”

Harini Barath