The Bench-Scale Atmospheric Simulator is a climate in a box created by PhD student Jared Suchan. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

In Saskatchewan, with its semi-arid climate, developing a better understanding of how water evaporates from lakes and soils could have huge implications for municipal infrastructure, water management, and farming.

“For the most part, people treat evaporation like a black box,” says Jared Suchan, a doctoral candidate in environmental systems engineering at the University of Regina. “They make vague assumptions about how water is lost through evaporation. It’s definitely not something that we as academics in the field have nailed down.”

A device developed by Suchan as part of his PhD promises to help move the science a significant step forward by bringing the weather into the lab. The Bench-Scale Atmospheric Simulator (BAS for short) is essentially a climate in a box. It not only simulates the four factors that drive evaporation – wind, temperature, humidity, and sunshine ­– but can also manipulate each factor individually while holding the others constant.

The BAS complements empirical and theoretical research by offering a way to run tests in a controlled environment. While simulation chambers have been around for a few decades, Suchan’s version appears to be the first used to study evaporation from bodies of water and the first that allows individual factors to be adjusted independently.

Jared Suchen stands next to a contraption he has built that can create a climate.
Jared Suchan, a doctoral candidate in environmental systems engineering, has developed a climate in a box which he calls the Bench-Scale Atmospheric Simulator. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Suchan is currently validating the performance of the device by comparing its predictions for evaporation from Lake Diefenbaker to those generated with widely used mathematical formulas – some of which were originally developed back in the early 1900s. Preliminary results look promising.

Once he’s confirmed the unit’s ability to accurately predict the impact of climate factors on evaporation from local bodies of water, Suchan will shift his attention to studying the more complex questions of evaporation from water containing high concentrations of salt (brine) and evaporation from different types of soils. The research is supported by an NSERC Discovery Grant.

“This may not be the silver bullet in terms of answering all their questions, but it could be one of the little pieces that helps inform things,” says Suchan.

Shahid Azam, Suchan’s PhD supervisor, says that in Southern Saskatchewan the top three applications for this technology will be to find better ways to deal with the effects of Regina’s gumbo clay on city infrastructure, the potential to manage water bodies, and the ability to predict soil moisture in agriculture. He estimates that the City of Regina spends between $1 million and $2 million annually to repair its 850 kilometres of aging, asbestos-cement water mains. “The breakage rate is increasing because of the shrink-swell movement of the soil,” says Azam, an environmental systems engineering professor in the U of R’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. “I think each break costs the city about $50,000 to fix.”

The ability to run various climate simulations in the unit could also help farmers determine what crops to plant.

“This may not be the silver bullet in terms of answering all their questions, but it could be one of the little pieces that helps inform things,” says Suchan. “And will be great if we can tell them that with more salt in your soil, or with a warmer climate, or with a drier climate, these are the effects we anticipate occurring with water coming and going from the soil.”

The BAS labelled by Jared Suchan.
The BAS labelled by Jared Suchan.
About the Author

Greg Basky is a Saskatoon journalist specializing in science and health care. He writes regularly for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Canadian Light Source, and the Saskatchewan Medical Association.