Cayelan Carey and Quinn Thomas are working with researchers down under to stand up the first global freshwater forecasting center.

Awarded a $250,000 National Science Foundation Track Two Global Center Design grant, the Virginia Tech researchers have teamed up with researchers at three Australian universities to lay the foundation for a water quality forecasting center that can be scaled for all bodies of water. 

“Our goal in developing a center is to harness the expertise from research institutes and centers in Australia and our team here at Virginia Tech to develop a water forecasting system that essentially would allow managers to know one to 35 days ahead what the water conditions might be in their lake,” said Carey, professor and the Roger Moore and Mojdeh Khatam-Moore Faculty Fellow in the College of Science. “This then allows them to make decisions today to improve the water quality of tomorrow.”

Cayelan Carey in Australia, where she spent time researching water quality forecasting and cultivating relationships with researchers there. Photo courtesy of Cayelan Carey.

Working with four lakes facing extreme climate change threats to water quality in the United States and Australia, the researchers aim to develop a common forecasting system that can be scaled for forecasting a wide range of water systems across the two countries. 

“Our Australian partners have a lot of experience with water quality modeling and working with large water utilities and governmental officials,” said Thomas, associate professor and Data Science Faculty Fellow in the College of Science and College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Our strengths here are in using those models for generating, interpreting, deploying forecasts, as well as education and training in forecasting. It is these strengths that we are combining to develop this international powerhouse of expertise.”

The system will include a cyber infrastructure to upload data from water sensors, various forecasting models for water quality variables and methane emissions, multiple data streams for real-time information, and translational tools to interpret the forecasts. Additionally, the researchers will craft educational programs for current and future water managers and researchers.


Quinn Thomas during testing of the Australian waters where he spent time researching water quality forecasting. Photo courtesy of Quinn Thomas.

The Track Two Global Center Design grant is a new program created to fund international, interdisciplinary collaborations that will broaden community engagement through use-inspired climate change and clean energy research. 

“It is expected that this effort will enhance societal benefits and expand international partnerships while building a diverse scientific stakeholder community able to potentially carry out the work beyond the center funding period,” according to the National Science Foundation.

The need to improve water quality

A major goal of the forecasters is to protect water quality by disrupting the destructive cycle warmer air temperatures have on lakes and reservoirs. Warmer air temperatures leads to warmer water temperatures and a decline in oxygen in the water, which triggers unsafe concentrations of nutrients and contaminants that threaten drinking water safety. Collectively, lower oxygen in the water also promotes greater methane production and emissions back into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. 

Just like weather forecasters rely on observations of the atmosphere, water quality forecasters are continuously monitoring the physical, chemical, and biological conditions in lakes and reservoirs that control water quality, said Carey. 

For example, a large storm may increase the amount of water flowing into to a lake and add sediment, which could bring in nitrogen and phosphorus that could trigger a toxic algal bloom. Knowing how such conditions could affect the water quality ahead of time would allow water managers to preemptively manage drinking water treatment processes, rather than have to wait to treat the water after it becomes toxic. This would save both time and money.

Australian partners

Thomas and Carey have established connections with research institutions in Perth, Brisbane, and Adelaide. 

“Australia is such a perfect partner for this international project,” said Carey, a Global Change Center-affiliated faculty in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Some of the water challenges that are being experienced throughout the world are really exacerbated in Australia because of climate change.”

Both countries have unique water quality modeling expertise that would complement each other. 

For example, many Australian academic water centers have strong partnerships with local water utilities, which could provide a model for developing forecasts and decision-making tools with water managers in the U.S. Similarly, the U.S. team has a strong foundation in creating cyber infrastructure and modeling methods for automated forecasts in both countries. 

These strengths combined will establish a strong foundation for an international center.

Strategic planning

As part of this grant, Carey and Thomas will be hosting multiple workshops with their Australian partners. 

The workshops include a range of community partners, including water researchers, ecological forecasters, industry experts, and state and federal managers. Training and education for water managers and undergraduate students is another component of this grant.

“Our work is directly in line with becoming a top 100 global university, which the university has identified as a priority,” said Thomas, who is also an affiliated faculty member with both the Global Change Center and the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.  

International grant partnerships


  • Aquatic EcoDynamics Group at the University of Western Australia, Perth
  • Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia
  • U.S. Ecological Forecasting Initiative Research Coordination Network, led by Thomas as the principal investigator
  • Water Research Centre at the University of Adelaide, Australia
  • Ecological Forecasting Project at Virginia Tech
  • U.S. Macrosystems EDDIE (Environmental Data-Driven Inquiry and Exploration) education program, led by Carey as the principal investigator


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