Of Models and Math: Predicting the Future of a Watershed

by Jenny Seifert
Using a tool similar to a computer game, Melissa Motew is peering into the future.

Motew uses computer models to peer into the future. Photo" Jenny Seifert
Motew uses computer models to peer into the future. Photo” Jenny Seifert

Motew is a modeler. She uses computers and mathematics to simulate ecosystems and make sense of nature.
Her task is to shed light on what the Madison area’s environment could be like by the year 2070 and what this might mean for human well-being—how much food could we grow, how well could the land withstand floods and will we have clean lakes yet?
“We want to track what’s happening through time, so we can understand all of the changes,” says Motew.
A PhD student in the Environment and Resources program at UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute, Motew is also part of the Water Sustainability and Climate (WSC) project’s modeling team. They are simulating the future to understand possible challenges and opportunities for sustaining freshwater given the host of long-term changes affecting it, especially climate change.
The Yahara Watershed, the land area that drains into the Yahara River and lakes and includes Madison, is the project’s research specimen. The model Motew works with is like the watershed’s avatar.
Scientific models, in general, are conceptual representations of the natural world based on the scientific understanding of how nature works. Scientists create models by translating that understanding into a language of equations and computer code. After making its calculations, a model then outputs stories about what is happening or could happen in nature—details that are otherwise difficult to observe in real life.
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