Two tandem satellites snap a photo of the same Arctic site from different angles, creating a three-dimensional image. Thousands of miles from the site, William & Mary student researchers retrieve the image from a server to gather information pertaining to permafrost geomorphology.

Joanmarie Del Vecchio, assistant professor of geology, is a geomorphologist who specializes in surface processes of permafrost landscapes. Del Vecchio and students in her lab use remotely sensed data in addition to traditional field methods to study water flows within Arctic permafrost. 

“I study the physics underlying the landscape and how it responds to changes in climate,” said Del Vecchio. “That’s especially tricky in permafrost. Very few other landscapes on Earth are so tied to temperature in addition to gravity and water flow.”

Del Vecchio is particularly interested in the relationship between well-defined channels like rivers and streams and the more difficult to define flow paths of water tracks, linear stretches of increased soil moisture formed by the flow of water beneath the soil surface. Hills and valleys that transport their water via water tracks smooth and spread soil, sequestering carbon, while streams and rivers carve through soil, releasing carbon. 

“By figuring out the processes and the physics that are determining who wins that tug of war between spreading sediment out and carving it back up again, we can make inferences about what happens to the carbon in those instances,” said Del Vecchio.

To develop a better understanding of those processes, a reliable method of data collection is key.

“For the past 10 or 20 years, geomorphology has been about who can hike the farthest up the steepest mountain and collect the most remote samples,” said Del Vecchio. “You just can’t do that in the Arctic. It’s too big. It’s too vast. Unless you have millions of dollars, you have to figure out how to look from space and make inferences or measurements without being in the field.”

Thus, remotely sensed data now plays a key role in her lab, giving students opportunities to learn how to work with large data sets and use that information to make meaningful discoveries.

“With a little bit of coding knowledge and an internet connection, it’s possible to perform really interesting research, especially with Arctic data,” said Del Vecchio. “There are huge amounts of remotely sensed data available, and it’s ripe for the picking. That’s been a game changer. We now have topography data for places that we never would have had before.” 

Del Vecchio also notes that computer-based geological research creates opportunities for people who might not be able to hike through rugged terrain to collect data in the field.

“I think it’s a great equalizing, democratizing force,” she said.

Off to a roaring start

Del Vecchio joined the geology department this year, and students began working in her lab in January.

“This is brand new, interesting data,” said Del Vecchio. “As far as I can tell, no one has gone out and scientifically sampled the Arctic to find water tracks and record any trends in their locations. Already, the students are making maps with interesting data that we’ve collected.”

Joanmarie Del Vecchio

During the first two weeks of the semester, her research students learned how to visualize and interpret large datasets. Then they scrutinized images from sites throughout the Arctic to locate water tracks. 

Within eight weeks, students had already collected and interpreted enough data to make new discoveries, including density patterns of water tracks within specific sites and how slope affects water track density.

“This is brand new, interesting data,” said Del Vecchio. “As far as I can tell, no one has gone out and scientifically sampled the Arctic to find water tracks and record any trends in their locations. Already, the students are making maps with interesting data that we’ve collected.”

Aayla Kastning ’26 enjoys exploring the Arctic from her computer and contributing to the scientific understanding of these landscapes.

“We still know very little about water tracks, and being part of a team that’s pushing those boundaries is incredibly exciting,” said Kastning. “I’m amazed by the extensive global data I can access and analyze from my computer in Williamsburg, all with just code. As the Arctic and other permafrost landscapes are among the areas most affected by climate change, it is important to understand how their environments may respond.”

Opportunities for more traditional research are also available in Del Vecchio’s lab. One student is measuring the size, distribution and strength of various roots in tundra samples that DelVecchio collected in the Arctic. 

“We have a vise and a spring scale set-up in the lab,” said Del Vecchio. “You stick a root in, tug on it until it breaks, then measure the force that the root needs in order to break.”

Using that information, Del Vecchio explained, it’s possible to determine the relationship between the size of a root and its strength. Calculating the combined strength of all the roots in a sample can be used to predict soil stabilization, how frequently slope failures might occur and how they might affect carbon stores.

Del Vecchio is also working out the logistics for field experiences for her research students, including a project in central Pennsylvania. 

Approximately 15,000 years ago, parts of Appalachia were permafrost, including Del Vecchio’s research site in Pennsylvania. Learning from a landscape that has thawed, she explained, can help to predict what might happen as permafrost warms in the Arctic.

Additionally, Del Vecchio has scheduled a trip to visit an ecological research station on the North Slope of Alaska. If it’s a good fit for summer student research, students may be working on projects there as early as the summer of 2025.

Del Vecchio is also expanding opportunities for other geology students to learn the computer-based techniques she uses in her lab. In fall 2024, she will teach a new course, Computers & Geology.

“The goal of the class is to show students how quickly they can collect remotely sensed data and government time series and process it to create visualizations and statistical models,” said Del Vecchio. “It’s very empowering. If students have these skills, they can forge their own paths and take ownership of their research. I tell them that whatever they want to do, whatever gets them excited, they can do it.”

Spreading the wealth

Having experienced the extensive benefits of remote data usage first-hand, Del Vecchio wants to assist instructors from other institutions in incorporating computer techniques into their classrooms.

Last week, she hosted a webinar for the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. Nearly 50 instructors attended from two-year, four-year and government institutions. Many had little to no experience working with remotely sensed data. Attendees wanted to offer coding to their students but weren’t sure where to begin, so Del Vecchio provided guidance and offered suggestions for launching their own computer-based courses.

Del Vecchio’s lab also collaborates with a geology lab at Appalachian State University that does similar research. The groups share results and discuss possibilities for new research directions.

As new products and new instruments become available, Del Vecchio’s plan is to incorporate them into the workflow. She explained that her lab is not fixated on a specific product or a single source of data. Uniting new and different data sets can further increase the efficiency and scope of research in her lab, providing valuable information about carbon sequestration in the Arctic.

“We know so very little about what is going to happen to the carbon up in the Arctic,” said Del Vecchio. “The fact that we’re making first cut observations about what happens in these landscapes is an important first step.”

 Editor’s note: Water and data are two of the four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s strategic plan, Vision 2026.

, Research Writer