Wildflowers at Indian Boundary Prairies.
Wildflowers at Indian Boundary Prairies © Cristina Rutter

Stories in Illinois

Technology Revolutionizes Stormwater Study

See how TNC and Northwestern are Partnering at Indian Boundary Prairies.

Data have changed the way we live our lives—from how we track our personal health and wellness to how we stay in touch with friends and loved ones. And at Indian Boundary Prairies (IBP) in Markham, Illinois, it’s changing the way TNC and partners protect our lands and waters.

“Our partnership with The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University (ISEN) and Argonne National Lab is one of the first to combine ‘birds and bees’ conservation science with the latest state-of-the-art technology to improve the quality of life for people living near natural areas” said Jeff Walk, Director of Conservation for the Illinois Chapter.  “It’s going to give us real-time data to integrate prairie success and impact to neighboring communities in urban areas.”

An Array of Things

The study at IBP is using technology developed at Argonne to monitor how the preserve’s prairies can help manage Chicago’s stormwater runoff and alleviate flooding for nearby residents. Sensor nodes are being installed that will measure everything from soil moisture to rain to water levels—the same nodes that are part of the Array of Things project happening across the city.

“The initial Array of Things (AoT) nodes were designed to measure air quality around Chicago’s Loop,” explains Liliana Hernandez Gonzalez, the Northwestern graduate student who is leading the research. “At IBP, we’re adding sensors to measure water quality and other factors to determine the hydrological response of the prairies.”

Butterflies on fringed gentian at Indian Boundary Prairies
Fringed gentian at Indian Boundary Prairies © Karl Gnaedinger/The Nature Conservancy

Collecting Stormwater Data

These new sensor deployments are part of the Northwestern Center for Water Research focus on urban water, food, energy, and ecosystems. The nodes can stand up to Chicago’s extreme temperatures and weather changes, take images and measurements every 30 seconds for seven days a week, and relay them back to labs in real time.

“Traditionally, conservation research consisted of scientists lacing up their boots and manually recording and collecting data,” said Bill Miller, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern, who helped develop the project. “But today, thanks to advancements in technology, we can get data more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than ever before, and with less disturbance to this sensitive ecosystem.”

While stormwater is the focus of this initial study, the nodes will also be used to collect other data simultaneously.

“Atmospheric information is something else we’re really interested in,” Bill explained.  “Through the nodes, we can look at temperature gradients across the prairie to learn more about urban heat islands, car exhaust from nearby freeways, and begin to understand how these things impact urban green spaces.”


Quote: Bill Miller

“Today, thanks to advancements in technology, we can get data more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than ever before, and with less disturbance to this sensitive ecosystem.”

Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern

Nodes on the Ground at IBP

One of the nodes is already installed, with an additional seven units being added during the spring and summer months.  The data they record once they’re in the ground will go a long way towards protecting IBP – and local communities.

“This information will allow us to manage green spaces like Indian Boundary Prairies more effectively, and in turn, prove that their ability to collect and filter storm water is a benefit to the community,” said Aaron Packman, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern and Liliana’s PhD preceptor.

“We already know there are multiple benefits of green spaces: recreational opportunities, urban revitalization, and improved wildlife habitat. These data will allow us to eventually quantify those benefits and understand the big picture of how all of these pieces fit together.”

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