Nitrates!

It's been a while. First set of midterms written, given, and graded. Spring may (?) be coming to Minnesota. Ski trips taken. Spring break coming.

I've been working on this nitrate run-off project for a while. Learning about the problem of nitrite and nitrate runoff from agriculture -- mostly from fertilizers -- has been a non-linear process! I've heard reports on the radio about the problems nitrate runoff causes, not only for drinking water in towns in Minnesota and Iowa, but in the dead zone it is causing in the Gulf of Mexico. I read some papers as well, looking for data and ideas tractable for calculus worksheets. Finally I found some real-time data tracking nitrate levels in Iowa rivers, including the Racoon River. Since Iowa is so heavily agricultural, nitrate levels are a significant problem for drinking water treatment plants.

This is the perfect time of year to look at nitrate levels because the spring thaw is either here now or coming soon. Over the winter, farmers did not fertilize -- that would be silly! -- but the spring thaw means a lot of water from snowmelt and precipitation washing over fields and into rivers and streams, bringing with it the leftover nitrate from last year's fertilization. There are some interesting things to see in the data: when temperatures are hovering around freezing, the daily freeze-thaw cycle can often be seen in the nitrate levels measured by the monitors.

It's not easy to model daily nitrate runoff because it depends so much on daily temperature, precipitation, level of snowmelt, and other factors that can change quickly. On the other hand, we can look at data over a period of time and use calculus to understand some of the factors involved. Now that I've wrestled the time and date formatting of the real-time data into compliance using the R programming language, I can make you some beautiful graphs and present some numerical integration worksheets estimating nitrate runoff as well as some graph interpretation worksheets asking students to come up with physical explanations for the data they see presented.

Coming soon....

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