Skip to main content

Niu receives NSF Career Award to research subsurface water for climate change

A person stands in the snowy Boise Foothills
Portrait of Qifei Niu in front of the Boise River Canyon near Lucky Peak Reservoir after a winter storm.

In a small Chinese village in the shadow of a mountain, a boy named Qifei Niu discovered his fascination with water. As he climbed the rugged terrain of the mountain, he marveled at the streams seemingly flowing from its heart, sustaining life below. But as time passed, he noticed a troubling trend – the streams began to dwindle.

This childhood curiosity planted the seeds for Niu’s lifelong journey as a hydrologist and geophysicist, a trek that has led him to Boise State University, where he has recently been awarded a prestigious Career award, one of only a handful within the College of Arts and Sciences, and for the university, one of 36 total.

Niu’s award-winning proposal digs into the intricate world of subsurface water, a hidden reservoir crucial for sustaining ecosystems and communities, especially in the face of climate change. His research focuses on the mountains of Idaho, where snow-capped peaks guard the secrets of water’s courses from sky to soil.

Together with his students, they began using preliminary research utilizing geophysical imaging techniques akin to a CT scan of the Earth called Electrical Resistance Tomography. They probed down into a mountain near Boise using rods covered in electrodes and then used mathematical data processing to unravel the potentialities of the subsurface water. This preliminary groundwork paved the way for his Career proposal, which extends over five years, enabling deeper exploration and understanding.

Undergraduate students are setting up geophysical testing instruments to characterize the Boise Geothermal System during a field camp led by Niu. Boise is in the background.
Undergraduate students set up geophysical testing instruments to characterize Boise’s Geothermal System during a field camp led by Niu. Boise’s proximity allows students to travel to the field daily.

But Niu’s vision extends beyond scientific inquiry; it encompasses education and inclusivity. Recognizing Boise State’s diverse student body, including many non-traditional and economically challenged students, he devised innovative solutions. By bringing field experiences closer to home, he ensures that all students, regardless of circumstance, can immerse themselves in geoscience education. Rather than paying to camp for weeks at a time, students can take day trips to study and learn the instruments for geosciences. Because of this, students can continue their valuable studies and return to their homes and jobs without needing time away.

Niu’s hopes for the future stretch beyond the confines of the laboratory. In the next decade, he envisions expanding the realm of hydrogeophysics, advocating for sustainable water management practices in Idaho, and diving into geothermal studies to harness Earth’s natural resources for a greener future.

Boise State Provost John Buckwalter applauds Niu’s endeavor, saying “Dr. Niu’s project to explore watershed management in the face of climate change impacts not only our region’s resources now but also the students who will go on to be leaders and decision-makers for Idaho and the nation as we continue to respond to changing environmental conditions. Boise State prides itself on our research programs that have a real impact on our communities.”

As he looks to the future, Niu sees more than data points and research findings. He envisions a legacy of stewardship, where his work enriches scientific discourse and nurtures a new generation of earth scientists committed to safeguarding our planet’s precious resources.

From the springs of his childhood to the boundless expanse of future waters, Niu’s journey epitomizes the transformative power of curiosity, perseverance, and a steadfast commitment to making a difference in Idaho and the world.

-Written by Jenny K Gilman