University of Delaware
delware environmental institute

Core Research Areas


DENIN, through its faculty affiliates, addresses pressing research needs that are relevant to the environmental challenges facing the state and the nation. Research conducted by members of the institute's working groups informs decision makers by providing knowledge that can help create sound environmental policies. Our work focuses on the following core areas:

The Critical Zone Water Quality Climate Land Use Monitoring and Forecasting Human Impacts


The Critical Zone

Most of the life-sustaining processes on Earth exist in a narrow band close to the surface of the planet known as the Critical Zone. The Critical Zone is the heterogeneous, near-surface environment in which complex interactions involving rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources. An array of important physical, chemical, and biological processes and reactions occurs in the Critical Zone over a range of scales, both spatial (global to atomic) and temporal (millenia to nanoseconds).

These processes impact the mass and energy exchange necessary for biomass production, chemical recycling, and water storage. They also control the transport and cycling of contaminants and nutrients and have critical effects on soil, air, and water quality. They determine the health and sustainability of the ecosystem and its inhabitants. Our research in this area places special emphasis on the impact of biogeochemical interfacial reactions on the reactivity, transport, and cycling of metals, nutrients, carbon, and microbes in the environment.

Critical Zone


Water Quality

Delaware is located on the Delmarva Peninsula, a strip of land between the Chesapeake Bay on the west and Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on the east — two waterways that are among the most economically valuable and ecologically vulnerable in the United States. Restrictions on point-source pollution in the region resulted in significant water quality improvements in the l970s and '80s, but both surface and groundwaters in these watersheds continue to suffer from nonpoint sources of pollution such as runoff from agricultural fields and urban roadways. In addition, new threats to water quality have arisen due to the effects of climate change, from changing rainfall patterns to sea level rise and saltwater inundation. 

While Delaware passed historic legislation protecting its coastal zone from further industrial development in 1971, the legacy of Delaware's industrial past remains in numerous brownfields, many located in low-lying coastal areas, where contaminants lie contained in the soil. What will be the fate of these contaminants as they increasingly come into contact with saltwater through rising sea levels or watertables, or through inundation by storm surges, is largely unknown and a primary research area for DENIN affiliates.

Drinking water in Delaware's more hilly northern county largely comes from surfaces waters, while in the state's more agricultural southern coastal plain, wells supply groundwater for drinking and irrigation. The groundwater supply is also vulnerable to saltwater intrusion from offshore and to the excess nutrients contain in agricultural runoff. Monitoring, predicting, and protecting water supplies and quality within the state and the region are major concerns of many researchers affiliated with DENIN.





From remote sensing satellites in space, to pocket-sized instruments that detect minute quantities of trace elements, to microscopes and genetic sequencers that register changes in the microbial ecosystem, researchers affiliated with DENIN are employing every tool at their disposal to investigate the changes taking place on our planet due to climate change.

From changes in the carbon cycle to changes in the frequency and severity of storms and droughts, we are looking at the science of climate change on multiple spatial and temporal scales. Researchers are busy in the tropics and in the polar regions as well as right here in Delaware to understand changes that are taking place now and potential changes yet to come, as well as ways to ameliorate these effects through engineering or policy solutions. Research into alternative energy sources including wind, biofuels, and fuel cells as well as technologies for more efficient use of traditional energy sources such as electric vehicles is also being conducted by those affiliated with DENIN.





Land Use

The mid-Atlantic region, drained by the massive Chesapeake and Delaware Bay watersheds, has been subject to rapid urbanization and suburbanization of previously forested or agricultural landscapes. Urbanization has been shown to increase the intensity and magnitude of surface runoff and shorten the time it takes for water and nutrients to reach water bodies. Further fragmentation of landscape parcels will likely continue to have repercussions for hydrology, water quality, and ecology of natural ecosystems, from marshes to forests. These land use challenges are also expected to intensify as future climate change spawns more extreme weather conditions, including droughts, heat waves, and severe storms.

The interests of DENIN affiliates focus on how the coupled influences of land use and climate change will impact the evolving health and integrity of complex terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and how we can develop useful predictive models, with emphasis on understanding how these changes will alter the fluxes and cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.




Monitoring and Forecasting

Responding appropriately to environmental challenges requires that we have the data we need to make sound decisions. Researchers affiliated with DENIN are engineering novel monitoring technologies as well as collecting and analyzing the data they record and providing meaningful visualizations and data products that can assist decision makers and emergency managers.

Detecting environmental changes while they are still small is essential to heading off irreversible damage. Our researchers are developing tiny, portable sensors that are convenient to deploy and sensitive to minute changes in the chemistry of soil, water, and air. These sensors can then funnel their measurements to a network of monitoring systems that aggregate the data for use by other researchers, policy makers, and educators. Thanks to researchers affiliated with DENIN, Delaware has one of the densest networks of environmental monitoring stations and technologies in the nation.

Acquisition of precise and accurate real-time data through monitoring, as well as transformation of these data into a fundamental understanding of environmental change, is essential to developing predictive models and new strategies for responding to these challenges. The institute facilitates the necessary interplay of the observational science, the engineering required to make the observations and build the models, and the policy innovations necessary changes to meet these challenges.




Human Impacts

As the proponents of the term "Anthropocene" have noted, hardly an inch of the Earth's surface remains unaffected by human presence. Likewise, the health and well being of all human beings remain inextricably bound to the health of the natural systems on which we depend for food, water, and other resources. Economists, social scientists, policy specialists, and humanists affiliated with DENIN are conducting groundbreaking research, often in collaboration with natural scientists and engineers, to shed light on the impacts wrought by environmental changes on individuals and communities and how we respond to the risks and challenges they pose.

Social science and humanities components are embedded in all of our other core research areas whenever possible. For example, hydrogeologists and economists are developing joint models to describe how physical changes in a shared resource such as groundwater intertwine with human responses to those changes such as price and regulation, which together determine the use and quality of the resource. Or sociologists and ethicists are examining how the potential release of toxic chemicals from brownfields inundated by coastal flooding would affect the often-poor communities surrounding these sites and the state's obligations to respond. The perspective of historians and writers on the human connection to the environment is also valued at DENIN.