Australian Scientists Use Satellites to Predict Drought 5 Months in Advance

New mapping techniques allow researchers to understand below ground water movement.

Australian scientists are using data from satellites to predict the likelihood of drought and bushfires as much as five months in advance. 

Researcher, Siyuan Tian, from the Australian National University was able to precisely measure the amount of water underneath the earth's surface by using data from multiple satellites. They could then correlate this data with the impacts of drought on the land and vegetation months later. 

"The way these satellites measure the presence of water on Earth is mind-boggling," said Ms. Tian from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences. 

“We've been able to use them to detect variations in water availability that affect the growth and condition of grazing land, dryland crops, and forests, and that can lead to increased fire risk and farming problems several months down the track."

Combined maps lead to a highly accurate understanding

The research team combined the satellite data with a computer modeled simulation of the water cycle and plant growth. This allowed the team to understand exactly how the water was distributed below the earth's surface and understand how this water would likely affect the vegetation in the months to come. 

"We have always looked up at the sky to predict droughts—but not with too much success," said Professor van Dijk from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society.

"This new approach—by looking down from space and underground—opens up possibilities to prepare for drought with greater certainty. It will increase the amount of time available to manage the dire impacts of drought, such as bushfires and livestock losses." 

Bushfire risk easier to assess

The water maps will be combined with vegetation flammability maps created by the Australian Flammability Monitoring System at ANU to predict the risk of uncontrollable bushfires. 

"Combined with measurements of surface water and topsoil moisture from other satellites, this provides the ability to know how much water is available at different depths below the soil," he said

"What is innovative and exciting about our work is that we have been able to quantify the available water more accurately than ever before. This leads to more accurate forecasts of vegetation state, as much as five months in advance." 

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The team used the GRACE Follow-On satellites, which were developed by American, German and Australian scientists. Dr. Paul Tregoning from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences said the GRACE satellites have been able to measure changes in the world's total water storage for the first time. 

"Combined with measurements of surface water and topsoil moisture from other satellites, this provides the ability to know how much water is available at different depths below the soil," he said.

"What is innovative and exciting about our work is that we have been able to quantify the available water more accurately than ever before. This leads to more accurate forecasts of vegetation state, as much as five months in advance," Tregoning continued.

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