New space technology uses satellite data to predict droughts 5 months in advance

The discoveries made from the study could have massive benefits for society & global population.

Researchers at the Australian National University have engineered a new space technology that can predict droughts and fire risks up to five months before they happen.

The researchers gathered data from a bunch of different satellites in orbit to precisely and accurately measure water below the Earth's surface, and managed to relate this data to find out the impact of droughts on vegetation many months later.

"The way these satellites measure the presence of water on Earth is mind-boggling," Siyuan Tian, lead researcher from ANU's School of Earth Sciences, said in a statement.

"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," Tian added.

While plenty of the world saw flooding in 2017, equally plenty of places experienced extreme drought. Image: Piyaset

While plenty of the world saw flooding in 2017, equally plenty also experienced extreme drought.

According to researchers, their success comes after many years of attempts in the field to predict droughts by looking down from the sky. Now that such a technology exists, it also opens up the possibility of preparing for droughts well ahead of time and with more certainty than ever before.

Drought forecasts that come from the ANU study will be combined with the most recent satellite maps of flammable vegetation from an existing system for monitoring called the Australian Flammability Monitoring System at ANU. This system currently predicts the risk of uncontrollable fires over the months to come.

The researchers made use of a pair of NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)-Follow-On satellites, which provided measurements of changes in water stored anywhere on Earth. This is the first mission of any kind to monitor total stored water and the planet's water cycle.

Using information collected about both surface water and topsoil moisture, ANU's new space technology can gauge the amount of water available at different depths below the soil. It can also make predictions about the state of vegetation many months ahead using this and climate data.

The study's researchers predict that the discoveries made by the powerful space technology could have far-reaching benefits for society and the global population.

"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," Tian said in the statement.

The research and findings were published in Nature Communications.

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