This Billion-Dollar Satellite Could Be a Game Changer in Predicting Drought and Floods

A new high-resolution device could clear up the picture about climate change’s impact on global rainfall.

(Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL)

Jan 12, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Farmers’Almanac is getting a run for its money, thanks to NASA’s shiny new $916 million gadget, which is set to launch into space on Jan. 29.

It’s called the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, and it could go a long way toward helping scientists determine just how deep into drought California is and how susceptible Florida is to massive flooding.

It works by taking high-resolution inventory of the topmost layer of soil as Earth orbits the sun, giving scientists the most precise and extensive view of the world’s dirt.

Even though soil moisture makes up only a small percentage of the world’s freshwater volume, “it plays a very active and vital role in the water cycle, and we all depend on it in ways we don’t realize every day,” NASA’s SMAP project manager, Kent Kellogg, said in a NASA video post.

Once SMAP is online, scientists and researchers should be able to use its data to help forecast crop productivity, flood conditions, the extent of droughts, wildlife risks, and the prevalence of diseases that can originate in regions with a lot of surface water.

The system could play a key role in helping farmers choose crops to plant as well as deciding when and where. When it comes to drought, agriculture assessments are often made based on experience and almanacs. But with SMAP, farmers can have near real-time assessments of their soil moisture and can better determine how severely the drought is affecting their fields.

SMAP can also save lives if it can help predict where floods are more likely to occur.

“Soils are like sponges, and they can hold a certain amount of water,” Kellogg said. “If we know the amount of water in the soils, and we know that there is a big rainstorm coming and that the soils are near saturation, then we can predict that that area might be at risk for flooding.”

SMAP’s wide-ranging antennas allow the satellite to collect data across a 621-mile swath of territory, meaning it can update moisture levels for the entire world every two to three days.

With the new detailed information, scientists can also get a better understanding of how the world’s water supplies will react to climate change.

Dara Entekhabi, SMAP science team leader, said he hopes the new data will give better answers to how global warming will impact the water cycle.

“Today’s computer models disagree on how the water cycle—precipitation, clouds, evaporation, runoff, soil-water availability—will increase or decrease over time and in different regions as our world warms,” Entekhabi said in a statement. “SMAP’s higher-resolution soil-moisture data will improve the models used to make daily weather and longer-term climate predictions.”