Australian scientists use satellites to predict drought 5 months in advance



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Australian scientists are using satellite data to predict the likelihood of droughts and forest fires up to five months in advance.

Researcher Siyuan Tian of the National University of Australia has been able to accurately measure the amount of water beneath the Earth's surface using data from various satellites. They could then correlate this data with the impacts of drought on land and vegetation months later.

"The way these satellites measure the presence of water on Earth is incomprehensible," said Tian, ​​of the ANU Earth Sciences Research School.

"We have been able to use them to detect variations in water availability that affect the growth and condition of pastures, rainfed plantations and forests, and this may lead to an increased risk of fires and agricultural problems several months ago."

Combined maps lead to a highly accurate understanding

The research team combined the satellite data with a computerized simulation of the water cycle and plant growth. This allowed the team to understand exactly how the water was distributed beneath the surface of the Earth and understood how that water would probably affect the vegetation in the coming months.

"We always look to the sky to predict the droughts – but not with much success," said Professor van Dijk of the School of Environment and Society ANU Fenner.

"This new approach – looking 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 terrible impacts of drought, such as forest fires and livestock losses."

Easier to assess forest fire risk

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

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

"What is innovative and exciting in our work is that we have been able to quantify the available water more accurately than ever before, which leads to more accurate predictions of vegetation status up to five months in advance."

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

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

"What's innovative and exciting about our work is that we can quantify the available water more accurately than ever before, which leads to more accurate predictions of vegetation status, up to five months in advance," continued Tregoning.

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