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Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

NASA Satellite Will Improve Drought Forcasting With a Little Help From Texas

The SMAP satellite will monitor drought levels around the globe.

Courtesy of NASA

The SMAP satellite will monitor drought levels around the globe.

A satellite launched by NASA over the weekend could help people around the world tackle the challenges of drought. Researchers at the University of Texas will play a part in that mission that could also help forecast flooding and allow officials to better manage reservoir water supplies.

The SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite that launched on Saturday will carry two devices to track drought. One to measure heat from the earth’s surface and the other a radar sensor to help pinpoint the location of the land surveyed. Researchers say that by using the two different technologies, they will get a clearer understanding of where the soil is parched and where it is well-saturated around the globe.

That information will be complimented with data gathered by soil moisture monitors, some of them installed around the Texas Hill Country by UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology. These on-the-ground sensors will help validate and improve the satellite’s readings.

“These local measurements are very important. We may not be able to resolve many issues using satellite data,” Nerendra Das, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who is working on the project, said late last year.

A better understanding of soil moisture is key to predicting drought, and the impacts of rain in different drought conditions.

“[When] it rains, it’s still got to saturate the soil before it runs off and fills up the reservoir,” said Todd Caldwell with UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences. ”There’s a time delay there. So to forecast the reservoir response, you really need to know what’s going on in the soil first.”

Caldwell has been installing soil moisture monitors as part of the the Texas Soil Observation Network with UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology.  Researchers also hope a better understanding of soil moisture may protect against floods. Destructive floods are more likely to occur when heavy rains hit soil that is either over-saturated or so dry that it cannot properly absorb the water.

To learn more about how farmers and ranchers in the Hill Country are involved in the project click here.

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