Tuesday, 29 January 2019 11:20

ANU team uses new space tech to predict droughts, bushfire risk

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ANU team uses new space tech to predict droughts, bushfire risk Courtesy ANU

Scientists at the Australian National University have been able to predict droughts and increased bushfire risk up to five months in advance by using new space technology.

A statement from ANU said the team used the GRACE Follow-On satellites developed by American, German and Australian scientists to obtain the data needed for their predictions. ANU c led the Australian team.

Dr Paul Tregoning, from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, said the GRACE space gravity mission provided changes in total water storage anywhere on Earth for the first time.

“Combined with measurements of surface water and top soil 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.”

ANU researcher Siyuan Tian said the team used data from multiple satellites to measure water below the Earth’s surface with great precision, and related this to the impacts of drought on the vegetation several months later.

“The way these satellites measure the presence of water on Earth is mind boggling,” said Tian who is 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.”

Co-researcher Professor Albert van Dijk said the data was combined with a computer model simulating the water cycle and plant growth. This made it possible to build a detailed picture of water distribution below the surface and how it was likely to affect the vegetation months later.

“We have always looked up at the sky to predict droughts – but not with too much success,” said Professor van Dijk who is with 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.”

The statement said the drought forecasts would be used along with the latest satellite maps of vegetation flammability from the Australian Flammability Monitoring System at ANU to predict how the risk of uncontrollable bushfires would change over coming months.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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