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.
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.