ARC-supported researcher, Professor Albert van Dijk, and his research team from The Australian National University, funded through an ARC Discovery Projects grant, are using new space technology to predict droughts and increased bushfire risk, with predictions up to five months in advance of potentially devastating environmental events.

Using data from multiple satellites, the researchers were able to measure very small changes to the water volume 500 kilometres away—including sea level rises, melting ice in Antarctica and fluctuations in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Combining these data with a computer model simulating the water cycle and plant growth, the team built a detailed picture of the water’s distribution below the surface and likely impacts on vegetation months later. They were also able to make predictions regarding increased fire danger and farming problems several months down the track.

This new approach of 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 research team used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, which measured the movement of mass and recorded changes in the Earth’s gravity over time. The GRACE satellites were recently decommissioned, but the team is planning to collect data from the GRACE Follow-on satellites developed in collaboration by Australian, American and German scientists, and launched into space last year.

Researchers have been able to quantify the available water more accurately than ever before, leading to more accurate forecasts of vegetation up to five months in advance.

YouTube video: ANU laser launched into space.
Credit: The Australian National University.   

Image: The NASA/German Research Centre for Geosciences GRACE Follow-On spacecraft launches onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The mission will measure changes in how mass is redistributed within and among Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land and ice sheets, as well as within Earth itself. GRACE-FO shared its ride to orbit with five Iridium NEXT communications satellites as part of a commercial rideshare agreement.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.