Satellite mission will map moisture

NASA scientists and experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have teamed up to map global soil moisture by satellite.

The Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) mission will be the first to gather soil moisture data from across the world and could improve weather prediction.

The team will gather a range of measurements on a continuous basis that will effectively create a map of global surface soil moisture.

It will also detect whether moisture is frozen – a measurement that can tell scientists whether a forests are a net source or net sink of carbon.

The project was the brainchild of Professor Dara Entekhabi, director of the Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

He told edie the mission aims to improve the accuracy of numerical weather models by providing additional data about a condition that can affect rainfall.

“The accuracy of numerical weather models is dependent on how well their state variables, for example winds, temperature and pressure, are initialised at the beginning of each forecast period,” he said.

“Soil moisture is an important state variable of the atmospheric models at its lower boundary.”

It can also play a role in predicting climate conditions up to six months into the future, Professor Entekhabi explained.

“Just like ocean temperatures, root-zone soil moisture persists for long periods and it is the seasonal ‘memory’ of the climate system,” he said.

“These two variables thus form the basis for seasonal climate prediction.”

The SMAP mission is based on an earlier satellite project known as Hydros led by Entekhabi that was cancelled in 2005 when NASA had to withdraw funding.

Professor Entekhabi told edie: “Hydros was a competitively-selected mission and it was disappointing that NASA cancelled it due to its own budget shortfalls.

“It is now good that the soil moisture mission is back and that the five years of effort put into Hydros were eventually fruitful.”

Kate Martin

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