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Researchers use space tech to predict droughts months in advance

Scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) have used satellites to predict droughts and increased risk of bushfires up to five months in advance.

The research, which was published in Nature Communications, comes as more than 21 bushfires burn across Tasmania, some of which have been going since December.

The ANU team measured the water below the earth’s surface using data from multiple satellites, including GRACE Follow-On satellites, which were developed by Australian, American and German scientists.

Dr Paul Tregoning from the ANU’s Research School of Earth Sciences said the GRACE satellites were able to provide a measurement of changes in total water storage anywhere on earth for the first time.

The researchers were able to relate this information to drought impacts on vegetation several months later.

“Combined with measurements of surface water and topsoil moisture from other satellites, this provides the ability to know how much water is available at different depths below the soil,” Tregoning 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.”

Researcher Siyuan Tian said the team needed to move into space to get a better understanding of drought.

“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,” she said.

By combining this data with a computer model that simulates the water cycle and plant growth, the team built a detailed picture of the water’s distribution below the surface.

This approach could allow Australians to prepare for drought with greater certainty.

“We have always looked up at the sky to predict droughts, but not with much success,” Professor Albert van Dijk from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society said.

“Looking down from space and underground … will increase the amount of time available to manage the dire impacts of drought, such as bushfires and livestock losses.”

The drought forecasts will be combined with satellite maps of vegetation from ANU’s Australian Flammability Monitoring System, to predict how the risk of uncontrollable bushfires will change in the coming months.

Tackling drought with data visualisation

While the ANU team attempts to predict droughts, a new online tool launched recently that aims to help governments deliver support to areas that are already affected.

The National Drought Map, which was commissioned by the Joint Agency Drought Taskforce and developed by CSIRO’s Data61, gives users easy access to information about drought conditions.

The interactive map brings together data including: rainfall patterns, soil moisture, town size by population, number of farm businesses, agricultural types, available support measures and employment by industries.

It is designed to allow governments and other stakeholders to get deeper insights into current drought conditions and determine where more assistance is needed.