New satellite technology to predict droughts and bushfire risk


New technology will allow scientists to accurately predict drought episodes and bushfire risks up to five months in advance.

The team of researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) developed the technology by collating data from multiple satellites to measure subterranean water levels with unprecedented precision, and were able to relate this to drought impacts on the vegetation several months late.

The way these satellites measure the presence of water on Earth is mind boggling," said Ms Tian 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 combining these data with a computer model simulating the water cycle and plant growth enabled the team to build a detailed picture of the water's distribution below the surface and likely impacts on 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 from 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 drought forecasts will be combined with the latest satellite maps of vegetation flammability from the Australian Flammability Monitoring System at ANU to predict how the risk of uncontrollable bushfires will change over the coming months.

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