ANU applies space tech to predict future droughts and bushfires

The university used space technology to predict droughts and increased bushfire risk up to five months in advance.

Large swathes of Australia have been in drought for several years, continually resulting in difficult farming conditions and increasing instances of bushfires across the country. To better deal with Australia's dry climate, the Australian National University (ANU) has developed a new method of predicting droughts and bushfires using space technology.

Researchers from ANU combined data from multiple satellites with a computer model that simulates the water cycle and plant growth, resulting in a detailed picture of the water distribution below the surface and the likely impacts it will have on vegetation months later.

The satellites used, titled GRACE Follow-On, were developed by ANU, NASA, and the German Research Centre for Geosciences. The satellites demonstrated a world-first capability of being able to measure changes in total water storage anywhere on Earth, according to Paul Tregoning from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.

"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.

The launch of the GRACE Follow-On satellites in May, 2018 had followed the initial GRACE satellite mission in 2002, which took detailed measurements of Earth's gravitational field anomalies to show how mass is distributed around the planet and how it varies over time.

Siyuan Tian of ANU's Research of School of Earth Sciences explained that the satellites can detect variations in water availability that affect the growth and condition of grazing land, dryland crops, and forests -- factors that determine increased fire risk and farming issues several months down the track.

"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," ANU said.

To better predict future bushfires, the drought forecasts created from the new space technology will be combined with the ANU-based Australian Flammability Monitoring System's satellite maps of vegetation flammability.

ANU in October also launched a new innovation institute, InSpace, will serve as a bridge between academia and industry, and is designed to drive co-investment between industry and government partners in space-related projects.

"The new institute will be the front door to space activities and capabilities across the university, including technology R&D, science missions, space test facilities, commercial space law, and business and finance initiatives relating to space," Schmidt said at the time.

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