Forecasting drought impacts months ahead using satellite data

Skilful seasonal water and crop forecasts can do much to help cope with drought and water-related crises. Rapid advances in computing and in satellite remote sensing of precipitation, soil moisture, landscape water storage and vegetation biomass have created the opportunity to produce such forecasts over large areas with fine detail.
With support from the Australian Research Council and in collaboration with Princeton University, Monash University and Deltares, we have been developing technologies to measure and forecast river flows, soil moisture, irrigation water use and vegetation condition with local relevance and global coverage.
For example, we have developed methods to assimilate water storage observations from the GRACE satellite mission and soil moisture observations from passive microwave satellite instruments to achieve remarkable improvements in the estimation of soil moisture at different depths. This has allowed us to predict vegetation response to developing droughts several months in advance. In other examples, we have developed a technology to accurately measure irrigation water use at fine scale with global coverage, and we developed methods to use river water extent remote sensing to monitor river flows.

Australia’s Environment: routine, comprehensive national reporting

National-scale, comprehensive information on the condition, change and trajectory of our environment is essential for successful environmental management. At national scale, the State of Environment report is produced once every five years, with measurements that are often already some years old. There is an urgent need for a continuous and up-to-date environmental monitoring system that can provide the basis for regular state-of-environment and environmental accounts.

Since 2015, we have been developing a data processing system that integrates and summarises spatial data to produce an annual report. The system provides continuity and regularity in environmental condition data. A backbone to the system is our OzWALD technology, a model-data fusion system that integrates satellite remote sensing into spatial computer models to estimate important components of the water and carbon cycles.

In collaboration with the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, Integrated Marine Observing System, Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we have developed ‘’Australia’s Environment”, an annual briefing on the state of our environment. We provide the information at different formats and levels of detail to make them as relevant, accessible and easily interpreted as possible.

The information can be accessed in digest through the annual Fact Sheet, Briefing Material, and summary article.

For those wishing to use the data in accounting or reporting, we provide Australia’s Environment Explorer, a web atlas that allows you to visualise and investigate environmental changes by region, location or land cover type.



Improving spatial water information through data assimilation

Up-to-date spatial water information and forecasts are tremendously valuable for farmers, land and water managers, emergency services, and many other users. For example, to assess crop and pasture growing conditions, soil mechanical properties and fire risk.
Computer models, satellite remote sensing and station measurements all provide valuable information on the water cycle. The best possible up-to-date information and forecasts are derived by combining these data sources through data assimilation: a set of data integration tools that is already used in weather forecasting.
We are working closely with the Bureau of Meteorology to improve the operational water information produced by their Australian Water Resources Assessment (AWRA) system. Together, we are developing practical data assimilation techniques to blend satellite observations, for example relating to soil moisture, total water storage and evapotranspiration, as well as station observations of river flows.

Cosmic rays for fire and flood risk monitoring

The cosmic ray soil moisture probe is a recently invented technology that is set to revolutionise our ability to monitor soil and biomass moisture content.
With support from CSIRO and the Actew/ActewAGL Endowment Fund, we are investigating the potential of this technology for flood and fire risk monitoring in a remote part of the Cotter catchment in Namadgi National Park.
[View latest measurements here or here]