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Prof Receives Funding for NASA Soil Research

Global moisture levels study receives a $280,000 boost from the Canadian Space Agency.

by University of Guelph
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SMAP radar imageSMAP radar image acquired from data from March 31 to April 3, 2015. Weaker radar signals (blues) reflect low soil moisture or lack of vegetation, such as in deserts. Strong radar signals (reds) are seen in forests. SMAP's radar also takes data over the ocean and sea ice.Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFCA University of Guelph (U of G) geography professor using a NASA satellite to study global soil moisture levels has received a $280,000 boost from the Canadian Space Agency.

Aaron Berg’s research project was one of five nationwide to receive funding announced this week.  (Listen to Prof. Berg discuss his research with CBC radio).

Berg and his U of G team are using information gathered by NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite to help farmers and meteorologists better predict crop yields, floods, droughts and seasonal weather forecasts.

The satellite was launched in January and uses passive microwave radiometer and a radar to determine soil moisture levels. It travels from the North Pole to South Pole and covers 600 kilometres at a time, orbiting the Earth every 98 minutes, and looking into the top five centimetres of soil.

Berg and his team of students and post-doctoral researchers are interested in the data the satellite is providing on global soil moisture and soil freeze-thaw rates. They are comparing it to information they already have from field sites across Canada, including in Elora, Ont., Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

“The SMAP satellite proves an estimate of soil moisture state; our data and work will be to fine tune these models and estimates,” said Berg, an expert in soil moisture and modelling.

“We’re looking at very different sites across Canada, because it wouldn’t make sense to base all your calibrations on just one site in Ontario, for example. This gives us a varied picture of what is taking place.”

The information will especially benefit farmers and forecasters, he said.

“Farmers will be better able to predict yields of crops, or the data can provide early warning of conditions conducive to an explosion of pests; in either case, farmers can make informed decisions,” Berg said.

“With weather models, we’ll be able to predict if land is dry and we at risk of a drought, or, in cases where the ground is already saturated with moisture, if there is an increased risk of flooding. This can save lives and reduce damages to infrastructure.”

The global data received will also be helpful in refining Canadian agricultural and weather models, Berg added.

“My research focuses on Canada, but we’re able to use the global product to strengthen our understanding of soil moisture globally and improve weather forecasts.”

NASA plans to release final verified soil moisture data maps by May 2016 and freeze/thaw maps by July of that year.