Posted April 30, 2015

Why is it dry in California? 35 years of satellite data may help

'Since 1978 we have satellites gathering data on soil moisture. More than 35 years of data. We  need to make better use of that. So we're building datasets that help us better understand droughts, and predict them.'

That's Richard de Jeu talking. He used to be an associate professor at the Earth and Climate Cluster at the VU University Amsterdam. He's an expert in soil moisture, an important indicator of climate change. He knows how to measure moisture using remote sensing, and how to make sense of the data produced by satellites. As of 1 May he has an office at the Fast Forward programme, ATG Europe’s in-house wonderland using space technology for solving practical problems on earth.

On one of the most spectacular climate phenomena on Earth today, the great California drought, the jury's still out, he says. 'It's very complicated to find a direct cause. But our datasets can help us understand what happens. They enable us to relate droughts to El Niño events. Also, we can put climate events in historical context. For instance, it hasn't been this dry in California in 35 years. But the drought might be comparable to one in Texas around 2012.'

'Not only do we have existing piles of data, there are more and more data coming in all the time,' says De Jeu. 'There's the Sentinel family of six satellites that will be launched in the coming years. That's only one example. We're putting so many sensors into space, I believe there's a shortage of expertise to turn the data into useful products.'

Working on ESA projects, De Jeu has made available data about soil moisture worldwide. These have been downloaded so far by 1600 users all over the world at 'Think scientific organizations like weather services and climate centres, but also commercial parties like agricultural company Monsanto, and even Seti, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Beats me what they needed the data for.'

'Right now we make the data available for free. But products to be developed on top of the data will probably be commercialized, much like many meteorological companies do using weather data. There could be applications that crunch the data and produce things like drought and harvest predictions.' Also De Jeu thinks of doing remote sensing with drones. Drones are a lot cheaper and can look a lot more closely than satellites, for instance at a particular region or even one farm.

'I'm employed by my own new company Transmissivity and I will have an office in-house with ATG-Europe in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. We share our networks and knowledge and we expect the whole to be more than the parts put together.'

About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.