LCRA joins with NASA in first-of-its-kind soil study

A United Launch Alliance Delta II rockets heads for outer space Jan. 31 with NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive observatory on board. The satellite will measure moisture content in the top 2 inches of the soil around the world. Lower Colorado River Authority scientists will compare the data from eight sensors in the Fredericksburg area with the satellite data. NASA photo by Bill Ingalls

FROM STAFF REPORTS

MARBLE FALLS — The Lower Colorado River Authority is getting an unlikely perspective on soil moisture in the Highland Lakes.

“We’re part of this interesting mission NASA’s on,” said John Hofman, the LCRA’s executive vice president of water. “It’s their first mission to measure worldwide soil moisture.”

To do that, NASA launched a satellite Jan. 31 into space that will measure soil moisture around the world. It’s the first satellite designed to collect data regarding soil moisture, according to NASA officials.

The satellite — called Soil Moisture Active Passive observatory — will spend the next three years measuring moisture in the top 2 inches of the soil’s surface. According to NASA, the study will help scientists with climate and weather forecasts as well as monitor drought and predict flood conditions.

The LCRA has teamed up with the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences to collect data for the Texas Soil Observation Network as well as NASA’s SMAP.

The LCRA’s part entails monitoring its hydromet sensors near Fredericksburg and comparing the data with the satellite information. Along with those sensors, NASA will compare the satellite data with similar information gathered around the world.

While it sounds like an out-of-this world study, Hofman said it has down-to-earth implications for the LCRA and the communities that it serves.

“It’s going to help us understand what’s going on in the watershed that feeds our water supply reservoirs (lakes Travis and Buchanan),” he said. “We’re very interested in how dry the soil is. The soil conditions will drive how quickly water sheds and goes into the creeks and rivers.”

In times when there is ample rainfall or even an approaching major storm, LCRA officials can use the information to better gauge flooding possibilities.

Along with that information, Hofman added the NASA study and other data gathered will help scientists better understand carbon and water cycles.

According to NASA, the moisture information will also help nations better forecast crop yields and assist with detecting possible famines.

“The next few years will be especially exciting for earth science thanks to measurements from SMAP and our other new missions,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Each mission measures key variables that affect Earth’s environment. SMAP will provide new insights into the global water, energy and carbon cycles. Combining data from all our orbiting missions will give us a much better understanding of how the Earth system works.”

The $916 million NASA satellite will orbit Earth once every 98.5 minutes for at least the next three years.

“SMAP will improve the daily lives of people around the world,” said Simon Yueh, SMAP project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Soil moisture data from SMAP has the potential to significantly improve the accuracy of short-term weather forecasts and reduce the uncertainty of long-term projections of how climate change will impact Earth’s water cycle.”

The soil moisture information can be found at www.beg.utexas.edu/txson/index.php. Go to www.lcra.org and www.nasa.gov to learn more about the project.

editor@thepicayune.com

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