Why NASA’s new mission will examine Earth’s water from house

Earlier than the solar rises on Thursday, a rocket carrying the Floor Water and Ocean Topography satellite tv for pc will blast off from Vandenberg House Power Base north of Santa Barbara.

When SWOT reaches its vacation spot 553 miles above Earth’s floor, a brand new period within the examine of local weather change will start.

The satellite tv for pc would be the first to survey virtually all of the world’s floor water, permitting researchers to persistently observe the amount and motion of each ocean, river, lake and stream on the planet.

This joint mission of NASA and France’s Nationwide Heart for House Research is supported by a novel alliance of Earth scientists desirous to reply key questions on flooding, local weather patterns and our future water provide.

The satellite tv for pc will be capable of see by means of storm clouds and precisely measure the peak of flood waters when terrestrial gauges are submerged. If a rustic refuses to share details about its water utilization alongside a river, the spacecraft will be capable of present it as a substitute.

SWOT is designed to look at the planet with unprecedented precision and frequency, returning reams of information to assist scientists and coverage makers plan for floods, droughts and sea degree rise.

Scientists say the $1.2-billion mission has the potential to vary our understanding of Earth’s water as considerably because the microscope modified our view of the human physique.

“The possibilities are so endless that I’m almost not sure where to start,” stated Tamlin Pavelsky, a world hydrologist on the College of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the mission’s hydrology science lead. “It’s like whacking a piñata with a baseball bat and having all this candy pour out, and you just don’t even know what to grab first.”

Earlier satellites have monitored both oceans or contemporary water. SWOT would be the first to look at each. The mission is a joint effort in oceanography and hydrology — two associated scientific disciplines which are typically siloed aside.

“The entire water cycle is really important in understanding how climate change is affecting Earth’s surface processes — and not just the transport of water, but heat as well,” stated Patrick Barnard, a analysis director on the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Heart in Santa Cruz who isn’t affiliated with the mission.

The information gathered by SWOT, he stated, will “heavily advance our understanding of not just climate change, but also climate variability, and how that affects droughts and things like monsoons.”

The satellite tv for pc’s main software is the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn. The satellite tv for pc sends out radio waves, and KaRIn information how a lot of that vitality returns to the satellite tv for pc, and the way lengthy it takes to reach. Coupled with different measurements, these return indicators inform the satellite tv for pc whether or not it’s sensing water, and the peak of that water’s floor.

This animation reveals how SWOT will gather information on Florida’s rivers, lakes and wetlands. Globally, measurements might be taken each over the ocean and over freshwater areas.

(NASA / JPL-Caltech)

As soon as absolutely operational in June, SWOT will survey every thing between the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica not less than as soon as each 21 days. The preliminary mission will run for 3 years.

“Right now we have satellites that can tell us where water is, and we have satellites that can tell us what the elevation of water is, but we don’t have satellites that can effectively do both of those things at the same time. And that’s the sort of killer thing that KaRIn can do,” Pavelsky stated. “It turns the world’s water from 2D to 3D.”

On the freshwater aspect, SWOT will present the primary complete survey of the planet’s community of rivers, lakes and streams, that are too quite a few — and sometimes too distant — to persistently monitor from the bottom.

“I can finally use a remote sensing method to estimate stream flow, rather than be reliant on the stream gauge stations, which are pretty sparsely distributed,” stated Aakash Ahamed, a doctoral candidate in geophysics at Stanford College.

Sarah Cooley, a floor water hydrologist on the College of Oregon, displays reservoirs and pure lakes to find out how local weather change and human conduct have an effect on water storage. Her work has relied on NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite tv for pc laser altimeter, which delivers information on the globe’s 227,000 largest lakes and reservoirs two to 4 instances a yr. It’s probably the most refined floor water satellite tv for pc expertise presently obtainable.

That’s about to vary. SWOT will return information on as much as 6 million our bodies of water a minimum of as soon as each three weeks. The satellite tv for pc can sense virtually each river that’s not less than 100 toes large and each lake bigger than 15 acres.

“It’s a huge, huge difference,” Cooley stated. “It’s actually kind of crazy to think about what that’s even going to be like, and how we’re going to work with that data.”

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite is moved into a transport container at Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The Floor Water and Ocean Topography satellite tv for pc is moved right into a transport container at Vandenberg House Power Base in California, the place it will likely be launched into orbit on Wednesday.

(Chris Okula/USSF thirtieth House Wing)

SWOT may even make an enormous distinction in the best way scientists monitor modifications within the ocean.

Since 1992, sea-level information has been largely measured by TOPEX/Poseidon and different satellite tv for pc altimeter programs, together with a community of tide gauges that scientists pieced collectively throughout a number of international locations, companies and analysis establishments. These gauges present solely sporadic snapshots of any given shoreline, and when a storm hits or a high-tide flood submerges a neighborhood, scientists making an attempt to measure the tide degree sometimes depend on the closest tide gauge, which is commonly miles away.

And the altimeters already in orbit, whereas groundbreaking for greater than a era of oceanographers, have one blind spot: they’ll’t take measurements proper on the tide line. The closest they’ll get is about 6 miles offshore; in lots of locations, readings are taken so far as 18 miles from the coast.

“We don’t actually know exactly what’s happening at the coast,” stated Benjamin Hamlington, a analysis scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge who’s guiding the ocean degree rise science on the mission. “That’s where SWOT will come in.”

Research scientist Benjamin Hamlington speaks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

Benjamin Hamlington, a analysis scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, stated the SWOT mission will collect information which are essential to our understanding of local weather change.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Occasions)

The brand new satellite tv for pc may even measure extra refined options within the open ocean that different satellites have by no means been in a position to seize with readability. These smaller-scale currents and circulation patterns play an essential however little-understood function in how the ocean absorbs warmth — and the place it in the end goes. (The ocean, it’s price noting, has absorbed greater than 1 / 4 of the carbon dioxide launched by people for the reason that Industrial Revolution, and about 90% of the ensuing warmth.)

That data is essential to our understanding of local weather change, stated Hamlington, who additionally heads NASA’s Sea Stage Change Staff. Coastal flooding is anticipated to hit with larger frequency and depth within the coming a long time, and information from SWOT will considerably enhance the forecasts communities depend upon to organize for that future.

Barnard, who oversees USGS analysis of local weather impacts and coastal hazards alongside the West Coast and throughout the Pacific Ocean basin, stated satellite tv for pc expertise has fully revolutionized his area.

Historically, a researcher would possibly spend a number of years finding out a single seaside, lake or river valley. The scientific group would then piece that work into the larger Earth-system puzzle.

In simply the final decade, Barnard and his workforce recruited scientists in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to review how El Niño and altering local weather situations have more and more threatened coastal communities throughout the Pacific Basin. It took 200,000 hours to gather and analyze information from 48 seashores throughout three continents, in the end accounting for simply 124 of the 6,200 miles of sandy shoreline alongside the Pacific Rim.

“Now, from space, we can get a lot of that information daily, if we really wanted to, and from anywhere in the world — which is just mind blowing,” Barnard stated.

SWOT gained’t substitute boots-on-the-sand fieldwork fully. For the primary few years of the mission, scientists might want to validate its outcomes by means of intensive on-the-ground measurement.

The sheer quantity of information SWOT will return presents challenges of its personal. Storing and dealing with that quantity of data is a significant endeavor in itself.

It’s additionally an exhilarating one. Researchers say transformational expertise like SWOT not solely gives contemporary solutions to present issues, it raises new questions totally, stated Cooley, the floor water hydrologist in Oregon.

“That’s really exciting as a scientist,” she stated.