Life on the land in Australia

Surface water North Qld being observed by Landsat satellites

The area of floodplain of the Gregory, Leichhardt, Flinders and Norman Rivers in northern Queensland, showing how often surface water has been observed by Landsat satellites between 1987 and 2014. This area of Queensland is significant for cattle farming. Water Observations from Space shows large areas are impacted during floods which can last for weeks at a time. Image courtesy of Geoscience Australia.

What on earth is that puddle-The area of floodplain of the Gregory, Leichhardt, Flinders and Norman Rivers in northern Queensland-image www.spy-drones.com

US Landsat satellites have been capturing images of the Australian landmass every 16 days since 1972, and Geoscience Australia has been collecting the revealed data since 1987. One of the observable and ever-changing features that can be isolated from the satellite view is the presence of water. After the devastating Queensland floods of 2011, the Australian Government commissioned the National Flood Risk Information ProjectWater Observations from Space Water (WOfS) aims to ease the “enormous financial and human burden” of severe weather events, says Norman Mueller, earth observation scientist with Geoscience Australia.

The sensors: “… are attached to the satellites … they’re passive optical sensors,” explains Mueller. “They collect sunlight reflected from the earth’s surface. The sunlight interacts with what’s on the ground, which changes the light as it’s reflected.”

The application: Bodies of water can be identified by the way they reflect light, and changes in the shape of areas of water over time can be compared with data gathered at other times—to predict flood events, to show how some areas are more prone to flooding than others, and to show where water comes from during a flood, and where it goes. The breakthrough in this case was in the data. “Every image is slightly different,” says Mueller, “and there are 185,000 scenes in our archive. We’ve created a method to make them all comparable. We’ve pushed it into a super computer, the Geoscience Data Cube, which does the analysis for us. That’s what’s new.” Mueller says the data is currently of particular interest to engineers planning civil works to withstand floods or to channel the flow, and to insurance risk assessors.

The potential: Standardised satellite sensor imagery will allow scientists to assess changes in patterns on the ground, say, in forest growth, or agricultural yield. The water data alone has spawned new thinking in a range of scientific centres. In a recent meeting of 60 water specialists, says Mueller, “almost every one said there was something specific there that they haven’t been able to see before because they’ve never been able to get the data together this way.”

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Henry Sapiecha

May 19th, 2016

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