Even in this day and age, the earth’s water, carbon, and energy cycles are not fully understood by the scientific community. Although they might not seem particularly influential, these three natural cycles have a profound impact on the prosperity and survival of human civilization as a whole. To further understand these processes, NASA launched the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite in January of 2015 (1).
The primary purpose of SMAP is to measure soil moisture and freeze-thaw data on a global scale. This information garnered by SMAP directly benefits science, agriculture, and environmental management.
The first, and possibly most important, benefit provided by SMAP is the improved ability to predict crop yields. Soil moisture data from SMAP is able to help determine the expected quality and quantity of crops seasonally. This information is then used to adjust irrigation and improve crop yield predictions on a global scale. Humanitarian food assistance will likely benefit the most from the data collected by SMAP. The new information will allow for more accurate distribution of food to those in greatest need. This comes as good news because by the year 2080, the number of undernourished individuals worldwide is estimated to rise anywhere from 5% to 26% due to various factors (2).
SMAP also possesses the capability to help forecast weather along with natural occurrences such as droughts, floods, landslides and even famine. This works because the given soil moisture content of an area shows how much water is able to evaporate into the atmosphere, and therefore influence local weather. Knowing this information, meteorologists are then able to more accurately forecast weather than when using radar alone.
This same data can also allow for more accurate prediction of floods and drought. For example, if the soil in a given area is already highly saturated with water before a rainstorm, then the chances of flooding in said area will be relatively high. Flooding already accounts for 40% of all natural disasters worldwide, resulting in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars’ worth of damage each year (2). An improved early warning system in place, with the help of SMAP, could help save countless lives and millions of dollars from flooding.
Similarly, tracking the change in soil moisture over time can help predict the location and severity of a drought. Considering drought often leads to crop failure, livestock death, and sometimes the loss of human lives, this information will be crucial to many. Knowing when and where a drought is likely to occur will give people much needed time to prepare and possibly mitigate the effects of the drought; saving lives and money in the process.
Perhaps the greatest challenge humanity will face over the coming century is the changing environment. As the climate and temperature on earth changes, humans must adapt. Through soil moisture data, SMAP will allow scientists to further understand the link between the earth’s carbon, water, and energy cycles. These three cycles alone influence global temperatures and climate more than any other earthly event. As science learns more and more about these systems, changes to our civilization can be made. The changes to how we live will hopefully allow for humanity to prosper well into the future.
(1) "Soil Moisture Active Passive." Jpl.nasa.gov. Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
(2) "SMAP: Why It Matters." Smap.jpl.nasa.gov. Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
Image: © Chon Kit Leong | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/editorial-stock-image-nasa-command-center-oct-california-oct-jpl-california-image72670039#res14972580">The Nasa command center</a>