Research project tests remote sensing to measure Earth's water cycle

July 26, 2006

This summer's dry Iowa weather has helped drive home the importance of soil moisture not just to farmers, but also to gardeners, homeowners and consumers looking for fresh produce.

For decades, Iowa State University researchers have studied the cycling of water among soil, vegetation and the atmosphere that is vital to production agriculture. Now a team of Iowa State and University of Iowa researchers is beginning a new project to perfect the use of remote sensing technology to monitor the water cycle.

The team has received a $1.3 million, five-year grant from NASA. Brian Hornbuckle is principal investigator for the project. He's an assistant professor in agronomy, electrical and computer engineering and geological and atmospheric sciences at Iowa State.

"We know the landscape in which we live changes on many scales over space and time," Hornbuckle said. "Remote sensing is the only tool available that can capture all these changes. But is it accurate enough to be useful? That's the question we want to answer."

The research is taking place on 200 acres of Iowa State research farmland south of campus. On-site equipment will measure soil moisture, precipitation, radiation and evapotranspiration. Some manual measurements also will be taken.

Remote sensing equipment will be taken to the field once a year, probably during each of the four seasons, to see if data from the on-site monitoring matches data from the remote monitoring. The remote monitoring equipment is expected to be in the field two to four weeks, or as long as is necessary to be able to measure a variety of soil moisture levels.

Hornbuckle said remote sensing instruments work like cameras and record the "brightness" of the earth's surface. But instead of detecting visible light like normal cameras, Hornbuckle's remote sensing instrument that will be used at the site "sees" microwaves. "Wet soils appear dark and dry soils appear bright. Eventually microwave remote sensing instruments on satellites will take pictures of the earth's surface and produce maps of soil moisture," he said.

Amy Kaleita, assistant professor in Iowa State's agricultural and biosystems engineering department, is a co-investigator on the project. "We know a key driver of crop yield is climate," Kaleita said. "Drought predictions can show up in soil moisture patterns. Anything we can do to support monitoring and projections of field conditions helps producers make better management decisions."

The research field is planted to soybean this year, with a corn-soybean rotation planned for future years. Hornbuckle said the goal of the project is to evaluate the use of several types of remote sensing devises to monitor the water cycle on a small scale. "The ultimate goal would be to someday use this type of information in conjunction with models to forecast soil moisture conditions, the weather and to detect climate change," he said.

Three University of Iowa scientists are co-investigators on the project. Witold Krajewski is an expert in remote sensing of precipitation. William Eichinger's expertise is remote sensing of evapotranspiration. Both Krajewski and Eichinger are professors of civil and environmental engineering. Anton Kruger, a research engineer, is developing new wireless technology to communicate with the field instruments in the project.

The team also will collaborate with researchers at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory, a USDA Agricultural Research Service facility on the Iowa State campus, and share data generated at the site with other interested researchers.

Hornbuckle said a small conference was held at Iowa State June 21-22 where the project was outlined. "The conference brought together remote sensing experts from across the United States. The use of remote sensing to monitor the water cycle is a big idea but we're starting small in this one field. Eventually we expect the technology to be expanded and used on a larger scale - river basins, states, regions," he said.

Source: Iowa State University

Explore further: Rethinking wetland restoration: Smaller wetlands more valuable than previously thought

Related Stories

Raindrop research dials in satellite forecasting accuracy

February 4, 2014

Dialing in the accuracy of satellite weather forecasting is the goal behind basic research into raindrop size and shape being done at The University of Alabama in Huntsville by a UAH doctoral student who is also an atmospheric ...

Up in arms

January 28, 2014

In December 2012, when Adam Lanza stormed into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., with a rifle and killed 20 children and six adult staff members, the United States found itself immersed in debates about ...

Home sensors enable seniors to live independently

August 8, 2013

People are living longer and they desire to live as independently as possible in their senior years. But, independent lifestyles come with risks, such as debilitating falls and deteriorating health resulting from inadequate ...

Head for the clouds, feet firmly on the ground

March 5, 2012

Computer engineers in the US writing in the International Journal of Communication Networks and Distributed Systems have reviewed the research literature to get a clear picture of cloud computing, its adoption, use and the ...

Recommended for you

What would a tsunami in the Mediterranean look like?

August 27, 2015

A team of European researchers have developed a model to simulate the impact of tsunamis generated by earthquakes and applied it to the Eastern Mediterranean. The results show how tsunami waves could hit and inundate coastal ...

Intensity of desert storms may affect ocean phytoplankton

August 27, 2015

Each spring, powerful dust storms in the deserts of Mongolia and northern China send thick clouds of particles into the atmosphere. Eastward winds sweep these particles as far as the Pacific, where dust ultimately settles ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.