Bulletins

NASA's latest trick: tracking forests and groundwater from space

The agency's eyes in space are telling us a lot about the state of the Earth.

Gulf of Mexico from space
Photo: NASA

NASA isn't just staring off into space. It's also looking down on Earth and tracking how it's changing.

The agency announced two new climate research projects on Tuesday, one looking at the Earth's forest biomass and the carbon it stores, and another monitoring groundwater loss. Together, they'll help us get a handle on how climate change is reshaping the planet — and how the world's natural resources could help in our effort to stave off the worst impacts.


The project tracking biomass, part of the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, will allow researchers to discover how Earth's forests are changing, what role forests play in fighting climate change and the impacts of deforestation both regionally and globally. To do that, NASA is using technology aboard the International Space Station known as lidar, which uses lasers to capture the trees, plants and shrubs in stunning 3D detail. (Yes, from space.) The lidar data along with advanced modeling will be among the most granular estimates of biomass ever created.

Knowing how much carbon is stored in forests will allow scientists to predict how much will be released by deforestation and wildfires. Extremey large and destructive wildfires have become increasingly common in the western U.S. due to rising temperatures and increasing drought while fire is commonly used to clear land in the tropics. Climate change has also exacted a toll in other ways on forests, including drying out the Amazon. That could be turning one of the world's largest carbon sinks into a net emitter, speeding up the climate crisis even further.

In short, as the forests go, so goes the planet. Getting a grip on how they're doing and what areas are huge stores of carbon could help policymakers better target areas for protection.

Meanwhile, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced a new method of tracking groundwater loss, an increasingly precious resource. The research team, which includes scientists at JPL and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, studied California’s Tulare Basin using satellite data from NASA and the European Space Agency. There, they explored at changes in ground height as well as small changes in gravity itself, which can shift locally due to groundwater withdrawals.

The researchers created a monthly look at groundwater and ground-level changes, showing that certain types of aquifers are more impacted by water withdrawal than others. The team chronicled the results in a study in Scientific Reports published last month. While the findings are specific to the Tulare Basin, they serve as a proof of concept for using the same techniques in other regions where groundwater used for agriculture and other purposes.

Stretching the results across all of California's Central Valley — where the Tulare Basin is located — could be a huge boon. The region produced more than $49 billion in agricultural products in 2020, largely by relying on groundwater to keep thirsty crops like almonds in rotation. Managing groundwater more intelligently there and in other places that lean on it for irrigation could help save money and conserve natural resources. The need is particularly acute given that climate change is sapping surface water resources; California and other parts of the groundwater-dependent Southwest are in their worst drought in at least 1,200 years.

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