NASA mission will measure all of the Earth's water

NASA researchers say the ocean measurements could provide a look into the future for the Bay Area coastline and San Francisco Bay.

ByDan Ashley and Timothy Didion KGO logo
Tuesday, November 8, 2022
NASA mission will measure the Earth's water
The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab is preparing to launch a mission to measure all of the Earth's water, including California.

PASADENA, Calif. (KGO) -- With a multi-year drought bearing down on California and the West, there's an intense focus on nearly every drop of water. But in a few weeks, we may begin to get a history making look at where that water is and where it's going. Not just here, but around the entire planet.

"It is the first mission where we can really see a complete survey of the surface water here on Earth, and allows us to do a bunch of different things, it allows us to connect what's happening in the ocean to what's happening on land," says Ben Hamlington, Ph.D., of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

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Hamlington is describing a new mission known as SWOT, for Surface Water and Ocean Topography. It's being powered by a cutting edge research satellite, that's scheduled to be launched aboard a Space-X rocket from Vandenberg Space Force base in December. Using technology, including a sophisticated form of radar, the satellite will survey and measure nearly all the water on the Earth's surface, including lakes, rivers, reservoirs and the ocean itself. NASA researchers say those ocean measurements could deliver new and precise data on changes like temperatures, the impact of melting glaciers and sea level rise. And perhaps provide a look into the future for our coastline and San Francisco Bay.

"What happens really close to the shore and how the currents move and how sea level changes on these much finer scales as you get closer to coastlines, the Bay Area, there's a lot of complexity there as you get into the bay, swats going to start to help us understand exactly what's happening closer to the shore," explains Hamlington.

The SWOT satellite will not only measure the world's lakes, rivers and reservoirs, it will help track changes in the movement and volume of water. Professor Tamlin Pavelsky, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is working as the hydrology science lead for the mission. He says that three dimensional understanding could be critical for drought ravaged areas.

"So if you think about all the lakes and reservoirs, like up in the Sierras, for example, but also in China and Africa everywhere, we're going to be able to see how the amount of water that's stored in them changes over time. So during droughts, we'll see how much less water we have, and during really wet periods, will we'll be able to actually track, quantitatively how much more water we have," says prof. Pavelsky.

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Experts believe understanding flood patterns could help us recover and store valuable water that's currently being lost. Perhaps diverting it into underground aquifers or reservoirs.

"It would be amazing if we can see the entire water cycle from space. And that would help us manage our water resources better, it would help us avoid hazards, and it would help us as scientists just better understand where we're going," Pavelsky adds.

And where we're going, could depend greatly on the water we have available, and how we're able to better understand and manage it. The mission is also expected to generate data on factors like ocean temperature that could be contributing to climate change as well according to researchers.

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