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Collaborative satellite mapping: Creating a clear picture of soil moisture

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Canada and the United States have launched the next phase of developing a world-class soil moisture monitoring system to spur on a new generation of global innovation – the Soil Moisture Active Passive Validation Experiment 2016 (SMAPVEX16).

From weather and flood prediction to pest management, the impacts that regular and accurate soil moisture data can have over large scale areas are endless. By including the power of satellite technology, soil moisture mapping can be conducted quickly and frequently over hundreds of square kilometres at a time.

In January 2015, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, which is used for the creation of detailed soil moisture maps. To properly take advantage of this technology, NASA requires that these soil monitoring maps be accurate to within four percent of the actual soil moisture in the field. To ensure this accuracy, NASA implemented SMAPVEX16, wherein teams of dedicated scientists spanning many countries, provinces, and associations collaborated to gather samples, calibrate equipment, and process data.

"Soil can vary from one spot in a field to another, therefore scientists would have to take numerous samples from all over the field to get accurate data; however, with satellite monitoring, this can be done much more quickly and efficiently."

- Dr. Heather McNairn, Research Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)

On June 8th, 2016, NASA arrived in Manitoba to re-calibrate the SMAP satellite using Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's (AAFC) permanent soil moisture monitoring stations. These stations have been used since 2011 to support ongoing research into satellite-derived soil moisture data.

For four weeks, researchers flew in a DC3 aircraft over an area of agricultural land monitoring soil moisture between Elm Creek, Carman, and Roland, Manitoba. The aircraft carried a radiometer instrument similar to the one that is onboard NASA's SMAP satellite. In addition, researchers took hundreds of soil and vegetation samples to verify the data.

SMAP is becoming an important source of soil moisture data for Canada. The data from the satellite will improve scientists' ability to develop weather prediction and crop productivity models, monitor areas impacted by drought or excess moisture, and forecast floods.

In addition to the valuable data this satellite will provide, the lessons learned from this work will hopefully help to strengthen Canada's capacity in satellite technology and soil mapping.

In 2018, Canada is going to launch the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM); a trio of satellites that will look at fields across the country.

"We can transition some of our research that we are doing right now into the RADARSAT Constellation Mission satellites that will be launched in 2018 and our hope is to be able to provide operational soil moisture maps across Canada."

- Dr. Heather McNairn, Research Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

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Photo gallery

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DC3 Aircraft
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Dr. Heather McNairn in a field holding a soil testing probe.
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Jarret Powers entering data with Dr. Hassan Bhuiyan.

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