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Not your average soil moisture-measuring project

A satellite that measures soil moisture expected to launch in January

If you Google “SMAP” two things will come up — a Japanese boy band from the ’90s and a NASA satellite project that will attempt to measure soil moisture on a global scale.

The latter is the subject of new soil research from the University of Manitoba. The satellite, set to launch on January 29, 2015, could contribute to a greater understanding of how moisture affects agricultural lands.

“Most people don’t care much about soil moisture,” said Paul Bullock, head of the soil science department at the University of Manitoba. “But soil moisture affects a lot of things people do care about like flood risks. It will impact your crops. It will impact whether you have some insects and other types of pathogens develop in your crop.”

The satellite, being launched by NASA and researched by American and Canadian interest groups, will measure soil moisture, using active and passive microwave sensors. “We don’t have any mechanism in place right now for monitoring soil moisture on a continuous basis,” he said. The hope is this satellite will produce accurate, more economical, measurements.

Timely updates

SMAP will be able to get an image of the Earth every two to three days. So any person or group who wants this information can receive an updated status of soil moisture from their area of interest every few days.

To ensure the satellite measurements are accurate, researchers have inserted soil moisture sensors in the ground that will measure the moisture directly and can be used to test the satellite measurements. Once they are confident that the satellite readings are reliable in the locations with ground measurements, the technology can be applied to the entire landscape and used to benefit farmers, the agriculture industry, planners and policy-makers.

Healthy soils, an important part of food security and functioning ecosystems, are a global focus this year since the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils.

A movement, called the Soil Renaissance, launched a year ago, is attempting to bring attention to the crucial role soil plays in our natural resource systems.

The group, partnering with producers, educators, researchers, NGOs, foundations and governments, began implementing a strategic plan focusing on four key issues — economic tools to assess the value of soil health, a standard for measuring soil health, determining research needs and educational outreach.

Tackling flood risks

Soil research may be given a seat in the global spotlight this year, but small-scale soil surveys in Manitoba date back as early as 1926. The first reconnaissance soil survey in the province covered the southwest area of Manitoba and was published in 1940.

Since then the research has become more complex.

Topographical challenges have changed as well. Historic drought areas, such as the Palliser’s Triangle, once plagued by grasshoppers, have been flooded beyond recognition.

Extreme weather and wetter-than-usual conditions make SMAP satellite research timely for Manitoba. Soil moisture distribution is an important input variable that goes into flood-risk models because the amount of water in the soil changes how much precipitation can be stored and how much runs off into streams and rivers. The greater the soil moisture levels, the greater risk an area has of being flooded.

Being able to consistently and regularly measure the amount of water in the soil could help flood-laden areas prepare.

“At the time that the 2012 SMAP validation experiment in Manitoba was being planned, we did not anticipate the extent to which flooding would affect the province of Manitoba, but the project seems to have become more relevant ever since,” said Bullock. “There’s a bit of serendipity to have this research happening at the same time that the province is dealing with such an extreme bout of flooding.”

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