Satellites help study future floods and droughts

Jared Raney

In 2002, a pair of satellites were launched by the NASA-sponsored group called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. Jay Famiglietti, a member of Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, founding director of the University of California Center for Hydrologic Measuring, and University California-Irvine professor, visited Iowa State on Wednesday to talk about the impact these satellites would have on predicting future droughts.

The satellites launched into orbit around the earth, measuring the change in gravitational mass around the planet. The goal of the project is to measure the change in water cycles in different areas.

Through this research, Famiglietti hopes to be able to better predict patterns of floods and droughts.

Famiglietti came to speak about his research as part of a 50-lecture series sponsored by the Geological Society of America.

“I think we could be doing a better job of predicting floods and droughts,” Famiglietti said. “[Right now] there is more water moving through the water cycle … an increase in the magnitude, the frequency of hydrologic extremes.”

Having high hopes for his research, Famiglietti has gathered a decade of data on the changes in gravitational mass across the continents. 

Famiglietti said that in this case, the difference in gravitational mass that they are looking at is equivalent to change in water mass.

“[The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment] gives us the change in the total water storage,” Famiglietti said. “With [the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment], we can track mass losses of glaciers … and be able to know what’s happening with water sources.”

One of the biggest points that was stressed during the lecture was communication.

“I believe we have an obligation to educate the general public,” Famiglietti said. “If you really want to influence policies, you need to get [the information] out there.”

Famigletti believes that the future of research lies in scientists getting involved in issues that have impact.

“I’m trying to make the case that we have a lot of data through the [Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment] systems, but we’re not using them,” Famiglietti said, urging the future scientists in the room to be active participants in research. “[Some people] are literally in la-la land.  They think water runs around through big pipes straight into their homes.”