Flip-Sides of Soil Moisture

Soil Moisture changes between 19th and 25th August around Houston, Texas due to rainfall from Hurricane Harvey. Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using soil moisture data courtesy of JPL and the SMAP science team.

Soil moisture is an interesting measurement as it can be used to monitor two diametrically opposed conditions, namely floods and droughts. This was highlighted last week by maps produced from satellite data for the USA and Italy respectively. These caught our attention because soil moisture gets discussed on a daily basis in the office, due to its involvement in a project we’re working on in Uganda.

Soil moisture can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. For this blog we’re using soil moisture to describe the amount of water held in spaces between the soil in the top few centimetres of the ground. Data is collected by radar satellites which measure microwaves reflected or emitted by the Earth’s surface. The intensity of the signal depends on the amount of water in the soil, enabling a soil moisture content to be calculated.

You can’t have failed to notice the devastating floods that have occurred recently in South Asia – particularly India, Nepal and Bangladesh – and in the USA. The South Asia floods were caused by monsoon rains, whilst the floods in Texas emanated from Hurricane Harvey.

Soil moisture measurements can be used to show the change in soil saturation. NASA Earth Observatory produced the map at the top of the blogs shows the change in soil moisture between the 19th and 25th August around Houston, Texas. The data is based on measurements acquired by the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, which uses a radiometer to measure soil moisture in the top 5 centimetres of the ground with a spatial resolution of around 9 km. On the map itself the size of each of the hexagons shows how much the level of soil moisture changed and the colour represents how saturated the soil is.

These readings have identified that soil moisture levels got as high as 60% in the immediate aftermath of the rainfall, partly due to the ferocity of the rain, which prevented the water from seeping down into the soil and so it instead remained at the surface.

Soil moisture in Italy during early August 2017. The data were compiled by ESA’s Soil Moisture CCI project. Data couresy of ESA. Copyright: C3S/ECMWF/TU Wien/VanderSat/EODC/AWST/Soil Moisture CCI

By contrast, Italy has been suffering a summer of drought and hot days. This year parts of the country have not seen rain for months and the temperature has regularly topped one hundred degrees Fahrenheit – Rome, which has seventy percent less rainfall than normal, is planning to reduce water pressure at night for conservation efforts.

This has obviously caused an impact on the ground, and again a soil moisture map has been produced which demonstrates this. This time the data was come from the ESA’s Soil Moisture Climate Change Initiative project using soil moisture data from a variety of satellite instruments. The dataset was developed by the Vienna University of Technology with the Dutch company VanderSat B.V.

The map shows the soil moisture levels in Italy from the early part of last month, with the more red the areas, the lower the soil moisture content.

Soil moisture is a fascinating measurement that can provide insights into ground conditions whether the rain is falling a little or a lot.

It plays an important role in the development of weather patterns and the production of precipitation, and is crucial to understanding both the water and carbon cycles that impact our weather and climate.

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