Research hydrologist Dr. Michael H. Cosh with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, was honored with an Arthur S. Flemming Award for using satellites to improve soil moisture measurements. The enhanced accuracy stemming from Cosh’s work allows for better crop yield projections. It also improves weather forecasting, drought and flood predictions, and wildfire and landslide projections.
The top two inches of top soil contains less than one-thousandth of a percent of the Earth’s water. Because the evaporation of that moisture transfers large amounts of energy between the ground and the atmosphere, that tiny layer plays a crucial role in agriculture, weather and the spread of disease.
In the past, soil moisture levels were hard to measure. To solve that, Cosh integrated satellite radar data, which provides accurate location information, with radiometer data, which provides accurate soil moisture measurements.
“Michael Cosh’s pioneering work is extraordinary and demonstrates that the impact of ARS research extends far beyond direct benefits to agriculture,” said Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, ARS administrator. “I am proud to lead an agency filled with pioneering researchers like Dr. Cosh.”
NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) launched the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite in 2015 to provide more accurate global land soil moisture readings. Precise information about soil moisture specifically impacts crop production by allowing some farmers to change irrigation patterns in response to water availability variations like drought. It allows other farmers to plant or harvest crops when soil moisture levels will provide the best yield. In the past, such modifications were based mostly on growers’ observations and experience.
The National Drought Mitigation Center, which develops measures to reduce drought vulnerability, is using this new accuracy to shift drought forecasting from “crisis” to “preparedness and risk” management mode. SMAP’s accurate soil moisture measurements will also improve flood warnings by assessing how wet the soil is in locations before rainstorms even begin.
The Arthur S. Flemming Awards honor outstanding federal employees with three to 15 years of federal service for their exceptional contributions to the federal government.
Image: ARS land-based sensors like this one and ARS research hydrologist Michael Cosh’s algorithms have helped verify soil moisture measurements taken by satellite, increasing their accuracy manyfold.