Aerial view of the Missouri River in the Bismarck-Mandan, N.D., area during the floods in 2001. Aerial view of the Missouri River in the Bismarck-Mandan, N.D., area during the floods in 2001.
Photo by: Flickr/Photo by Sgt 1st Class Steve Urlacher, N.D. National Guard Visual Information

Photo of the Week -- Predicting Floods From Space

by / July 8, 2014

Researchers are looking to space to predict which rivers are most at risk of flooding, using satellite data to measure how much water is stored in a river basin months ahead of the spring flood season.

"Just like a bucket can only hold so much water, the same concept applies to river basins," lead study author J.T. Reager, an earth scientist at the University of California, Irvine, told the Christian Science Monitor. When the ground is saturated, conditions are ripe for flooding. 

Looking back in time using data from NASA's twin GRACE satellites, Reager and his colleagues measured how much water was soaking the ground before the 2011 Missouri River floods -- as the satellites circle the Earth, changes in gravity slightly disrupt their orbit, which are proportional to changes in mass like a buildup of water and snow.

The researchers' statistical model strongly predicted this major flood event five months in advance. Though less reliable, the researchers say the prediction could be extended to 11 months in advance.

Reager told the Christian Science Monitor that he hopes his new method will eventually help forecasters prepare reliable flood warnings several months earlier. "It would be amazing if this could have a positive effect and potentially save lives," he told the media outlet.