SMAP Satellite: Helping to Feed the World

Agricultural production is driven by weather. More to the point, from Boone County, Iowa, to Sub-Saharan Africa, crop yields depend on the timing and amount of rainfall and, more specifically, soil moisture. It goes without saying that managing for rainfall variability is a challenge for farmers.

Early in my career as an economist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service I learned that to understand farmers’ economic behavior you had to understand the enormous risks they face—ranging from price fluctuations to weather variability. As an example of the magnitude of those risks, the USDA crop insurance program paid out about $16 billion in claims in 2012 when a huge portion of the nation was hit by drought. An interesting footnote to how important weather is to agriculture is that from 1890 until 1940 the Weather Bureau was part of USDA.

Help may be on the way to assist farmers in managing weather-related crop production risks. In late 2014, a 127-foot tall Delta II rocket, weighing half a million pounds, will lift the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite into a “near-polar, sun-synchronous” orbit 422 miles above the earth. Once in orbit the SMAP satellite will do something truly remarkable. As the SMAP satellite circles the world it will use radiometer and radar technologies to sense soil moisture levels in the top 2 inches of the soil. The SMAP satellite will also be able to measure soil moisture levels through moderate vegetative cover.

It gets even more amazing. The SMAP satellite will provide this information for land around the world on a cycle of about 2 to 3 days at a resolution as fine as 6-square-mile cells–about the size of an average township. The data collected by the SMAP satellite will be combined in models with higher resolution natural resource data, such as rainfall, temperature and soil type, to infer soil moisture levels at more precise geographic scales and throughout the rooting zone.

The SMAP project is designed to improve weather and climate forecasting; drought monitoring and forecasting; flood and landslide forecasting; crop yield forecasting; agricultural production decision support systems; and forecasting famine and the spread of some viruses.

The team overseeing the SMAP project has created an outreach initiative that seeks to jumpstart the work of SMAP “Early Adopters” in developing real-world applications for the SMAP data. Among the SMAP Early Adopter projects are efforts to:
• Monitor U.S. cropland soil moisture,
• Forecast seasonal climate, crop production and food security early warning, and
• Enhance USDA’s global crop production monitoring system.

In the not so distant future there might be a smart phone app that delivers soil specific near real-time estimates of soil moisture and yield forecasts that farmers can use for planting decisions, irrigation management and farm financial planning. In less developed parts of the world, data collected by the SMAP satellite is one more way we can help ensure food security of the 9 billion people projected to populate the world in 2050.