In July 2012, farmers in the U.S. Midwest and Plains regions watched crops wilt and die after a stretch of unusually low precipitation and high temperatures. Before a lack of rain and record-breaking heat signaled a problem, however, scientists observed another indication of drought in data from NASA and NOAA satellites: plant stress.
Healthy vegetation requires a certain amount of water from the soil every day to stay alive, and when soil moisture falls below adequate levels, plants become stressed. Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) have developed a way to use satellite data to map that plant stress. The maps could soon aid in drought forecasts, and prove useful for applications such as crop yield estimates or decisions about crop loss compensation.
"Crop drought monitoring is of high practical value, and any advance notice of drought conditions helps the farmer make practical decisions sooner," says Steve Running, an ecologist at University of Montana in Missoula.
A new animation of plant stress (top) shows how drought evolved across the United States from January 2010 through September 2012. In spring 2010, satellites measured cool leaf temperatures, indicating healthy plants and wetter-than-average conditions (green), over many areas across the country. By summer 2011, satellites saw the warming of stressed vegetation, indicating significantly lower-than-usual water availability (red) in many areas, most notably in Texas. Crops were either dead or would soon be dead.
Drought in 2012 was the most severe and extensive in at least 25 years, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service. By August 60 percent of farms were in areas experiencing drought, and by mid-September USDA had designated more than 2,000 counties as disaster areas. "2012 was record-breaking, this was just a huge event," says Martha Anderson with USDA-ARS in Beltsville, Md., who is working wi
|Contact: Kathryn Hansen|
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center