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University of Houston wins NASA grant to study Congo River Basin

The massive Congo River Basin's remote location and the political instability in the region have kept researchers from gathering even the most basic information about it.

But Hyongki Lee, a University of Houston civil engineering researcher, has come up with a new idea for understanding this mysterious region _ studying it from space.

Lee won't travel into space, nor will he visit the Congo. He plans to use unanalyzed satellite images to survey the basin's approximate 2.3 million square miles.

The Congo is the world's second-largest river basin behind the Amazon, but researchers still don't know how much water exists in the wetlands, how much of the water comes from direct precipitation, river flooding or upland runoff and how much of the basin is wetlands.

Lee has received a $663,000 grant from NASA for the Congo project, which aims to answer those basic questions as well as give researchers a better understanding of everything from regional climate to greenhouse gas emissions.

"There is not much data (on the basin) so modeling is very limited," said Lee. "As a consequence, the other important estimates based on the terrestrial dynamics of the Congo basin, such as the methane emissions of its flooded wetlands and its contributions to global methane levels, cannot be well known."

Lee, who joined UH's Cullen College of Engineering last fall, will use data already collected from satellites operated by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

These satellites have gathered data through optical sensing of the region, radar topography and the creation of gravity maps, which show areas of the Earth with significant mass change due to terrestrial water storage change, such as in tropical rainforests. Lee and his research team will combine and process the data to answer questions about the Congo wetlands.

Combining multiple types of data from different satellites is basically unheard of in hydrologic research, Lee noted. If successful, his work will provide investigators with an entirely new method for studying areas of the planet that are otherwise inaccessible.

"This is a new combination of technologies for this application," said Lee. "It's a first attempt. That's one of the reasons we proposed it."

Contact: Laura Tolley
University of Houston

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