Better soil moisture data made available recently by NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture could help predict outbreaks of wildfires, like the CalWood wildfire shown here near Jamestown, Colo., on Oct. 17. File Photo by Bob Strong/UPI | License Photo
March 24 (UPI) -- NASA has developed a new website that interprets and gives easier access to soil moisture data from satellites to monitor drought, floods and wildfire conditions at a local level.
The new tool, called Crop CASMA, was released in early March as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that many regions of the country will see worsening drought during the spring months.
"Weather satellites collect a lot of soil moisture data, but it is hard even for trained specialists to interpret it," said Rajat Bindlish, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "We've now made that more user-friendly and accessible to the public."
CASMA stands for Crop Condition and Soil Moisture Analytics. The website shows a U.S. map colored in shades of brown for dry areas and blue for moist areas. Farmers or government officials can zoom in on a small area just a few miles across to see local conditions.
For example, over the course of a week, farmers could see that local soils are drying out and check the moisture levels for areas they farm.
Bindlish developed the new moisture data maps with a small team from NASA, Virginia-based George Mason University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including Zhengwei Yang, a geographer at the agriculture agency.
Agriculture companies like Minnesota-based Cargill have incorporated the new website and soil moisture data into their services to farmers, Yang said.
"Many crop reports currently characterize soil moisture for an entire state, which isn't helpful if one part of the state is dry and the other wet," Yang said.
Some of the data for the tool comes from a satellite NASA launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2015, called SMAP for Soil Moisture Active Passive. The spacecraft can detect moisture in the top 3 feet of soil for an area roughly equal to an average county, Yang said.
NASA was able to refine that even more so that variations can be seen for every mile or so, he said.
The USDA will give a presentation this spring on the Crop-CASMA tool to the Western Governors Association, which consists of 22 state or territory governments from Alaska to American Samoa to Texas.
"The most interest we've seen is from agriculture and wildfire interests in California," Yang said.
Farmers or land managers can use Crop-CASMA to "easily" obtain soil moisture details for a specific location and given period, said David Simeral, associate research climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nev.
He viewed the new web-based maps and data Tuesday, but was not involved in creating them.
Such information could help users understand the impacts of a storm on soil moisture at a particular location, Simeral said.
"I could see this being a useful tool for us to dig into the data a bit deeper," he said. "They've been doing a lot of work to make the data more easily available for public usage."
Farmers in California, a state in which irrigation often is necessary, will be able to use the new service as one more tool to monitor fields, said Joe Del Bosque, a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California.
Because he irrigates his fields, Del Bosque has extremely detailed soil moisture sensors throughout his land. But he said the Crop-CASMA tool is helpful because California must tightly manage water for farming during dry seasons.
"This is another tool that will alert us to things that we can then go out and check on the ground," he said. "It can also give state and county officials advance notice when things are drying out, which means drought is coming and fire risk is growing."