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Satellite data keeps Australians informed about drought and ice loss

Photo Credit: Australian National University

Scientists from the Australian National University shared that data from new satellites have revealed the alarming extent of the recent drought in Australia and confirms a significant loss of ice in Antarctica.

The team was responsible for developing the software to process the first publicly available data from the satellites and track water availability on Earth.

As reported, parts of New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland, central South Australia, Tasmania and much of Western Australia were drier in December 2018 than the Millennium drought at the end of 2009.

Analysing satellite data

Preliminary results show the drought last year appeared to be worse across a large area of Australia than late 2009, towards the end of the Millennium drought.

The Millennium drought, which lasted from 2001 until 2009, is considered by some experts to be Australia’s worst drought since European settlement.

Hence, to see the country in the grip of another bad drought less than a decade later points to more worrying times ahead.

There was less water in the landscape in northern and northwestern NSW and southwestern Queensland in 2018 compared with 2009.

However, there was more water in the southern Murray-Darling Basin region and along the eastern coast.

The new satellite data also shows how much ice has been lost in Antarctica over the last decade.

The ice loss in the Totten Glacier region, east of Australia’s Casey station in Antarctica amounted to around 1.4 billion tonnes of water, which would fill around 570,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Dr Paul Tregoning shared, “We could be watching the beginning of serious change to the ice sheet.”

Learning more about extreme climate conditions

This is very concerning, since a destabilisation of the ice sheet in that region could affect the global sea level by many metres.

The team used data from two satellite sources. These are:

  1. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, which were decommissioned in October 2017
  2. The GRACE Follow On satellites, which were launched into orbit in May last year.

A PhD scholar from the University is researching ice loss in Antarctica using data from the GRACE space mission, which tracked the changes in water levels on Earth continuously from 2002 until 2017.

Through the GRACE Follow On mission, the team has gained access to the new ‘eyes in the sky’ and was able to track the state of droughts and floods in Australia and ice loss in Antarctica.

This is beneficial for society as they become much better informed about extreme climate conditions and long-term change.

An expert in polar motion from the University of Tasmania complimented the ANU team’s sophisticated analysis as this provided much-needed capability for Australian Antarctic research.

The evidence of huge ice loss from the Totten Glacier region is of great concern. This is in Australia’s backyard, so there is a need to understand what is happening and what might happen in the future.


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