Five things you should know about how the SWOT satellite will view the world's water

Five things you should know about how the SWOT satellite will view the world’s water

This image shows the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite in orbit with its solar panels and deployed KaRIn instrument antennas. Photo credit: CNES

On December 12, NASA will launch the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on a Falcon 9 rocket. The mission is a joint effort between NASA and France’s Center National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) space agency – with contributions from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the UK Space Agency – which will study water on more than 90% of the planet’s surface.

The satellite will measure water levels in the Earth’s freshwater bodies and in the ocean, providing insights into how the ocean affects climate change; how global warming will affect lakes, rivers and reservoirs; and how communities can better prepare for disasters such as floods.

Here are five ways SWOT will change our knowledge of water on Earth:

1. SWOT will, for the first time, study nearly all of the water on the Earth’s surface

Water is essential to life on this planet. But it also plays a crucial role in storing and transporting much of the excess heat and carbon trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions. It also influences our weather and climate. SWOT will help researchers track the Earth’s water balance – where the water is today, where it came from and where it will be tomorrow. This is key to understanding how water resources are changing, what impact these changes will have on the local environment, and how the ocean is responding to and affecting climate change.






The SWOT mission will collect information about the water levels in the Earth’s lakes, rivers, reservoirs and oceans. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/Thales Alenia Space

2. SWOT will see the waters of the earth in higher definition than ever before

The spacecraft’s scientific instruments will see the planet’s freshwater bodies and ocean with unprecedented clarity. SWOT will be able to collect data on ocean features less than 100 kilometers across, which will help improve researchers’ understanding of the ocean’s role in climate change. The Earth’s oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere from man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers think short-lived ocean features like fronts and eddies absorb much of that heat — and the extra carbon that created it.

By providing a high-resolution view of freshwater bodies, SWOT will help build a much more complete picture of the Earth’s water balance. Many large rivers remain a mystery to researchers who, for a variety of reasons including inaccessibility, are unable to equip them with monitoring instruments. The spacecraft’s instruments will observe the entire length of almost all rivers wider than 100 meters, looking at them in three dimensions for the first time. While ground and satellite technologies currently only provide data on a few thousand of the world’s largest lakes, SWOT will expand that number to over a million lakes larger than 62,500 square meters.

3. The satellite will address some of the most pressing climate change issues of our time

A key part of predicting our future climate is determining at what point the ocean will slow the absorption of excess heat trapped in the atmosphere and release it back into the air, where it could accelerate global warming. SWOT will provide crucial information about this global ocean-atmosphere heat exchange, allowing researchers to test and improve climate predictions. In addition, the satellite will help fill in gaps in researchers’ picture of how sea levels are changing along coasts, providing insights that can then be used to improve computer models for sea-level rise projections and coastal flooding predictions.






Data from the SWOT satellite will help people monitor freshwater resources and help communities prepare for the impacts of a changing climate. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/Thales Alenia Space

4. SWOT data is used to make decisions about our daily lives

Climate change is also accelerating the Earth’s water cycle, leading to more volatile precipitation patterns, including torrential downpours and extreme droughts. As a result, some communities around the world will experience flooding while others will suffer drought. SWOT data is used to monitor drought conditions in lakes and improve river flood forecasts, providing critical information for water management agencies, disaster response agencies, universities, civil engineers and others who need to track water in their local areas.

5. This mission paves the way for future NASA Earth missions while building on a longstanding international partnership

With its innovative technology and commitment to engaging a diverse community of people who want to use the mission’s data, SWOT is paving the way for future Earth observation missions. Measurements of SWOT – and the tools to help researchers analyze the information – will be free and accessible. This will help stimulate research and application activities by a wide range of users, including those who do not normally have the opportunity to access this knowledge.

Such an ambitious mission is possible because of a decade-long collaboration between NASA and CNES that began in the 1980s to monitor Earth’s ocean. With the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite in 1992, this partnership pioneered the use of a space-based instrument called an altimeter to study sea levels. The NASA-CNES partnership has been uninterrupted for three decades and has expanded to work with other agencies, including the CSA and the UK Space Agency for SWOT, as well as ESA (European Space Agency), the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites and the European Commission for the Sentinel-6 satellite Michael Freilich, launched November 2020.

Provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Quote: Five things to know about how the SWOT satellite will look at the world’s water (2022, November 16), retrieved November 16, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11-swot-satellite-world .html

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