Can droughts be predicted? Scientists discover that plants transmit a signal to NASA satellites

Anna BoklajukNews
Growing plants emit a special light. Source: nasa.gov

Sudden droughts happen quickly and without much warning. But, as a recent study found, scientists can get clues months before a drought hits.

While it sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, it's actually a natural process that gives scientists clues about the approach of sudden droughts. Plants signal NASA satellites with a weakened "light," Space writes about the new study.

During a sudden drought, accelerated drying occurs in just a few weeks. Therefore, it is quite difficult to prepare for it. However, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California seem to have found a solution. At the end of April, they published a study saying that they had found a way to recognize the signs of a sudden drought several months in advance. Signs from outer space, that is. "You just have to look for the radiance, or lack thereof. The fact is that in anticipation of a sudden drought, the "glow" of the plant begins to fade, and this can be recorded by a spacecraft orbiting our planet," the study says.

More precisely, this glow is not visible to the human eye, but it can be identified by certain instruments on board satellites, such as NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2). According to scientists, the phenomenon of plant glow has been repeated in the data of this satellite since 2014, when it arrived in space and began to "see light" in the Midwest during the growing season.

Can droughts be predicted? Scientists discover that plants transmit a signal to NASA satellites

When plants go through the process of photosynthesis, they bask in the sun, absorbing the rays of our star, turning water and carbon dioxide into food. During this process, some unused photons or light particles are released from the plants' chlorophyll content, which is one of the compounds that give plants their color. This creates a light glow. This "glow" is called solar fluorescence (SIF). SIF becomes brighter as the plant uses more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to increase its growth.

By reviewing and comparing years of fluorescence data with sudden droughts that occurred in the United States between May and July from 2015 to 2020, the researchers were able to spot the glow-related pattern weeks (and sometimes even months) before the sudden drought.

Using data from NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, the scientists were also able to notice fluctuations in the amount of water in the plants' soil by observing the strength of the natural microwave radiation emitted by the plants during this time period. Each year during the study, from May to July, the plants tended to thrive in warm and dry conditions and therefore shone brightly in the satellite images.

"Plant fluorescence is a promising indicator of early warning of sudden drought with enough time to take action," commented Nicholas Parazu, a scientist at JPL and lead author of the latest study.

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