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More moisture in the Arctic than thought

07-19-2016 01:50 PM CET | Science & Education

Press release from: FWF - Austrian Science Fund

/ PR Agency: PR&D
Comparing special radar measurements can precisely identify soil moisture in Arctic polar regions. This has revealed that the scale of the Arctic wetlands may be a lot vaster than previously assumed. The method, which is important for numerous climate models, was developed by a team working on remote sensing with the aid of satellites and permafrost soil in the Arctic tundra region, an ongoing project of the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

To be able to improve existing climate models and examine the polar habitats of wild animals, knowledge of the extent of the wetlands in the Arctic region is crucial. However, even in the 21st century, this is more complicated than one would expect. The inhospitableness and sheer size of the land mass makes the use of special methods essential. A particularly high-resolution method has now been developed by a team working on a project sponsored by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and has been published in the "International Journal of Remote Sensing".

At the core of this new method is the influence of vegetation and the surface structure on the so-called backscattering of a special radar signal emitted by satellites. Project manager Annett Bartsch from the Austrian Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik (ZAMG) elaborates: "Our studies showed that, in winter, the backscattering of this signal is particularly low in areas with vegetation that is typical for wetlands. The resolution of the signal even allows us to differentiate between different degrees of moisture, something that was almost impossible before now."

Moving RADAR
The radar used for these measurements is called Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and permits two-dimensional scene mapping. "For our analysis, we used data collected by the Envisat satellite of the European Space Agency between the years 2002 and 2012", says Bartsch, explaining the basis of the work carried out by her team. "The spatial resolution of this data is between 120 and 1,000 metres – significantly higher than the resolution of previously available data for measuring Arctic wetlands."

Winter & summer
By drawing comparisons with known regional land-use maps, Bartsch and her team discovered that there was a relationship between the particularly low backscattering of the signal in winter and wetland-typical vegetation. The team not only identified and localised the lowest backscattering values of the winter months, but also compared the winter and summer values. "This actually revealed that where a particularly large difference was found between these values, the soil moisture was also very high. This is an effect caused directly by the moisture and not by the vegetation", says Bartsch. However, although this difference appeared to be a more suitable method for identifying wetlands, measuring the minimal values of the winter months subsequently proved to be the better choice.

Research with class
"Another analysis showed that the minimal values from the winter months can be better correlated with various degrees of soil moisture than the winter-summer difference", explains Barbara Widhalm, a staff member working on the project. "This allows us to differentiate between up to three classes of moisture." This sounds very promising, but in its publication the team also mentions that there is currently no large-scale data that would enable independent validation of the results. What does exist, however, are references to soil moisture in numerous land-use maps that could be used as a reference for confirming the validity of the SAR measurements. "When we analyse the measurements of the entire Arctic polar region on this basis", says Wildhalm, summarising the results of this work, "then we discover that up to 30 percent of the country north of the treeline should be classified as wetlands. Up until now, we had estimated this to be at between one and seven percent." The new method developed with FWF support therefore appears to be more sensitive than previous methods and could potentially have a major influence on future climate models and habitat studies.

FWF Austrian Science Fund

The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) is Austria's central funding organization for basic research.

The purpose of the FWF is to support the ongoing development of Austrian science and basic research at a high international level. In this way, the FWF makes a significant contribution to cultural development, to the advancement of our knowledge-based society, and thus to the creation of value and wealth in Austria.

Scientific Contact:
Dr. Annett Bartsch
ZAMG – Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik
Fachabteilung Klimafolgen
Hohe Warte 38
1190 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 360 26 - 2290

Austrian Science Fund FWF:
Marc Seumenicht
Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

Copy Editing & Distribution:
PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Education
Mariannengasse 8
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44

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