Stanford researchers calculate groundwater levels from satellite data

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A new computer algorithm that can “fill in” underground water levels in areas where quality data is not available could lead to improved models of groundwater flow in regions where pumping and aquifer depletion are a concern.

California landscape

(Researchers from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences have used satellite data and a new computer algorithm to gauge groundwater levels in Colorado’s San Luis Valley agricultural basin. (Image credit: Flickr)

A new computer algorithm developed at Stanford University is enabling scientists to use satellite data to determine groundwater levels across larger areas than ever before.

The technique, detailed in the June issue of the journal Water Resources Research, could lead to better models of groundwater flow. “It could be especially useful in agricultural regions, where groundwater pumping is common and aquifer depletion is a concern,” said study coauthor Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

The team was able to calculate surface deformations – and, by extension, groundwater levels – for the entire agricultural basin of the San Luis Valley, an area covering about 4,000 square kilometers – or about five times greater than the area for which groundwater levels were calculated in the prior study. What’s more, the team members were able to show how groundwater levels in the basin changed over time from 2007 to 2011 – the years when InSAR data that could be analyzed by the algorithm were available.

They want to take the information about groundwater levels and aquifer characteristics extracted from InSAR satellites and incorporate it with data from other sources to develop improved models of groundwater flow.

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