New satellites show worrying view of droughts and ice loss

  Last updated June 18, 2019 at 3:58 pm


Using new satellite data, researchers have found that our droughts are getting worse, and Antarctica is losing ice, rapidly.

Australia millennium drought

The most recent drought in Australia was drier than the Millennium drought in 2009.

A team of Australian researchers have used data from satellites to paint a worrying picture of the impact of climate change.

The team from ANU, led by Paul Tregoning, developed software to process the first publicly available data from the satellites and then track water availability on earth.

The satellite data didn’t paint a pretty picture.

Drier than the Millennium drought

Remember the Millennium drought? Researchers consider it to be the worst drought in Australia since European settlement.

Well, according to Tregoning, the new satellite data shows that parts of NSW and Queensland, central South Australia, Tasmania and much of Western Australia were drier in December 2018 than at the end of the Millennium drought in 2009.

“Our preliminary results show already the drought last year appeared to be worse across a large area of Australia than late 2009, towards the end of the Millennium drought,” he says.

“The Millennium drought, which lasted from 2001 until 2009, is considered by some experts to be Australia’s worst drought since European settlement, so 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, but more water in the southern Murray-Darling Basin region and along the eastern coast.”

As our droughts get worse, Antarctica is losing ice

Credit: Costfoto / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

And if that isn’t bad enough, the new satellite data also shows how much ice has been lost in Antarctica over the last decade.

Tregoning says 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.

“We could be watching the beginning of serious change to the ice sheet.”

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

Eyes in the sky provide water level data

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

“With access to new ‘eyes in the sky’ through the GRACE Follow On mission, we can once again track the state of droughts and floods in Australia and ice loss in Antarctica. This means that society is much better informed about extreme climate conditions and long-term change,” says Rebecca McGirr, one of the team at ANU. McGirr 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.

Polar motion expert Matt King from University of Tasmania says the research from ANU provides much-needed capability for Australian Antarctic research.

“The evidence of huge ice loss from the Totten Glacier region is of great concern,” he says.

“This is in Australia’s backyard, so we need to understand what is happening and what might happen in the future.”


Climate change report shows the current reality, and it’s not pretty

Space technology predicts droughts several months in advance

More of the massive Totten Glacier is floating than thought, increasing sea level threat

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