Skip to content

New Interactive Tool Unleashes ‘Goldmine’ of Drought And Flooding Data

A new tool provides easy access to information about water in lakes, rivers and coastal areas around the world based on millions of satellite images

The Global Surface Water Explorer, developed by the European Union and Google, is a new online interactive mapping tool that lets you zoom in on any area around the world. The tool shows the local changes in surface water over the past 32 years.

According to the Commission, the data sets reveal that many of the changes are linked to human activities such as the construction of dams, river diversion and unregulated water use. Other changes are attributed to climate change, including droughts and accelerated snow and glacier melt caused by higher temperatures and increased rainfall.

“This new tool is a goldmine. Large amounts of data is generated every second by satellites. However, turning data into knowledge has long been a challenge,” said EU education commissioner Tibor Navracsics, responsible for the European Union’s Joint Research Centre which developed the tool in collaboration with Google.

While the maps show an increase in surface water across Europe, parts of Asia have recorded important decreases according to the Commission. Over 70 per cent of the net loss is concentrated in just five countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Globally, almost 90.000 square kilometres of land – an area the size of Portugal – have vanished altogether, and over 72.000 square kilometres have gone from being present all year round to being around for only a few months of the year, the Commission says.

The tool is based on satellite scenes collected by the United States between 1984 and 2015. To produce the new maps with surface water data based on the satellite images, almost 2000 terabytes of data had to be crunched by 10.000 computers running in parallel the European Commission says.

Satellite Data

Should NASA’s earth observation activities be scaled back significantly, as promised by incoming US president Donald Trump, Europe may have to step up and increase its efforts in that field to maintain a steady supply of climate data. The European Union’s Copernicus programme – which consists of a complex set of systems that collect data from multiple sources – is already working on this.

Maps accessible through the new surface water tool are a contribution to the Copernicus Global Land Service, which provides free and open access to the entire dataset.

The programme is expanding its network of Earth observation satellites, and also maintains detectors at ground stations as well as airborne sensors and sensors at sea.

Copernicus satellites Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 are set to offer additional radar and optical satellite imagery that will help to further improve the detail and accuracy of the information in the Global Surface Water Explorer in the future.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the programme is teaming up with Climate-KIC, the EU’s climate innovation initiative, to accelerate the use of its data in creating climate change solutions.