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Flood Prediction in...Space? New Model Harnesses NASA Satellite Data

 / Updated  / Source: Live Science
Image: People push a vehicle that stalled at a flooded intersection in Madison.
A motorist whose vehicle stalled in the flooded intersection of University Boulevard and North Midvale Road in Madison, Wis., receives a push after heavy rains moved through the area Monday, June 30, 2014. Severe thunderstorms packing high winds and heavy rain have downed trees and power lines all across southern Wisconsin.John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP

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Researchers have figured out a new way to predict which rivers are most at risk of dangerous flooding.

To do so, they measured how much water was stored in a river basin months ahead of the spring flood season.

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"Just like a bucket can only hold so much water, the same concept applies to river basins," said lead study author J.T. Reager, an earth scientist at the University of California, Irvine. When the ground is saturated, or filled to its brim, conditions are ripe for flooding. [Top 10 Deadliest Natural Disasters in History]

Reager and his colleagues looked back in time using satellite data, and measured how much water was soaking the ground before the 2011 Missouri River floods. The researchers found their statistical model strongly predicted this major flood event five months in advance. With less reliability, the prediction could be extended to 11 months in advance, the researchers said.

"This gives the background on what's on the ground before the rain even gets there," Reager said.

The findings were published July 6 in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The 2011 Missouri River floods lasted for months, closing interstates, shutting down nuclear plants and scouring farmland. The National Weather Service issued flood alerts in April, a month before flooding began.

Reager hopes his new method will eventually help forecasters prepare reliable flood warnings several months earlier. "It would be amazing if this could have a positive effect and potentially save lives," he said.

The researchers relied on NASA's twin GRACE satellites to diagnose a region's flood potential. As the satellites circle the Earth, changes in gravity slightly perturb their orbit. These tugs are proportional to changes in mass, such as a buildup of water and snow. (GRACE was originally designed to track melting in the ice sheets.)

The team used GRACE to look at all potential water sources, including snow, surface water, soil moisture and groundwater.

- Becky Oskin, Live Science

This is a condensed version of an article that originally appeared in Live Science. Read the full story here. Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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