California is experiencing its worst drought for centuries. The severity of the situation is such that some have called it the most serious of its kind for 1200 years - with California’s Govenor, Jerry Brown, officially declaring a state of emergency in January 2015.
The bush fire in Simi Valley - which has consumed 20,000 acres so far - has forced the government to issue fire warnings in both Ventura and Los Angeles. And while firefighters have gained control in some areas, an earlier outbreak - labelled the Valley Fire - still managed to destroy 585 homes, roaring, almost unchecked, through 67,000 acres of land. There is, of course, a limit to what manpower can achieve alone in situations such as these, and that’s why the state is turning to technology.
Carnegie Science announced the launch of its Carnegie Airborne Observatory-3 (CAO 3) in April 2015. After the CAO 3’s first test flight, Greg Asner - who works at Carnegie’s at Department of Global Ecology - said: ‘I've never seen our forests as desperately dry as I saw this past week.’ And that although on Google Earth the forest appears a dense green, through the CAO 3’s map sensor, it’s now a darker shade of red.
The CAO 3 - according to Greg Asner, Director, Carnegie Airborne Observatory - is specifically designed to answer questions about the status of California’s forests, and how they are changing through time. He states: ‘It [CAO 3] allows us to map massive areas at a very high spacial resolution in 3D, and also allows us to understand the chemical composition, in this case, of tree canopies than we’ve ever been able to do before.’ As Asner says, it’s effectively like an MRI scan, but for forests. This has made previously unattainable information accessible. A breakthrough which will give policymakers more data to plan for future strategies, and a detailed outlook concerning the future of California’s forests.
It is, however, not the only piece of technology helping decision makers. NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory tells scientists the amount of sunlight that’s absorbed by a mountain’s snowpack and the depth of the snow that’s on it. Tom Painter, Snow Hydrologist, NASA JPL states: ‘It’s timely information for the water managers who will be able to know what the total volume is of the snowpack, how it’s changed from last week, and now we turn it around in about 20 hours.’ The speed of the turnaround is important. It makes it easier for each community within science to work together so that they can ultimately plan a way to end the state’s drought.
Many have blamed Silicon Valley’s use of water to cool down its data centers for the drought. Technology, however, is crucial for scientists who want the richest information to hand and the CAO 3 and NASA’s Snow Observatory are two great examples of this. And with their help, it should put California in the best possible position to avoid what has been a desperate time for them.