Detailed images from space offer clearer picture of drought effects on plants


“MIT is a spot where dreams come true,” says César Terrer, an assistant professor within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Here at MIT, Terrer says he’s given the resources needed to explore ideas he finds most enjoyable, and at the highest of his list is climate science. Particularly, he’s concerned about plant-soil interactions, and the way the 2 can mitigate impacts of climate change. In 2022, Terrer received seed grant funding from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) to supply drought monitoring systems for farmers. The project is leveraging a latest generation of distant sensing devices to offer high-resolution plant water stress at regional to global scales.

Growing up in Granada, Spain, Terrer all the time had an inherent ability and fervour for science. He studied environmental science on the University of Murcia, where he interned within the Department of Ecology. Using computational evaluation tools, he worked on modeling species distribution in response to human development. Early on in his undergraduate experience, Terrer says he regarded his professors as “superheroes” with a sort of scholarly prowess. He knew he desired to follow of their footsteps by sooner or later working as a college member in academia. After all, there can be many steps along the best way before achieving that dream. 

Upon completing his undergraduate studies, Terrer set his sights on exciting and adventurous research roles. He thought perhaps he would conduct field work within the Amazon, engaging with native communities. But when the chance arose to work in Australia on a state-of-the-art climate change experiment that simulates future levels of carbon dioxide, he headed south to check how plants react to CO2 in a biome of native Australian eucalyptus trees. It was during this experience that Terrer began to take a keen interest within the carbon cycle and the capability of ecosystems to buffer rising levels of CO2 attributable to human activity.

Around 2014, he began to delve deeper into the carbon cycle as he began his doctoral studies at Imperial College London. The first query Terrer sought to reply during his PhD was “will plants give you the chance to soak up predicted future levels of CO2 within the atmosphere?” To reply the query, Terrer became an early adopter of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and distant sensing to research data from real-life, global climate change experiments. His findings from these “ground truth” values and observations resulted in a paper within the journal . In it, he claimed that climate models more than likely overestimated how much carbon plants will give you the chance to soak up by the top of the century, by an element of three. 

After postdoctoral positions at Stanford University and the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, followed by a prestigious Lawrence Fellowship, Terrer says he had “too many ideas and never enough time to perform all those ideas.” He knew it was time to steer his own group. Not long after applying for faculty positions, he landed at MIT. 

Latest ways to watch drought

Terrer is employing similar methods to those he used during his PhD to research data from all around the world for his J-WAFS project. He and postdoc Wenzhe Jiao collect data from distant sensing satellites and field experiments and use machine learning to provide you with latest ways to watch drought. Terrer says Jiao is a “distant sensing wizard,” who fuses data from different satellite products to know the water cycle. With Jiao’s hydrology expertise and Terrer’s knowledge of plants, soil, and the carbon cycle, the duo is a formidable team to tackle this project.

Based on the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, the number and duration of droughts has increased by 29 percent since 2000, as in comparison with the 2 previous a long time. From the Horn of Africa to the Western United States, drought is devastating vegetation and severely stressing water supplies, compromising food production and spiking food insecurity. Drought monitoring can offer fundamental information on drought location, frequency, and severity, but assessing the impact of drought on vegetation is incredibly difficult. It is because plants’ sensitivity to water deficits varies across species and ecosystems. 

Terrer and Jiao are capable of obtain a clearer picture of how drought is affecting plants by employing the most recent generation of distant sensing observations, which provide images of the planet with incredible spatial and temporal resolution. Satellite products reminiscent of Sentinel, Landsat, and Planet can provide every day images from space with such high resolution that individual trees may be discerned. Together with the pictures and datasets from satellites, the team is using ground-based observations from meteorological data. Also they are using the MIT SuperCloud at MIT Lincoln Laboratory to process and analyze all of the info sets. The J-WAFS project is amongst considered one of the primary to leverage high-resolution data to quantitatively measure plant drought impacts in the US with the hopes of expanding to a world assessment in the long run.

Assisting farmers and resource managers 

Every week, the U.S. Drought Monitor provides a map of drought conditions in the US. The map has zero resolution and is more of a drought recap or summary, unable to predict future drought scenarios. The shortage of a comprehensive spatiotemporal evaluation of historic and future drought impacts on global vegetation productivity is detrimental to farmers each in the US and worldwide.  

Terrer and Jiao plan to generate metrics for plant water stress at an unprecedented resolution of 10-30 meters. Which means that they’ll give you the chance to offer drought monitoring maps at the dimensions of a typical U.S. farm, giving farmers more precise, useful data each one to 2 days. The team will use the data from the satellites to watch plant growth and soil moisture, in addition to the time lag of plant growth response to soil moisture. In this fashion, Terrer and Jiao say they’ll eventually give you the chance to create a sort of “plant water stress forecast” which will give you the chance to predict antagonistic impacts of drought 4 weeks upfront. “Based on the present soil moisture and lagged response time, we hope to predict plant water stress in the long run,” says Jiao. 

The expected outcomes of this project will give farmers, land and water resource managers, and decision-makers more accurate data on the farm-specific level, allowing for higher drought preparation, mitigation, and adaptation. “We expect to make our data open-access online, after we finish the project, in order that farmers and other stakeholders can use the maps as tools,” says Jiao. 

Terrer adds that the project “has the potential to assist us higher understand the long run states of climate systems, and likewise discover the regional hot spots more more likely to experience water crises on the national, state, local, and tribal government scales.” He also expects the project will enhance our understanding of worldwide carbon-water-energy cycle responses to drought, with applications in determining climate change impacts on natural ecosystems as an entire.


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