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Satellite Data in Ag-tion: From Space to Your Plate

Satellite Data in Ag-tion: From Space to Your Plate

As Earth’s climate changes, some places are drying out and others are getting wetter, including the land that produces the food we eat. Farmers have to figure out how to adapt to changing climate conditions.

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Our fleet of satellites has been watching over Earth for more than half a century. Some, like our joint Landsat mission with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), collect valuable data about the crops that make up our food supply and the water it takes to grow them.

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Combining this wealth of satellite data with observations on the ground allows us to track how crop production changes over the years.

For example, this map shows how croplands have changed over the years to feed a growing population. The Agriculture Department (USDA) has used Landsat data since 2008 to track crops growing in the continental United States.

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Agricultural scientists can even focus in on data for individual crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. They can look closely at regional crops, like citrus, that grow in only a few areas.

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This nationwide view — provided by Landsat satellites orbiting 438 miles above Earth — is important to track the nation’s food supply. But with data from other satellites, like our ECOSTRESS instrument and ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Sentinel-2, agricultural scientists can monitor how healthy crops are in real time and predict when they’ll be ready to harvest.

In this false-color image of California farmland, red areas peak early in the season, whereas blue areas peak late. This information helps farmers watch over the plants in their fields, predict when they’ll be ready to harvest, and maximize crop production.

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But while growing more and more crops sounds good, there can be challenges, like water. Especially when there’s not enough of it.

During California’s recent drought, just over 1 million acres of fertile farmland (shown in green) were fallow, or unused (red) in 2015. That’s nearly double the number of unused fields in 2011, the last year with normal rainfall before the drought.

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Irrigating acres and acres of farmland takes lots of water. With remote sensing, scientists can track how irrigation fluctuates with climate change, new water management policies, or new technologies. Research like this helps farmers grow the most crops with the least amount of water.

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As our climate changes, it’s more important than ever for farmers to have the knowledge they need to grow crops in a warming world. The data collected by our Earth-observing satellites help farmers learn about the planet that sustains us — and make better decisions about how to cultivate it.

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