Journal cover Journal topic
Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
© Author(s) 2017. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Review article
09 Feb 2017
Review status
A revision of this discussion paper was accepted for the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (HESS) and is expected to appear here in due course.
The Future of Earth Observation in Hydrology
Matthew F. McCabe1, Matthew Rodell2, Douglas E. Alsdorf3, Diego G. Miralles4, Remko Uijlenhoet5, Wolfgang Wagner6,7, Arko Lucieer8, Rasmus Houborg1, Niko E. C. Verhoest4, Trenton E. Franz9, Jiancheng Shi10, Huilin Gao11, and Eric F. Wood12 1Water Desalination and Reuse Center, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia
2Hydrological Science Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Greenbelt, Maryland, United States
3Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA
4Laboratory of Hydrology and Water Management, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
5Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management Group, Wageningen University, the Netherlands
6Department of Geodesy and Geoinformation, Technische Universität Wien, Austria
7Center for Water Resource Systems, Technische Universität Wien, Austria
8School of Land and Food, University of Tasmania, Hobart, TAS 7001, Australia
9School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68583, USA
10State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing Science, Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China
11Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843, United States
12Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Abstract. In just the past five years, the field of Earth observation has evolved from the relatively staid approaches of government space agencies into a plethora of sensing opportunities afforded by CubeSats, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and smartphone technologies that have been embraced by both for-profit companies and individual researchers. Over the previous decades, space agency efforts have brought forth well-known and immensely useful satellites such as the Landsat series and the Gravity Research and Climate Experiment (GRACE) system, with costs typically on the order of one billion dollars per satellite and with concept-to-launch timelines on the order of two decades (for new missions). More recently, the proliferation of smartphones has helped to miniaturise sensors and energy requirements, facilitating advances in the use of CubeSats that can be launched by the dozens, while providing 3–5 m resolution sensing of the Earth on a daily basis. Start-up companies that did not exist five years ago now operate more satellites in orbit than any space agency and at costs that are a mere fraction of an agency mission. With these advances come new space-borne measurements, such as high-definition video for understanding real-time cloud formation, storm development, flood propagation, precipitation tracking, or for constructing digital surfaces using structure-from-motion techniques. Closer to the surface, measurements from small unmanned drones and tethered balloons have mapped snow depths, floods, and estimated evaporation at sub-meter resolution, pushing back on spatiotemporal constraints and delivering new process insights. At ground level, precipitation has been measured using signal attenuation between antennae mounted on cell phone towers, while the proliferation of mobile devices has enabled citizenscience to record photos of environmental conditions, estimate daily average temperatures from battery state, and enable the measurement of other hydrologically important variables such as channel depths using commercially available wireless devices. Global internet access is being pursued via high altitude balloons, solar planes, and hundreds of planned satellite launches, providing a means to exploit the Internet of Things as a new measurement domain. Such global access will enable real-time collection of data from billions of smartphones or from remote research platforms. This future will produce petabytes of data that can only be accessed via cloud storage and will require new analytical approaches to interpret. The extent to which today's hydrologic models can usefully ingest such massive data volumes is not clear. Nor is it clear whether this deluge of data will be usefully exploited, either because the measurements are superfluous, inconsistent, not accurate enough, or simply because we lack the capacity to process and analyse them. What is apparent is that the tools and techniques afforded by this array of novel and game-changing sensing platforms presents our community with a unique opportunity to develop new insights that advance fundamental aspects of the hydrological sciences. To accomplish this will require more than just an application of the technology: in some cases, it will demand a radical rethink on how we utilise and exploit these new observation platforms to enhance our understanding of the Earth system.

Citation: McCabe, M. F., Rodell, M., Alsdorf, D. E., Miralles, D. G., Uijlenhoet, R., Wagner, W., Lucieer, A., Houborg, R., Verhoest, N. E. C., Franz, T. E., Shi, J., Gao, H., and Wood, E. F.: The Future of Earth Observation in Hydrology, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss.,, in review, 2017.
Matthew F. McCabe et al.

Video supplement

IRIS Dubai Video
D. Bonney
Matthew F. McCabe et al.


Total article views: 1,144 (including HTML, PDF, and XML)

HTML PDF XML Total Supplement BibTeX EndNote
719 391 34 1,144 35 13 45

Views and downloads (calculated since 09 Feb 2017)

Cumulative views and downloads (calculated since 09 Feb 2017)

Viewed (geographical distribution)

Total article views: 1,144 (including HTML, PDF, and XML)

Thereof 1,131 with geography defined and 13 with unknown origin.

Country # Views %
  • 1



Latest update: 24 Jul 2017
Publications Copernicus
Short summary
We examine the opportunities and challenges that technological advances in Earth observation will present to the hydrological community. From advanced space-based sensors, to unmanned aerial vehicles and ground-based distributed networks, these emergent systems are set to revolutionise our understanding and interpretation of hydrological and related processes.
We examine the opportunities and challenges that technological advances in Earth observation...