Artist rendering of NASA's SWOT satellite

Engineer Awarded $2.1M Grant to Create Global Open-Source Software System for Tracking Water and Sediment in Earth’s Rivers Using NASA Satellite Data

The work will create a cloud-based software system providing unprecedented public access to data from the first global satellite survey of the planet’s surface water

University of Massachusetts geoscientist and engineer Colin Gleason has received a $2.1 NASA million grant to work with computer science colleagues at UMass Amherst and the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., to create a cloud-based software system providing unprecedented public access to satellite data on Earth’s water quantity and quality.

colin gleason
Colin Gleason

Under the new grant, Gleason and Co-Principal Investigator Subhransu Maji, associate professor in the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences, will create an analytic collaborative framework that will provide hydrologists and others with access to data gathered by SWOT and two other satellites, NASA’s Landsat and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2. This will give unprecedented access to, information about the flow and sediment load in every river on Earth wider than 50 meters. Other partners on the grant are Tamlin Pavelsky, University of North Carolina; John Gardner, University of Pittsburgh; and Suresh Vannan and Nikki Tebaldi, JPL.

“This project is exciting because it’s bringing software engineering from NASA together with computer vision research here at UMass Amherst and sediment experts from UNC and Pitt,” says Gleason, a co-investigator on the SWOT Mission Science Team.

Scheduled to launch in late 2022 on a SpaceX rocket, the SUV-sized SWOT will collect data on ocean heights to study currents and eddies up to five times smaller than have been previously detectable. It will also gather detailed information on freshwater lakes and rivers. Accurate river flow and sediment estimates are useful for analyses of flood hazards, studies of ecological diversity and estimates of the volume of greenhouse gases released by rivers and reservoirs due to bacterial activity, NASA says.

There is currently no database available to provide near-real time information on river depth, discharge and sediment load, let alone one that is publicly available. Those who need access to it currently have to download raw data and run their own models.

“We know that hydrologists need it, so we’re going to build it,” Gleason says.

Artist rendering of NASA's SWOT satellite
Image caption: Artist's impression of the future SWOT satellite making sea surface height observations, even through clouds. Credit: CNES

Because the data are available in near real time, “you can build it into operational forecasts, irrigation forecasts, reservoir operations forecasts, flood models. So it’s really water managers and agricultural districts who are already using models of river discharge who can use it right away,” Gleason says. “It’s also especially helpful for flood and siltation prediction forecasts over, for instance, the Himalaya as glaciers melt and release a currently unknown volume of water and sediment downstream into the world’s most densely populated land area.”

As for the impact the framework will have on his and other earth scientists’ research, “It’s a total sea change,” he says. “We want to know how much water is in the world’s rivers. This will tell us.”

The goal is to have all the data go public a year after the SWOT launch, sometime in late 2023, Gleason says.

For more information on SWOT, visit: