U of I research helps refine Google maps

Complex programs will show water usage each day around the world.

LEWISTON TRIBUNEApril 1, 2014 

MOSCOW - The University of Idaho is in its second year working with Google and its Earth Engine program - an environmental monitoring system designed to provide daily digital mapping of the world.

Google contacted U of I four years ago about incorporating a version of a U of I-developed satellite mapping program that shows water consumption into the Earth Engine.

"They just looked around at who was doing some of the cutting-edge work and just found us and contacted us," said Rick Allen, a water resources engineering professor at University of Idaho's Kimberly Research and Extension Center, the project's lead researcher.

The project is also part of President Barack Obama's Climate Data Initiative announced last week.

Part of the president's larger climate action plan, the initiative is intended to cut carbon pollution, prepare communities for the effects of global climate change and lead international efforts to address climate change, according to a White House news release. The plan also aims to inform citizens of climate changes that are already underway across the nation.

Allen said U of I started mapping evapotranspiration - water consumption by vegetation and evaporation - in 2000.

That's also when researchers began developing the program called Mapping EvapoTranspiration at High Resolution and Internalized Calibration, or METRIC, which uses a Landsat satellite to take thermal images with a 30-meter resolution to show water consumption.

"Which sounds really large, but you can see a lot of human activity at 30 meters," Allen said.

The METRIC program is what Allen is in the process of semi-automating so that it can be applied to the Google Earth Engine called Earth Engine Flux, or E-Flux. Allen said the program's decision-making and calibration has to be fully automated for Google to allow laypeople to use the mapping.

"What we are doing is trying to quantify the consumption of water," Allen said.

Allen has been working for the past five years with colleagues at the University of Nebraska and the Desert Research Institute to establish the METRIC program and create the E-Flux tool. He said the E-Flux tool will be used to estimate the effects of drought.

Allen said working with water consumption is fairly serious, especially irrigation water, because it involves water rights and property. The researchers look at all forms of vegetation and its consumption, but irrigation is an important aspect that has a large affect on water resources.

He said the METRIC program still requires a lot of manual work to ensure researchers are generating the most accurate water consumption maps possible.

"You want to do that manually to make sure you do the best job, eventually you might turn it over to a robot," Allen said.

John Abatzoglou, a geography assistant professor, is also in the process of converting gridded maps he developed to show daily weather in the continental United States into a semiautomatic system. Although, he said his involvement in the project came as a surprise to him.

Abatzoglou said he knew that Allen was using his maps, but didn't know it was part of the Google project. The gridded maps show solar radiation, wind, temperature and precipitation, and the next step for him will be to create a program to operate the maps in real time so they can be ingested into Allen's E-Flux tool. Allen will then use the fields mapped to derive evaporation levels.

"Originally, I had no idea that they (Google) were going to be one of the users of the data," Abatzoglou said.

METRIC also uses another program that Abatzoglou has been developing for the past four years called West Wide Drought Tracker.

That tool basically maps different states, down to a person's backyard, to show drought and temperature scales.

He said the program is already automatic, so he won't need to do any work with it.

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