AUSTIN (KXAN) – Water is facing an uncertain future amid the global climate crisis. In Central Texas, extreme droughts and rapid development have placed the fate of our water supply in doubt. Similar problems are occurring, not just across Texas, but around the world.

NASA is attempting to track these changes. The space administration is launching a new mission, SWOT, to do just that. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite is expected to launch Dec. 15.

“SWOT is a mission that will measure the height of water around the world. That means our global oceans, but also inland water, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs at a fidelity we’ve never seen before,” said Karen St. Germaine, Earth Science Division Director at NASA.

SWOT will be NASA’s first attempt to survey every waterway on the planet.

According to St. Germaine, the satellite will use radar to scan the height of bodies of water around the world. This will include not just the ocean, but rivers and creeks as well.

“It will give us an image of the height of the water, which we’ve never had before. And that’s how we’re going to get the real detailed picture. Images from space tell us where there’s water, but SWOT is going to do is tell us how much is there, how high those water levels are.”

Radar systems aboard the SWOT mission will scan the surface of every body of water on Earth. (Courtesy: NASA)

SWOT and climate change research

One of the most important aspects of SWOT is the role it will play in climate change research. SWOT will be able to detect where and how the ocean is absorbing heat.

More than 90% of the heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions is absorbed by the Earth’s oceans.

According to NASA, smaller waterways that haven’t been explored as much, like fronts and eddies, absorb much of the heat humans have generated with greenhouse gas emissions. Fronts are where water masses collide, while eddies are circular currents in the ocean.

“There are large variations in the ocean topography, the oceans are very dynamic. And with currents and eddies that carry heat and, and nutrients around the world,” St. Germaine said.

SWOT will give scientists a deeper scan of the features as well as track sea level rise.

The satellite will also give us a better understanding of how the water cycle is changing as a direct result of the climate crisis. “Anyone who cares about water really is going to benefit from this very detailed view of the water cycle,” St. Germaine said.

The SWOT mission is part of a partnership between NASA and France’s space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES). It is part of a three-decade-old partnership between the agencies to study the planet and its features.