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February 26th, 2009
The Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) Mission

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PR – Known as ESA’s ‘Water Mission’, SMOS will improve
our understanding of Earth’s water cycle, providing
much-needed data for modelling of the weather
and climate, and increasing the skill in numerical
weather and climate prediction.


One of the highest priorities in Earth science and
environmental policy issues today is to understand the
potential consequences of modification of Earth’s water
cycle due to climate change. The influence of increases in
The Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission
atmospheric greenhouse gases and aerosols on atmospheric
water vapour concentrations, clouds, precipitation patterns
and water availability must be understood in order to predict
the consequences for water availability for consumption and
agriculture.

In a warmer climate, increased evaporation may well
accelerate the water cycle, resulting in changes in the
patterns of evaporation over the ocean and land, and an
increase in the amount of moisture circulating through
the atmosphere. Many uncertainties remain, however,
as illustrated by the inconsistent results given by current
numerical weather and climate prediction models for the
future distribution of precipitation.

Today, there are insufficient data available to help improve
our scientific knowledge and understanding of the processes
influencing the water cycle. So ESA teamed up with the
French space agency CNES and Spanish Centre for the
Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) to address this
key scientific challenge – by delivering a fundamentally new
satellite tool to create these new global datasets.

The resulting regular and consistent measurements will
be used to improve our understanding of the way in which
both the time-varying distribution of soil moisture and
ocean salinity regulate the water cycle of our planet. The Soil
Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission promises to be
one of the trail-blazers that comprise ESA’s Earth Explorers.

The importance of water

The total amount of water in the Earth system is believed
to remain constant, though the portion residing in each
of the primary ‘subsystems’ (land, ocean, cryosphere and
atmosphere) is constantly changing in response to the
complex set of processes that link them.
On the land, the amount of water held in soil at a given
location varies as a function of seasonal rates of evaporation
and precipitation, percolation and ‘runoff’ – as governed by
the type of soil, vegetation and topography. Similarly, in the
ocean, subtle variations in the salinity of the surface brine
are brought about by addition or removal of freshwater due
to changes in evaporation and precipitation, river runoff, or
by melting or freezing of ice in the polar oceans. It is evident
that any changes in the processes that modulate these rates
of exchange of water can have a dramatic impact on Earth’s
water cycle.

In most parts of the world, the amount and temporal
evolution of water present in the soil is the dominant factor
influencing plant growth. However, the retention of water
in the soil is crucial not only to sustain primary productivity,
but is also strongly linked to our weather and climate.
This is because soil moisture is a key variable controlling
the exchange of water and energy between the land and
atmosphere through evaporation and plant transpiration. As
a result, soil moisture plays a key role in the development of
weather patterns over the land surface.

In spite of the water cycle being one of the most
fundamental life-sustaining processes on our planet, this
system remains relatively poorly understood. SMOS is a
direct response to the current lack of global observations of
soil moisture and ocean surface salinity, and has a primary
objective to observe these key variables over a mission
lifetime of at least three years.

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