Joint Fathom and University of Bristol project receives funding from UK Space Agency


The UK Space Agency has announced £206k of funding for the University of Bristol and Fathom to investigate how data on the planet’s surface water currently being collected via an ongoing satellite mission could be used to significantly improve the accuracy of rivers represented in global flood models. 

The project involves using data collected by the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, a satellite launched aboard a Space X Falcon 9 rocket in December 2022, which will measure all of the water on the planet’s surface at 21 day intervals until 2025. Recent advances in open spaceborne digital surface models have substantially improved the terrain data available for flood hazard mapping. However, until the SWOT mission, river water surface elevations  were unknown and had to be estimated.

Thanks to the new funding from the UK Space Agency’s Enabling Technologies Programme, Fathom will explore how the new data collected by SWOT can be used to parametrize, validate and be integrated into global flood models.  A test case of the River Severn is currently underway, using observation data as a benchmark. Meanwhile, the University of Bristol will lead on the academic aspects of the project, including reporting the findings in scientific papers to expose the methodology to peer review. The two organizations have also committed to sharing their findings via the West of England Space Hub.  

Dr Jeffrey Neal, Professor at the University of Bristol and Chief Scientific Officer at Fathom, said:

“The data collected by the SWOT mission has the potential to deliver an order of magnitude change in the accuracy of the models that underpin flood hazard and risk analytics globally, across the insurance, financial, engineering, ESG, government and humanitarian sectors.”

Dr Stephen Chuter, Project Lead at Fathom, said:

“For the first time, NASA’s SWOT mission will allow us to consistently monitor global river levels and flows from space, providing  a step change in our understanding of global hydrology. This funding from the UKSA will allow Fathom to pioneer how the exciting potential of this mission can be used to drive the next generation of global flood models.”

The SWOT satellite mission was first conceptualized in 2004 by a group of scientists including Prof Paul Bates, Chairman at Fathom and Professor of Hydrology at the University of Bristol. He remains a part of the SWOT Mission Science team as a UK lead scientist.

The funding for the new project was announced as part of £4 million of government funding being allocated to 23 projects that could boost UK leadership in new space technologies and applications around the world. If successful, the results of this research will be a clear demonstration of the SWOT mission’s value, and place the UK at the forefront of the next generation of flood hazard modeling. 

Dr Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency, said: 

“Space science and technology has never been more important to life on Earth. The Enabling Technologies Programme demonstrates how our work at the UK Space Agency is empowering scientists and engineers in universities, companies and research institutes to develop new capabilities and advance the technologies of tomorrow. From the use of space data for weather prediction and flood monitoring, to new methods of propulsion and in-orbit servicing, these new projects are great examples of how we can harness the power of space to protect our planet and people.”


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