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Interview | Elisa Fagiolini about her startup project WaMoS (Water Monitoring from Space).

Elisa Fagiolini from Section 1.2: Global Geomonitoring and Gravity Field at NASA JPL in Pasadena for the preparation of the GRACE-FO missions (Photo: private).

Ms. Fagiolini, you have developed a special method that allows you to monitor water resources from space. This is based on the so-called hydrogravimetry. Can you briefly explain what hydrogravimetry is?

E.F.: We use measurements of gravity, i.e. gravimetry, to find out about the distribution of water on Earth. With the help of data from the satellite missions GRACE (2002 to 2017) and GRACE-Follow On (since mid-2018) we calculate maps of the Earth's gravitational field every month. These maps not only depict continents and ocean basins with crusts of varying densities, but also the density and mass shifts in the Earth's mantle as well as short-term changes in mass on and below the Earth's surface.

What does this have to do with water?

E.F.: Very much! When ice on Greenland melts, the glaciers there lose mass that flows into the sea. So the oceans gain mass, Greenland loses mass. We can measure that. We can also see that the groundwater reservoirs under California are losing mass - through extraction for irrigation of farms and plantations. On the other hand, we can see when the soil is saturated with water and therefore can no longer absorb rain increasing flood risk. With the help of gravity field measurements we can therefore warn of water shortages in regions as well as of an increased risk of flooding.

This means that agricultural enterprises and civil protection services would be the main target group for the use of your data.

E.F.: They are part of it, yes. But there are a whole range of other potential customers, such as re-/insurance companies or water suppliers. Ultimately, it concerns everyone involved in the management of water resources: government agencies, municipalities, businesses that use a lot of water. WaMoS helps water managers to take better and earlier decisions on water availability and hydrological risks mitigation and production managers to make better predictions of harvests and hydroenergy production, by offering quantitative, complete and independent water related information globally.

However, the data from GRACE and GRACE-Follow on are very large-scale. Greenland is a huge island with more than two million square kilometres, and the Amazon Basin is even bigger, covering a good seven million square kilometres. What should individual companies or authorities gain from this?

E.F.: The data has a global coverage and is accurate enough for specific regions, typically we have a resolution of about 300 kilometers, which corresponds to an area of 90,000 square kilometers. When we talk about drought risks or flood risks, this is already very meaningful. Anyway, spatial resolution is only a part of the story. Standard drought monitoring based on radar and optical data, for example, are very accurate in space but have limit in the depth: they are not able to capture the whole groundwater storage changes and we do. If we want to be accurate in monitoring water stress and availability, we have to be able to measure the complete storage including reservoirs and aquifers, even if at a low spatial resolution first. Our client-specific tools based on gravity-only data, even if at a large scale, are very attractive since they improve existing water balance models and therefore increase the lead time for decision taking. We are also offering higher spatial resolution tools (currently till 5 kilometers) by combining gravity data with hydro-metereological models and our vision is to integrate in the future any existing water monitoring data.

Have you already been able to convince customers?

E.F.: Yes, we have a first customer in Australia, and we are currently expanding our business in Latin America. We are also cooperating with the financial group of the World Bank to better assess drought and flood risks and the associated financial crises.

What about support for such a spin-off?

E.F.: I have received valuable advice and financial support from the GFZ. Above all, however, I am pleased to have received support from the Helmholtz Enterprise programme. Through the "Helmholtz Enterprise Plus" module contained in it, we have hired an external marketing & sales expert to look after the Latin American market.

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