Notes from the Field

Q&A: Life in the Field with SMAPEx-4

May 22nd, 2015 by Kasha Patel

Researcher Amy McNally spent two weeks in Yanco, Australia to participate in the three week Soil Moisture Active Passive Experiment-4 (SMAPEx-4) field campaign in May. The field campaign measures soil moisture and related data using ground and airborne instruments. The data is used to validate actual data and algorithms from the SMAP satellite. In the following Q&A, McNally shares her experience on the SMAPEx-4 ground validation team and her first impressions of Australia.

end of day

McNally and her team pack up at the end of a long day of taking ground measurements (photographer Amy McNally)

 NASA: What do you do at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for your day job?

McNally: I am a Post-doctoral researcher in the hydrologic sciences lab, where I am customizing the NASA Land Information System for food and water security applications in Africa and the Middle East. This work supports the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). Day-to-day, I run hydrologic models that use remotely sensed, satellite inputs (rainfall, vegetation, and soil moisture) and use the outputs to answer USAID’s questions about, for example, the current water crises in western Yemen and southern Botswana. 

What are your tasks in the SMAPEx-4 field campaign? 

Starting at six every morning, we are measuring near-surface soil moisture and recording the land use/land cover type (mostly, crops and pastures), vegetation height, and the presence/absence of irrigation. We sample every 250 meters (0.15 miles), which adds up to walking about 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) a day over 5 hours.

How does your fieldwork compare and contrast to your job back at Goddard?

The work is very different! This fieldwork is physical labor – 9 km of walking is a lot for people who normally sit at a desk. However, it is still important to pay attention to details, stay organized, be efficient with time, troubleshoot problems with equipment (including the mini-computer/data logger and software) and help out other members of the team. 

What do you enjoy about being part of SMAPEx-4?

First, we get to meet other scientists from all over the world who are interested in remote sensing hydrology. My sampling team has people from South Korea, China, Iran, Panama and Australia. Our similar research experiences are a good starting point for conversations about all of our differences – in research (ranging from algorithm development to downscaling to applications) and culture (food, language and customs). 

Second, it’s also great to be walking in the outdoors for hours. And of course, just being in Australia! We see so many different types of birds (emus!), as well as kangaroos, foxes and lots of sheep. But nothing tops the koalas!

How has this experience changed your perspective on how you understand SMAP data?

This was a great opportunity to learn more about the SMAP mission as well as other current microwave satellites (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity and Aquarius). Since I work on SMAP applications, it was interesting to learn more about the airborne active and passive sensors, and the design of the field sampling strategy that will be used for calibration/validation activities. I have greater appreciation for all the hard work that so many people are doing to make the SMAP mission a success. 

For more updates from the field, visit the SMAPEx-4 blog.

Amy NcNally (Front) of NASA, Alex White (Far left) of USDA and other members learn how to operate their field equipment.

Amy NcNally (Front) of NASA, Alex White (Far left) of USDA and other members learn how to operate their field equipment. (Photographer Lynn McKee)

group shot

McNally with her ground validation team. Photographed from left to right: Amy McNally, Fuqin Li, Sabah Sabaghy, Seokhyeon Kim (photographer/captain Alan Marks)

regional sampling day

Taking ground measurements in the field on a particularly windy day with potentially rainy clouds (photographer Amy McNally)


Spotting a koala while out in the field (photographer Amy McNally)


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