NASA Grant Funds Congo River Basin Research
January 5, 2012
Toby Weber

With a surface area of approximately 2.3 million square miles, the Congo River Basin is the second largest river basin in the world, surpassed only by the Amazon.

Compared to the Amazon, though, the Congo basin is a mystery. Its remote location combined with political instability in the region have prevented geoscientists from gathering even the most basic information about the basin: How much water exists in its wetlands? Is most of this water from direct precipitation, river flooding or upland runoff? How much of the basin is wetland? All these are unknown.

Hyongki Lee, assistant professor in the Cullen College’s Department of Civil and Engineering, recently won a $663,000 grant from NASA to answer such questions. According to Lee, this research should give researchers a better understanding of everything from regional climate to greenhouse gas emissions.

“There is not much data [on the basin] so modeling is very limited,” said Lee. “As a consequence, the other important estimates based on the terrestrial dynamics of the Congo basin, such as the methane emissions of its flooded wetlands and its contributions to global methane levels, cannot be well known.”

Lee, who joined the college this fall, won’t be traveling to Africa to conduct this work. Instead, he’ll rely on unanalyzed data already collected from satellites operated by the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA.

These satellites have gathered data through optical sensing of the region, radar topography and the creation of gravity maps, which show areas of the earth with significant mass change due to terrestrial water storage change, such as in tropical rainforests. Lee and his research team will combine and process this data to answer the most basic questions about the Congo wetlands.

Combining multiple types of data from different satellites is basically unheard of in hydrologic research, Lee noted. If successful, this work will provide investigators with an entirely new method for studying areas of the planet that are otherwise inaccessible.

“This is a new combination of technologies for this application,” said Lee. “It’s a first attempt. That’s one of the reasons we proposed it.”

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