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September’s App of the Month: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Surface Soil Moisture Map

Read about Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s outstanding app that shares satellite data through ArcGIS Online to help scientists, government agencies and other organizations better understand soil conditions and water cycle patterns, and enhance emergency preparedness for events such as floods and droughts.

If you were stargazing this summer, you may have seen satellites moving across the sky and wondered what information they sent and received. One of those satellites collects data on the Earth’s surface soil moisture and sea surface salinity. That would be the European Space Agency’s SMOS satelleite (short for Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity). September's App of the Month, developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's (AAFC) GIS team, uses ArcGIS Online to display soil moisture data collected by the SMOS satellite on a weekly basis.

The interactive map shows percent saturated surface soil moisture from SMOS satellite data collected in 2015. Red/orange areas indicate drier surface soils, while green/blue areas denote wetter soils at 25-km resolution.

How the web map supports critical decision-making

By visualizing where conditions are wetter or drier than normal compared to the historical average, government agencies and other organizations across Canada, the US and Mexico can make strategic decisions in various disciplines and industries.

For example, the AAFC uses the information to produce climate-related risk reports. The department combines large amounts of information from different sources to outline the severity and extent of areas where climate conditions present risks to agricultural production.

Meanwhile, analysts with the Northwest Territorial government use the interactive map to improve drought monitoring in remote areas. It allows them to identify areas where dry conditions may lead to forest fires or reduced hydroelectric flows, thus improving emergency preparedness.

At Environment Canada’s Hazard Preparedness Offices in Manitoba, staff engage the web map to observe areas that might be vulnerable to flooding or wild fires. This helps flood forecasters and fire program provincial agencies prepare for potential emergency events.

Moving from static to dynamic maps

Previously, the map was published as a PDF and posted to an ftp site. To make the information more readily available to a broader audience, AAFC’s GIS team created the interactive map by customizing a web map template in ArcGIS Online.

“We wanted to make the information easily accessible,” says James Ashton, who leads the GIS team. “With ArcGIS Online, we’ve created a self-serve app that gets valuable data into the hands of people who need it quickly.”

Each week, updates to the interactive map are initiated by Catherine Champagne, an earth observation scientist with AAFC’s National Agroclimate Information Service. She uses several geoprocessing scripts that run in ArcGIS to develop the data. Once she has created a new map, the map is placed in a shared folder that triggers an automated process created using the Python programming language.

“Automating tasks with Python reduces the amount of manual work required,” notes Catherine. “It allows us to automatically create and integrate a feature service into the web map template in ArcGIS Online, increasing efficiency and reducing human error.”

Now that the surface soil moisture data is served up as a web service through ArcGIS Online, analysts and scientists can easily integrate it with other information, such as crop yield, forest fire and drought forecasts.

All of the data displayed on the interactive map is also published in the federal government open data portal in a variety of formats ranging from static maps to geotiffs. As well, the map conforms with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and can be used by those who are visually or hearing-impaired.

“The interactive map has certainly exceeded our expectations,” adds James. “It receives significantly higher views than our previous PDF map and enables us to make valuable information more accessible to a wider range of users.”

Visit AAFC's website and explore the map. You could even add your own geographic data to do your own analysis. For example, add boundary data for your property to determine if there’s enough soil moisture in your backyard to grow your favourite vegetables.

About the Author

Jasmine Sohal is a GIS Analyst for Esri Canada, holding an Honours Bachelor of Science degree from McMaster University and a post-graduate GIS Applications Specialist certificate from Sir Sandford Fleming College. As a kid, Jasmine refrained from going to new places until she drew a map of how she would get from Point A to Point B. After taking her first Introduction to GIS course at McMaster University, Jasmine knew right away where her passion lay. Now, as a self-proclaimed Geogeek, she is always inspired to visualize situations spatially and applies GIS anywhere she can. In her spare time, Jasmine is a discoverer; for good hiking trails and restaurants, that is. She is always going out to discover beautiful landscapes during her hiking adventures around the province. Off the trails, you can find her discovering new restaurants to dine at. With her open mind and willingness to adapt and learn, Jasmine is excited to see what her future in GIS holds for her.

Profile Photo of Jasmine Sohal