CBC News (Canada)
August 12, 2009

Canada researchers will be keeping a close eye on a Saskatchewan farm this growing season as part of an international effort to better track changes in agriculture from orbit.

The European Space Agency has chosen Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Indian Head, Sask., research farm as one of three locations it will monitor in 2009 with the aid of radar imagery.

The purpose is to see if radar images can be a reliable tool for measuring agricultural information such as land use, crop type and yield, and environmental conditions such as soil moisture and weather.

Radar satellites can peer through cloud cover, potentially providing scientists with year-round imagery, but the question is whether they can be as accurate as visual satellite imagery in monitoring agriculture from the sky.

"They want to see whether or not radar is powerful enough to discriminate between different crops," said Indian Head researcher Guy Lafond.

"And because we are in an area where crop diversification is very high, we pretty well grow all of the major crops grown in western Canada in this area," he told CBC News.

New potential tool for farmers

Lafond will be working alongside researchers from the University of Regina and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the maker of Radarsat-2, to monitor the satellite imagery and compare it with ground-based observations.

If radar imagery proves accurate, it could help farmers know when to send equipment out into the field to seed and harvest crops.

Bruce Barnett, the director of weather and market analysis for the Canadian Wheat Board, said the issue with radar imagery is the level of detail it can produce.

"It is scientifically reliable but still not exactly precise," said Barnett.

When launched in 2007, Radarsat-2 was hailed as the most advanced radar satellites ever built, with sensors capable of resolution of up to three metres.

The satellite was also designed to be used to map other resources as well, including oil, minerals, forests and fisheries, as well as keep an eye on ship traffic and monitor the environment.