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Posted on March 7th, 2023

Our Changing Landscape – Atmospheric Rivers Increase California Reservoir Levels

In this monthly feature, we span the globe to examine Our Changing Landscape with a time series of medium-resolution PlanetScope satellite imagery. The PlanetScope constellation dates back to 2016 and collects hundreds of millions of square kilometers of four and eight-band 3-meter imagery daily! In February, we looked at the Keystone Pipeline Oil Leak. This month, we’re headed to the state of California to look at how the recent atmospheric rivers have helped filled local reservoirs – as well as leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Click on the image above to see an animation of 3-meter natural color PlanetScope imagery collected over Lake Oroville, California on December 14, 2022 and January 22, 2023. We chose these images as they were both close to the maximum and minimum water depths Lake Oroville had experienced in the past 6 months and they were also cloud free. And sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words as is the case here as the water levels are dramatically different in the 2022 and 2023 images. In fact, according to data from the State of California Department of Water Resources, on December 14th, the lake’s depth stood at just 668.14 feet, and by January 22nd it had a dramatic increase to 798.3 feet which is a 130.16 foot increase or about a 20% increase. (Images Courtesy: © Planet 2023)

The PlanetScope Microsat Constellation

PlanetScope is a constellation of more than 240 microsats (as of January 2022) referred to individually as Doves. Each Dove is able to collect up to 20,000 square kilometers (sq km) per day of 3-meter (m) 4-band multispectral (i.e. blue, green, red and near-infrared [NIR]) imagery; and newly launched SuperDoves collect 8-band multispectral adding in valuable red-edge spectral data. Across the constellation, PlanetScope is archiving more than 200 million sq km of medium-resolution imagery a day, making it the go to source for daily imagery over most locations. This massive archive dates back to 2016, offering the most complete and continuous record of spatial data on the planet since the start of the constellation’s ongoing launch schedule. Collecting 3-meter multispectral imagery is the equivalent of ‘high-resolution’ multispectral data imaged by a 75-centimer (cm) satellite (as this satellite would feature 75-cm panchromatic and 3-m multispectral), making PlanetScope an extremely competitively priced option at just $1.80 per sq km. With well registered images and nearly daily collections of most locations, PlanetScope is the ideal imagery source for this current-events focused series, Our Changing Landscape.

January 2023 California Atmospheric Rivers Increase Statewide Reservoir Levels

Since the start of 2023, the state of California has been swept by a series of storms carried along an atmospheric river. Atmospheric rivers are narrow, windy airstreams in the atmosphere that transport moisture molecules for thousands of miles, much like a river moves water on land.

The storms carried by the atmospheric river have dumped record-breaking amounts of water across the state, causing evacuations, flooding and infrastructure damage. On New Year’s Eve, San Francisco recorded nearly 6 inches of rain in 24 hours, resulting in the second rainiest day on record since 1849. Nearly 34,000 people have been evacuated from their homes to-date; and 17 Californians have been killed by the storms and their related events, including toppled trees and lightning strikes. The amount of water carried by the storms is in extreme polarity to the droughts California experienced just last year, as in 2022, the state experienced its third year of drought, and its driest year ever recorded.

The amount of water that has drenched California in 2023 is in stark contrast to the intensity of the droughts experience over the last few years. According to the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, “This weather whiplash is a new reality. In this state, emergency mindset is ever-present. This has happened in the middle of a mega drought. The dries are getting drier, and the wets are getting a lot wetter.” Scientists speculate that the cause for these intensifying weather patterns can be traced back to global climate change.

Perhaps the silver lining of the catastrophic rains is the much needed restock Californian reservoirs are experiencing. Located north of Sacramento, Lake Oroville is the state’s second largest reservoir and it has been the most impacted by the heavy rains. Between December 26, 2022 and January 9, 2023, the reservoirs water levels rose an incredible 62 feet. This will help restore some of the state’s water storage capacity, and hopefully relieve some of the strain on water availability. Now it is time to turn to the 3-meter PlanetScope archive for a visual record of the change in Lake Oroville’s water levels.

If you would like to find out more about using 3-meter PlanetScope imagery for your academic studies, engineering projects or any landscape analysis, let us know at or (303) 993-3863.

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