Prof. Larson, can you please describe how your professional (and/or personal) experience relate to space technologies and water?

My research career has been focused on using the Global Positioning System. I wish I could say that I foresaw the role of GPS in water research, but it was really serendipity. After spending the first decade of my career measuring things I had been trained to measure, I started thinking about how hydrological parameters could be measured with GPS.  And we could not have achieved our research goals without funding from NSF and NASA.

Your work demonstrated that that GPS receivers can be used to detect the water content of soil, the depth of snow, snow water equivalent, and vegetation water content. In 2012 you showed that GPS networks are capable of interferometric reflectometry (GPS IR). Can you tell us more about the potential of this technology?  

My group successfully applied the technology to data from GPS networks in the western United States and Canada. Most recently I have been adapting the technique for new purposes, like measuring water levels in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. I am also trying to work on better ways to make the technology available by building a web app.

Could you tell us about your latest project or your proudest professional moment?

I think the most satisfying research moment was the morning I realized we were successfully measuring seismic waves from the Denali, Alaska earthquake.  From a career perspective, I think it would be when I received the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Water Prize for creativity.

What do you need to innovate?

That’s an interesting question. I guess you need to be willing to be different. Scientists and engineers receive a lot of training to do certain kinds of things. And it is natural that they then want to use those skill sets. But if you want to innovate, I think you need to be willing to look outside your area of expertise. My doctoral dissertation was devoted to measuring plate tectonics in southern California – so pretty far from hydrology. But I was curious about errors I saw when measuring plate tectonics, and that ultimately led me to doing environmental research in hydrology.

What do you think is poorly understood or unresolved within the area of sustainable water management and research? Why is this so? How do you believe space technologies add value?

Space technology plays a really big role in characterizing water resources. But perhaps when that information is conveyed to the public, they don’t realize where the data from those weather forecasts are coming from.  We need to do a better job of making those links for people.

What do you see as the main conflicts (of analysis, priority, or value) among those who research water (and space technologies) and those who manage water?

Sometimes I feel like people are waiting for the one new system that can do everything. But I don’t think there is one answer. We need measurements from both satellites and from the ground. And we need to make it easier for people to access these measurements.  

What is your favourite aggregate state of water?

I don’t have one.

If there is anything else you would like to share with an audience of professionals, with young professionals and other practitioners in the space and water domain, what would it be?

If someone tells you that you can’t do something, listen to their technical criticisms.  But don’t let them stop your curiosity.  Life is pretty boring if you only work on solved problems.