Remote Sensing Helps Explain How Farmers Can Track and Tackle Droughts in Iowa

Despite an extreme drought in northwestern Iowa throughout the summer of 2022, the overall corn condition was better than in the previous two years. EOS Data Analytics, a global provider of AI-powered satellite imagery analytics, explored the causes of these phenomena and explained how Iowa farmers tackle such prolonged dry conditions.

What Is So Special About Iowa Climate?

During the last few decades, climate change had been bringing positive effects on crop growth and reproduction. However, it is now reaching a point where it causes more harm than good. Growing temperatures during summer heat waves will gradually increase the chances of failed corn pollination, the most critical stage of corn pollination affecting the size of the yield.


To make sure corn pollination goes well, farmers must ensure sufficient moisture in the soil and optimal air temperatures. This is what remote sensing data allows farmers to track and even anticipate.

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To demonstrate it, EOS Data Analytics studied a cornfield between Danbury and Sioux City in northwestern Iowa.

Analyzing Satellite Data To Study Drought Effects On Corn

Data provided by EOSDA Crop Monitoring, an online satellite-based precision agriculture platform for field monitoring, reveals rainfalls prior to the 2022 summer drought were able to saturate the soil with moisture well, and overnight temperatures during the drought were low enough to keep that moisture in the soil.

Soil Moisture Source EOS Data Analytics

The dynamics of soil moisture and precipitation change during the 2022 summer drought. Source: EOS Data Analytics

Dr. Justin Glisan, Atmospheric Scientist, confirmed that timely rainfalls coupled with cooler temperatures help mitigate drought intensification.

Another way to help corn crops is to put extra irrigation efforts in certain months and make use of subsurface drainage tiles during others. But the amount of such effort depends on the soil type and groundwater table. This is where historical satellite data might come in handy as it helps evaluate the soil’s ability to keep moisture during extreme events such as droughts.

The NDMI change dynamics in EOSDA Crop Monitoring, for instance, reveals the 2022 droughts didn’t affect soil moisture on a studied field meaning that corn pollination has a good chance to perform well despite prolonged periods of dry weather. And the up-to-date NDRE map of the field – as seen from a satellite – allows noticing crop stress during the time that is critical for pollination and helps relieve it.

The NDRE index helps monitor the health of crops by measuring the amount of chlorophyll in the plants. Sick and damaged plants do not produce enough chlorophyll. Here we can see the growing season went quite well and by October 1, the crops were successfully harvested on the studied cornfield. Video: EOS Data Analytics

Next, EOS Data Analytics experts learned from Dr. Mark Licht, an Associate Professor and Extension Cropping System Specialist at Iowa State University, that farmers spread out risks by planting a range of corn varieties at different time frames. He says that there are corn families like Bayer, Syngenta, and Corteva that have hybrids that are drought-tolerant but do not yield well when there is enough rainfall during the growing season.

Finally, different seed treatments also help farmers protect roots from insect pests or fungal pathogens affecting water use efficiency.

Anticipating Climate Challenges From Space: Is It Possible?

Tools like EOSDA Crop Monitoring provide weather forecasts for its users. However, 30-to-60-day forecasts are only directionally correct. Sometimes, winter weather can bring additional insights into the upcoming growing season. For instance, as of March 2023, satellite data shows Iowa had very little rainfall this winter and the growing season is expected to be more challenging due to drier soil.

One way to tackle the problem strategically and on a global scale is to turn to modern carbon management techniques helping to slow down climate change.

And in a mid-term perspective, farmers can expect more land management practices, agronomic research, and new advancements in technologies like remote sensing to help them be even more proactive with the ways they take care of their crops.