Determining the Destiny of the World’s Deltas—from Space

Robert Twilley, Executive Director of the Louisiana Sea Grant, recently received $773,659 from NASA for a five-year program called Delta-X, working with Principal Investigator Marc Simard of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California:

Robert Twilley with the Delta-X working group at the LSU Center for River Studies on May 29, 2019

Robert Twilley, seated in a chair second from left, with Marc Simard, to his right, and the Delta-X working group gathered at the LSU Center for River Studies on May 29, 2019. (Photo by Elsa Hahne/LSU)


Delta-X is a large-scale effort to develop remote sensing technology to eventually be put on satellites in space to support restoration and protections efforts of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, looking at how much land the Mississippi River can build by delivering sediments to wetlands while competing with relative sea level rise. Based on data from our delta, Delta-X will develop models and algorithms that can predict the future of deltas around the world. Twilley will lead the field work:
“Are you ready for this? There’s a $21 million price tag on this five-year mission— I’m one of a very large team. Most of the money actually goes to airplanes. Sensors are to be put on satellites, but before they do that, they go through very rigorous testing to make sure that all of the applications that sensor will provide to society are working, translating the algorithms.

“This mission is focused on how satellites can measure the flux of water in deltas around the world. Why is this important? Well, water transports sediment, and you can figure out how much land is being built by this sediment versus the general sea level rise. If you don’t have enough sediment, your delta drowns.

“We’re measuring the Mississippi River delta, bringing in airplanes from California and Texas. We measure the angle of water, the elevation of water, the concentration of sediment—all the characteristics. Then we can tell you if that delta is going to survive, and although we’re using the Mississippi River as our test delta, the idea is that we’re then going to do this from space and do it to all deltas around the world, building models to translate how much land will be built.

“Our job at LSU is that we’re responsible for the field campaign. Actually, there are two—two campaigns of 14 days. We’ll station the airplanes in New Orleans and fly with these sensors and take measurements over the Atchafalaya basin and northwest of Terrebonne Bay, down by Morgan City. We have to connect the data from the sensors to what’s actually happening in the deltas. That’s how you build these models, and we’re responsible for organizing the field work. We had a kickoff meeting this month on May 29 at the Center for River Studies. We’ll start flying in April of 2020 and do our second campaign in October. We won’t know what the flooding condition will be, but the idea is to get a high river stage in April and a low river stage in the fall.

“Other than us here at LSU, we have people involved from Boston University, Caltech, University of North Carolina, University of Texas at Austin, Florida International University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and then, of course, NASA headquarters and NASA Langley. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, is the lead agency for the project.

“Working with NASA on this project is quite something. You have to go through all of these different mission criteria, and mission critical backup plans.

“We’ve already briefed the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the Water Institute. It’s my hope this project will help with coastal restoration planning here in Louisiana as well.”


Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development