Next Big Thing

How Space Technology Impacts Disaster Management

Jan 15, 2019

Disasters, like earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, etc. have detrimental effects on national productivity and human lives causing damage, loss of property, and death. Seconds count in this business. One of the important ways to avoid these potential risks is to develop technologies for early prediction and effective reactions to disasters. Let’s take a closer look at how disaster management can take advantage of space technologies to save more lives and respond more quickly.

What is disaster management?

The United Nations defines a disaster as a massive disruption of social functioning that leads to far-reaching human, environmental, economic and infrastructure impacts. In the majority of cases, disasters are caused by nature, but they also may have human causes. Disaster management is the process by which people prepare, react and learn from the human, physical and other effects of these emergency events.

In the meaning of response and recovery, there is a stark contrast between the terms disaster and emergency. While an emergency is an incident that can be coped with by local resources,  disasters impacts overpower the capabilities of local responders. If an event is declared a “disaster”, there is need for wider or even foreign aid to deal with the impacts.

The disaster management process can be generally divided into three parts:

1. Early-warning (if the event is predictable). This involves evacuating people and mobile property to a relatively safe place.

2. Disaster relief. This is the most critical step which consists of organizing relief camps and air dropping of food, medicine, and other supplies.

3. Rehabilitation, or providing victims with essential services to restore living conditions until the situation normalizes.

According to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Asian and the Pacific Rim countries are the most sensitive to disasters. China, USA, Philippines, India, and Indonesia crowd the top of the list the countries most affected by natural disasters.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reported that for 10 years since 2005 the economic and human impact of disasters amounted to $1.4 trillion in damage. 1.7 billion people were affected and 700,000 people have been killed. Around 70% of deaths are caused by earthquakes and tsunamis.

Why space technology matter

Space technologies have an advantageous position for providing critical information and services for disaster management. Earth Observation satellites cover large surface areas in real time and can be a valuable instrument for continual disaster monitoring.

According to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Asian and the Pacific Rim countries are the most sensitive to disasters

Satellite imagery can be used to cast light on seismological conditions in earthquake prone zones. A geographic information system (GIS) is a good instrument for pre-disaster planning when specialists are creating maps of lifelines and infrastructure. Remote sensing technology may update information about the most suitable places for telecommunication, power networks, bridges, power generation plants, etc. On the other hand, planners can quickly identify high-risk areas and preplan their emergency response ahead of time.

According to Futurism magazine, numerous threats aren’t monitored because they haven’t broken out in some time or because they are in underdeveloped areas. Also, some signals are too subtle to be caught on earth, but they can become more perceptible with satellite technologies. A radar technique which is called interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) uses comparative images to get detailed visualization of the average movement of the Earth’s surface. InSAR’s satellites proved their advantages for geology while monitoring a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2014 and an earthquake in New Zealand in 2016. Both cases have shown that satellite images can help people to predict disasters even when we are not sure what’s coming.

A geographic information system (GIS) is a good instrument for pre-disaster planning when specialists are creating maps of lifelines and infrastructure

Francesco Pisano from The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) recalls how satellite maps and GIS technology have come into widespread acceptance after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. This tsunami was the first event of its kind to be recorded from space as the front wave was still propagating through the sea. About 650 satellite images were produced in order to assess the extent of the emergency. Then, this data was used by coordinators for emergency response, including for logistics, distribution, staff security, transport and the setting up of refugee camps and telecommunication networks.

Broad-scale events like tsunamis often require various types of imagery, including high-resolution maps. This imagery may be useful for relief workers who are comparing information to locate villages and other habitated areas that are no longer visible on the ground. Comparing pre- and post-disaster information derived from space maps could be an important way of improving the efficacy of humanitarian relief.

Research about the visual interpretation of satellite images in crisis management, conducted in 2014 showed that the key advantage of using aerial photographs in crisis management is their good readability and lower requirements for abstract thinking, which can be reduced as a result of stress. However, it is preferable to supplement the aerial photograph with a clear description and other themed supplements.

Some significant disaster management programs

In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly acknowledged that earth observation and other satellite technologies can play an important role for decision makers when disasters occur. Later, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs created a platform called UN-SPIDER. This program uses space-based information for emergency response and disaster management. UN-SPIDER provides developing countries specialized technologies that can be vital in all stages of the disaster management cycle including prevention, preparedness, early warning, response, and reconstruction.

One more initiative from the United Nations was released in 2015. World leaders have agreed on a new global framework for disaster risk reduction through 2030. The document refers to the importance of Space-based and geospatial information to “develop and update periodically location-based disaster risk information to decision-makers, the general public and communities”.

Comparing pre- and post-disaster information derived from space maps could be an important way of improving the efficacy of humanitarian relief

National Aeronautics and Space Administration has its own Disasters Program which facilitates using Earth observations to advance the process of disaster management. The NASA Earth Science Disasters Program also connects natural disaster response agencies and other Earth-observing space organizations around the globe. The program is based on the wealth of environmental data gathered by NASA satellites over many years.

The European Space Agency is also contributing to this infrastructure. The Agency has dozen of projects for emergency response. For instance, a unified system of space data acquisition and delivery of the Disaster Charter,  a service to manage the human resources in the field in near real-time; I-GARMENT, a satellite-based communication system for managing emergency situations EMERGSAT; etc.

The European Commission has a science and knowledge center – The Joint Research Centre (JRC). It focuses on the automatic analysis of satellite data to provide informational and analytical services for disaster risk reduction and conflict prevention. The major JRC project is the Global Human Settlement Layer which identifies all populated places in the world. The JRC also supports the Emergency Management Service (EMS) of the Copernicus programme that addresses both natural and man-made disasters inside and outside the EU.

The European Union project Copernicus is a programme designed to develop information products based on satellite and non-space data. Copernicus EMS is composed of a requested mapping component providing rapid maps for emergency response and recovery maps for prevention and planning. There is also an early warning and monitoring component which includes systems for droughts, floods, and forest fires. The largest EMS projects are the European & Global Flood Awareness System, European Forest Fire Information System and Drought Observatory.

Private companies have also create solutions for disaster management. Among scores of services, Earth Observing System (EOS) offers accident and rescue programs for emergency response teams. EOS technologies have already been applied in some cases, e.g. applying a thermal infrared channel to identify fires, creating an aerial imagery-based algorithm to create an accurate model of damaged electric lines and monitoring areas affected by seasonal floods, hurricanes, and tropical cyclones from Optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar surveys.

Space technologies have plenty of obvious advantages for disaster prediction and response. Satellites are the only wireless communications infrastructure that are not sensitive to damage from disasters because they are located outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Moreover, satellites are able to rapidly provide a whole picture of the entire event. The cost of satellite bandwidth has dropped in recent years. Earlier the technology would have been priced out of reach for many disaster recovery plans, but now this is no longer the case.

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