We’ve discussed earth observation satellites a number of times on this blog in the past few weeks. Much of our focus thus far has been on the utility of these satellites in helping us understand and monitor environmental and climate change. But another one of their many uses is helping countries track and respond to natural disasters. In fact, earth observation satellites have been used in a number of capacities in responding to the recent crises in Japan.
First, a little background is in order. Immediately after the earthquake the Japanese government invoked the international charter “Space and Natural Disasters.” This charter was originally created in a joint effort by the European Space Agency and the French space agency, CNES, after the UNISPACEIII Conference in Vienna in July 1999. It became fully operational on November 1, 2000. Its purpose is to coordinate the world’s satellite capabilities from the different space agencies and the private sector in the wake of natural disasters.
Once the government in Tokyo activated the charter, numerous satellites sprung into action. To be exact, 63 different observations were made within the first 48 hours. These were used to assess the damage, identify areas in desperate need, locate survivors and coordinate the resources for the recovery. Later satellite images were also used to monitor and respond to the nuclear crisis.
The satellites collecting data came from both countries and the private sector. Among the countries that deployed their satellites to aid in the effort were Germany, France, the United States and even some satellites from China. Particularly remarkable was the substantial role that the private sector took on in responding to the disaster. The assistance from Geo-eye, a company headquartered out of Dulles, Virginia, was particularly remarkable. Using the Geo-eye 1 satellite, the highest-resolution commercial earth observation satellite in the world, the company captured stunning images of the damage the natural disasters had created around the Northeastern coast of Japan and the nuclear reactors. In conjunction with Google, Geo-eye used software that allowed consumers to compare pre- and post-quake images of the same area side by side. A number of news services including the New York Times and the BBC have put this service up on their websites. Other private companies that responded to the effort were Rapideye and DigitalGlobe.
But as the world found out during the Haiti earthquake crisis, too much data from too many sources can become more of a burden than an asset for responders. The key to preventing this is making sure the satellite efforts are coordinated in an efficient manner; hence the purpose of the charter. In the Japan crisis, the earth observation effort has been primarily coordinated through Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and, to a lesser degree, the Asian Institute of Technology. In addition, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), through its UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER), has taken a leading role in compiling a list of the different organizations involved in the effort. Thus far it seems that the coordination efforts have been better than they were last year in Haiti.
Looking forward, it seems earth monitoring especially for responding to natural disasters offers fertile ground for enhanced multilateral cooperation. As China’s assistance in the wake of Japan’s earthquake despite the recent tensions between the two demonstrates, earth monitoring efforts can help reduce geopolitical tensions. In addition, greater multilateral cooperation could help to mitigate the adverse consequences that reducing America’s own earth monitoring capabilities will have.
Photo: NASA’s Terra satellite's first view of northeastern Japan in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami reveal extensive flooding along the coast. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) acquired the right image of the Sendai region on March 12, 2011, at 10:30 a.m. The left image, taken by Terra MODIS on February 26, 2011, is provided as a point of reference. Water is black or dark blue in these images. It is difficult to see the coastline in the March 12 image, but a thin green line outlines the shore. This green line is higher-elevation land that is above water, presumably preventing the flood of water from returning to the sea. The flood indicator on the left image illustrates how far inland the flood extends. Photo and caption courtesy of NASA.