March 23, 2011

Earth Observation Satellites and the Crises in Japan

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

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
t 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.  

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