Earth observation satellites are helping us adapt to a new era of disasters

Earth observation satellites are helping us adapt to a new era of disasters
© Getty Images

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Jose. Wildfires driven by Diablo Winds. The Mexico City Earthquake. The summer and fall of 2017 have seen a continuous string of disasters, the likes of which we haven’t seen since...well, 2016. That year the world experienced hurricane Matthew, an earthquake in Japan, wildfires in Canada, and flooding in China, Europe and the southern United States.  

We are entering an era when climate-related disasters like wildfires and hurricanes will be more frequent and extreme, and the number of people living in regions prone to disasters of all kinds continues to rise. We are also entering an era of new technologies designed to expand and sharpen the senses, enhancing our ability to anticipate, mitigate, adapt to and recover from disaster. No, this is not science fiction — I am referring to Earth Observation satellites. 

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In a misguided attempt to reduce government research on climate change and expand the use of commercially provided imagery, the Trump administration’s 2018 budget would hobble NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service and add uncertainty to the next generation of weather satellites. 

 

The cuts would also reduce NASA’s climate-related satellite missions, terminating four satellite missions outright and turning off the earth viewing instruments on a satellite currently in orbit.

Eliminating or curtailing Earth observation missions will impair our ability to understand the climate system and how it relates to disasters. Congress should say no to these cuts, and instead increase funding for Earth observation missions that collect imagery continuously and comprehensively, use a wide range of sensors and freely distribute imagery to the public.

As wildfires rip through Northern California, costing lives and destroying property, the commercial satellite company DigitalGlobe has made extraordinarily detailed satellite imagery of the region freely available. Like most commercial providers, DigitalGlobe’s satellites collect images primarily in certain high priority areas, a process known as “tasking.”

This approach is flawed in dealing with disasters. We usually cannot anticipate where disaster will strike and acquire timely pre-disaster images. In DigitalGlobe’s Open Data image archive, the pre-disaster image is more than two months before the Santa Rosa Fires and nearly five months before Hurricane Harvey, hindering our ability to understand the mechanisms and full impact of a disaster. If a disaster takes place in a poor or remote part of the world, chances are the available imagery will be even sparser.

Instead, we need continuous and comprehensive monitoring of the Earth. Planet Labs, a San Francisco startup, is the first private company to launch lightweight nanosatellites to collect imagery of the entire earth every single day, what the Journal Science called a “daily selfie.”

Planet Lab’s monitoring approach would have provided pre-disaster images for the wildfires, albeit less detailed than DigitalGlobe’s, which could be used for damage assessment and recovery.

In the aftermath of the Santa Rosa fires, detailed true color satellite imagery floods the news cycle, revealing scorched forests and burned neighborhoods. But Earth observation sensors can provide images of disasters that go beyond what we can perceive with the naked eye.

For example, sensors like NASA’s MODIS and Landsat 8 use the shortwave infrared part of the spectrum to partially penetrate through smoke to see burned areas and still-active fires in Northern California.

Unfortunately, many NASA Earth observation satellite missions with sensors sensitive to the shortwave infrared and beyond (EO-1, Terra, Aqua, Landsat 7) will be retired in the next five years, leaving us with less frequent imagery that is more likely to be obscured by clouds.

With few exceptions, commercial satellite companies are unwilling to develop satellites like these, which are more likely to yield scientific and humanitarian gains than financial ones. 

In 2008, NASA began offering its Landsat for free. Since then, scientists have been able to dig deep into NASA’s image archive, producing prodigious volumes of scientific studies and assessments of fire, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and more — all to the benefit of the public. In 2013, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy estimated that federal investments in earth observation (including Landsat, GPS, and many others) cost $3.5 billion annually but yield $30 billion to the economy by providing data to the public about earth-related phenomena such as disaster events. While commercial vendors such as DigitalGlobe and Planet Labs will provide some freely available data, commercial entities will never fully embrace NASA’s Earth observation data policy: “Yours to use, fully, and without restrictions.”

Only government science agencies are equipped to collect an uninterrupted, long-term record of the earth using a wide range of satellite-borne sensors, and then to make the imagery freely available to the public. To avoid disaster, citizens should urge congress to expand NASA and NOAA’s Earth observation missions, and partner with commercial providers to expand the access to free imagery for the common good.

Rutherford V. Platt is a professor of environmental studies at Gettysburg College.