Satellites can measure nearly any hazard — let’s use them to adapt with equity

Over the last two decades, a massive network of satellites has transformed our understanding of our planet, enabling observation of everything from clouds to the ocean floor.

But have we actually used this new knowledge to become better stewards of the Earth? Many scientists fear that breakthroughs in our understanding of natural and human-induced hazards are not being met with proportional adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Satellite observations can and should be a critical asset in the development of policies aimed at averting serious damage to our home planet and protecting vulnerable communities from disproportionate harm. What’s more, American taxpayers fund American satellite missions and therefore have a financial interest in ensuring that satellite observations are used effectively and equitably. Municipalities, states and the federal government owe it to their constituents to better incorporate these data into their risk assessments and policy decisions.

The three of us are scientists who use satellite data to study two different hazards that Americans will no doubt witness over the next few decades. The first, sea-level rise, is likely to increase the frequency and severity of flooding events and put many coastal communities at risk. The second, earthquakes, will continue to pose a threat to cities as our infrastructure ages in a country that has not seen a major urban earthquake in decades. Satellites have revolutionized science in both of these fields and fueled a new wave of research about what these hazards mean for our future.

Satellites are unique in their ability to measure nearly any hazard anywhere on Earth. For example, we use satellite data to monitor the shrinking ice sheets and glaciers that drive a large fraction of current sea-level rise. Just in the past few weeks, satellites detected the collapse of an ice shelf in East Antarctica, a portion of the Antarctic Ice Sheet whose contribution to sea-level rise is expected to increase in coming decades. Whereas this hazard is predictable and slow moving, others, including earthquakes and volcanoes, are inherently unpredictable and strike in a matter of seconds. We rely on satellite data to monitor the movement of Earth’s surface in high-hazard fault zones, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, and improve knowledge of future earthquake hazards.

The climate crisis is global, and satellites will play a huge role in continuously monitoring the planet as countries strive to meet their pledges made through the Paris Agreement. However, many of the most important hazard mitigation and adaptation decisions affecting Americans will need to be made at the local or state level. The impacts of future sea-level rise will be highly localized — residents of low-lying areas of Miami will need to deal with different problems than those who live on the coastal cliffs of San Diego. Similarly, the impacts of an earthquake can vary widely within a city, with some at risk due to proximity to a major fault and others facing risk due to building construction and local soil type.

The collection of high-resolution satellite data over the U.S. means that it is now possible for local and state governments to use these data to plan for hazards. For example, new maps of coastlines have aided in the identification of communities vulnerable to inundation from sea-level rise, and new maps of Earth’s crustal movements have revealed areas in which future earthquakes could occur. Challenges exist, as budget constraints have threatened — and continue to threaten — existing and future small- and mid-sized satellite missions, including NASA’s Earth Systems Explorers mission. Without these continued investments, local and regional decision-makers will have reduced access to critical scientific knowledge. 

Despite these funding obstacles, we can and should take advantage of existing satellite programs to transform how communities can respond to hazards. As scientists familiar with satellite observations, we recognize the part we can play to ensure that decision-makers can access, understand and apply these data effectively to inform community-specific adaptation and design plans. The three of us plan to actively collaborate with decision-makers to ensure that they have access to the best available scientific knowledge and encourage our colleagues to do the same.

Many Americans are already underserved by the government and unable to absorb major financial shocks. The disproportionate impact of damage caused by hazards on these residents can slow the recovery of entire communities and drag on for months or even years, as we saw following Hurricane Katrina. It is imperative that we invest in policies that not only mitigate damage from hazards and prioritize community resilience, but that also keep public-serving institutions, like schools and hospitals, functioning in the aftermath of hazards. Such policies have the power to lift up Americans who have historically borne the brunt of their impacts.

Advances in satellite data have transformed our understanding of a wide variety of hazards that we expect to play a major role in our collective future. We should use these observations as they were intended — to not just learn more about the planet, but to help our communities make the best social, economic and engineering decisions that reflect our values and allow us to adapt for the future.

Susheel Adusumilli, Maya Becker and Zoe Yin are researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Tags Climate change Earthquake extreme weather FEMA Natural disasters Satellite sea-level rise Technology
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