Satellite Imagery Crucial in Disaster Relief

By Wanda Archy, posted on August 3rd, 2011 in Disasters, Earth Observation

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The use of satellite images to monitor the after effects of natural disasters is seen as a crucial step in aiding long-term recovery efforts. Researchers at the University of Cambridge, partnering with Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd. and ImageCat Inc., have proposed a systematic process to monitor and evaluate disaster-stricken areas through high-resolution images, according to an article published in the Disasters journal.

This method will aim at monitoring the rebuilding of infrastructure such as roads, buildings, and homes, as opposed to short-term recovery efforts that focus on looking for survivors and providing them with food and shelter. The satellite imagery will be able to closely monitor whether the reconstructing of the infrastructure is progressing in a timely manner. If it is not, policies can be amended to try and speed up the recovery process.


Satellite magery of San Pedro Sula, Honduras after 2009 earthquake. Image Source: NASA

Satellite magery of San Pedro Sula, Honduras after 2009 earthquake. Image Source: NASA

The satellite images, with a 1-meter resolution, are updated every two to three days. The researchers are hopeful that this will greatly aid the recovery process, because satellite images are becoming cheaper, widespread, and more user-friendly. Daniel Brown, a researcher on this project, said in a SciDev.Net article, “The last year — especially since the 2010 Haiti earthquake — has seen an increased interest in the use of high-resolution images as a damage assessment tool.”

Assessing, analyzing, and fixing the damage of natural disasters can take decades. Therefore, these satellite images are an important advent in monitoring the progress of relief efforts. The satellite images will be used to monitor 13 performance indicators of the rebuilding process, such as the length of roads and the distribution of housing. This data will then be matched with ground-based reports on how the rebuilding is progressing.

The researchers at the University of Cambridge are due to begin a one-year project in which they will target relief efforts in Haiti, Pakistan, and Thailand. For example, they will aim at rebuilding Ban Nam Khem, Thailand after an undersea mega thrust earthquake caused a tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 2004. However, they also hope to benefit other countries and begin long-term recovery efforts with Japan following the March 11 earthquake-tsunami.


Sendai, Japan after the March tsunami and earthquake. Image Source: Wikipedia

Sendai, Japan after the March tsunami and earthquake. Image Source: Wikipedia

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has released a report that new advancements in sciences and technologies will be crucial in aiding long-term disaster recovery.

Paddy Ashdown, chair of the team that produced the report said in a SciDev.Net article, “It is, bluntly, not a race we think we are currently winning. Merely improving on what we have done in the past — enhancing the status quo — will not be sufficient. We must devise new ways of meeting these new, larger challenges.”

The DIFD puts emphasis on finding new ways of battling climate-induced disasters, which are predicted to affect 375 million annually by 2015. Innovation will play a key role in establishing ways to intervene in famines and understanding earthquake risks. Using satellites in storm tracking, establishing relief efforts through cash instead of goods, and nanotechnology will be essential for disaster recoveries.

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