Minimizing the Damage From Natural Disasters

Researchers use satellites to monitor Earth’s conditions

9 September 2013

Whether they’re floods, earthquakes, or sinkholes, natural disasters wreak havoc. Since 2010, more than 700 have been registered worldwide, affecting more than 450 million people, according to a study released last year by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF reports that since the 1990s, annual damages have risen from an average of US $20 billion to about $100 billion. And that upward trend is expected to continue.

Natural disasters can’t be prevented, but much can be done with technology to lessen their financial impact and reduce the loss of life. In this special issue, The Institute examines three such projects: the global-mapping ASTER instrument on board a NASA satellite that shares with relief organizations the images it gathers from catastrophes; a method of applying a satellite system to monitor temperature changes on the ground that might lead to forecasting earthquakes; and software for detecting sinkholes.

You might think technologies that warn of impending natural disasters have been developed only recently, but inventions that were meant to do so existed more than 170 years ago, as an article from the IEEE History Center describes.

Also featured in this issue is the work of IEEE Fellow James A. Smith, who helped pioneer the remote sensing of Earth’s biosphere.


The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on board NASA’s Terra spacecraft is a multi-spectral instrument launched in 1999. ASTER is part of the agency’s Earth Observing System, a series of satellites that monitor Earth to better understand its nature.

The instrument provides high-resolution images of Earth in 14 different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. The images in turn are used to identify changes in the land, atmosphere, climate, and oceans. For example, ASTER monitors glaciers and volcanic activity, heat in urban areas, and changes in land use. It can also track floods [see image below], hurricanes, and earthquakes. Since its launch, ASTER has taken more than 2 million images of Earth’s surface, adding about 500 to its archives daily.

ASTER is a joint project of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and NASA. METI monitors the instrument, notifies NASA staff when the position of the instrument’s antenna or the satellite’s orbit needs adjustment, and handles the preliminary data processing of the images. ASTER has three instrument subsystems divided by wavelength: visible and near-infrared, shortwave infrared, and thermal infrared. Each subsystem has a different ground resolution, with several bands spanning each range of wavelengths.

“This agreement with Japan is quite typical of the kind of bilateral arrangements NASA has with other space-enabled countries such as Canada, France, and Germany,” says Michael Abrams, leader of the U.S. ASTER science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif.

Abrams is coauthor of the paper “ASTER Satellite Observations for International Disaster Management,” along with Kenneth A. Duda, a senior scientist with the Earth Observing System, which is part of the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, in Sioux Falls, S.D. The two are part of the team at NASA that executes the commands and controls the Terra satellite on which ASTER sits.

Their paper appeared in Proceedings of the IEEE in October 2012, a special issue dedicated to the remote sensing of natural disasters. It is available in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.


ASTER’s most prominent mission is to acquire and deliver emergency observations about natural disasters, one of the things it was specifically designed to do more than 14 years ago. NASA participates in the effort through the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, which is composed of private, national, and international space agencies. The 20 signatories to the charter, which went into effect in 2000, agree to share data from their satellites with relief organizations. The satellite images can help officials prepare for troubling events, provide warnings, reveal the extent of damage, and assist with recovery efforts.

The charter provides a way for authorized groups that urgently need imagery of a disaster to make a request for multiple images through a single call, according to Duda. “Annual charter activations have been generally trending upward since inception as the value of the service has repeatedly been demonstrated,” he says.

According to Abrams, the cooperation ensures that only data from the most appropriate sensors are used, which minimizes the redundancy of data collection by the agencies and makes information available faster.

“The agreements, based on friendship and cooperation, are meant to share knowledge and experience,” he says. “ASTER is one of many such instruments operated by different countries that cooperate to provide data whenever satellite imagery for any kind of big disaster is needed.”


While they do a fairly good job of warning of impending events such as floods because of the information they gather about rainfall and snow packs, ASTER and other such instruments can’t make exact predictions because of the random nature of disasters, Abrams explains.

“At least with warnings, you can evacuate people and prevent loss of life,” he says.

The Terra mission and ASTER project will continue to be funded by NASA through September 2014.

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