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A Flood of New Satellite Observations Could Save Lives From Most Widespread Natural Disasters
05.24.06
 
On February 16, 2006, monsoon rains and flooding in The Philippines led to mudslides responsible for hundreds of lives lost, hundreds more missing, thousands of displaced persons, and the worldwide appeal of relief officials for water, food and medical assistance. Many such natural disasters occur across the globe each year.

TRMM satellite observations show areas most susceptible to flooding and landslides in the Philippines in 2006 and during Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Image right: These images from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite show areas most susceptible to flooding and landslides (circle) in the Philippines in 2006 and (rectangle) during Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Credit: NASAClick image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Using a variety of NASA's advanced new satellite Earth observations, scientists have discovered a new opportunity to build early detection systems that promise to protect thousands of lives from the kinds of disastrous floods and landslides that swept through parts of the Philippines.

At the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists from NASA and several other institutions discussed the breakthrough disaster monitoring and warning potential in linking satellite observations of global surface features like soil type, vegetation and land slope with observations of rainfall, rivers and topography.

"Flood and landslides are the most widespread natural hazards on Earth, responsible for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage every year," said Bob Adler, Project Scientist for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and lead scientist of one of four related projects. "Between 1985 and 2000 over 300,000 people lost their lives to flooding and their associated landslides. Currently, no system exists at either a regional or a global scale to monitor rainfall conditions that may trigger these disasters."

The Erath, Louisiana city park is flooded by three feet of water left behind by Hurricane Rita in this picture taken Sept. 25, 2005. Image left: The Erath, Louisiana city park is flooded by three feet of water left behind by Hurricane Rita in this picture taken Sept. 25, 2005. Large areas of the lower regions of south-central Louisiana experienced flooding from the storm. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Win Henderson / FEMA

"Our use of space as a vantage point to better understand floods and landslides will enable agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other public officials charged with doing so to actually apply what we're learning in ways that will make a tangible difference in a lot of lives all over the world," said Yang Hong, a research scientist at NASA Goddard, and lead scientist of one of the research projects.

The havoc of landslides and floods is felt most acutely in parts of the world without extensive flood and rainfall monitoring ground networks. The press briefing panelists from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., also discuseds some of the challenges involved in turning these sophisticated observation tools into operational natural hazard networks around the world.

Scientists approached the study of how satellite remote sensing, or the use of repetitive, space-based Earth observations over time to study or monitor planetary changes or occurrences, can be applied to create flood and landslide detection from several angles. Robert Brakenridge and his colleagues at Dartmouth College are now employing a new strategy to detect flooding rivers using satellite microwave sensors, specifically, the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) aboard NASA's Aqua satellite, to estimate water discharge from rivers by measuring almost daily changes in river widths.

Damaged buildings are surrounded by mud in La Conchita, California, where winter storms on Jan. 15, 2005 caused fatal landslides that damaged private property and roads. Image right: Damaged buildings are surrounded by mud in La Conchita, California, where winter storms on Jan. 15, 2005 caused fatal landslides that damaged private property and roads. Click image to enlarge. Credit: John Shea / FEMA News Photo

"Just earlier this month, much of New England suffered from its worst flooding since 1936, causing governors in several states to declare states of emergency," said Brakenridge. "Satellite observations can be absolutely essential in lessening the severity on the local economies and possible injuries in such future occurrences if they can be galvanized to create more reliable warning systems."

Kwabena Asante, a senior scientist at USGS in Sioux Falls, S.D., led research that puts forward an innovative method of mapping floods around the globe using a combination of data from NASA’s TRMM and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. This new development is poised to offer a practical solution to the significant challenge of creating cost-effective early warning systems needed most particularly in data scarce, rural areas.

The scientists lastly addressed a possible agenda for using data from satellite observations to allow scientists to test global flood detection and monitoring systems with an eye toward eventually building a universal prototype for a broad-based flood detection problem solving procedure.

“For the first time, we’re on the cutting-edge of developing an effective global detection system," said Hong. "Our research using satellite-based remote sensing will improve the ability of public officials to understand where and under what conditions these hazards happen so that more lives can be saved.“

Related Links:

+ Abstracts, bios, and presentations
+ Dartmouth Remote Sensing research
+ TRMM Remote Sensing research

 
 
Gretchen Cook-Anderson
Goddard Space Flight Center