31st October 2012
The bigger picture: Saving lives with satellites
By Leo Kent

Wildfires in Mexico: locating where the fire is spreading.

The Disasters Charter, set up in 1999, was an agreement between the countries which owned satellites to provide images in the immediate aftermath of natural or man-made disasters. In the last 13 years these images have provided vital information to those coping with the situation on the ground.

The satellites have helped in the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires and oil spills. They have also been used in monitoring long-term environmental problems such as deforestation and the melting of the ice caps.

Founding Space Agencies

Dr. Alice Bunn works at the UK space agency on earth observation programmes including the Disasters Charter.  She explains, “The founding space agencies were the Canadian space agency, the European space agency and the French space agency. They all had their own satellite assets and they figured out that if they worked together they would be able to respond faster to an emergency event happening on the ground. You can imagine, you’ve got all these satellites going round in their various orbits around the earth and the more satellites you have in collaboration the greater chance you have of a satellite being in the right place at the right time.”

You can’t just have anyone calling up saying, ‘oh, I’ve lost my cat’

There are now 15 space agencies working together with operators on hand 24/7 ready to receive a call from a country in crisis. Only those in high office from each country have access to the number. As Dr. Bunn notes, “You can’t just have anyone calling up saying, ‘oh, I’ve lost my cat.’”

Part of the Petermann Glacier in Greenland breaking off.

In fact, despite sitting on the board for the Disasters Charter even Dr. Bunn doesn’t know the number.

Showing the Scale of the Damage

Over the years these satellite images have helped in various ways but mostly they serve to illustrate the overall damage caused by a disaster and pass this information on to the ground force. For example, the image of the wildfires in Mexico (pictured) were essential in informing the fireman where it was spreading and what areas they needed to target. Similarly, a satellite image of an erupting volcano on the Comoro Islands showed exactly where the ash was spreading.

Radar is used for oil seep detection…oil effects the roughness of the sea

Dr. Bunn says, “The French Red Cross was on the scene pretty quickly. The issue there was the volcanic ash contaminating the drinking water which tends to be held in open top water butts outside domestic properties. The campaign had started but it was only when they looked at the satellite imagery that they realised the extent of the ash. The satellite was able to pick up that scale and contrast, allowing them to redirect the decontamination exercise. They realised they needed to cover a very different area to the one they thought they would originally be covering.”

Using Radar

As well as optical imaging, the satellites also use radar, which provides information about the surface roughness of areas. Dr. Bunn says, “In the past Radar has been used for oil seep detection because an oil seep effects the roughness of the sea.”

Green is turned to red to make it stand out in this image of London

One of the most astonishing images (pictured) is of the Petermann Glacier in Greenland. In 2010 a chunk three times the size of Manhattan broke off and started floating out to sea. Several satellite images taken over time showed that this enormous iceberg was heading towards a busy shipping route – this information was relayed to all ships passing through the area.

The strange and troubling paradox is that while these macro images illustrate disaster and suffering on unprecedented scales, they also provide a tantalising glimpse of the beauty of our world from afar.

Picture Credits: Supplied by DMC International Imaging, UK

For more images check out DMC International Imaging.


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