Natural Disasters: Help from Space

The International Charter “Space and Major Disasters” & tele-epidemiology

Whether for Haiti or for Fukushima, satellites have taken part in ground relief efforts during the early hours of emergency. The International Charter “Space and Major Disasters” is a unique space technologies coordination plan designed to help act as quickly as possible in the event of large-scale natural disasters. Numerous other tele-health systems complete this array of satellite applications, in particular, for studying the emergence of certain epidemics. Tonight, Tuesday, February 19th, come meet two experts on the subject from the CNES (France’s National Center for Space Studies). This month’s edition of, les Mardis de l’espace (“Space Tuesdays”) at the Café du Pont Neuf is devoted to the role of satellite imagery in the context of natural disasters.

Whether for Haiti or for Fukushima, satellites have taken part in ground relief efforts during the early hours of emergency. The International Charter “Space and Major Disasters” is a unique space technologies coordination plan designed to help act as quickly as possible in the event of large-scale natural disasters. Numerous other tele-health systems complete this array of satellite applications, in particular, for studying the emergence of certain epidemics. Tonight, Tuesday, February 19th, come meet two experts on the subject from the CNES (France’s National Center for Space Studies). This month’s edition of, les Mardis de l’espace (“Space Tuesdays”) at the Café du Pont Neuf is devoted to the role of satellite imagery in the context of natural disasters.

This article is a translation of  Catastophes naturelles : l’aide du spatial. It was translated from French by Julia Troufflard.

A tsunami hits San Jose

A tsunami hits San Jose
(Source: Flickr / Angela Riddock)

Satellite data in disaster management

Satellites navigate through space, of course, but they are often staring at us. Their potential for observing the Earth can be of great use in monitoring natural disasters. On March 11, 2011, a gigantic tsunami devastated Japan’s Pacific coast. Each year, natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, forest fires…) dramatically affect millions of human lives. When this happens, the institutions in charge of helping the victims can request the activation of the International Charter “Space and Major Disasters”. The charter was created in 2000 by the CNES (the French International Center for Space Studies) and ESA (European Space Agency), who were quickly joined by the CSA (Canadian Space Agency). It aims at coordinating the resources voluntarily made available by almost all the agencies of the great space countries.   

But what can space bring us in the event of major disasters? Activation of the charter sets in motion the reprogramming of satellites, within the hour, to obtain images that allow the disaster area to be mapped. This satellite information is fundamental to an effective emergency intervention. In urban zones, they identify destroyed roadways or damaged buildings. For huge floods, such as those that sometimes strike the Danube in central Europe, large-scale maps are useful for localizing significantly affected areas.

The Charter was activated, in particular, during the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean; for Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and the earthquake in Haïti in 2010. Since its creation in 2000, it has been activated 433 times to deal with weather-related disasters (floods, hurricanes, storms), geophysical events (landslides, earthquakes), and forest fires or industrial accidents (oil spills).

Tele-epidemiology and i-health

Dengue fever, malaria, chikungunya… Infectious diseases are widespread in certain regions of the world. With urban population growth, sometimes-huge refugee migrations, the increase in air traffic, tourism and global warming, these diseases can show up or reappear in places where they had previously been absent. The Charter activates the mobilization of the enormous resources of space agencies. It can’t be applied to slow-growing phenomena such as epidemics, though. For those kinds of events, which have a major health impact (epidemic, famine), tele-epidemiology and i-health measures are implemented. Telecommunications can be used to open up isolated health areas through remote care and tele-training for health education. They play an important part in humanitarian crisis management.

Space systems, in the strict sense of the term, play a role especially in epidemic detection and monitoring. Tele-epidemiology consists of analyzing the “climate-environment-health” relationship by taking advantage of space technology. The aim is to highlight the links between the rise and spread of infectious illnesses (transmitted by vectors: mosquitos, water and the air) and climate and environmental changes. In this multidisciplinary approach, first, the environmental factors on which the disease emergence depends must be identified. Then, emergence risk maps have to be drawn up, according to parameters defined through satellite observation. Finally, it is necessary to determine where and when the environment becomes favorable for the development of vectors. For example, temporary water reserves are one of the parameters to predict the presence of mosquitos. Anticipating the emergence and spread of vectors potentially carrying infectious diseases during hot and humid seasons is a major sanitary issue in some countries. This requires a multidisciplinary approach in which entomologists, doctors and local players in the fight against and prevention of disease can take appropriate measures: treating at-risk zones, displacement of populations or livestock, vaccination… To do so, they need up-to-date and precise information on potential zones of mosquito presence. In this case, space-based tools are included in a broad early warning system involving local health authorities and disease specialists, to provide the best response to needs expressed.

Activation of the International Charter allows, in the early hours following natural disasters, the deployment of space agencies’ observation means, so as to map the disaster areas. As for the tele-epidemiology and tele-health programs, they make satellite imagery maps available for sanitary services. In this way, they offer the best chance to predict the emergence of infectious diseases, like we predict tomorrow’s weather today.

In general, national space agencies gather substantial technological resources that are subject to constant research and improvement. Their use in the event of a crisis shows once more that scientific and technological advances are an opportunity for societies to combine our knowledge and skills for the development of advanced techniques in the service of humanity.

Tuesday, February 19, at 7:30pm, the CNES has organized a discussion with Hélène de Boissezon, responsible for coordinating the French resources relevant to the Charter, and Cécile Vignolles, head of tele-epidemiology projects for the CNES. It will be a convivial discussion open to all and which you will be able to follow on twitter through the hashtag #CNESTweetup.

 

Find out more:

Keeping an eye on epidemics from space
http://www.cnes.fr/web/CNES-en/5575-keeping-an-eye-on-epidemics-from-space.php

Charter opens up as France takes over chair
http://www.cnes.fr/web/CNES-en/10545-gp-charter-opens-up-as-france-takes-over-chair.php

The International Charter
http://www.disasterscharter.org/home

Tele-epidemiology: Satellites see mosquitoes coming
http://www.cnes.fr/web/CNES-en/9533-gp-tele-epidemiology-satellites-see-mosquitoes-coming.php