Existing and emerging Earth observing technologies can help us be ready for the unexpected.Some topics in the news can be harder to stomach than others. Natural hazards are a fact of life because of the dynamic and changing planet we live on, but there are times when studying natural disasters pushes people to the brink because the impact on human life is inescapable.
Every year, the United States averages 1,000 tornadoes. In April 2011, people were gripped by the nightly news watching a ‘Superoutbreak’ of tornadoes. Twenty-one states were affected and more than 300 people lost their lives.
In 2015, the Oso landslide in Washington state also made headlines. The landslide came unexpectedly, claiming the lives of 43 people and permanently altering the landscape.
Following the news can be heartbreaking, with images of flooded towns and destroyed infrastructure appearing with increasing frequency.
Scientists who observe the Earth, and reporters who chronicle daily events, can become frustrated. There are often warning signs that are overlooked, misinterpreted, or neglected because of limited community resources. And some communities are located in areas that are prone to natural disasters.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States loses $7 billion each year due to flooding alone. Worldwide, more than 500 million people live in flood-prone river deltas. There are societal and economic benefits of living near a river and the cost of relocating established communities can be prohibitive.
Since the 1800s, Americans have settled in what we now call Tornado Alley, in areas that are below sea level, and in regions prone to wildfires. In recent years, geologists have discovered evidence of tsunamis reaching further inland along vast portions of the Pacific Northwest and endangering some large cities. Because the hazards to the region were so uncommon and only occurred every few hundred, or thousand, years it took centuries of research and geologic discovery to understand the potential for disaster.
People who are dedicated to this type of research have made significant steps in many influential areas, including the use of Earth observations, by expanding the applications of data gathered by satellites in experimental methodologies. The potential for meaningful change intensifies with every small discovery pertaining to natural science, satellite technology, and public awareness. Satellite data is becoming more accurate and available to the public. The improved data can be used in groundbreaking methodologies to discover more about the world we share. Organizations like NASA, NOAA, and other space agencies around the world have nearly 10 new satellites scheduled to launch in the next five years. Through Earth observations, people can learn more about many natural phenomena such as weather extremes, climate trends, and even geomorphological indications of land movements.
Increasing public awareness is another important progressive measure to reduce the impact of natural disasters. After a risk is understood, it can be prepared for and risk can be reduced with mitigation. For example, communities that are at risk of tornadoes install tornado sirens and reinforced safe rooms in public buildings. If there is a risk of flooding from hurricanes, homes can be raised a half or full story off the foundation. Similarly, homes at risk of flooding from major river systems may rely on levees or land management strategies like wetland restoration to offer some control over the increased water volume.
While we do have to accept that almost every place on Earth is at risk of some form of manmade or natural disaster, people don’t have to live in fear. There is a universal growing resolve to intervene, mitigate damage, and save lives in every country. Thanks to new technology, we have a better chance to see what’s coming next – and, new discoveries are going to change how we see the world for the better.