Reducing Disaster Risks Through Earth Observations


Disaster Risk Reduction conference in September

AmeriGEOSS takes a new approach to disaster preparedness. This is the first article in a series covering GEO Week in Washington, D.C., Oct. 23-27.

Disaster Risk Reduction conference in September

The Disaster Risk Reduction conference in September took participants through a disaster planning and response simulation. Image Credit: AmeriGEOSS

If the past few months are any indication of the natural disaster threats humanity might expect as the climate changes, disaster preparedness and response will play an increasingly important role around the globe.

At the AmeriGEOSS regional summit in October, the focus was on the role of Earth observations can play in reducing disaster risks. “Strengthening Disaster Risk Reduction Across the Americas” brought together hundreds of people in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to discuss how improving the network of Earth observations professionals in partnership with non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and governmental disaster response agencies is vital. The summit was sponsored by NASA, CONAE (Argentina’s space agency), GEO and the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS).

Beyond simply talking about disasters, what made the gathering different was that the people in attendance went through a multi-day disaster simulation to better understand how AmeriGEOSS member states can help each other with disaster response, and to determine gaps.

“Observations have always been a core element of GEO,” said David S. Green, program manager for disasters applications at NASA. “Within the disasters area we rely heavily on Earh observations for awareness of the situation before, during, and after. In order to do something about disasters you need to monitor the planet all the time. You need to know when those who are exposed or vulnerable will be hurt.”

AmeriGEOSS is a framework to bring together Group on Earth Observations (GEO) members in the Americas. AmeriGEOSS focuses on four societal benefit areas: agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem monitoring, water and disaster risk reduction.

“We observe the planet, but who do we give that information to?” Green said. “We talk about how wonderful Earth observations are, but we don’t even know who to give them to. We had to solve this. (At the regional summit) we spent a lot of time figuring out who’s who. We developed an inventory of 500-plus contacts.”

These connections came into use quickly after the summit when Hurricane Maria bore down on the Caribbean.

When disasters happen, there is a cycle. Monitoring the planet is a component of preparedness, but there are numerous steps that follow, each of which need the data contributions of Earth observations. Following early warning of impending disasters, responders move into incident response. Once disasters happen, officials need good information to make good decisions about response and recovery.

At the regional summit, attendees spent a day working on preparedness, which included a discussion about available data—whether open source or otherwise—and how observations for disasters are made. The next day focused on mitigation—how is data turned into information and who needs that information. Attendees practiced making maps and models, working with the Red Cross, and had discussions with data providers and emergency managers. During the day focused on disaster response, participants spent the morning in a scenario exercise to bring together the pieces. Green says this helped assess how participants understood the training and the roles of the numerous organizations involved. During the day focused on recovery, the group focused on what they did well in the simulation, and what needs improvement.

“We developed action plans of how should we work together to build relatiosnhips,” Green said. “We had 300 people from 20 different countries including people from humanitarian agencies, youth organizations, senior practitioners and satellite companies. My simple goal of building the network of contacts is already beginning to bear fruit.

“The idea of open access to data is a benefit to the world. We live and breathe that policy and put it into practice.”

Kelley Christensen is Earthzine’s science editor. Follow her on Twitter @kjhchristensen.