Copernicus' eye in the sky brings disaster management to a whole new level
By Jerome Carlo R. Paunan
How much can a single picture tell us about ourselves?
This is a composite before and after image of Tacloban City's downtown and airport areas before (L) and after (R) Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit the Philippines. The maps were released by the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (EMS) on Nov. 11, 2013.
The color-coded gradings indicate destroyed (red), highly affected (orange), moderately affected (yellow-orange), and possibly affected (yellow) structures or areas. Images courtesy of the European Union.
Images such as this can help us better understand the current effects of natural events underway, immediately after, or even comparing two different periods of time.
“It’s a bit like instead of giving you the finished product via the value chain, we’re giving you the raw material in order to create for yourself your own value chain. Copernicus was designed to make product, which were not commercially viable,” said Philippe Brunet, European Commission Directorate for Cooperation and Development during national conference Copernicus—a strategic partner for Earth Observation and Sustainable Development held recently in Makati City.
As it turned out, satellites provide the Philippines huge amounts of information on how to deal with disasters. What’s even better, is that these information are given free of charge by the Copernicus Programme to governments around the world to be readily used by their respective disaster planners and civil defense authorities.
“Science and technology innovations are at the forefront of our advocacy and we must make sure that these results are applied so that people can benefit. We also need to make sure that what we learned can be shared to others,” according to Department of Science and Technology Undersecretary for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation Renato Solidum.
“There are many, many opportunities. From scientific organizations to local governments, to private corporations to businesses, this could be used for science; this can be used for planning purposes. To [the] local level, we require the local government to have a comprehensive land use and development plan. But the use of land, changes in time, so the rapid access to this information will give them the almost real-time monitoring, what’s happening on the ground that they might not be able to see by just going around walking or driving. So there are many, many opportunities and we cannot really enumerate all of them, the opportunity is quite great,” Solidum added.
Variety of satellites and instruments measure a magnitude of parameters from space—parameters for flooding, for forest fires, for volcanic eruptions, or damages after earthquakes, but also oil spills. They are also capable of measuring ocean parameters such as sea surface height, sea surface temperatures; climate parameters such as air quality, ice coverage, and so on, really almost everything, which they can measure from their orbit.
“You cannot monitor what you cannot measure,” Brunet said.
“Copernicus is also a collaborative project. We send data processed elsewhere and could be used by you. You just need to have the data mining instruments to go and to fetch the data where they are and to help translate them. In terms of climate change, we need to have collaboration between research centers and sometimes to arrive into very practical part, for instance assessing the vulnerability of some cities in the Philippines it depends on events running near the equator that is thousands and thousands of kilometers, so its important to have this kind of network and the key enabler for both cloud technology and to have this kind of networking between research centers is interconnectivity,” Brunet explained, saying the first issue to address is to have a functioning network of all stakeholders.
“So, if we look back at the onsets in history of the Philippines, in fact in the 1980’s there was a national remote sensing center in NAMRIA or DENR,” Solidum recalled, adding that, “But were still there but the capacity has died down a little bit because the plight for technology advancement is so fast. Yes, there can be some processing capabilities at the various organizations, especially at the Department of Science and Technology, but with recent technologies we need to do capacity building that is why the recent project we’re working on with EU (European Union), capacity building is very important.“
For his part, Stephen Coulson of the European Space Agency said, “Another important component is what we refer to is skills transfer so that’s taking advantage of the previous investments and developments that were carried out in Europe and actually trying to get those exported here to the Philippines, integrate it and putting the Philippines in the position to produce and deliver specialized information from Copernicus for a long term sustainable basis.”
Copernicus‘ Emergency Management Service and Satellite Mapping
As detailed in its website with link here, the Copernicus Emergency Management Service is one of the six main services that the Copernicus Programme, the European Union’s Earth Observation programme, provides on a global scale. It has been fully operational since April 2012. The service supports crisis managers, civil defense authorities and humanitarian aid actors dealing with natural disasters, man-made emergency situations, and humanitarian crises, as well as those involved in disaster risk reduction and recovery activities. The EMS was designed as one of the instruments available to the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism, but its services extend their reach beyond Europe since any country in the world can benefit from the Copernicus EMS and many already do, including the Philippines.
The service provides early warning and monitoring information for forest fires through EFFIS, the European Forest Fire Information System and GWIS its global counterpart. EFAS, the European Flood Awareness System, and GloFAS, the Global Flood Awareness System provide tools for early warnings about floods in Europe and globally. The service also provides geospatial information that is based on high-resolution satellite imagery and available in situ (on-site) or open source information. The geospatial information can be provided in two temporal modes – through Rapid Mapping component, to respond to an emergency during or right after the event, and through Risk & Recovery Mapping component, that assists in disaster preparedness or recovery and can be provided to decision-makers on a tailor-made basis within weeks or months.
There are many advantages that satellite imagery can provide:
- It allows to acquire information about difficult to access locations (e.g. remote, disaster and conflict-stricken areas);
- Radar satellites (such as Copernicus Sentinel-1) can acquire imagery at night and irrespective of weather conditions (e.g. even when clouds are present over the Area of Interest);
- Large areas can quickly be assessed for damages to transport and building infrastructure – this can be particularly valuable in dense urban areas with large populations; and
- It is possible to monitor an area over a period of time to observe changing phenomena such as the expansion of urban areas or settlements, the movements of displaced populations, and the progress of construction activities.
However, there are some limitations of satellites that have to be considered. These include:
- Optical satellites can only acquire images during daytime, and image quality can be affected by the presence of clouds, haze or smoke. In many of such cases, radar satellites can be used, however not all mapping products can be produced using radar imagery; and
- The accuracy and quality of the mapping results can vary depending on the nature and scale of the phenomena observed. For example, in case of floods, the satellite overfly can be too late to capture the maximum extension of a flooding event.
“But there are many opportunities and the fact that government has approved the [establishment of a] Philippine Space Agency, would really tell the whole world that we are seekers in using space [technology] and apply it in so many fields, and so the rapacity in terms of doing things and sharing it with our partners is also adherent. We have doing partnerships with so many space agencies and some of these would be lead by DOST agencies, and this is the same thing that we want to achieve with the Copernicus Programme,” Solidum said.
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