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New space observations poised to save lives from floods, landslides


Using NASA’s advanced Earth-observing satellites, scientists have discovered a new opportunity to build early detection systems that might protect thousands from floods and landslides.

This potential breakthrough in disaster monitoring and warning links satellite observations of soil type, vegetation and land slope with observations of rainfall, rivers and topography.

"Flood and landslides are the most widespread natural hazards on Earth, responsible for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage every year," said Bob Adler, project scientist for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and lead scientist of one of four projects that share a similar focus. "Between 1985 and 2000 over 300,000 people lost their lives to flooding and their associated landslides. Currently, no system exists at either a regional or a global scale to monitor rainfall conditions that may trigger these disasters."

"Our use of space as a vantage point to better understand floods and landslides will enable agencies and other public officials charged with doing so to actually apply what we’re learning in ways that will make a tangible difference in a lot of lives all over the world," said Yang Hong, a research scientist at Goddard and lead scientist of one of the research projects. The research used data from several NASA satellites -- the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, Aqua, the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, QuikSCAT and Earth Observing-1 -- and NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental satellites.

The havoc of landslides and floods is felt most acutely in parts of the world without extensive flood and rainfall monitoring ground networks.

Scientists approached the study of how satellite remote sensing can be applied to create flood and landslide detection from several angles. Space-based remote sensing allows scientists to look at the whole earth from above, improving their understanding of how Earth’s system components behave and interact with each other.

Robert Brakenridge and his colleagues at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., are using satellite microwave sensors to estimate water discharge from rivers by measuring almost daily changes in river widths.

"This month much of New England suffered from its worst flooding since 1936, causing governors in several states to declare states of emergency," said Brakenridge. "Satellite observations can be absolutely essential in lessening the severity on the local economies and possible injuries in such future occurrences if they can be galvanized to create more reliable warning systems."

Kwabena Asante, a senior scientist at U.S. Geological Survey in Sioux Falls, S.D., led research that puts forward an innovative method of mapping floods around the globe using a combination of data from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. This new development could offer a practical solution to the significant challenge of creating cost-effective early warning systems particularly needed in data scarce, rural areas.

Edward Campion | EurekAlert!
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