Training communities on protocols and running drills ensures that susceptible populations understand how to behave during natural disasters, but the unpredictable nature of these events means that we often cannot anticipate exactly how they will manifest. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has been making advances to try to close our knowledge gap through the launch of the Advanced Land Observing Satellite (ALOS-2). This second generation satellite was sent into low orbit in on May 24, 2014, by the JAXA’s Disaster Management Support Systems Office.
This piece of space hardware captures high-resolution images of the Earth using its Phased Array L-band Synthetic Aperture Radar 2. For over twelve hours a day, it can produce 3-D images of the Earth’s surface down to one meter over a territory spanning more than 2200 km, regardless of vegetation and weather conditions. These image-capturing abilities are a significant advance beyond its predecessor and other imaging satellites.
By capturing images over a long period, analysts are able to create models that allow them to track and predict changes of the Earth’s tectonic plates and topography. This information helps researchers form predictions of impending events that have the potential to threaten human life. The ALOS-2 satellite also has the ability to produce high quality images and relay the information to responders within hours. Responders can then use this data to understand the scope and trajectory of evolving natural disasters. The timely delivery of this invaluable information helps responders coordinate search and rescue efforts more accurately. The ability to visualize the movement of human populations and damage to infrastructure increases response effectiveness and subsequently saves lives.
Learning from Disaster
After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan used information gathered by Indian and Thai satellites to help their responders with their work. Since their own satellite was unable to capture such information, they needed to borrow information from their regional counterparts. In a demonstration of mutual cooperation, the three nations have since formed Sentinel Asia, a program that allows the nations to share their satellite information, creating a wider coverage area. While this agreement increases the amount of information gathered by satellites in the region, the ALOS-2 is the only satellite in the region capable of providing the types of high quality images responders require during a time-sensitive crisis
Technology and hardware of this nature is out of reach for most humanitarian assistance organizations, but nations and large corporations are capable of making these investments on their behalf. The growth of low orbit satellite technology means we are gathering more information about the Earth than ever before. Finding ways to incorporate this information into humanitarian work should be a focus for NGOs around the globe. Holding training workshops between satellite operators and humanitarian agencies could help streamline the flow of information and the ability of responders to understand how to use the information they are given. NGOs could also focus their advocacy efforts on encouraging governments to make investments in improving the kind of satellite technology that benefits humanitarian efforts.
As we continue to see an increase in the frequency and destructive power of natural disasters, tools that help us respond to these challenges should be embraced and even championed by the humanitarian assistance community.