When a World at Risk Calls, NASA Answers

Planet Earth is hotter than ever. Seas are invading formerly dry land. Dry is dryer, and wet wetter. Weather extremes threaten life and property as never before, whether it’s ongoing flooding in the U.S. Midwest and, in June, extensive inundations in southern Uruguay or volcanic eruptions in the Kuril Island chain and Papua New Guinea. 

The threat of natural disasters continues unabated, with populated areas especially susceptible to extreme damage from earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, volcanos and wildfires, to name but several. At a recent meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations (U.N.) issued its biennial Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, or GAR (https://gar.unisdr.org/), that spells out worldwide efforts to anticipate and reduce disaster risks. 

NASA has partnered with the U.N., offering its strengths in remote sensing and data analysis in a collaboration that aims to confront potential global hazards head on.

“We have in-space and airborne instrumentation that can ‘look’ at Earth every day of every year. What they see, we translate,” says David Green, manager of NASA’s Disaster Program. “NASA takes that data, analyzes it, and produces images and overlays that tell decisionmakers and first responders where the threats are. When disasters do occur, we steer that information to those on the ground so they can provide as much help as possible where it’s most needed.”

Members of the NASA Disasters Program, including Program Manager David Green, attended the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction meeting in May 2019 to speak at the Second Multi-Hazard Early Warning Conference.

Members of the NASA Disasters Program, including Program Manager David Green, attended the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction meeting in May 2019 to give talks at the Second Multi-Hazard Early Warning Conference. Image Credit: Tian Yao

Perils aren’t present in isolation. One disaster can spur another, or make an existing one that much worse. Heavy rains from hurricanes, for example, can trigger landslides and mudslides, which are made worse in regions where periods of long drought are interrupted by sudden and violent inundation. 

“Risk and resilience: these are the pieces on the board that need to be properly positioned,” Green says. “The goal should be to anticipate. If you can foresee, even modestly, you can plan. When you plan, you protect. Take into account who and what are the most vulnerable, and safeguard wherever you can.”

An accompanying GAR initiative is the U.N.’s Global Risk Assessment Framework, or GRAF. The report emphasizes the urgent need for risk prevention. While response remains crucial, the framework calls for decisionmakers worldwide to make use of 21st century technologies to understand the genesis of disasters in order to reduce the severest impacts.

NASA is one of several U.S. federal government agencies involved in GRAF working groups to surface ways to create region-specific pilot programs and projects that focus on resilience. In one place, that may be creating natural buffers to protect against extreme flooding; in another, initiatives to make buildings and homes resistant to hurricane-force winds, shaking from earthquakes, and conflagrations sparked by wildfire embers. 

Understand how and where communities are most susceptible and how they can increase their ability to cope and rebound when disasters do occur is equally important, according to GRAF guidelines. Risk reduction and resilience is an issue that demands quick and sustained effort.

Notes the U.N. GRAF document: “… Planning and risk-informed investment is common sense and should be translated into action. Being able to generate and collect robust data, define risk, and implement initiatives that respond [to that risk] … make for smart decisions and investments. The predilection for diverting or mobilizing funds for financing recovery and reconstruction after disasters succeeds only in accumulating risk over time.”

The GAR is published biennially by the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The report is the product of contributions from nations, public and private disaster risk-reduction organizations, and a variety of government agencies and departments worldwide.