Communities and Areas at Intensive Risk

Disaster risk reduction and the building of community resilience have emerged as key priorities of governments, businesses (the insurance sector in particular), and national and international communities. While the increasing frequency and intensity of weather-related hazards share part of the responsibility for this emergence, it is also attributable to the increased exposure and vulnerability of communities. Factors contributing to this vulnerability and exposure arise from human choices, and therefore, may be mitigated by strategic planning. It is widely accepted that natural hazards do not create disasters without human risk and exposure. In other words, humans and human institutions can contribute greatly to their own risk – and to their protection – from disasters.

Image Credit: David J. Phillip, AP Photo

Image Credit: David J. Phillip, AP Photo

Remote sensing has become invaluable in hazard monitoring, mitigation design, disaster response, and recovery. Providing heightened awareness of risk and vulnerability through improved understanding of communities, key infrastructure (e.g., oil and gas pipelines, roads and highways, bridges, electrical grids and networks, and hospitals), and the climate-related processes that contribute to risk can strengthen and support community-level interventions.

Data is not the same as information, nor does understanding of processes necessarily translate into decision support for hazard mitigation, disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Accordingly, NASA is engaging the scientific and decision-support communities to develop community groups focused on applying remote sensing, modeling, and related applications in areas at intensive risk. These areas include coastal regions vulnerable to coastal erosion, sea level rise coupled with land subsidence, severe storms, earthquakes and tsunamis; mountainous regions that expose communities to unstable landscape elements such as flash flooding, landslides, and glacial movements; and small island regions that face sea level rise, tropical cyclones and storm surge, and subsidence.  Provided below are short descriptions of each CAIR (Communities and Areas at Intensive Risk) project and associated region, along with the overarching programmatic goals and relevant actors.

Coastal Regions

Coastal regions example. Image Credit: REUTERS / Mainichi Shimbun

Image Credit: REUTERS/Mainichi Shimbun

Sea level rise, severe storms, subsidence, earthquakes, and tsunami risks are complex hazards to coastal landscapes. Presently, approximately 200 million people worldwide live along coastlines less than 5 meters above sea level.  These populations and related economic activities are exposed to low- to mid-frequency events, but of particularly high severity.  For example, though hurricane impacts to the U.S. coastline are relatively uncommon (compared to, for example, tornadoes elsewhere in the U.S.), a single landfalling hurricane brings combined hazards of heavy rainfall, flooding, destructive storm surge, and high winds that impact a large area. Vulnerable persons and property in these areas may be subject to catastrophic disaster impacts with high mortality and asset loss. Two demonstration projects exist to represent the distinct characteristics of risk for coastal regions, with exposure and vulnerability reflected along various continental coastline areas, one focused on the mid-Atlantic and the other on the U.S. Pacific coast.

SCHISM model of the US East Coast

SCHISM model of the US East Coast

The mid-Atlantic CAIR project demonstrates the ability to integrate satellite derived earth observations and physical models into actionable, trusted knowledge.  Severe storms and associated storm surge, sea level rise, and land subsidence coupled with increasing populations and densely populated, aging critical infrastructure often leave coastal regions and their communities extremely vulnerable. The integration of observations and models allow for a comprehensive understanding of the compounding risk experienced in coastal regions and enables individuals in all positions make risk-informed decisions. This team uses a representative storm surge case as a baseline to produce flood inundation maps.  These maps predict building level impacts at current day as well as for SLR and subsidence scenarios of the future with the intent of informing critical decisions. The next step in the process is to compare physical model output to current remote sensing capabilities in order to understand where predictions can best be improved and work with policy-makers to determine when predictions becomes actionable.  Looking to the future, the team can then begin developing methodologies and applications for advanced remote sensing capabilities such as SAR and Lidar.  Current team members include Virginia Institute of Marine Science, George Mason University, Hampton University, the University of Alabama and Old Dominion University.

The Pacific CAIR project uses coastal Global Positioning System networks to infer seafloor displacement due to large earthquakes.  Rapid observation of these displacements will improve understanding of the power and scale of a potential tsunami to guide emergency warnings before they reach coastal areas. The initial phase of this project tested successfully on two independent platforms, and received confirmation of the feasibility and reliability to offer the best solution for early detection. Future actions include engagement with local stakeholders and demonstrations of the applicability of these geospatial tools by emergency managers and other decision-making agencies. Promotion of the access and availability of this data also needs to occur, along with potential for testing, and integration into planning and program management.

Multiple locations are included in the Pacific region scenario – Cascadia: coastal regions of California, Oregon, and Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska. To date, this team is comprised of actors from NASA: Jet Propulsion Lab, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Central Washington University, University of Washington, and University of Oregon, and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration: both the Pacific and National Tsunami Warning Centers.  Immediate next steps for this team are to: 1) determine a specific region to focus activities, and 2) increase the network of partners and stakeholders to ensure end-user integration of these activities into regular activities.

High Mountain Regions

Mountainous regions example. Image Credit: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

Image Credit: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

High mountain areas, glaciers, rocks, and permafrost exist in various configurations of unstable landscape elements (e.g., landforms, bedrock, debris, and water bodies) often located near vulnerable human populations and infrastructure. This project intends to integrate satellite remote sensing with ground data to increase the knowledge and understanding of hazards in high mountain areas due to atmospheric and Earth-surface dynamics.

This team will focus on four key regions: Cascadia, Alaska, the Northern Andes, and Himalayas. While the physics of hazardous events may be similar, the geography is different; therefore, knowledge gained in one region may not be readily applicable elsewhere. For example, glacial surges or advances often trigger glacial lake outburst floods in Alaska; however, in the Himalayas, landslides or glacial calving into lakes, or piping through glacial or ice-cored moraine dams are the primary triggers. For this reason, improved representation of glacier boundary conditions in numerical modeling, better characterization of thermal conditions, interactions with subglacial material, and knowledge of subglacial plumbing are required to understand these hazards.

Image Credit: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

Image Credit: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

Transferring knowledge of these landscapes and intensive risk scenarios requires collaboration, establishing trust between scientists and emergency managers, exchange of expertise and understanding, and collaborations focused on local community actors and emergency planners. This demonstration will include selection of a pilot location, determining the needs and vulnerabilities of the pilot area by working with local actors, and developing ensemble approaches (i.e., the use of multiple data from satellites and sensors) needed to identify and address the risks associated with this region.

Small Island Regions

This project is in the research phase.  Focus areas under consideration include Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. This project seeks to characterize the risks from tropical cyclones, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis to low-lying communities often isolated and have limitations in their economic and distributive capacities. Possible concepts include the use of Data Cubes – a data processing platform for Earth science data with a focus on remote sensing – and case studies reflecting on efforts in reconstruction and recovery.