Letter: Role of Satellites in Disaster Response

Missy Frederick rightly underscores in your July 25, 2005, issue the importance of imaging satellites in assessing the effects of major natural disasters, like the tsunami that hit the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean last December [“Imaging Satellites Need Better Coordination for Relief Efforts,” page 13].

However, the article overlooks the existence of a successful, multinational, U N -recognized initiative that has been in place for five years now to coordinate the space-related relief efforts following disaster events.

Since becoming operational, the International Charter ” Space and Major Disasters” has provided and coordinated space coverage on the part of its member agencies from Europe (European Space Agency ), France (French space agency CNES), Canada (Canadian Space Agency), the United States (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey) , India (Indian Space Research Organisation ), Argentina (National Commission on Space Activities ) and most recently Japan (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency ) for 80 disasters, ranging from floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and forest fires to oil spills and industrial accidents in the four corners of the globe .

The charter is in fact the first successful attempt of joint multi-satellite tasking for data acquisition and delivery to those faced with providing relief to the affected communities in the wake of a disaster.

The charter operations are based on the concept of a unified approach to disaster coverage by space-based means. A single 24-hour-a-day on-duty operator can be accessed by authorized users, such as civil protection and emergency response authorities and institutions of similar background, to request a charter activation.

The request is processed in a matter of hours under the coordination of on-call staff in one of the member agencies, followed by the assignment of a project manager, who provides expert services regarding data processing, value adding, delivery and information extraction to help the authorities assess damage and plan relief efforts.

The member space agencies make sure that the highest priority is accorded to the charter data acquisition planning. For the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, no less than 200 passive (electro-optical) and active (Synthetic Aperture Radar) sensor images acquired from satellites owned or operated by the Charter members were processed and an equally large number of image products were delivered in the field. Many of these products can be viewed on the charter Web site (www.disasterscharter.org), which also gives the overall information on the charter and its functions and activities to date.

Conrado F. Varotto

Executive and technical director, CONAE

On behalf of the Board, International Charter “Space and Major Disasters”