SOLVE magazine Issue 02 2021 | Page 20

7 tonnes

Space technology helping Earthlings to survive


Total number of satellites launched into space : 10,000

Number of functioning satellites in space :


Largest satellites in orbit :

7 tonnes

size of a pick-up truck
Smallest satellites in orbit :


size of a packet of sugar
Imagery from space , combined with crowdsourced information on the ground , is allowing geoscientists to accelerate and improve the world ’ s ability to respond to natural disasters .

I n 2017 , the Caribbean island of Dominica was in the direct path of hurricane Maria , a devastating Category 5 storm . Dominica ’ s terrain , with nine volcanos running down its centre , has tended to restrict human settlements to where rivers meet the coast . In these locations during the hurricane , people were in extreme danger from the combination of flooding from coastal storm surges and debris flows from the steep terrain .

That people would require assistance was obvious ; the problem was how to target aid , given the inability to rapidly assess damage in the circumstances .
However , that is precisely the challenge in disaster management that Professor Richard Teeuw has long anticipated . Over the past decade , he has adapted remote sensing technologies , such as satellite and drone imagery , for use by low-income countries to help mitigate the impact of disasters .
This work is undertaken at the University of Portsmouth ’ s School of the Environment , Geography and Geosciences , within the Risk Reduction and Resilience Research and Innovation Group .
The response of Professor Teeuw ’ s team to hurricane Maria was twofold : assisting with the immediate disaster response and , months later , carrying out a forensic analysis of the disaster ‘ hotspots ’ in Dominica .
In the aftermath of hurricane Maria , there was an urgent need for maps showing the extent of damage . Within days of the disaster many volunteers joined a ‘ mapathon ’, hosted by the University of Portsmouth , in which they used satellite imagery to map damage to buildings , village by village . Those damage maps were then passed to the United Nations Office for Satellite Analysis ( UNOSAT ) to assist the Dominica disaster response .
Funding from the Natural Environment Research Council enabled Professor Teeuw to organise a team of scientists from UK universities to carry out fieldwork , surveying damage to buildings and infrastructure for a forensic analysis of the devastation caused by the hurricane .
“ Using photography from drones , we were able to get centimetre-detail of buildings , bridges and roads ,” Professor Teeuw says . “ Because we had associates filming in Dominica earlier that year , we had ‘ before ’ and ‘ after ’ comparisons that also helped us understand the processes that destroyed reinforced concrete buildings , bridges and other infrastructure .”
That understanding has since informed ‘ Build Back Better ’ guidelines on how Dominica can rebuild in ways – and in locations – that will be safer in the advent of future disasters .
A similar rapid response occurred in 2020 when tropical cyclone Harold , another Category 5 storm , struck Vanuatu . This time it was radar satellite imagery downloaded from the European Space Agency ( ESA ) that was used to ‘ see ’ through the cloud cover and rapidly detect severe flooding .
In his damage mapping for cyclone Harold , Professor Teeuw was able to use ‘ cubesats ’ ( each about the size of a shoebox ), of which there are now hundreds in orbit providing daily images of Earth ’ s surface .
“ Using daily PlanetScope imagery , we were able to examine the devastated islands on the first cloud-free day after the storm . We then mapped damage that would disrupt the disaster response , such as collapsed bridges and landslide-buried roads , and passed those maps to UNITAR [ United Nations Institute for Training and Research ] to assist the relief efforts .”
CONNECTED RESPONSE This was the connected responsiveness that Professor Teeuw had sought when he established the University of Portsmouth ’ s Crisis and Disaster Management Master of Science course : “ I wanted to provide training that went beyond mapping and
ISSUE 02 / 2021