Four amazing ways satellites can help in emergencies

It’s astonishing to think that something floating tens of miles above the Earth can tell us things about our planet that we don’t already know.

For decades, scientists have used satellites to give us a picture of our world that we might struggle to see down here on the ground. As the analogy goes, they help us to see the wood for the trees.

One of the areas that satellites have been especially invaluable is in being a first responder when emergencies happen. Their unique perspective, allowing us to see thousands of miles at a glance, helps scientists and disaster relief agencies to monitor destructive weather trends, while also giving us the information we need to act in their aftermath. But that’s not all.

Here are four ways that satellites are well setup to help in emergencies.


Helping out during the global pandemic

Satellites have played a vital role in coordinating response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The key benefit of satellites is this situation was in maintaining social distancing at a time when millions of people were isolating.

Their use has been transformative; they have helped scientists and experts to pinpoint densely built areas at risk of contracting the Coronavirus as well as more rural locations that might struggle with access to treatment and vaccines.

Other space agencies used satellites to identify the knock-on effect of the pandemic on other industries – such as tracking light pollution and crop levels.


Identifying when a gust becomes a hurricane

As the climate crisis continues to worsen, scientists believe that the incidence of extreme weather – like ice storms, hurricanes and droughts – will become more frequent.

Satellite technology has a key role to play if we’re to stay ahead of these increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

Scientists have been using weather satellites to track storms since the mid-1970s, and the technology underpinning satellites has advanced beyond recognition when compared to the devices we used for a similar function 50 years ago.

The latest breed of weather satellites can track plumes of smoke from volcanoes, solar winds and even follow individual lightning strands from creation to earth-striking, often hundreds of miles later. This sort of detail allows scientists to identify the tell-tale signs of a storm brewing – allowing emergency provisions to be put in place, even before extreme weather events can make landfall.


Helping to visualise the emergency response

Knowing how to respond in the wake of a natural disaster requires a lot of data. This is where satellites come in.

By being able to visualise how an affected area used to look, and then comparing that to images of the same area following the emergency, response teams can understand where they will need to deploy resources.

After Hurricane Dorian cut a damaging path across the Bahamas, NASA created a detailed damage assessment map to identify areas that had been worst hit by the storm surge. This then helped to direct the efforts of relief agencies, and also meant that various government departments could create an unclassified web portal to provide geospatial support for areas affected by the hurricane. This, in turn, acted as a central data repository for crisis and humanitarian teams to act on.

The same principle has been applied in managing forest fire spread. Satellite data can provide a near real-time view of where firefighting agencies need to drop water or evacuate people. This has improved significantly in recent times with the advancement of thermal imaging technology.


Communicating after an emergency

In the wake of devastating hurricanes, like Irma and Maria – which tragically wreaked havoc in the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico – satellites were used to ensure the timely deployment of aid to impacted communities.

Following both of these storms, communications infrastructure was so damaged that it was rendered completely useless. This obviously had big implications for communicating the need for assistance to the outside world.

In the absence of hard-wired telecoms infrastructure, those on the islands instead turned to satellite communications. This was essential in making sure that hospitals could be restocked with medicine and that help could be flown in to rescue people from still at-risk areas.

In the following months, satellite technology was then used to rebuild communities; of note, local officials in Puerto Rico used it to restore the nation’s food networks by enabling businesses to use point-of-sale payments – this was essential as the island experienced a severe cash crisis following the hurricane.

Interested in finding out more about the technology that is helping to shape our world? Check out these links: