May 8, 2008 — -- As cyclone recovery efforts begin in a rural third-world country where even owning a cell phone is illegal, relief organizations turn to high-tech helpers: satellites.
Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar over the weekend, and with a death toll that could approach 100,000, it is now set to become the most devastating natural disaster since the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004. The country's government has, so far, stymied relief efforts by refusing to approve visas for many workers at worldwide relief organizations. But that hasn't stopped those workers from using high-tech methods to prepare for getting aid to the devastated region.
When the disaster hit, UNOSAT (the UN Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Programme) began working on procuring the first satellite images of the Myanmar devastation. The images, according to Einar Bjorgo, the head of UNOSAT's rapid mapping unit, were dramatic.
Some areas were totally flooded -- some large villages had completely disappeared.
"These clearly showed the larger area that was totally flooded," Bjorgo said. "We compare it with an archive image of the flood [area], and then we can derive from that the flood extent and the search area."
UNOSAT, which is supported by the United Nations and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), gets free space imagery through the so-called International Charter. The members of the International Charter include space and geological agencies from around the world. During natural disasters, the members allow aid agencies to use the seemingly endless amounts of data available from their satellites positioned over parts of the Earth.
Bjorgo and his team then combined the satellite images with population information to create maps that determined how many people were potentially affected by the storm.
"That provides an overview that is needed in the very first day," he said. "Then the maps are sent out to the disaster relief community."
The U.N. often posts these maps on ReliefWeb, a site for disaster relief organizations that provides detailed, up-to-date images of the damaged areas.
"First, the images help to see an overall view, but then it is to [ask], which are the most affected areas? Where are the airports? What is the status of the road network to be able to deliver aid to the population?" Bjorgeo said. "It is very much a response-planning tool and an implementation tool."
Using satellite images in the face of natural disasters is nothing new. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, relief agencies used the images to assess the damage. Firefighting agencies often use satellite imagery of large acreage fires to determine where efforts are most needed.
Satellites are especially helpful for more rural and state-controlled countries such as Myanmar, which may not have up-to-date maps, according to Rob Simmon, the lead visualizer at NASA's Earth Observatory.
"I think the most important thing that satellites can be used for is mapping, which is especially relevant in really remote areas, like an American mountain range in a wildfire, the coast in a tsunami or Myanmar during a cyclone," Simmon said.
According to Simmon, NASA satellite imagery has been used to make a large-scale map of the flooded areas in Myanmar.
But experts say that as more detailed maps become necessary, relief agencies have to use information from higher-resolution, privately owned satellites. NASA satellites are equippped to take images of larger areas, such as the entire flood zone in Myanmar. In contrast, commercial satellites can zero-in on a particular village or building.
"The most detailed maps will probably come from commercial sources," said Lars Bromley, a project director who runs the geospatial technologies and human rights program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "You're able to see individual structures. You can count how many houses. You can see foot trails up to official roads."
Bromley added, "The broader issue is how big was this [cyclone], who did it hit? Your standard weather satellite would show cloud formation, where this thing went and who it might have affected."
Higher resolution images show, in detail, areas that were underwater after the cyclone, he said.
Bromley has been watching satellite images of Myanmar for a while. Last year, he published a paper comparing satellite images with reports of genocide, made by international human rights groups.
Direct Relief International, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based medical relief organization, used satellite images from the U.N., the Navy and Google Earth, according to agency spokesman Jim Prosser.
"We're using satellite imagery to map out affected areas ... so we know how to effectively funnel material and financial aid to those affected," Prosser said. "Also, we're looking at displaced people, so we're able to be flexible to changes in population."
Although the group uses satellite imagery regularly, last month Google approached Direct Relief International to participate in a program designed to allow nonprofits to take advantage of Google Earth.
The group's online map of Myanmar shows that the coastal areas and much of the capital of Yangon are flooded. The group plans to ship medicine to the country on a Thai Airways flight on Friday.
DigitalGlobe, a six-year-old company that owns the satellite that supports the maps on Google Earth, regularly works with nonprofits during natural disasters.
"Once an event like this happens, we look at when our satellites will be passing over the region," said DigitalGlobe spokesman Chuck Herring. "We do a lot of work, understanding as best we can from people on the ground, where the hardest hit areas have been," to know what images to capture.
Satellites can also go where planes can't, said Val Webb of GeoEye, another commercial satellite operator.
The satellites were helpful "especially during Sept. 11, when airspace [was] blocked off," Webb said. "Airplanes couldn't go over, but our satellites still did."
But even the clearest, most detailed satellite image in the world won't save Myanmar.
"We can do a heck of a lot with the planning," said Bromley. "But if no one gets on the ground in there, it won't be useful, in the relief sense; it would only be useful in the academic sense."