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Extending NASA Research Capabilities For Disaster Management

By Stephen Ambrose, Shahid Habib, and Rodney McKellip

The May 2005 issue of EOM contained an overview article by Birk et. al. describing how the results of NASA's space-based scientific research are extended for the benefit of society through the Applied Sciences Program. The objective to expand and accelerate use of knowledge, data, and technologies resulting from such research is implemented through a systems approach to demonstrate uses of NASA's innovative capabilities for global observation, data analysis, and Earth science modeling. NASA collaborates with partner organizations working in national priority areas to assimilate NASA's Earth-Sun system scientific data product into their policy and management decision support tools. The purpose is to chart the course for transitioning research results to operational use in decision support capabilities. Competitively-selected projects are solicited from the community-of-practice through the Research Opportunities for Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) NASA research announcement.


NASA and partnering organizations focus on 12 applications of national priority:

  • Agricultural Efficiency
  • Air Quality
  • Aviation
  • Carbon Management
  • Coastal Management
  • Disaster Management
  • Ecological Management
  • Energy Management
  • Homeland Security
  • Invasive Species
  • Public Health and
  • Water Management.

This article focuses on the Disaster Management focus area as the next in a series of articles that delve deeper into the application focus areas of the Applied Sciences Program. The goal of the Disaster Management program element is to enable beneficial use of NASA Earth-Sun system science research, observations, models, and technologies to enhance decision support capabilities serving the Nation's geohazards, weather, and wildfire management communities.

Major tenets of the NASA Disaster Management program element include the following:

  • Developing and nurturing partnerships and networks with appropriate disaster management organizations
  • Identifying and assessing partners' disaster management responsibilities, plans, and decision support tools, and evaluating the capacity of NASA science results to support these tools
  • Verifying and validating the application of NASA Earth-Sun science results to contribute information to partner decision support tools, including development of products and rapid prototypes to demonstrate capacity to address partners' requirements
  • Collaborating with partners to benchmarking the use of space-based science results in decision support tools and supporting the tools' transition into operational use
  • Communicating results and partner achievements to appropriate disaster management communities and stakeholders for their adoption or adaptation

The Disaster Management Program in Action

NASA partners with federal agencies and with regional and/or national organizations that have disaster management responsibilities and mandates to support managers in local, state, and tribal governments as well as private industry. Disaster Management partners include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The NASA Disaster Management program element includes international organizations and activities that have the potential to extend NASA science benefits to the international community.

Many program activities have crosscutting linkages to other national application areas such as Aviation, Homeland Security, Energy Management, Ecological Forecasting, Public Health, Air Quality, and Water Management. The NASA program supports Administration priorities including the White House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR)/Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction (SDR), the U.S. Group on Earth Observations (USGEO), the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), and the interagency programs on Climate Change Science and Technology (CCSP, CCTP). The Disaster Management program works with the World Meteorological Organization / International Global Observing System (WMO/IGOS), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), and individual nation partners.

NASA spacecraft missions include research-quality instruments to study Earth's atmospheric, biospheric, oceanographic, and solid earth. Current on-orbit missions include the NASA Terra, Aqua, and Aura Earth Observation System (EOS) spacecraft, along with TOPEX (Topography Experiment), Jason, GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), QuickScat, Landsat 7, and TRMM (Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission). The SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) mission flew on the Space Shuttle in 2000. Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (IFSAR) data from the SRTM mission enabled the production of elevation maps of the planet's surface with vertical accuracy of better than 10 meters. Future NASA missions include CloudSAT, CALIPSO, NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), Glory, Aquarius, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), planned for launch between now and the end of this decade. Most of these missions are developed and implemented with national partners. The planned missions will provide us with information on soil moisture, atmospheric aerosol and cloud structure, and carbon dioxide. The observations and science data products from these missions will be useful in further assessing issues pertaining to floods, landslides, and air quality and public health. Key Earth science models include the Pennsylvania State University / National Center for Atmospheric Research Mesoscale Model (MM5), Global Climate Model (GCM), ETA, Weather Research Forecasting Model (WRF), and WAVEWATCH III. The project plans associated with the Disaster Management Program designate specific sensors and models and state specific partnership activities to extend NASA Science measurements, environmental data records, and geophysical parameters (accessible at

Figure 1: Flooding of Indus River basin in 2004 captured by NASA satellite. Click on image to see enlarged.

Figure 2: LiDAR data helps expose fault line in the Northwestern region of the United States Click on image to see enlarged.

In managing the impacts of natural hazards, it is essential to examine and understand the nature of the problem and the potential zone of resulting disasters. An assumption is that the immediate area impacted due to an event would be local to regional in extent. This is true for tsunami, landslides, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other types of natural hazards. This is reflected in Figure 1 where the south western region of Pakistan is flooded due to Indus river basin flooding in 2004. This assumption is not applicable when there is a volcanic eruption or a radioactive leakage due to a nuclear explosion. Radioactive leakage is not easily containable and has tremendous transport potential due to its inherent nature as an atmospheric constituent. NASA science measurements from the constellation of Earth observing spacecraft provides a global perspective and an excellent venue of respective large scale observations used to model intial conditions to address the regional problems. NASA's advancements in LiDAR technology is being used to study Earth's geologic faults. Figure 2 shows a mapping of Puget Sound in the Northwest United States combined with specific modeling techniques to expose the Earth under the vegetation to observe the fault lines. This solid Earth research is advancing our understanding of earthquakes.

One of the program's activities focuses on extending the ability of NASA-enhanced wind modeling for coastal flood inundation information to improve capacity for the DHS/FEMA "Hazards U.S. Multi-Hazard" (HAZUS-MH) decision support system, which is used to predict economic loss from natural hazards.

Figure 3: Two approaches to estimating surface obstructions in Hancock County, Mississippi for use in HAZUS-MH wind and flood models for coastal hurricane damage and loss estimation. On the left is a map of surface obstruction height (in meters) developed through analysis of Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data and National Elevation Data (NED). On the right is an aerodynamic surface roughness map (z0) derived from classification of imagery from the Advanced Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). Click on image to see enlarged.

The program is working with NOAA and the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) and with the U.S. Forest Service Remote Sensing and Applications Center (RSAC) and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) on wildfire support. Projects in these new areas include evaluating the capacity to contribute to the next generation of the AWIPS, continuing the demonstration of assimilating spacecraft observations and products into the current AWIPS system, and using NASA research instruments to advance understanding of fire migration and emissions. These domestic priorities are augmented by a number of international initiatives related to sustainable development (WSSD), tsunami/ocean monitoring, USGEO, and GEO.

Disaster Management Cycle

Figure 4: The Disaster Management Cycle. Click on image to see enlarged.

The program focuses on decision support tools that service all four stages of the disaster management cycle [Figure 4]:

  • Preparedness — Planning how to respond to a disaster
  • Mitigation — Minimizing the effects of a disaster
  • Response — Minimizing the hazards created by an emergency
  • Recovery — Returning the community or environment to normal

NASA's science and technology capacity — including satellites, models and predictive capability, and computing and data-handling technologies — have the capacity to contribute to improvements in disaster management at each of these stages.

Preparedness — While weather satellites and the modeling and data assimilation associated with weather forecasting provide continuous tracking of meteorological hazards, other types of Earth observations and science have not historically been utilized in the preparedness phase of disaster management. Two areas where NASA science and technology can help in the preparedness phase of a disaster are (1) better time/space monitoring and prediction of natural phenomena as they are developing into extreme events; and (2) better tools to incorporate physical factors about those phenomena into models that predict the impact of the impending disasters. Transitioning the results of research in modeling is a near-term activity of the NASA Applied Sciences Program, while observations has been a longer-term objective, as the evolving private sector (i.e., high-resolution optical sensors) and government-sponsored observational systems are not currently capable of providing all of the synoptic, real-time coverage to meet preparedness requirements.

Mitigation — Much like the preparedness phase of disaster management, only limited science and technology capabilities have transitioned into routine mitigation strategies and activities over the past several years. NASA potential capacity here may be significant, particularly considering the disaster management paradigm focus on being more proactive and less reactive in dealing with disaster impacts. By necessity this requires better observation and understanding of natural phenomena, as well as better tools to assess, predict, and model the impacts of natural events. NASA's "systems" approach to scientific problem-solving is particularly relevant to the evolving paradigm for mitigation, since mitigation targets the intersection of the environment, society, and infrastructure and needs to include scientists, sociologists, economists, planners, disaster managers, resource managers, and others.

Response/Recovery — Earth observations from space are useful for synoptic views of damaged areas. Although environmental damage of large regions may be identified using imaging systems with spatial resolution on the order of tens of meters (and perhaps up to 100 meters), very high resolution information (1-10 meters spatial) provided by commercial remote sensing companies is usually necessary for the emergency manager to assess damage to infrastructure and buildings. One of the major challenges for utilizing satellite remote sensing data for response is timeliness of acquisition, as the satellite orbits may not allow imaging of an area for days to weeks, and in cases where cloud cover limits unobstructed views, it can be months after an event. Poor weather conditions, primarily cloud cover, over the affected area is a factor that often leads to inadequate imaging of disaster areas. The disaster management community continues to see images of disasters or damaged areas after the disaster strikes, but the real question is whether or not those images are useful for the decision-making process. NASA capabilities have greater potential to serve in the roles of preparedness and warning for mitigation.


Disaster Management is one component of a multi-faceted NASA Applied Sciences Program that seeks to expand the benefits of Earth science observations and predictions that have the potential to contribute to future economic and environmental security of our nation and the world as part of an integrated information system infrastructure. The program's activities address the first tenet of the NASA vision "to improve life here." NASA employs a collaborative systems approach to match capabilities to the needs of partnering organizations to maximize the benefits of NASA research results to addressing societal challenges in dealing with hazards and the impacts of disasters. The Disaster Management component of the Applied Sciences Program at NASA is poised over the next few years to make significant strides toward contributing to the challenges found at all stages of the Disaster Management Cycle to make more accurate and timely Earth science information available to the global disaster response community. The societal benefits from NASA's accomplishments in this program are focused on improved preparation for, mitigation of, and response to disasters. The results are decreases in loss of life, livelihood, and security that results from the perils of living on planet Earth.

About the Authors

Stephen Ambrose is a Program Manager, Disaster Management with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Shahid Habib is Chief of the Office of Utilization with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Rodney McKellip is is the Deputy Program Manager of the Disaster Management Program NASA's Stennis Space Center.

NASA Article Series

The following articles were originally published in Earth Observation Magazine in the issues indicated below. The first article, "NASA Space Systems Enable Science for Society," introduces the series.

    Originally published in the May 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  1. NASA Space Systems Enable Science for Society
    Ronald J. Birk, Richard L. Miller, Carlos E. Del Castillo, Timothy L. Miller, James F. Spann
  2. Enterprise Architecture for NASA's Earth-Sun Science Activities
    Leonard Brownlow, James Martin
  3. Originally published in the June 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  4. NASA's Contributions to Carbon Management: Using Carbon Cycle Science to Inform Decisions
    Edwin Sheffner
  5. Extending The Results Of NASA Research For Homeland Security
    Stephen Ambrose, Dr. Bruce Davis
  6. Originally published in the July 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  7. Air Quality Management Through Earth Observations & Models
    Lawrence Friedl, Doreen Neil, R. Bradley Pierce & the NASA Air Quality Program Team
  8. Extending the Use of NASA Research Results for Coastal Management Decision Support
    Lawrence A. Friedl, Callie M. Hall
  9. Originally published in the August 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  10. Extending NASA Research Capabilities For Disaster Management
    Stephen Ambrose, Shahid Habib, Rodney McKellip
  11. NASA Space Systems Enhance Public Health Science for Society
    John A. Haynes, Robert Venezia

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