How Copernicus can support disaster management across the globe
Disaster management is an area where the use of satellite data can literally make a difference and even save lives. Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme, has a dedicated service for this purpose – the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (EMS). The service is free of charge and available for emergency actors anywhere in the world.
Copernicus Emergency Management Service
The Copernicus Emergency Management Service is one of the six main services that the Copernicus Programme, the European Union’s Earth Observation programme, provides on a global scale. The service supports crisis managers, Civil Protection authorities and humanitarian aid actors dealing with natural disasters, man-made emergency situations, and humanitarian crises, as well as those involved in disaster risk reduction and recovery activities.
The EMS consist of five main components:
- Risk & Recovery Mapping
- Rapid Mapping
- Early Warning & Monitoring Systems for Forest Fires (European and Global)
- Early Warning & Monitoring Systems for Floods (European and Global)
- European Drought Observatory (EDO)
Risk & Recovery Mapping
The Risk & Recovery Mapping component provides maps, digital geoinformation and reports that can be used for preparedness, prevention, and Disaster Risk Reduction activities, but also to monitor reconstruction after a disaster. The products include reference maps, hazard, vulnerability, exposure and other risk assessment maps that provide emergency planners as well as national or local authorities with an in-depth look into the situation of any defined Area of Interest (AoI). The service also provides post-disaster maps for potential recovery and reconstruction activities, for example, post-disaster needs assessment, recovery plans, reconstruction/rehabilitation monitoring, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) monitoring, Refugee Camp monitoring.
Copernicus EMS Risk & Recovery Mapping activation EMSN033 is a satellite-based conflict damage assessment of two selected areas in Libya: Benghazi and Al-Jawf in Al-Kufra district. The purpose was to generate maps and a spatial database related to damage assessment following the violent conflict that started in May 2014. You can find the full activation report, maps and vector data on the EMS website.
The Rapid Mapping service provides maps and digital geoinformation (vector data) within hours or days after an emergency – depending how quickly as the necessary satellite imagery can be acquired while processing is performed in a few hours by a team of contractors that are on call 24h a day, every single day of the year.
There are three standard categories of rapid maps:
- Reference Maps, which show the situation prior to an event and are based on archive satellite imagery of the area prior to an emergency event;
- Delineation Maps, showing the extent of the event (for example, in case of wildfires, the perimeter and area of a burn scar or in case of floods – the flood extent);
- Grading Maps that estimate the magnitude of the damage after a disaster (for example, the severity of the burn in case of a forest fire, the number of buildings, roads affected by an earthquake and their damage grade, etc.).
For long-lasting events, monitoring maps can be requested so as to follow the evolution over time based on the latest available satellite imagery.
The Rapid Mapping component is mostly used in cases of floods, forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes or tropical cyclones. However, the service can also be used for humanitarian crises. For example, the Danish Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) activated the Copernicus EMS to produce Reference Maps based on recent optical satellite imagery that it will use for the initial planning of its aid for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (EMSR272).
Early Warning & Monitoring Systems for Forest Fires
The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) and the Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS) can support forestry and firefighting services globally. Though called the European Forest Fire Information System, the EFFIS network involves a total of 40 countries in Europe and beyond. EFFIS is fully operational and GWIS operates on a pre-operational basis. Both systems provide a tool called the Current Situation Viewer – an in-browser view of Fire Risk Indexes (for example, Fire Weather Index, Initial Spread Index, Build Up Index, etc.), and active fires monitoring by satellite at medium resolution. The products are developed on the basis meteorological information, such as temperature, precipitation or wind, to forecast fire danger.
The EFFIS website also includes forest fire news, annual fire reports, fire history, forest focus studies and other historical information. When required, users can request data (in particular in digital format) from both portals by filling a Data Request form online.
Early Warning & Monitoring Systems for Floods
The European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) provides flood probability forecasts for all European river basins. The System has 68 partners, which are mostly national hydro-meteorological centres responsible for national/regional warnings, or Civil Protection institutions in Europe and beyond. National authorities in partner countries receive pan-European flood forecast information twice a day which provides a 10-day outlook. A pan-European overview of ongoing floods is posted on the EFAS website and updated daily. The real-time EFAS access is currently limited to the authorities responsible for flood alerts in their countries. But you can still find archive information, EFAS bulletins and videos on the portal.
The EMS GloFAS system is the global counterpart of the European EFAS. It is composed of an integrated hydrometeorological forecasting chain and of a worldwide monitoring system that analyses daily results and displays forecasts for flood events on a dedicated web platform. To use the GloFAS Forecast Viewer, you will need to create a free account on the website. The website also has links to YouTube videos introducing the system and explaining how to use it, case studies for downloading and other information. Unlike EFAS, GloFAS is freely accessible to anyone.
European Drought Observatory
The European Drought Observatory (EDO) is a new service released in January 2018. The EDO provides drought-relevant information such as maps of indicators derived from different data sources: precipitation measurements, satellite measurements, modelled soil moisture content and others. Graphs and Compare Layers tools allow for displaying and analysing the information and Drought News give an overview of the situation in case of imminent droughts.
The benefits & limitations of satellite imagery
There are many advantages that satellite imagery can provide:
- It allows to acquire information about difficult to access locations (e.g. remote, disaster and conflict-stricken areas)
- Radar satellites (such as the Copernicus Sentinel-1) can acquire imagery at night and irrespective of weather conditions (e.g. even when clouds are present over the Area of Interest)
- Large areas can quickly be assessed for damages to transport and building infrastructure – this can be particularly valuable in dense urban areas with large populations
- It is possible to monitor an area over a period of time to observe changing phenomena such as the expansion of urban areas or settlements, the movements of displaced populations, and the progress of construction activities
However, there are some limitations of satellites that have to be considered. These include:
- Optical satellites can only acquire images during daytime, and image quality can be affected by the presence of clouds, haze or smoke. In many of such cases, radar satellites can be used, however not all mapping products can be produced using radar imagery
- The accuracy and quality of the mapping results can vary depending on the nature and scale of the phenomena observed. For example, in case of floods, the satellite overfly can be too late to capture the maximum extension of a flooding event
How to access & activate the Copernicus EMS
The EMS Mapping component can be triggered for any part of the world by or through an Authorised User. These are the National Focal Points in the EU Member States and Copernicus Participating Countries, as well as the EU Delegations throughout the world.
Activations can also be triggered directly by or (for countries in which there is no National Focal Point) through the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) of the European Commission’s Directorate General of Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection. In all cases, a Service Request Form (available on the Copernicus EMS website) must be completed.
The EFFIS and GWIS systems are accessible online to users, but also to the general public (no password or registration required), and to access GloFAS you will need to create a free account. EFAS information is restricted; access can be provided on request.
For more information
NOAA’s new satellite might just put an end to weather jokes
On a cold January night in 2015, Philadelphia’s then-Mayor Michael Nutter signed two disaster proclamations in anticipation of a “crippling and potentially historic” blizzard. The neighboring New Jersey also issued a state of emergency, canceling schools, ordering all non-emergency vehicles off the roads, and warning residents of possible power outages.
The next day, the storm came. But it wasn’t in the form of heavy snowfall; it was in the fashion of a flurry of apologies by embarrassed meteorologists for their “big forecast miss”. The ‘Blizzard of the Year’ had become the ‘Bust of the Year’.
Many were reminded of BBC Weather forecaster Michael Fish who had chimed during an October 1987 broadcast: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way… well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!” That evening, the most devastating storm in nearly 300 years hit South East England.
These weather guys are so wildly wrong every so often, meteorology has unfailingly been on the receiving end of jokes and criticism. Well, essentially, the accuracy of forecasts is directly proportional to how many eyes we have in the skies gathering varied weather observations like temperature, wind speed, moisture, etc. These data are then fed into mathematical models that tell us how the weather is going to behave over the next three to seven days.
So, if we make our input data better, the forecasts should also become more accurate, right? Well, that is exactly what NASA and NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1) intends to do. Launched earlier this month, JPSS-1 boasts of “the latest and best technology that NOAA has ever flown operationally in the polar orbit to capture more precise observations of the Earth’s atmosphere, land, and water.” The satellite was rechristened as NOAA-20 on reaching its final orbit.
Circling the Earth from pole to pole 512 miles above the surface, 14 times a day, JPSS-1 will capture the weather as it unfolds across every single spot on the planet at least twice every 24 hours. This is what differentiates JPSS-1 from GOES-16 – another bird that made headlines this time last year for being the most-advanced weather monitoring satellite out there. While GOES-16 will remain fixed over the American region throughout its lifecycle, JPSS-1 will provide free and open global data to organizations like EUMETSAT, the United Kingdom Meteorology Office, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the Japan Meteorological Agency, the Korean Meteorological Agency, Environmental Canada, World Meteorological Organization, and more.
The polar satellite is modeled with five super-sensitive instruments:
Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS): Provides microwave measurements of Earth’s temperature and moisture
Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES): Measures solar-reflected and Earth-emitted radiation
Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS): Produces detailed 3D temperature, moisture, and pressure profiles
Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS): Monitors ozone levels in the stratosphere
Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS): Captures high-resolution images and data in visible and infrared light
“These instruments are so precise, they have temperature sensitivity better than one-tenth a degree,” explains Dr. Mitch Goldberg, Chief Program Scientist, NOAA-JPSS. ATMS can see temperature and water vapor even through clouds. The vertical resolution of CrIS has been upgraded by a factor of more than six, so it gives us six times more information than its previous avatars. At 3,000-kilometer swath and a 375-meter resolution, VIIRS has the highest resolution out there with respect to how much coverage it has. OMPS is a critical source of data that goes into UV forecasting, and CERES is essential for Earth radiation budget studies.
All these instruments work in tandem to give data-hungry meteorological models the inputs they need very, very quickly (Fun fact: About 85 percent of all data that’s used in numerical weather prediction models come from polar-orbiting satellites)
“VIIRS, for example, has very good sensitivity to fires,” tells Dr. Goldberg. It can detect the location and temperature of even very small fires, and that information can be used to predict smoke plumes. “While VIIRS is being used to forecast smoke plumes, at the same time, CrIS will measure the carbon monoxide and methane that’s emitted from that fire. So, it allows us to see an integrated view of how fires can impact air quality.”
While all the instruments aboard JPSS-1 are extremely powerful, VIIRS is actually something of a superstar. It has already proved instrumental in tracking the widespread flooding caused by Harvey and Irma. NOAA has also been sending the images captured by VIIRS to FEMA and other emergency managers to help them track the power recovery in Puerto Rico. The instrument can also be used for monitoring volcanic plumes and eruptions or even keeping an eye on global vegetation health. “We can see droughts not only in California, but across all corners of the globe. It’s really important for food security,” insists Dr. Goldberg.
For Joe Pica, Director, Office of Observations, NOAA National Weather Service, polar satellites like JPSS-1 are the backbone of Global Observing System. “Satellite observations not only help us monitor and collect information about current weather systems, but they feed the models that allow us to predict the weather today, tomorrow, the weekend, and next week. This was never more apparent than this last hurricane season. From Hurricane Harvey to Maria, we provided emergency managers with the knowledge they needed to make life-saving decisions well in advance: Order effective evacuations, pre-position response assets, and prepare the public to take action well before the storm got there.”
JPSS-1 is only the first in the series of four highly-advanced NOAA operational polar weather satellites. The mission is designed to ensure the continuity of key observations of weather forecasting for the next 20 years and beyond. As Lars Peter Riishojgaard, Director, Observing and Information Systems, WMO, points out, “You want a system that is able to deliver data 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, also at 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and also when everybody is sitting down for their Thanksgiving dinner and your staffing levels may be at a minimum. And JPSS-1 is built that way.”