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Earth Observation: critical in an emergency – essential in situational awareness

© by Peter Hausknecht, PhD, Chief Scientist, Earth-i.
Earth observation has contributed to the response activities in the recent Canadian wildfires. Aerial imagery and satellite data from sensors of all wavelengths and spatial dimensions were utilised to assess and combat the recent fires – most likely the biggest environmental catastrophe in Canada’s recent history. Due to its location near the Fort McMurray shale fields, the oil industry was quickly drawn into the disaster response, needing to demonstrate its readiness to shut down production, secure assets and evacuate people on a large scale.

Fort McMurray was a place few people in Europe had heard of before. That changed when the headlines hit the newsrooms: Alberta Wildfire Grows Tenfold in Size Canadian Wildfires Curtail Oil Sands Production Fort McMurray: Canada wildfires force evacuation of oil sands city.

When the wildfire happened the oil and gas industry had to react fast, asking: Where? When? What? Local authorities, emergency services and news providers had exactly the same questions. These questions are typical for events not easily anticipated or planned for, such as natural disasters, environmental catastrophes or other larger scale incidents where situational awareness becomes a crucial part in decision making and emergency response. Earth observation-derived information, plain imagery and value-added information products provide key inputs in the before, during and after phases of planning the response to such an event. Where are the access roads and what conditions are they in? How far has the fire progressed and in which direction is it moving? What areas have been affected most and how severe is the damage? These are three questions which can be addressed by earth observation technologies. Crucial in this regard is the on-time and up-to-date availability of earth observation data. Information products derived from that data, whether from satellite or airborne sensors, are a critical element in disaster response.

However, not only the direct response to an event and the impact assessment, need the high spatial resolution information. Ongoing rescue and recovery operations can also benefit greatly from the availability and analysis of EO data. In the direct aftermath any insurance company or aid agency will derive significant benefit from the immediate availability of such information, enabling swift and accurate decisions to be made in support of their clients.

In Canada, like in most European countries, regular updates of the baseline mapping products, such as background imagery, are carried out with high resolution satellites and aerial photography. With an ever-growing number of high spatial resolution satellites available to acquire data and provide the derived information in a timely manner, means such data can become part of preparedness planning. The 24/7 availability of the baseline data is essential for a well-informed response should preparedness have to turn into emergency action.

All the Satellite service providers reacted swiftly to the sudden demand for information on the Fort McMurray fires with the international charter on space and major disasters being activated on May 4th. Many Earth observation satellites contributed to this Canadian emergency call and agencies on the ground successfully utilised the information derived. The 2015-launched DMC3/TripleSat constellation of three satellites was part of the array of responding optical instruments and an example of the images produced, about 40 km south-east of Ft. McMurray, is shown below. 

The images show a small subset of the affected areas with some of the shale gas production locations clearly visible, especially the number of well pads and a production train highlighted in the high resolution subset. The area is heavily forested and the regular patterns cut into the native vegetation show quite clearly in the satellite images.

DMC3 images subset taken on 6th of May 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. © 21AT/Earth-i

True color composite RGB=321

False color composite RGB=432

image processing results performing principle component analysis

straight PC channel 3

directed MNF channel 3

Panchromatic subset – 1 meter pixel

There are two main fire ‘hotspots’ in the images – seen in the red of the false colour image. The one to southwest shows the wildfire potentially moving towards the production / pumping facility. The main issue with optical imagery in any fire scenario is the smoke camouflaging the areas underneath, and consequently any assessment or analysis of that area becomes difficult. However, with dedicated image processing techniques, such as Principle Component (PC) transformation or Minimum Noise Fraction (MNF) transformation, some of the residual ground information can be retrieved and utilised for analysis. For example, the fire scars (see middle left) on the top right hand side become quite obvious and can be mapped easily, despite being covered by smoke in the original image displays.

Having such immediate satellite images available is only the first step – the data needs to be processed, analysed, and derived products created. The results will need to be integrated with the existing GIS information, such as fire risk maps, evacuation routes, and safe places, and integrated in the Common Operating Picture (COP).

Once the fire has passed and the immediate risk is gone, the initial appraisals on the severity of the fires, damage assessments and affected localities can be carried out. This enables immediate assistance to be allocated to the local people and identification of essential infrastructure needing to be repaired with a high priority.

Even now, when the fires have long stopped, there is still an ongoing need to monitor the clean-up operations and the progress of vegetation rehabilitation and infrastructure repair. As part of the ‘lessons learnt review’ people will look at the satellite data to see if they could have made better, faster and more effective decisions.

Earth observation from satellites and airborne sensors will always play a crucial part in such an emergency response, but also a very important role in the preparedness planning for any risk event before an emergency develops, and in the subsequent clean-up and restoration projects after the emergency is over.

Additional information can be found on the following websites of service providers and agencies: