We now know that, as flash floods devastated southern Queensland, tens of thousands of people had no warning that the waters were on their way until it was too late – in the case of Toowoomba, some six hours after the floods had hit.
This is unnecessary. Australia should have an early warning system that would allow authorities to predict flash floods and give a timely warning to people in the path of danger.
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One of the great challenges in dealing with flooding over vast areas is knowing what the big picture looks like. Another is getting that information quickly enough to make it useful to people working on the front lines of disaster response.
The best way to get the information is from space, yet Australia is one of the few developed nations not to have its own Earth-observation satellite or weather satellite.
The most recent Defence white paper identified the need for such a satellite. This is a big investment, but starting with a relatively small investment of about $5 million in a purpose-built satellite ground receiving station would give us the capacity that Australia urgently needs to effectively deal with natural disasters.
Since late December, my colleagues and I have been supplying Queensland emergency authorities with high-resolution satellite radar imagery of the flood zones. We have had to rely on radar images taken by Earth-observation satellites owned by the Italian space agency.
This has meant delays of up to six hours while our researchers wait for the satellites that have imaged the Australian disaster zone to pass over European ground stations to download their data. They then have to wait for the large volume of data, in the order of one to five gigabytes, to be decoded at the overseas facility and be delivered back to Australia via the internet so we can process the data into usable intelligence for our emergency authorities.
If we had our own receiving station we could obtain the data almost instantly. With our current capacity the overall delay could be comfortably reduced to less than three hours and, with some further work on the automation of data processing, it could be cut to less than 30 minutes.
Satellite radar can do what our weather satellites, equipped with only optical cameras, cannot – penetrate cloud, smoke and haze and take images day and night to track how quickly water is moving. For researchers it’s also a vital tool to benchmark and verify flood-prediction models.
The benefits of being able to provide these near real-time maps are enormous, not only for flood monitoring but for other natural disasters such as bushfires and earthquakes.
The University of New South Wales has been called upon by various agencies in recent years to assist in emergency responses to a number of major natural disasters because of its cutting-edge research into mapping disaster zones. For example, after the Sichuan earthquakes we assisted Chinese authorities by rapidly developing ground deformation maps of the quake zone with data obtained from Japanese and European satellites.
A state-of-the-art ground station would elevate Australia to super user status, allowing our researchers to enjoy high-priority programming of overseas satellites.
Emergency management agencies now rely heavily on aerial surveillance for intelligence of disasters such as floods, bushfires and oil spills. Timely intelligence from space will keep the aerial surveillance flights to a minimum, not only sparing more air space for aircraft used for firefighting (in the case of bushfires) and evacuation and resupply to isolated communities (in the case of floods), but also bringing significant cost savings.
Australia has been left far behind in terms of Earth observation from space in comparison to the US, Europe, Japan, China and Canada. The government has already made the right decision to invest in the Australian Space Research Program – and, yes, we urgently need our own high-resolution radar satellite – but in the meantime why not make the small investment that could make such a difference to our capacity to manage natural disasters.
Linlin Ge is an associate professor in the UNSW School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems.