How satellites can help with the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

In natural disasters such as the 7.8-magnitude quake and 7.5-magnitude aftershock that rocked Syria and Turkey on February 6, 2023, international collaboration on satellite imagery is essential for rescue and recovery efforts.

Such data helps humanitarian aid to better supply water and food by assessing the status of roads, bridges, and buildings and – most importantly – by locating individuals seeking refuge in stadiums and other open areas from future aftershocks.

At 7:04 a.m. local time, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) requested the activation of the international charter on “Space and Major Disasters” in order to immediately direct satellites toward the impacted areas. The United Nations did so at 11:29 local time for Syria.

In the interim, eleven space organizations prepared to operate the optimal optical and radar satellites. France’s optical satellites Spot, Pléaides, and Pléiades Neo (medium, high, and very high resolution) will offer the initial photographs as they pass over the region. The optical information will be supplemented by radar satellites, which operate at night and through clouds and can image landslides and even minute changes in altitude.

Natural (cyclone, tornado, typhoon, earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, tsunami, flood, forest fire, etc.) and man-made (earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, tsunami, flood, forest fire, etc.) catastrophes harm millions of people annually (oil pollution, industrial explosions, and more). Unfortunately, the intensity and frequency of these natural disasters are growing as a result of climate change, resulting in an increase in the number of victims, destroyed dwellings, and devastated landscapes.

The worldwide charter on “Space and Major Disasters” defines a disaster as a large-scale, sudden, unique, and uncontrolled event that causes loss of life or damage to property and the environment and necessitates immediate data acquisition and dissemination.

Additionally, a trending Twitter video shows a whole building collapse in Turkey following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

In 1999, the Canadian Space Agency joined the National Space Research Centre and the European Space Agency in creating the charter. Today, seventeen space agencies have joined together to provide free satellite pictures over the catastrophe area as rapidly as possible. The charter has been invoked 797 times in over 154 countries since 2000. It has since been complemented by similar European (Copernicus Emergency) and Asian programs (Sentinel Asia).

Nearly three-quarters of the charter’s activations are caused by meteorological phenomena, including storms, hurricanes, and especially floods, which account for half of the charter’s activations. In these frequently unanticipated crisis scenarios, when the ground is destroyed or flooded and the roads are impassable, land-based resources are not always able to assess the magnitude of the disaster and organize relief and humanitarian supplies in the most effective manner. By capturing the situation with a very high resolution from space, satellites instantly give vital information.

There are instances where the charter cannot be triggered. This may be because the subject matter is beyond the scope of the charter (wars and armed conflicts) or because space imagery is sometimes of little interest (in the case of heat waves and epidemics) or because the event evolves slowly and over an extended period of time (droughts).

The satellites are intended to acquire photographs over the impacted areas as soon as a calamity happens. More than sixty optical or radar satellites are deployable at any given moment.

Dependent on pre-established crisis preparations, various satellites will be mobilized based on the type of disaster, including TerraSAR-X/Tandem-X, QuickBird-2, Radarsat, Landsat-7/8, SPOT, Pleiades, and Sentinel-2, among others.

Optical images resemble photographs taken from space, however radar images are more difficult for non-specialists to interpret. Therefore, following the accident, satellite data is updated to make it easier to comprehend. For instance, the photos are converted into impact or change maps for rescue personnel, flood alarm maps for the general public, and mapping of burned or flooded areas with damage estimates for decision-makers.

Collaboration between satellite operators and field users is vital. Innovations in Earth observation technologies (particularly the performance of optical resolutions – from 50 to 20 meters and now 30 centimeters) and 3D data processing software, as well as the development of digital tools that can couple satellite and in situ data, have contributed to the advancement of the field. The requirements of the field have also influenced the evolution of the charter’s intervention processes in terms of delivery time and product quality.

Of course, emergency management is crucial, but it is as important for all affected nations to address reconstruction and the future. In fact, the “risk cycle” suggests that reconstruction, resilience, and risk reduction all play a significant part in restoring normalcy. Even while natural disasters cannot be predicted, they can be better prepared for, particularly in areas where they occur frequently. For instance, residents could profit from earthquake-resistant building, the establishment of safe meeting spaces, or the relocation of residential areas to safer locations. Survival abilities are also essential.

Several “reconstruction observatories” have been established in the aftermath of catastrophic disasters, including Haiti in 2021 and Beirut after the 2019 port explosion. The objective is to coordinate satellite images to enable a detailed and dynamic assessment of damage to buildings, roads, farms, forests, and other infrastructure in the most affected areas, to monitor reconstruction planning, to reduce risks, and to monitor changes over a three- to four-year period.

»How satellites can help with the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria«

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