While fire-fighters battled the fierce fires which raged across areas of southern Europe, Britain was facing another sort of disaster, massive flood waters. These catastrophic events were all being passively monitored by a distant observer, the ESA's (European Space Agency’s) Envisat satellite. This eye in space has been providing crucial information, critical to the success of emergency response teams all over the world.
One of the biggest problems experienced by emergency response services in dealing with any sort of disaster is trying to gauge the overall extent of the situation. With current and accurate information, these response teams can be effectively committed to deal with the situation on hand.
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In an effort to help countries respond and effectively deal with these emergencies, the ESA and the French space agency (CNES — Centre National d'Études Spatiales) initiated the International Charter on 'Space and Major Disasters', with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) signing the Charter on October 20, 2000. This is a joint initiative for providing emergency response satellite data, free of charge to any region affected by disasters anywhere in the world.
Following the massive floods in Britain, the UK Environment Agency requested the aid of the Charter, and as a result, the sensitive sensors aboard the ESA’s Envisat satellite have been monitoring the worst floodwaters to hit Britain for 60 years. Their assistance has been crucial to the effective management of the response. Prior to Envisat, emergency services would have had to rely on traditional aerial surveillance methods, which are not without problems. Limitations include prohibitive weather conditions, and if the phenomenon is widespread, cost, as the surveillance would be very time-consuming and therefore expensive.
Floods are not the only disaster Envisat has been monitoring. Major fires, such as those currently raging across southern Europe are also visible from space. The satellite is able to detect not only the smoke billowing from major conflagrations, but also the burn scars left in their wake, and even the fires themselves. These fires appear as 'hotspots' when scanning Earth's surface using infrared wavelengths.
ESA satellites have been involved in surveying fires around the world for over a decade. Based on the data collected, fire maps have been constructed and are now available to users online in near-real time through ESA's ATSR (Along Track Scanning Radiometer) World Fire Atlas (WFA).
The WFA data are based on results from the ATSR instrument onboard ESA’s ERS-2 satellite and the AATSR onboard Envisat. These twin radiometer sensors work like thermometers in the sky, measuring thermal infrared radiation to take the temperature of Earth's land surfaces.
The success of the International Charter on 'Space and Major Disasters' is evident in the number of new members it has gained over the years. New signatories include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the Argentine Space Agency (CONAE), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), BNSC/DMC and most recently, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), which joined in May 2007.