Global emergencies

Earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions and floods, oil slicks and forest fires. When a major disaster strikes the planet, the response must be quick if lives are to be saved. To facilitate the work of emergency teams, the major space agencies mobilise their Earth observation satellites. This service has a name: the International Charter “Space and Major Disasters”.

Stephen Briggs, coordinator of the Charter programme at ESA. Stephen Briggs, coordinator of the Charter programme at ESA.

The International Charter provides a centralised system for the acquisition and supply of satellite data in the case of disasters of natural or human origin through the intervention of authorised users. Each member undertakes to contribute its own resources to the Charter, thereby helping to reduce the impact of disasters on human life and property.

The International Charter officially entered into force on 1 November 2000. Each registered user can appeal to the programme partners and request the mobilisation of Charter members’ space and related terrestrial resources – Radarsat, ERS, Envisat, Spot, IRS, SAC-C, NOAA, Landsat, ALOS, DMC satellites and others.

“The authorised users include the civil protection, rescue, defence and security bodies of the Charter member countries, as well as space agencies and space system operators,” explains Stephen Briggs, who coordinates the Charter programme at ESRIN (ESA – Italy). “Exceptionally, the Charter management can authorise the supply of space data to certain third bodies.”

An operator is on duty round the clock to take calls from authorised Charter users via a central global telephone number. After analysing the emergency situation and the requests made, a satellite imagery and archive acquisition plan is drawn up. The data requested are provided as quickly as possible, usually in under 24 hours, so that the intervention teams on the ground can be informed without delay. Comparisons with archive images permit the best possible damage assessment.

SOS on every continent

The Charter has been activated more than 130 times since it was founded. In 2006 alone, it was contacted on 25 occasions and, in the first quarter of 2007, it had already been activated in response to eight disasters. On 9 January it was flooding in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina that triggered the alert. Three days later, it was the accidental spillage of hydrocarbons in the United Kingdom. Then, on 9 February, came another flooding emergency, this time in Mozambique.

At the end of February, there was volcanic activity in Colombia and then flooding in Bolivia. In March 2007, the Earth observation satellites were needed on three occasions following an earthquake in Indonesia, a cyclone in Madagascar and flooding followed by landslides in Argentina.

Last year it was natural disasters in Sudan, Pakistan, France, the Philippines, Germany and the Czech Republic that were among the events that caused the alarm to be raised.



A little history

In 2000, following the United Nations Unispace III conference of the previous year, the European (ESA) and French (CNES) space agencies founded the International Charter “Space and Major Disasters”. They were soon joined by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). In September 2001, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) followed their example, in turn followed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Today the Charter’s signatories also include the Argentine Space Agency (CONAE), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the British and multinational partners of the British National Space Centre and Disaster Monitoring Constellation (BNSC/DMC) which includes three third countries with satellite facilities – Algeria, Nigeria and Turkey – that joined in November 2005. Most recently, in May 2007, China also joined the Charter via its China National Space Administration (CNSA).