Help from above: Canadian satellite assists with hurricane recovery, other natural disasters

As a founding member of the International Charter on Space and Natural Disasters, the Canadian Space Agency has been called upon to help monitor the devastation brought on by hurricanes, earthquakes and other major disasters. The agency says 2017 has been a busy year.

Canada's Radarsat-2 one of many satellites having a busy year supporting recovery efforts around the world

Satellite images like this one that shows the eye of Hurricane Maria as it nears Dominica Monday are critical to disaster-relief planners on the ground. Both Canadian Space Agency and NASA have been made their data available for free in keeping with the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. (NASA via AP)

When Hurricane Irma cut a path of destruction through the Caribbean this month, authorities on the ground found themselves in the dark, scrambling for information.

High above the storm, satellites from several nations, including Canada, were called into action to track the hurricane's progress, measure the damage and provide vital information to plan rescue and recovery efforts.

Emergency officials in the U.S. and the Caribbean activated a global agreement that's been in place for nearly two decades. The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters gives civil protection agencies in disaster-stricken regions free access to data gathered by satellites from more than a dozen government and private space agencies. 

In the case of Hurricane Irma, officials in Antigua and Barbuda, the Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic and Haiti received information from Canada's Radarsat-2 after it passed over the region.  

Radarsat, which is owned by MacDonald, Detwiller and Associates and operated, in part, by the Canadian Space Agency, provided Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery which can see through cloud formations and monitor flooding, landslides and other damage brought on by heavy storms. 

Sometimes having a view from space is a definite advantage.  It's instrumental in planning emergency rescues.- Michel Doyon, Canadian Space Agency

"Sometimes having a view from space is a definite advantage," said Michel Doyon, manager of flight operations at the Canadian Space Agency.

"It provides a global view. It's instrumental in planning emergency rescues."

The international charter was established in the year 2000 with the Canadian Space Agency among its founding members. Today, space agencies in China, Japan, Germany, the U.S. and several other countries have signed on.

The charter was invoked 37 times in 2016 and has already surpassed that number this year. Canada activated the agreement in May in response to flooding in Quebec and Ontario.

Satellites have also been called upon this year to monitor forest fires, cyclones and other disasters around the globe. 

Since Hurricane Irma, the charter has been activated yet again to monitor the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the devastating earthquake in Mexico City.  

Canada's Radarsat-2 satellite, depicted orbiting the Earth in this illustration, is Canada's eye in the sky during natural disasters.

For emergency officials dealing with disasters, there are other resources available as well. The European Union and European Space Agency operate the Copernicus Emergency Management Service. The U.S. space agency, NASA, works closely with charter members but also has its own disaster assistance plan with a fleet of satellites that track storms, map rainfall patterns and conduct detailed radar imagery around the globe.

"We are monitoring the planet completely every day for a whole variety of different information," said David Green, manager of NASA's disaster program.

"We make it readily available. It's free and open, all the data and imagery from NASA."

'An eventful year'

Green calls the charter a valuable tool. Satellite imagery, he says, can play a vital role in planning and responding to disasters.

Green says often the challenge is turning data collected from space into useful intelligence for rescue and recovery workers operating in disaster areas.

"People have very complicated data and imagery, and it means a lot to the science community. But if you ask a disaster manager, they may have a very simple question. They may be asking simply, 'Where's the water? Where's the storm?"

"They don't need a lot of complicated information. They need it distilled down to knowing what to look for."

Green says NASA has been working to translate satellite data and make it easy to understand and more accessible. Given the natural disasters that have rocked many parts of the world in recent months, it's a timely goal.

"We've been pretty busy lately," Green said. "It's been an eventful year."