Can NASA predict natural disasters?

University of Iowa students help to install the NASA NPOL radar as part of the IFloodS program. See Hurricane Sandy pictures.
Aneta Goska, Iowa Flood Center

Most of us probably think of NASA as exploring the moon and the stars, not the American Midwest. Nevertheless, on an afternoon in June 2013, as thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour pounded Iowa and western Illinois, scientists from the NASA's IFloodS program were on hand to study the powerful storm. The researchers gathered data radar dishes, ground moisture sensors and rain gauges, which they then compared to data and images gathered by orbital satellites passing overhead. Their goal: Double-checking estimates of rainfall based upon satellite data. If they're able to fine-tune those calculations, they eventually hope to use their weather satellites to spot and provide an early warning of when midwestern rivers may overflow their banks and cause flooding [source: NASA].

That work may not be as spectacular or awe-inspiring as, say, planting a U.S. flag on Mars. But for people who live in areas vulnerable to flooding, it may turn out to be a lot more important.

"Among the weather disasters in the U.S., flooding is second only to heat in the number of deaths, and it is number one in the dollar amount of damages," Pedro Restrepo, the hydrologist in charge of the National Weather Service's North Central River Forecast Center, explained in a NASA press release.

The IFloodS program is just one part of NASA's other, less-publicized but extremely critical mission of trying to find ways to protect humans from various natural disasters on our own planet.

To that end, NASA spends more than $1.8 billion annually on earth sciences -- more than it spends upon studying other planets [source: NASA]. The agency's research programs include efforts to predict earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, forest fires and powerful storms, and to give us more warning to prepare for them, largely by using data gathered by satellites from the vantage point of orbital space. In addition, NASA's Near Earth Object Program uses both Earth-based and orbital observatories to identify and track asteroids and comets whose paths bring them close to Earth --including some that might possibly smash into our planet's surface and cause massive devastation and loss of life, or possibly even trigger a wave of extinctions [source: NASA].

NASA's efforts to predict various natural disasters mostly are still in the experimental stage of development, so we're probably still years away from having the agency function as a reliable seer. That said, NASA scientists have made some important discoveries and progress that someday soon, may let all of us on Earth breathe a little easier. Here are a few of their forecasting efforts.

Predicting Hurricane Intensity

The Aqua satellite carries a suite of sensors specially designed for observing all parts of Earth’s water cycle, including water on land, in the oceans, and in the atmosphere.
The Aqua satellite carries a suite of sensors specially designed for observing all parts of Earth’s water cycle, including water on land, in the oceans, and in the atmosphere.
Reto Stöckli/NASA

If you live in a coastal region in which you're vulnerable to hurricanes, there are two crucial pieces of information that you want from weather forecasters. The first is what the hurricane's path will be, so that you know whether or not it's going to hit the place where you live. The second is how powerful the storm is going to be.

Since the early 1990s, meteorologists have significantly improved their ability to predict where storms developing in the ocean are headed. But unfortunately, the ability to predict the intensity of hurricanes hasn't improved anywhere near as much. The reason is that hurricanes' power is influenced by a complex array of factors, both inside the storm system and outside it, from the ocean's heat content to the relative humidity of surrounding environments. Making sense of all that from the ground has been a pretty daunting job [source: NASA].

But that's where NASA comes in. Its orbital satellites can see the big picture and gather enormous amounts of data about hurricanes from above as they develop. By matching up that data to how powerful the storms become, they hope to figure out which factors are the most reliable indicators of hurricane ]intensity, and how to predict the pace at which it develops.

Already, researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the University of Hawaii at Manoa have made one potentially important breakthrough. They've analyzed relative humidity data from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua space satellite for nearly 200 North Atlantic hurricanes between 2002 and 2010, and compared that to already available data on the maximum winds that those hurricanes produced. The researchers found that hurricanes that rapidly intensified tended to develop when their surrounding environment was more humid compared to the environments that produced weaker storms [source: NASA].

In 2014, NASA is planning to launch a new array of satellites that may give weather forecasters even more help in predicting hurricane intensity. The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), developed by engineers at the University of Michigan, will put a constellation of eight small satellites into a low-Earth orbit. The satellites' sensors will measure various properties in the ocean and the atmosphere, with the aim of coming up with a more precise model for how tropical cyclones form and how they strengthen [source: Moore].

Volcanoes, Earthquakes and Tsunamis

LIDAR instruments measure tree height by bouncing laser light off the tree canopy; they also measure movements in the Earth's crusts.
LIDAR instruments measure tree height by bouncing laser light off the tree canopy; they also measure movements in the Earth's crusts.
Robert Simmon/NASA

Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have one important tell-tale sign in common. As the pressure in them builds up before they unleash their fury, they cause small deformations in Earth's crust. If scientists could spot those subtle changes, they might be able to predict more precisely when catastrophic eruptions and quakes will occur.

NASA hopes to help them do that with the Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice, or DESDynI, system, a proposed pair of satellites tentatively scheduled for launch in 2021. One of the spacecraft would bounce radar signals off the Earth's surface, and use them to measure small changes in the Earth's surface over time. Scientists believe this will help them with tracking potential volcanoes and earthquakes [sources: Klotz, NASA].

The second DESDynI satellite would be equipped with a system called LIDAR Surface Topography, which basically will bounce lasers off the Earth's surface and measure the interval it takes for the signal to be reflected. LIDAR similarly would help scientists to spot subtle movements of the Earth's crust, as well as look at shifts in forestry patterns [source: National Academy of Sciences].

When a big earthquake occurs offshore, it can result in a giant wave, or tsunami, which may swamp a coastal area with potentially enormous loss of life and property. But because every earthquake is unique, each individual tsunami exhibits different wavelengths, wave heights and directionality, which makes forecasting their size difficult. In 2010, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Y. Tony Song unveiled a prototype of a new system for assessing earthquakes and predicting the size of resulting tsunamis. The system uses data from NASA's Global Differential GPS network to capture data on movement of Earth's crust, which scientists, in turn, can use to calculate the movement of the seafloor and the amount of energy it puts into a tsunami [source: Schmidt].

In 2011, Song and Ohio State University professor C.K. Shum used Japanese GPS data to analyze the particularly destructive tsunami generated by a March 2011 earthquake off northern Japan, and discovered that the wave actually was composed of two different wave fronts that merged and doubled in intensity as they passed over rugged ridges on the seafloor. That knowledge may help forecasters in the future to predict similarly super-powerful waves, and hopefully speed evacuations of coastal areas [source: NASA].

Killer Asteroids

Aritist's impression of a catastrophic asteroid hitting the Earth.
Aritist's impression of a catastrophic asteroid hitting the Earth.
Continental Dynamics Workshop/NSF

In February 2013, a 60-foot-across (18-meter), 11,000-metric ton (12,125-ton) meteor exploded in the sky over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring more than 1,200 people [source: Yeager]. Coincidentally, that same day, an even bigger object--an asteroid half the size of a football field--passed about 17,200 miles (27,680 kilometers) from Earth. Had it struck, it would have exploded with a force of about 2.4 million tons (2.2 million metric tons) of dynamite, the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshima-sized A-bombs [source: Reuters].

Both of those space rocks, though, are tiny compared to some of the other asteroids hurtling through space. And we know that if a big enough object slams into our planet, the results might be hellish. About 66 million years ago, an object 6 miles (10 kilometers) in diameter smashed into the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, trigging a cataclysm that killed off the dinosaurs and most other animal and plant life on Earth [source: Reuters].

That's why identifying and tracking asteroids that might venture within the vicinity of Earth is an especially high-priority NASA mission. The goal of NASA's Near Earth Objects program is to compile a database of near-Earth objects and track their movements [source: Messier].

Asteroids are made mainly of rocks and minerals and are formed in the warmer inner solar system, between Mars and Jupiter. They are leftover pieces from the formation of the inner planets of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury. Comets, on the other hand, are made up of water ice and dust and formed in the colder outer solar system. Comets are leftovers from the formation of the outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Comets and asteroids that are drifting near Earth (within 28 million miles or 45 million kilometers of Earth's orbit) are considered to be near-Earth objects [source: NASA].

To hunt for them, NASA has repurposed an existing satellite, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, originally launched in 2009 to search for distant stars and galaxies. NASA envisions that WISE will discover about 150 previously unknown near-Earth objects and gather information about the size and other properties of about 2,000 more [source: NASA].

WISE and the NEO program hopefully will give NASA advance warning of an object on a collision course—and time to implement a defensive strategy, whether that means diverting the asteroid with gravity tractors, solar sails or other future technologies, or simply destroying it with a nuclear blast [source: Messier]. That might help us to avoid the worst natural disaster ever.

Author's Note: Can NASA predict natural disasters?

I'm thankful for NASA's efforts to predict earthquakes, because I experienced a few of them back when I lived in California in the late 1980s. I remember being awakened one morning by the sensation of my vibrating, and listening to car alarms go off in the streets around me. The thought that went through my head was, "The big one is hitting, and I'm not wearing any pants." Fortunately, for propriety's sake, it turned out to be only a medium-sized quake.

Related Articles


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