When Seconds Count, Satellite Data Can Save Lives

©NASA

Monsoon clouds rise over Bangladesh photographed from the ISS

Monsoons swell the mighty rivers of Bangladesh every year, often with disastrous results.

When the cycle of flooding puts 80 million people at risk, forecasters such as Amirul Hossain have a vital mission: get accurate warnings to people as early as possible. He's got a unique vantage point on the rivers of Bangladesh: "For the first time, we are looking up at the sky to generate flood forecasts," he said in an interview.

A satellite named Jason-2 has changed the picture for Hossain, the chief engineer at the Bangladesh Flood Forecasting and Warning Center. In the past, data from Bangladesh's river sensors could help predict dangerous floods three to five days in advance. Jason-2 sees much further upstream, to headwaters far beyond Bangladesh's borders. By adding real-time satellite data to its own models, the center can provide people eight days of warning before waters rise.

This extra time is crucial. People can build platforms to raise their houses above floodwaters, relocate, and make decisions about crops and livestock, Hossain says. Banglades'hs flood risks increase with the effects of climate change, and open data is one way to mitigate the effects. In addition to flood forecasting, a partnership between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development called SERVIR provides other tools to connect local decision makers with space-based data.

SERVIR is working around the world: In Central America, the program helps alert fishermen to red tides. In Nepal, it assists firefighters and supported recovery efforts after this year's devastating earthquake. And now, a new hub in the Lower Mekong region will help leaders tackle the negative effects of climate change. In Bangladesh, it's already making a difference.

According to climate change specialist Jennifer Frankel-Reed, "What we've seen in the last monsoon season was a flood that typically would have taken a couple thousand lives took 17." With open data and local knowledge, sometimes even the biggest problems can be brought down to Earth.

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