NASA Earth Science Disasters Program provides data during disasters

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center plays a role in the NASA Earth Science Disasters Program, which can help people stay safe during disasters. It provides essential data and mapping to arm people with information and guidance during events like floods, severe storms, and even volcanic eruptions.

This month, the volcano Kilauea began erupting. It has opened more than 20 vents, releasing lava, sulfur dioxide, and steam into the air. The Disasters Program is at work as Kilauea erupts.

NASA Marshall is helping by providing imaging to those on the ground who may need to watch out for dangerous areas, said researchers.

"For this response, we are providing optical imagery from several different satellites," said Jordan Bell, Research Associate. "You can see in the visible, the near-infrared, thermal wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. That data can then be given to decision-makers and those on the ground to help map where potential lava is, where toxic gases could be in the atmosphere."

Bell said this not only helps first responders on the ground, but resources in the air too.

"With volcanoes, one of the biggest impacts is on aviation," he mentioned, "so if there's ash in the air, these satellites are able to help map where the ash or gasses are to help reroute aviation traffic."

Bell explained that the imagery NASA Marshall can evaluate and pass along allows them to be a partner to other federal agencies, like the USGS and FEMA, that are responding to disasters.

"We really just want to be a partner and help them with as much information as possible," Bell said. He added that it could surprise people to know that the Tennessee Valley plays a role in the NASA response. "A lot of people don't realize that Marshall has an Earth Science branch where we are fitting into this program," he said.

You can view what satellites are capturing of Hawaii by clicking this link to the NASA Earth Science Disasters Program website. Here you will find the latest images of the eruption from Landsat 8, providing natural color images of the volcano. Here you will see ASTER images that pinpoint thermal hot spots.

To view the mapping portal and try it out yourself, click here.

Through these images, and others the satellites have captured since they were placed in orbit decades ago, Bell said researchers will also be able to track how the landscape is changing as a result of the events in Hawaii now.

The volcano's plume can even be seen from the International Space Station:

The Disasters Program uses research to assist in times of crisis like this. Its website says the program "advances the readiness of results to enable disaster management practices, advance damage reduction, and build resilience."

NASA Marshall, Bell said, primarily deals with other kinds of disasters: "We've also responded quite a bit in the last year to hurricanes, any flooding events, and that's the area we really focus on here at Marshall," he explained. "But we are glad we can help out with the volcanoes."

NASA Marshall assists the other NASA centers in the Disasters Program. Others are aiding the Hawaiian communities on the Big Island by flying a research aircraft equipped with the Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN), which can help discern how the topography is changing as a result of the eruption. This can not only provide insight into what's happening but assist in NASA's ongoing research of volcanoes and volcanic events. But the multi-center program through NASA is helpful during all kinds of natural disasters.

"The program is run out of headquarters to provide subject matter expertise to help respond to natural disasters around the world and in the United States," Bell summarized.