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Between Earth and Sky: From storm paths to shuttle debris, Center for Space Research scans skies, maps ground for state and federal agencies

As Hurricane Claudette churned toward the Texas coast in mid-July, it wasn’t the only thing on the move.

Up and down the coastline and points inland, emergency workers set up evacuation shelters, stocking them with food and water. Officials plotted evacuation routes and made sure prisons along the coast were secure. Rescue teams prepared for action.

Gordon Wells on the roof of the MCC building standing beside a satellite receiving station

The team headed by Gordon Wells at the Center for Space Research puts satellite and radar images together with ground-based information to help crisis agencies deal with disasters. Receiving stations like this one receive 20-30 gigabytes of data each day from satellites.

Photo: Charlie Fonville

In Austin, the Governor’s Emergency Management Council coordinated those efforts with help from The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research (CSR).

The CSR team, using satellite images of the storm and data flowing from 34 state agencies, provided the state emergency coordinator with up-to-the-minute information showing where the storm was, where it was going and where shelters and aid were in relation to landfall.

“They can see where the state’s assets are in real time,” says Dr. Gordon Wells, program manager of the CSR unit doing the mapping.

Wells’ group within CSR is called the Mid-American Geospatial Information Center (MAGIC). It grabs information from satellites—such as the path of Claudette—and other remote sensing instruments and applies ground information—such as databases of evacuation routes—and shows their relationships.

MAGIC put itself on the map earlier this year when it helped in the search for debris from the space shuttle Columbia.

Working with information from the field, Wells and his crew rapidly put together maps of where the shuttle debris fell. The quick action helped officials secure the locations and get an early look at the pattern of the debris, which would help them try to determine what happened.

The group’s encore came with Claudette’s approach in mid-July.

Wells and his team tracked the storm around the clock as it rolled along the coast. When Claudette appeared headed for the Brownsville-Matamoras area, the CSR maps showed the area’s shelters and other operations. Then as Claudette’s path shifted farther up the coast, so did the representations from the CSR. The storm made landfall on July 15 near Port O’Connor, about 100 miles up the coast from Corpus Christi.

Even after Claudette left Texas, Wells and his team were still collecting and organizing information—this time on the damage left by the storm’s short tour of Texas.

Wells is a mapping specialist who’s worked for NASA, teaching astronauts how to take scientifically-useful photos of the Earth from space, and the state of Texas, where he worked on assembling digital maps of the state and its resources.

Satellite image of Hurricane Claudette making landfall

The Center for Space Research team added information about emergency facilities and other resources to this image of Hurricane Claudette making landfall to help emergency officials decide where to send those resources.

“When I came to the university (in 1999),” he says, “I took that role with me and we began to build it out.”

Wells and his team perform a variety of mapping duties. They’ve tracked water storage and use across the Rio Grande Basin in Mexico, where sharing of water resources has been a point of contention between the United States and Mexico. Using satellite imagery, Wells can see water filling Mexican reservoirs and land greening up where it’s been irrigated.

They’ve also put together detailed elevation maps of the Brownsville area, tracked wildfire damage and monitored previous flashfloods and storms along the coast.

But it was the Columbia work that really showed how information from the sky and the ground can be put together and play a critical role.

“We were able to demonstrate really rapid results with mapping large-scale events of that kind,” Wells says.

As Jack Colley, state coordinator for the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management in the Texas Department of Public Safety, watched the shuttle work unfold, he realized how it could be used in other circumstances.

“So much more information was immediately available than ever before for a large-scale disaster and he immediately connected it to a dirty bomb detonation or an anthrax release that would be instantaneous over a wide area,” Wells says.

In the case of the shuttle, the maps showed more than where the debris landed. They could show what kind of soil was in an area, indicating how deep a shuttle piece might have been buried. Satellite images collected after the disaster showed breaks in the tree canopies which might have been caused by falling debris.

“This was a demonstration of the kind of technology the state wants to put in place,” Wells says.

“Being able to model the storm, being able to look at Texas in a virtual capacity that gives us a huge dimension we’ve never had before,” Colley says. “It really enhances our capability to ensure public health and public safety and understand if we’re going to have an enduring economic impact with that.”

A Texas Senate resolution issued in May commended Wells and his team for its work in the Columbia recovery.

MAGIC is based with the Center for Space Research in the MCC building in north Austin. Through two new receiving stations and another station—the white domes on the building’s roof—every day the group collects 20-30 gigabytes of information, the rough equivalent of downloading 9,000 songs, from several satellites.

The information is beamed down from satellites controlled by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency as well as those operated by India and China. The data flow will increase about 10 times in 2005 when MAGIC becomes a collection facility for a new German radar satellite mission.

Center for Space Research team members working at the Texas Emergency Operating Center

During emergencies such as last month’s Hurricane Claudette, the team works from a spot front and center in the state’s emergency operations center to provide up-to-date information to the state emergency coordinator.

CSR also incorporates into its mapping information from airborne laser technology such as the university’s LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping system.

Wells’ goal is to combine much of this information with that contained in state databases of roads, bridges, houses, schools, petrochemical plants and many other assets to help plan and deal with disasters.

In a wildfire scenario, Wells sees providing firefighters with detailed 3-D information about the landscape and direction of the fire to find an appropriate site where a crew could be dropped in to build a fire break.

In a scenario aimed at prevention, Wells would show residents models of what would happen to them when their neighborhood floods.

“What you want to do is inform citizens,” he says. “You think you’re high and dry? We’re going to run a simulation” that will show whether they are.

He also foresees working with the Texas Department of Transportation to track real time traffic flows during an evacuation. The center would also show local officials, who have to order evacuations, that there are plentiful accommodations with food and water awaiting their residents.

“It’s a big confidence builder for them to be able to see, hour-by-hour, the state putting these things into place,” he says.

“If an event occurs, then we will combine GPS locations with digital aerial photography so that the field analysis of damage can be put in context with the mapping,” Wells says. “I think in the future we can do damage analysis much more efficiently and accurately.”

While state leaders and agencies are hungry for the data the MAGIC group can provide, Wells wants to take it step-by-step.

“We’ve got a lot of product demand by state agencies and federal agencies already just for the sensors we’re accessing right now,” he says. “So I want to grow this slowly and make sure we’re taking the right steps in the right sequence rather than diving into the deep part of this pool, which can get very deep, very quickly.”

Tim Green

Images courtesy Center for Space Research

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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