Landsat's Critical Role in Responding to Natural Disasters

In 2011, natural disasters affected 206 million people worldwide, costing a record-setting 355 billion dollars. Fire, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters can be particularly tragic and costly when critical facilities such as power plants, airports, roads, and hospitals are threatened. When a disaster strikes, remote sensing is often the only way to get a big-picture view of what is happening on the ground. With its consistent, reliable, repeated observations of Earth’s changing surface, Landsat keeps a record of Earth’s land surfaces before and after disasters, serving as an essential tool for assessing risk, mapping the extent of damage, and planning post-disaster recovery. Landsat produces 185-kilometer-wide images with 30-meter resolution in visible and infrared wavelengths of light, making it possible to map impacts on the landscape in ways otherwise not visible to human sight. For example, Landsat sensors enable us to see the heat from fires both during and after the burns, and the lava flows from volcanic eruptions even when gaseous substances obscure the view to human eyes.