Scientists are turning to space to better understand how to respond to earthquakes

The damage.
The damage.
Image: Reuters/Antonio Parrinello
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One of the best ways to figure out how to respond to the tremors deep inside our planet is to observe their effects from far away in outer space.

Thanks to the use of satellite imagery, organizations tasked with responding to earthquake zones of the future will be better able to analyze affected areas and just how intense a response to mount. A new study by researchers from the University of Iowa and the US Geological Survey shows how data gathered from satellites has already been helpful. The study appeared this month in the journal Remote Sensing.

According to the research, the imagery within a day or so gives scientists detailed information about exactly where an earthquake occurred, the size of it, what the surface deformation looks like, and where it happened relative to population centers. The USGS National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) takes that information and is now incorporating it into its operational response guides, which are distributed to earthquake response decision makers and rescue teams.

Typically, scientists and first responders have gotten most of their earthquake data using ground-based seismometers, which measure seismic activity around the world. But those devices aren’t everywhere, so it can be tough to get a sense of earthquake damage depending on where the quake occurs. To improve the accuracy of their data, scientists are turning more and more to what’s called “geodetic methods,” a math-based study of how the Earth’s shape changes after an earthquake occurs. Coupled with the new satellite imagery, scientists and first responders have been able to get more accurate estimates of the number of people who died in an earthquake and the economic losses incurred.

Radar imagery from satellites helped formulate the response to a 6.9-magnitude earthquake that hit island of Lombok in Indonesia in August 2018. With it, scientists were able to quickly create a model showing where exactly the earthquake hit, and generate predictions of ground shaking and overall impact. News reports showed about 80% of structures were damaged or destroyed, and close to 417,000 people wound up being displaced.

“While this is not yet a fully operational system, we are working with the USGS to make operational earthquake response with satellite imagery a systematic component of the NEIC’s global earthquake monitoring and response efforts,” said Bill Barnhart, the lead author of the study, in a statement.