When a massive earthquake shakes some corner of the Pacific
Ocean, sensors alert Pacific Rim nations of possible tsunamis. When
massive downpours converge on the nations of Central America,
satellite imagery and computer modeling helps those nations to
prepare for possible floods.
But what about Africa? This vast continent of 53 nations has been
struck so often by natural disasters - from drought to flood to
disease - that the continent is all-too-often synonymous with
While such disasters will continue, technological help from the
Group on Earth Observations (GEO) - a partnership of 72 nations that
share satellite imagery and other remote sensing information - will
soon give African nations a leg up when it comes to managing natural
emergencies. At a meeting here on Nov. 30, GEO members agreed to
expand the group's operations from the Americas and Europe into
The expansion comes at a critical time. As climate change makes
itself felt around the world, no one is more affected than Africa's
800 million citizens. Any opportunity to prepare for and mitigate
the effects of extreme changes in climate can help nations prevent
droughts from becoming famines, heavy rains from becoming floods,
and an outbreak of disease from becoming an epidemic.
"We are at the confluence of a number of events," says Vice Adm.
(ret.) Conrad Lautenbacher (ret.), the US undersecretary of Commerce
for oceans and atmosphere, and one of GEO's co-chairs. "We have
computing capabilities to produce worldwide models," he says. "We
can observe what's happening with sensors on the ground and in
space. And communication technology has opened up the world, so that
we can move this information around quickly."
With the expansion of GEO, the US and other developed countries
have agreed to share satellite imagery and computer modeling to
suggest what may happen up to three months into the future. The data
and computer models would cover not just weather patterns, but also
likely conditions for the spread of diseases such as malaria, for
shifts in human population, and even for changes in air quality.
Africa's contribution, for the time being, will be to share
ground data with GEO member countries while they build their
capacity to conduct more sophisticated weather forecasting and
"Capacity building is so crucial," says Daniel Irwin, a NASA
scientist and project director of SERVIR (the Spanish acronym for
Regional Visualization and Monitoring System). Satellites cannot do
the work alone, he adds. "This is a genuine partnership. We provide
satellite data, and they go out and collect field data, and we
create a value-added product. Now we get information to be part of
the decision-making process."
Building on a successful model
For all its potential wealth in minerals, oil, and other natural
resources, Africa remains a continent highly dependent on
subsistence agriculture. In many countries, more than half of
citizens survive literally on what they grow. …