New Avenues for Remote Sensing in Disaster Monitoring and Assessment

2021 marks an increasing trend of putting analytics directly into the space. While before remote sensing researchers used to download “raw” satellite images of the Earth from centralized websites to their computer for further analysis (and even catch physical film canisters from a satellite ironically named Corona back in the 1950s1), now their work gets much easier. Initiatives like from the European Space Agency2 use artificial intelligence on-board of satellites to process images into ready usable products and send them to the ground. In the context of my research, disaster monitoring and assessment, that could mean no more hours spent on working with raw images and building my own algorithms to derive extent of disaster damage from space. Instead, the focus is shifted towards utilizing downloaded image products, like flood masks, in more complicated computer models for various applications and integrating with other datasets.

My current research is about urban disaster damage assessment that goes beyond simple from-above physical damage identification with satellite images. I am interested in linking the pixels to people3 and understanding impact of past and on-going disasters on a society. This large-scale analysis is again, only possible thanks to the computational progress described above, availability of usable data and emergence of big data to better understand our changing environment. For disaster assessment, that means gathering and incorporating big volumes of almost real-time information from individuals together with field surveys, remotely sensed images of the area and longer-term census data. For example, Fig. 1 (below) shows this “layer cake” of disparate data that was implemented by the team of Ohio State researchers for hurricane flood monitoring. The computer platform considers many sensor feeds, including individuals data from Twitter. Another interesting example is FloodFactor platform5 that rather than assessing extent and damage of on-going disasters, offers predictions of future damage risk for a given residential address. The methodology relies on deriving maps of flood probability and putting those in the context of each building type and historical losses in the area. All in all, while merging datasets in damage assessment is not new, there are still several methodological challenges and key datasets needed to be explored. One of which I am focusing on right now is incorporating economic and social geospatial data as “proxies” for physical damage measures in situations of missing data.

Fig. 1 Disaster monitoring and relief framework based on multiple sensor feeds (left), and the schematics of their visualization as a web GIS (right). Source: [4]

Most importantly, I would like to position my work within the context of smart cities. Disaster damage assessment is an integral part of future smart cities that “use connected technology and data to improve the efficiency of city service delivery, enhance quality of life for all, and increase equity and prosperity for residents and businesses”6. That is very important when one realizes the exacerbating climate change realities and social vulnerabilities in cities across the globe that lead to disasters. The risk and damage assessment of the future that we need is the one relying on interconnected sensors (satellites, social media, field data etc.), merging of data, and exercised by local municipalities for better decision-making. Accordingly, I seek to contextualize my future findings from local case studies in a broader narrative of smart city development and disaster risk reduction initiatives.

Polina Berezina

PhD Student, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University




Research Reflections

When I started the MA program in AU 2017, I was planning on conducting a remote sensing research project. My study area was set to be French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain. Using high-resolution imagery of this atoll, I wanted to map hazards for threatened and endangered species. I was most excited about the potential ability to detect plastics in my imagery. Everything seemed straightforward.

Satellite Imagery of French Frigate Shoals shown in relation to the Hawaiian archipelago. Tern Island is noted in the top left corner of the inset.

I was first challenged to develop my ‘conceptual framework’ in Becky Mansfield’s Research Design, a core course for graduate students in Geography. Given my broad topic, I got lost in the object of inquiry. This research was concerned with too many things. I had outlined a remote sensing project on marine debris, changes to beach dynamics, risk maps for multiple target species, and policy suggestions. These diffuse research goals reflected my self-doubt. I tried to imagine what was most interesting about my topic to others, rather than what I found most compelling. I considered this an injustice to my study site, which was so rich with evidence of the intermingling’s of social, economic, political, and physical processes and dynamics.

The great benefit of Geography is that it is fundamentally interdisciplinary and expansive. Curious about other disciplinary approaches to my topic, I enrolled in courses on Oceanography, Public Affairs, and Feminist Studies. A. Marie Ranjbar’s course, (Human) Rights in the Anthropocene, was pivotal in shaping my literature review and enriched my theoretical approaches. I took up other readings in political ecology, critical animal studies, and posthumanism. I allowed myself to think about my project differently. I made note of the things that frustrated me in traditional approaches to environmental issues and conservation. This was part of the act of ‘doing research’ that in turn shaped the research question.

I was most troubled by the passive way, or “the othering” of non-human animals, as they were discussed as objects of conservation. I found that the framings encouraged human exceptionalism and species hierarchy. I needed to change my characterization of the atoll as well. The environmental outcomes of today are not happenstance. Instead, they are directly linked to social and economic processes. If we begin to talk about phenomena like pollution and sea level rise as direct consequences of capitalism and colonialism, we can identify the economic, political and social structures that produce environmental violence. Building more just and ethical engagements with non-humans begins by destroying previous conceptions of their value. My research became focused on the foundational issues of representation stemming from current theorizing in conservation policy.

Due to the reshaping of my questions, remote sensing was no longer the strongest evidence I could collect to demonstrate the need to change conservation. My project became focused on the differentiated experience of the female green sea turtle as an embedded and embodied, relational and affective subject as well as an active agent that participates in and contributes to social, political, and economic life. The works of Irus Braverman [1], Lori Gruen [2], Rosi Braidotti [3], Juanita Sundberg, Rosemary-Claire Collard and Jessica Dempsey [4] were indispensable to these goals.

Violence against green sea turtles demonstrated by exposure pathways and subsequent health-related hazards from anthropogenic sources.

This Earth Day, I find it appropriate to reflect on change- what we are in the process of becoming and ending. I see many opportunities to demonstrate care and work towards more ethical engagements with the more-than-human world in this age of the Anthropocene.

Rebecca Chapman, PhD Student,

Department of Geography

  1. Braverman, I. (2015). Wild life : The institution of nature. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  2. Gruen, L. (2015). Entangled empathy : An alternative ethic for our relationships with animals. New York: Lantern Books, a division of booklight.
  3. Braidotti, R. (2013). The posthuman. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  4. Collard, R., Dempsey, J., & Sundberg, J. (2015). A manifesto for abundant futures. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105(2), 322-330.