Keeping our eyes on a volatile natural world

The Engineer

In the wake of any natural disaster the question of whether technology could have helped to save lives is inevitably asked.
While it seems unlikely that existing systems could have done much to avert last week’s tragic events in New Zealand, the relationship between technology and a volatile natural world has come under renewed focus in the past few days.

Our latest report Vital signs, takes a look at the UK-developed Disaster Monitoring Constellation – a group of six internationally owned satellites capable of rapidly turning their unblinking gaze to disasters anywhere in the world.

An indispensable tool in an emergency, it has been used to coordinate relief efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, to monitor the spread of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to track recent floods in Queensland, Australia, and now to assess the scale of the damage in Christchurch.

The system is evolving and the next step, according to those involved, is to develop the technology to the point where it can be used to continuously monitor risk areas and potentially provide some early warning of impending disaster.

And they’re not alone. As The Engineer also recently reported, UK and Russian engineers are currently working on the development of a satellite system able to detect the subtle electromagnetic signals released as stress builds up in the earth prior to an earthquake.

Although several years away from launch, they claim that such a system would be considerably more effective than existing sensor-based technologies, such as those used in Japan, which give only a few minutes warning.

Promising stuff, although as our big story points out, satellites orbiting the Earth face their very own hazards, not just from the ever-increasing clouds of space debris that surround our planet but from space weather.

Our sun is the main culprit: with X-rays from solar flares, eruptions of protons and clouds of plasma all posing potential problems for a host of electronic systems. And when the sun’s activity is reduced, and the protective benefits of the solar wind lessened, cosmic rays from outside the solar system pose a similar threat.

As we report, engineers and scientists are developing an increasingly detailed understanding of the potential terrestrial impact of these cosmic phenomena. And it doesn’t look pretty. Everything from international finance to global security is reliant on satellite technology and researchers are increasingly concerned about the potential effects of space weather on our interconnected infrastructure.

Most researchers play down the prospect of solar storms bringing the modern world to its knees. This is a relief because it seems likely that we are likely to become more, not less, reliant on the satellites that underpin most areas of human activity.