Author: Chris Bartlett
*This is based on an excerpt from “Vulnerable Pacific Islands Rely on Data to Respond to Disasters and Help Heal the Environment,” published March 10.
When you think of tropical islands in the Pacific, you think of soft sandy beaches, blue lagoons and swaying palm trees. However, this postcard-like image has an unpleasant backside. These regions are among the most vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change in the world.
Storms and hurricanes are becoming more intense and destructive. Coral reefs are dying as sea temperatures rise. Rising sea levels are eroding fragile coastlines. Also, some lowland atolls are likely to disappear quickly under the waves.
On the other hand, man-made disasters such as floating plastic waste and overfishing also adversely affect marine ecosystems.
Problems pile up, and some problems may not be completely solved.
Still, local researchers and policymakers remain optimistic.
They say much can be done to improve island resilience to crises with timely, appropriate, practical and accurate insights.
The key is data. The Pacific Community (SPC) is the leading scientific and technological institution in 27 countries and territories facing the Pacific.
The agency is launching a new analytics platform, Pacific Digital Earth, that mines a wealth of freely available environment-related data that has been continuously accumulated by scientists and Earth observation satellites.
Built on Microsoft’s Planetary Computer, the platform uses artificial intelligence (AI) and powerful processing power in the cloud to access, analyze and model data from multiple sources.
Insights gained there will help Pacific island governments and planners make better choices.
“This information is dormant in data stores in other parts of the world, but so far in Pacific countries. I can’t make use of it,” said Andrew Jones, SPC’s director of geosciences, energy and oceans.
“This information allows us to make decisions on the issues that matter most.”
The development of this new platform is taking place as a country in the Pacific region struggles to recover from its worst disaster in decades.
Last month, the Hunga Tonga Hunga Haapai submarine volcano erupted with a force equivalent to an estimated 10 megatons of TNT, shaking the kingdom of Tonga.
The roar of the volcanic eruption is said to have reached far away in Alaska. Columns of dust and debris rushed into the stratosphere, and the capital, Nuku’alofa, was blanketed in a suffocating rain of volcanic ash and pumice.
A few minutes later, a wall of water rushed over from the sea. The car and house were washed away. The ship was thrown out of port and communications were cut off.
Other tsunamis hit remote islands, crossing the Pacific to Japan, Australia and the west coast of the United States.
By analyzing pre-eruption, during-eruption and post-eruption data collected by satellites, for example, crop damage and water pollution assessments could be used in reconstruction efforts, Jones said.
“By referring to data, which is normal, especially from the same month and season, we can identify where the plantations are missing or where the water may contain ash.”
Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the region consists of volcanic and seismic fault arcs that stretch from the west coast of the Americas to Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia, and as far south as New Zealand, and is threatened by volcanic activity, earthquakes and earthquakes. There are always tsunamis.
In theory, Jones believes the data analysis will help predict the day the volcano will erupt. “Another possibility is to use it for early warning,” he said.
“Before the eruption, the volcano’s shape changed, so you might be able to see it from satellites.”
“There are many caveats, like when satellites will fly overhead and how much deformation the volcano is, but it’s possible.”
Meizyanne Hicks, Director of the Geospatial Information Division at the Fiji Ministry of Lands, Mines and Resources, said data-based decision-making is critical for disaster preparedness and recovery.
Category 5 storms have destroyed several islands in recent years. In 2015, Tropical Cyclone Winston ripped through Fiji, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes.
In 2020, Cyclone Harold wreaked devastating damage in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in just a few days.
Cyclone Yasa, which made landfall in Fiji last year, collapsed and damaged thousands of houses due to strong winds with maximum instantaneous winds of 260 kilometers. Heavy rain from the cyclone caused a catastrophic landslide.
More than 500 people were evacuated after the hillside collapsed in the village of Nababatsu. Deep cracks in traditional land make homes structurally unsafe and uninhabitable.
The area has been designated as a danger zone and people remain homeless. “Authorities have used valid data to identify suitable sites for villagers to relocate and provide land use opportunities to go to school, live in and make a living,” Hicks said. “I look forward to seeing you.”