Natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more intense and less predictable – but technology is helping us fight back. Scientists are deploying sensors across the land and sea, and launching better satellites to detect disasters before they strike. Innovative infrastructure can soften the blow of potentially catastrophic events; new devices empower freighters, first responders and individuals to survive the storm and rebuild afterward. By Sarah Fecht | Additional reporting by Will Dietrich-Egensteiner and Joshua A Krisch
From orbiting satellites to sensors on the ocean floor, the technology of disaster detection is growing vastly more accurate. By issuing warnings hours rather than minutes before a disaster strikes, these systems can save lives.
Enhanced GPS: GPS alone is a solid early detection tool; when paired with sensors, its lifesaving potential skyrockets. In July 2013, a team led by Yehuda Bock, a disaster-mitigation specialist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the USA, combined water vapour sensors with GPS to predict the onset of flash flooding. And by retro-fitting 17GPS and meteorological stations with accelerometers, Bock’s team was able to predict where, when and how intensely earthquake waves would strike. Now deployed on California’s San Andreas Fault, the enhanced GPS network could provide up to several minutes’ warning before a quake.
Volcano sensors Silicon carbide sensors that withstand 900 degrees may one day be dropped inside volcanoes to monitor changes in carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide levels, which can signal an impending eruption. Wireless radio transmitters would provide real-time feedback to scientists – and the chance to broadcast an early alarm.
Surge monitors: The wall of water pushed ashore by a hurricane can do more damage than the storm’s wind. In the 48 hours before a hurricane makes landfall, US Geological Survey volunteers affix water-level and barometric pressure sensors to coastal bridges, piers, and light poles to help forecast the timing and magnitude of the surge.
Tornado drones: Because tornadoes are difficult to detect by radar, it’s necessary to fly directly into the developing storm to take a measure of it, says Jamey Jacobs of Oklahoma State University in the US. Jacobs’s lab builds tornado-chasing UAVs. The craft are loaded with cameras and sensors that collect temperature, pressure and humidity data. A new model being built this year will also distribute dropsondes, small sensors on parachutes that will provide info on the vertical profile of a storm. By helping meteorologists understand how thunderstorms turn into tornadoes, the drones could increase warning times, on average, from 14 minutes to an hour.
Tsunami network: Japan’s DONET array consists of 20 undersea observatories that use seismometers and accelerometers to measure crustal movements, while pressure gauges observe tsunamis. Compared with land-based observatories, the system detects earthquakes up to 8 seconds earlier and tsunamis 10 to 20 minutes earlier. Eleven more observatories will be added by 2015.
Ocean gliders: Battery-powered Slocum Gliders bring a new undersea perspective to hurricane prediction. Designed by Teledyne Webb Research, the drones sweep through the water in wide arcs, diving as deep as 1 000 metres to gather data on ocean temperatures and currents, and then surfacing to transmit the findings to researchers on shore.
Massive devices, responsive infrastructure and ingenious new materials are helping to diminish the impact of storms, enabling hard-hit areas to recover faster – and keeping more and more people out of harm’s way.
Absorptive streets: Instead of diverting floodwater into overwhelmed storm drains, streets could absorb water and gradually release it later. Porous asphalt or paving stones would be underlaid by layers of sand and various sizes of crushed rock.
Flexible concrete: Strength, not pliability, is concrete’s calling card. But when mixed with polyvinyl alcohol fibres, concrete can be 400 times more ductile. The material has been used in buildings and dams in Japan and New Zealand to withstand earthquakes.
Tornado-proof windows: After a 2011 tornado tore through St John’s Regional Medical Centre in the mid-western USA, the hospital rebuilt using windows that can withstand 400 km/h winds and flying planks. The windows designed by Architectural Wall Systems, are thicker and more flexible than average windows, and a special glaze makes them shatterproof.
De-icing: Engineer Victor Petrenko of Dartmouth University in the US has found a way to prevent power outages caused by ice storms using off-the-shelf parts such as metal foil and car batteries. With switches installed at the ends of a power line, the technology periodically increases the wire’s electrical resistance, generating heat that melts away snow and ice while consuming just 1 per cent of electricity running through the wire. “And that one per cent is needed only for about a minute,” says Petrenko, who successfully tested the system in Russia.
Wind turbines: Large offshore wind farms can reduce a hurricane’s intensity by chopping up wind circulation and sapping the storm’s energy, according to computer simulations. Researchers estimate that an array of 78 000 turbines could have cut Hurricane Katrina’s wind speeds by up to 150 km/h while reducing storm surge by nearly 79‑per cent.
Water-Gate: Sandbagging has long been the go-to method to block floodwaters. A tarpaulin Water-Gate barrier can replace hundreds of sandbags, retaining water more than 2 metres deep and stretching up to 150 metres long. One flap is fastened to the ground; another one rises as water flows in.
Tunnel plug: The US Department of Homeland Security has tested a giant pill-shaped device that prevents water from owing into transit tunnels. The 10 metre-long, 5 metre-wide cylinder packs into a recessed wall panel and can be in inflated in minutes.
Tsunami barrier: The Twin-Wing Tsunami Barrier, from Dutch engineering firm Van den Noort Innovations, has steel walls (9 and 13 metres tall) that lie flat until a tsunami arrives. One wall slows the rush of coastal waters out to sea while the other impedes the wave heading to shore. The design, targeted for installation in Tokyo Bay, has been tested successfully in lab and computer simulations.
First responders are better equipped than ever to track a disaster and move in after one, thanks to an impressive array of new devices.
Fire fliers: Wildfires can be unpredictable. Flying drones and UAVs can help track blazes in real time, providing lifesaving information to fire fighters and evacuees.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have developed disposable micro-UAVs designed to be air-dropped into a fire. The inexpensive, sensor-equipped devices can be scattered over large areas to monitor temperature, moisture and other factors that influence the spread of wildfire. The paper Polyplane (above) uses an on-board system to steer itself, whereas the maple-seed-inspired Samara helicopters to the ground.
In 2012, the University of Alaska burned several thousand hectares of grassland to test the Aeryon Scout quadcopter. Equipped with cameras, infrared imaging equipment and other sensors, the Scout collected data on flame dynamics and smoke movements to help freighters predict the fire’s behaviour.
Smoke can make it difficult for freighters to locate the heart of a wildfire. A prototype sensor, developed by researchers in Germany, spots a blaze via the microwave radiation it gives off. Mounted to a remotely piloted blimp, the sensor scans through foliage and smoke to spot pockets of fire 5 metres wide and larger.
Network in a backpack: After Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines last November, the Vodafone Foundation deployed a 100-kilogram mobile network that helped victims place more than 400 000 phone calls and send 1,4 million texts to loved ones. Now the company has shrunk the equipment into the Instant Network Mini, an 11-kilogram device that fits inside a first responder’s backpack. A satellite connection enables five concurrent calls within a 100-metre radius, and thousands of text messages.
Solar traffic lights: Lumi Solair’s off-grid traffic light will ensure the safe flow of cars without posting a cop on every corner when the power goes out. The New York-based company is testing its system in nearby New Jersey. The lights run on solar energy and provide as much as five days of backup power.
Wound care: Severe puncture wounds can be life-threatening if first aid is delayed. RevMedx has developed a new medical product that can staunch bleeding, and is particularly useful for wounds to the shoulder and pelvis, where tourniquets are ineffective. The XStat injects compressed sponges that have been treated with blood clotting and antimicrobial agents. The pellets expand to 10 times their original size and exert pressure to stop the bleeding. In animal studies, the XSTAT reduced blood loss and increased survival rates. The company hopes the device will become FDA-approved this year for military and medical applications.
Seeing through smoke: While fighting a blaze in June 2013, a change in wind direction trapped 19 Arizona firefighters. Some say their deaths could have been prevented through better communication. The tragedy prompted the Florida Forest Service to start using radio trackers to keep tabs on equipment. Displayed on an aerial map, the location information helps supervisors co-ordinate tactics and keep crews safe.
Heartbeat detector: Technology developed by Nasa and the US Department of Homeland Security can locate survivors beneath 10 metres of rubble. The Finder device uses microwave radar to detect heartbeats and is sensitive enough to distinguish a human’s from an animal’s. Already tested in 65 simulations, it will be available to first responders this year.
When the flood comes in or the grid goes down, new tech provides short-term necessities such as heat, clean water and wireless connectivity so you can find help. If all else fails, two words: tsunami capsule.
Surge protection: After the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, former Boeing aerospace engineer Julian Sharpe discovered that 135 nations were at risk for a catastrophic wave. When there’s not enough time to move to higher ground, an aluminium escape pod designed by Sharpe’s company, Survival Capsule, could save lives. Complete with locator beacons, GPS, ventilation and storage space for food and water, the capsule has withstood crushing, heating and piercing tests. The first two-person production model was delivered to Japan in July 2013. The company expects to go into full-scale production this year.
Data defender: The ioSafe G3 external hard drive keeps your data safe from fire and flooding. It withstands temperatures of up to 840 degrees with an inner shield that reflects 98 per cent of heat; a proprietary material releases cooling water vapour when internal temperatures top 70 degrees. A Hydrosafe barrier blocks water even when the device is under 3 metres of water for 72 hours.
Emergency radio: The Eton ZoneGuard AM/FM clock radio provides hyper-local weather information in compatible areas (which, for the moment, seem to be non-South African). This device helps the user seek shelter or evacuate as needed. It uses Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) codes to detect danger levels in that area, indicated by flashing green, orange or red lights.
Signal anywhere: When Internet connections go down, Iridium Go converts satellite signals into Wi-Fi. Although you won’t be able to go on Facebook (the device delivers 2,8 kilobits per second, about as fast as dial-up), you’ll have enough bandwidth for an emergency call from almost anywhere in the world.
Water purifier: The Grayl uses three layers of ion-charged mesh to filter 99, 99 per cent of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses – and even heavy metals and chemicals – out of half a litre of water in 15 seconds.
Backup phone: With battery life of up to 15 years, the SpareOne Plus is a good backup phone during a disaster. It also has an SOS signal that alerts designated contacts as to your whereabouts.
Solar-powered generator: When the power goes out, nothing beats a diesel-powered generator. For those times when the fuel runs out as well, Goal Zero’s 1 250-watt Yeti Solar Generator is a super-powerful portable photovoltaic generator. Although it takes up to 18 hours for two 53 x 450 x 2,5 cm solar panels to fully charge, a full battery will power your refrigerator for up to 24 hours, or your home alarm system for more than 10 days.
Stove, heater, charger: The BioLite CampStove burns leaves, twigs and other biomass to convert heat into electricity to charge your phone or other electronics. It’s an ingenious little device.
APPS FOR SURVIVAL
Life360: Instantly locate your loved ones with this private, interactive map. A single tap informs the group that you’re okay, and when disaster strikes, the alert button sends an SOS to your contacts by text message, e-mail and voicemail.
Ubalert: This software posts citizen-reported hazards in real time and prioritis es each tip by credibility and severity. An on-board interactive map also lets you search and avoid local emergencies.
Floodwatch: FloodWatch crunches weather data to present real-time river heights and rainfall totals. With interactive maps, graphs and tables, you can search for flood risks in your area and monitor rising water levels.