Global Trends in Satellite-Based Emergency Mapping

Over the last 15 years, the use of satellite imagery for disaster management support increased significantly, from seven cases in 2000, to 123 in 2014, according to a recent review published in the journal Science.

satellite based emergency mapping
Global distribution and density of satellite-based emergency mapping activations between 2000-2014. Credit: DLR/Human Rights Watch

The review presents the trends in spatial and temporal distribution of more than 1000 disasters in the period 2000-2014 where satellite emergency mapping (SEM) was used. The steep increase in the use of satellite emergency mapping confirms the usefulness of satellite imagery for disaster damage assessment. The spatial coverage shows that SEM is most intensively used in Asia and Europe and follows the geographic, physical and temporal distributions of natural disasters globally, as confirmed by the data contained in the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) dataset.

Several Earth observation initiatives and programmes use satellite imagery for rapid assessment of disaster impact. One of these is the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (EMS) managed by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in partnership with the Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW), in charge of the overall Copernicus Earth observation programme.

The JRC contributed to the review led by the German Aerospace Centre in collaboration with leading scientists world-wide. Copernicus Emergency Management Service (EMS) Rapid Mapping together with its preceding operational and research activities (the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security – GMES) supported the analysis with statistics on over 160 disaster events. The Copernicus EMS is unique in analysing an increasing number of disaster events annually since 2010.  Analysis comparing it to other services including the International Charter “Space and Major Disasters”, United Nations UNOSAT-UNITAR and ReliefWeb, Sentinel Asia, and the National Disaster Reduction Centre of China (NDRCC), shows this very clearly.

The review also underlines the need for better international cooperation to provide more effective disaster damage assessment. A good example is the International Working Group on Satellite based Emergency Mapping (IWG-SEM), of which the Commission (the JRC and DG GROW) is an important member. The group was established after the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan flood of 2010, to improve mutual information sharing, harmonisation of procedures and cooperation across the international SEM community. The JRC was one of the cofounders of the IWG-SEM.


To compile the review, the JRC teamed up with the following institutions: German Aerospace Center, (lead author, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany), Information Technology for Humanitarian Assistance, Cooperation and Action (Turin, Italy), Human Rights Watch (Geneva, Switzerland), U.S. Geological Survey (Sioux Falls, SD, USA), Gulich Institute – Córdoba National University/CONAE, (Córdoba, Argentina), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Tsukuba, Japan), Asian Institute of Technology (Klong Luang, Pathumthani, Thailand), United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (Vienna, Austria), National Disaster Reduction Center of China (Beijing, China), Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (Geneva, Switzerland), National Space Research and Development Agency (Abuja, Nigeria), Centre National d’Études Spatiales (Toulouse, France), Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (Nairobi, Kenya), European Space Agency (Brussels, Belgium), Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) (Belgium).


The Copernicus Emergency Management Service provides all those involved in the management of natural disasters, man-made emergency situations, and humanitarian crises with timely and accurate geo-spatial information derived from satellite remote-sensing and completed by available in-situ or open data sources. It has two main components, early warning and mapping.

The early warning component delivers alerts and risk assessments of floods and forest fires. The mapping component addresses a wide range of emergency situations resulting from natural or man-made disasters, covering in particular floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, severe storms, fires, industrial accidents, volcanic eruptions, and humanitarian crises. The service is provided in two modules. Rapid Mapping provides high-speed service delivery in the midst of or immediately after catastrophic events or humanitarian crises, and is available 24/7/365. Risk & Recovery Mapping is designed for pre- or post-crisis situations in support of recovery, disaster risk reduction, prevention, and preparedness activities. A validation component is used for the independent verification of a sample of service outputs produced by the Rapid Mapping or Risk & Recovery Mapping modules, with the aim of continuously improving the quality of the service.

Among the recent events covered by EMS Rapid Mapping were the floods in France in the end of May/June 2016. Thanks to the early warning coming from the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), the timely tasking of the satellites allowed fast provision of the flood damage assessment of the most affected areas to the civil protection authorities and other users.

All maps from EMS activations are available on the dedicated EMS portal as per the free, full and open Copernicus policy.

Flood delineation map, Mantes-la-Jolie, France. Copernicus Emergency Management Service (© 2016 European Union), [EMSR165] Mantes-la-Jolie: Delineation Map, Monitoring 1
Flood delineation map, Mantes-la-Jolie, France. Copernicus Emergency Management Service (© 2016 European Union), [EMSR165] Mantes-la-Jolie: Delineation Map, Monitoring 1


Map of the flooded areas of Skopje, Macedonia, August 2016. Flooded areas marked in light blue. Image: Copernicus EMS
Map of the flooded areas of Skopje, Macedonia, August 2016. Flooded areas marked in light blue. Image: Copernicus EMS

This article is by the Joint Research Centre and and is published here with permission. The original article can be found here.