Jan 31, 2007

Floods! Fire! SERVIR!

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January 31, 2007: Heavy rain from a thunderstorm can be a nuisance. Heavy rain lasting several days can be downright deadly. This past November, a stationary front got stuck over northern Panama, dropping a massive amount of rain—nearly 13 inches—washing out bridges, creating landslides, killing twelve people and leaving 1,300 more homeless. All told, the storm caused nearly $10 million in damage.

It could have been worse. Fortunately, the Panamanian government had access to a state-of-the-art Earth observation system called SERVIR, meaning "To Serve."


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"In the midst of the disaster, the President of Panama visited our SERVIR facility," recalls project scientist Emil Cherrington. "Based on the information we gave him, the national civil defense agency issued an advisory to two regions of Panama: Bocas del Toro and Veraguas. They were told to be on the alert for landslides and to evacuate if necessary."

"SERVIR's contribution to the disaster response was proven when landslides were indeed detected, preventing loss of life," he says.

Right: President of Panama, Martin Torrijos, (left) being briefed by CATHALAC Director Emilio Sempris (right) with Channel 2 TV Weather Forecasters Annette Quinn (center). [



Cherrington is the Senior Scientist for CATHALAC, an international organization headquartered in Panama. "SERVIR is a joint venture between CATHALAC, NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and Central America's Commission for the Environment and Development (CCAD) and other partners."


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How does SERVIR work? "The system gathers data from a constellation of geosynchronous and polar-orbiting satellites operated by NASA and NOAA." After processing, these data are combined with ground-based observations and transmitted to SERVIR's website, providing realtime views of weather around Mesoamerica.

But SERVIR is much more than a high-tech weather station, he says. "The website also has tools to monitor wildfires, floods, volcanoes, harmful algal blooms and other long-term ecological challenges."

A favorite feature of the site is SERVIR Viz, a 60-megabyte downloadable program based on NASA's World Wind software. Akin to "Google Earth," the program allows users to superimpose a variety of weather- and land-related data over maps of Central America. "You can use the program to pinpoint flood and landslide danger-zones, or browse volcano and earthquake data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey."

"In fact, every morning on the local news, Panama's Channel 2 uses SERVIR-Viz to display forecasts of current weather and ecological conditions," notes Dan Irwin, SERVIR project director at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Below: Accumulated rainfall during Panama floods as detected by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM). TRMM image courtesy Hal Pierce, Dr. Robert Adler/TRMM Project. [



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All this information, presented in such a clear and friendly manner, makes SERVIR a vital "decision support system" for Central American leaders, says Cherrington. The crucial questions it answers are "What's going to happen tomorrow? What's going to happen next? What areas should we evacuate?"

SERVIR's reach is growing. Recently, CATHALAC signed an agreement with Central America's Coordination Center for the Prevention of the Natural Disasters (CEPREDENAC). "With the signing, the facility will become host to the Central American Web Emergency Operations Center (WebEOC) system, developed by the U.S. Southern Command's Humanitarian Assistance Program," explains Irwin. "This development is a testament to the value of SERVIR for disaster management and will provide timely access to a new suite of tools for dealing with extreme events."

"It is important that people learn how to use these tools," Cherrington continues. "Since SERVIR's inauguration in February 2005, we have been holding regional workshops to train government representatives in how to use this environmental visualization data."

And the best part about SERVIR? It is active and available to anyone, says Cherrington. "SERVIR is an open system, free, and its data can be downloaded any time."

Visit the bilingual SERVIR web site at


Author: Bart Leahy | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Related Links

SERVIR -- Regional Visualization & Monitoring System home page

CATHALAC -- the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean is the operational institution for SERVIR.


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Right: The SERVIR team at CATHALAC with Project Director Dan Irwin (lower right). [ ]


NSSTC -- the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama, serves as a "test bed" and rapid prototyping facility for SERVIR.

Serving Earth -- (Science@NASA) A thousand years ago, Mayan civilization collapsed. Today, a Space Age "situation room" in Panama is helping Central Americans avoid mistakes that doomed the Maya.

The Rise and Fall of the Mayan Empire -- (Science@NASA) Scientists are using space satellites to unravel one of the great mysteries of the ancient world.

Mesoamerica Burning -- (Science@NASA) The rich diversity of wildlife in southern Mexico and Central America is in peril. Local governments are using satellites to get a grip on a vast corridor of protected lands.

Satellites: SERVIR uses a whole constellation of satellites, including IKONOS, Quickbird, Landsat 7, MODIS Terra, MODIS Aqua, and AMSR-E, SPOT, RADARSAT and others.