Soil moisture and ocean salinity satellite ready for launch
A new European Earth observation satellite will be launched in the early hours of Monday morning (2 November 2009) from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia.The European Space Agency (ESA) Soil Moisture & Ocean Salinity (SMOS - pronounced SMOSS) satellite aims to measure both moisture levels in the Earth’s soils and the saltiness (salinity) of the surface waters of the world’s oceans from space for the very first time. British scientists and engineers have been involved in the mission from the start.Global measurements of salinity and soil moisture will improve our understanding of how water is transported around the Earth, and how it circulates around the oceans, and lead to more accurate weather forecasts and climate simulations.Professor Meric Srokosz from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, who was part of the international team that first proposed the mission in 1998, said, "The temperature and salinity of the water in the oceans determine its density, variations in which are important in driving ocean currents. We’ve been making salinity measurements from ships for many years, but with SMOS we will be able to get a global picture every few days.""The oceans play a major role in the climate system and possible future changes in currents are important as the oceans interact with the atmosphere, taking up, releasing and re-distributing heat and freshwater. These interactions are key processes affecting both weather and climate," he added.Professor Robert Gurney from the University of Reading and the National Centre for Earth Observation, who is working on the mission, said, "SMOS will give us global measurements of soil moisture for the very first time. The mission itself is very challenging because it is the first of its type, and allows us to look at a key area of the planet’s water cycle. Soil moisture is important for understanding and predicting floods and droughts, and for predicting the future climate."Dr Phil Newton, NERC’s Director of Science Delivery, said, "The great advances in understanding weather, climate and environmental change promised by a successful SMOS mission cannot be achieved by single European nations acting alone. The European Space Agency provides an essential framework for pooling our intellectual, technological and financial resources, so making possible this sort of big science."The launch of SMOS comes during the build-up to the crucial climate change talks in Copenhagen in December. Director General of the British National Space Centre (BNSC) Dr David Williams said, "SMOS is an important mission with key UK involvement. Satellites such as SMOS are vital for predictions of how our climate is changing and British scientists and engineers are world leaders in using data from space to improve our understanding of the Earth. The recently-opened ESA research facility at Harwell in Oxfordshire will reinforce the UK’s focus on climate change research."SMOS is the second of ESA’s Earth Explorer missions and follows the successful launch of the GOCE (Gravity field and steady state Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite earlier this year.Tsunami Evacuation Buildings: Another way to save lives in the Pacific Northwest Boulder, CO, USA - Some time soon, a powerful earthquake will trigger a massive tsunami that will flood the Pacific Northwest, destroying homes and threatening the lives of tens of thousands of people, says Yumei Wang, a geotechnical engineer at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Portland.The region’s geology makes an earthquake-triggered tsunami inevitable and imminent in geologic time, Wang says, yet coastal towns and cities in the northwest are woefully unprepared for such a large-scale natural disaster. In response, she is working with public officials and stakeholders to develop a series of tsunami evacuation buildings up and down the northwest coast. They would be the first buildings of their kind in the United States. And construction, she urges, can’t start soon enough. "Unless we do this, we will have lots of people dying in a tsunami,” Wang says. “That’s not how we want our people to die."Wang will present recommendations in a session titled Risks and Realities: Current Advances in Understanding Societal Risk and Resilience to Natural Hazards at this month’s Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon.A line of volcanoes from northern California to British Columbia marks the eastern edge of a fault system (called the Cascadia subduction zone), where one plate is wedged under another. Those plates shift like geological clockwork every few hundred years, producing earthquakes that shake the region. The last major quake along the Cascadia subduction zone occurred on 26 January 1700. It produced a tsunami that damaged coastal towns as far away as Japan. The region’s next big earthquake could happen any day now, says Wang, or it might not happen for several hundred years. When the day comes, a tsunami—with inundation heights of 50 feet or more—could hit the northwest coast within 10 to 20 minutes.The standard emergency response in cases like these is to move people inland and uphill, but there are plenty of communities where people simply won’t be able to evacuate in time, Wang says. The resort town of Seaside, Ore., for example, is low-lying with inadequate roads and bridges. Kids and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.In Cannon Beach, Ore., Wang has started meeting with officials to hold serious discussions on constructing the first tsunami evacuation building in the U.S. The building, a proposed rebuilding of the town’s existing city hall, would have to be made of reinforced concrete with a deep foundation and strong columns, a post-tensioning structural system to keep it upright, an 18-foot tall first floor, and wave-dissipation structures in front and back, among many other design details.Tsunami evacuation buildings won’t be cheap. Wang estimates that the one in Cannon Beach would have an added cost of between $1 million and $2 million. But the building would provide a safe space that people could reach quickly and be ready for emergency response and long term recovery. Getting just one such building off the ground, Wang says, is a critical first step toward creating a network of buildings that will help save many thousands of lives.