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Using satellites to identify potential health risks in cities

There is no one place on Earth where we can see and learn all there is to know about our planet, but what if we could somehow get a view from up above, and capture images and information on a global scale? Could we better understand our Earth and its environment? The simple answer is yes, and we're doing it right now! Earth observation (EO) satellites orbiting our planet allow us to see large-scale phenomena to a degree of detail that could only be matched by hordes of observers on the ground.

What do satellites see?

Plenty! From space, they gather essential information on the ocean, ice, land and the atmosphere. Satellites can even be used to collect data on environmental conditions that have an impact on our health.

Decreasing ozone levels, for example, are linked with increased UV radiation and more cases of skin cancer. The same is true for data on air and water quality. And did you know that high levels of soil moisture indicate a possible increase in the mosquito population in a given area? Since mosquitoes can carry diseases such as malaria and the West Nile virus, if we can somehow better detect the location of mosquito populations, we can improve our intervention efforts and reduce the risk to public health.

The use of EO satellites is still fairly new in the area of public health and more research needs to be done, but it is growing rapidly.

New research aims to improve detection and prevention of urban health risks

A research team is investigating the use of EO satellites to identify environmental health risks, specifically in urban areas. The project aims to use RADARSAT-2 data to help find areas where vulnerable populations would be exposed to high heat, air pollution or infectious diseases (viruses) transmitted by mosquitoes.

Details of the uses of RADARSAT-2 images
Health risks Use of RADARSAT-2 images Desired results
High heat Characterize the pattern of the urban landscape to detect areas that may be more susceptible to high heat (e.g. the proximity of buildings to one another could indicate a decrease in air circulation; strategic placement of trees in urban areas could cool and filter the air, and reduce noise pollution). Reduce heat-related health risks, especially in vulnerable populations.
Air pollution Observe the urban landscape to identify areas where air is more likely to be stagnant and link this information to data on the concentration of microparticles in the air. Mitigate the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in vulnerable populations.
Mosquitos Locate sites showing characteristics that are favourable for mosquito breeding. Decrease transmission of infectious diseases in vulnerable populations.

Not just satellites… but also data from various sources

The data gathered by RADARSAT-2 can help detect vulnerable zones based on urban patterns or land characteristics. But this is only part of the research puzzle. The broader goal of the project is to use the satellite data in combination with environmental information and risk factors from various sources. In addition to RADARSAT-2 images, the project will use information from other EO sensors, various databases and field data.

These diverse datasets will then be integrated into a single database for public health agencies so that prevention and control measures can be put in place. While the approach is being developed in Montreal, once it is proven, it could be applied in other Canadian cities facing similar public health issues.

List of images, databases and field data
Images Databases Field data
  • Airborne instruments: hyperspectral sensors (visible light and thermal infrared)
  • Drone metadata
  • Other satellite images (e.g. LANDSAT, EO-1, ASTER, Sentinel-1, MODIS)
  • National Topographic Data Base (NTDB)
  • Topographic Data of Québec
  • Digital terrain models (DTM)
  • Cadastral Plans (property boundaries)
  • Property assessment
  • Land use
  • Water bodies and wetlands
  • Weather data (Environment and Climate Change Canada)
  • Climate projections
  • Air quality
  • Statistics Canada (population and demographics)
  • Weather stations
  • Air quality measurement stations
  • Thermal sensors
  • Thermal cameras
  • Ozonometers (Microtops)
  • Spectroradiometers

A solid team for today and an investment in the future

This project brings together key players in the academic and public sectors. It also contributes to training the future generation of highly qualified personnel (HQP) by giving graduate students the opportunity to participate actively in the research. Each student is supervised by a professor and paired with a partner organization to ensure high-quality training and guidance.

The CSA's contribution to this project includes financial support of $ 150 000 over three years and access to RADARSAT-2 data, to explore and maximize the use of satellite imagery to improve life on Earth.

The research team for the "Urban health indicators derived from Earth Observation data" project and representatives from the CSA's Earth Observation Applications & Utilizations Division following a productive kick-off meeting held on . (Credit: CSA)

Members of the research team

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