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Assessing Transportation Safety and Hazards May Aid Homeland Security Effort

June 24, 2002 — Four University of Utah geography professors are using satellite imagery and geographic information systems (GIS) – computerized geographic maps -to assess the safety of and hazards to transportation networks in and around Salt Lake City. Their collaborative findings will be relevant in solving urgent public policy and safety problems, but may also be useful in addressing the geographic dimensions of terrorism – the damage or destruction to terrain, bridges or roadways.

“Before 9-11, we studied transportation accessibility,” notes Harvey J. Miller, University of Utah professor of geography. “Since 9-11, we’ve been looking at the vulnerability of transportation routes.”

Miller and University of Utah geography department colleagues George F. Hepner, Thomas J. Cova and Richard R. Forster are collaborating on the four-year project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The University, along with the University of New Mexico, George Washington University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, comprise the National Consortium on Remote Sensing in Transportation, the larger group studying the topic.

Last March, U of U Professor George Hepner helped organize a workshop in Washington, D.C., that examined how remote sensing and computer-generated geographic information could be used to determine whether a transportation system is secure. Since then, University researchers and conference participants have identified ways these technologies could be used, should transportation systems be compromised due to terrorist activities. “We could use remote sensing/GIS in identifying vulnerabilities and preparing critical transportation systems against terrorist attacks by increased remote monitoring,” Hepner notes. “Then we would become involved in the response and recovery as well.” For example, airborne remote sensing was used after the World Trade Center attacks to direct recovery efforts and locate sources of underground fires.

One such GIS recovery system, still being tested at the U, is the Congestion Toolbox, computer software that allows non-experts to designate alternative transportation routes to minimize congestion or to use in the event that a critical link in the transportation network is destroyed. With U of U Professor Harvey Miller as its lead developer, the Congestion Toolbox software also tracks the long-term impact of a disruption in the transportation network on travel time.

Tom Cova, U of U assistant professor of geography, uses satellite imagery, digital aerial photos, digital elevation models and road network data in a GIS to observe, predict, mitigate and respond to avalanches, landslides or land subsidence. He is testing these tools to predict the likelihood and impact of avalanches on roadways by comparison of the results to data obtained from thoroughly instrumented and monitored areas, such as Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. However, in the future this work should be especially relevant in many parts of the third world, where onsite monitoring and mitigation response are low or nonexistent.

“Once finished, we look to present our monitoring system’s capabilities to the Department of Transportation (DOT), which will assess them and determine which parts of the technology have transferability to the private sector and state departments of transportation,” Cova says.

Hepner, principal investigator on the overall project, uses digital hyperspectral imagery data, which uses the electromagnetic spectrum partitioned into hundreds of narrow spectral bands to determine the earth’s surface materials. Employing aircraft or satellites, the imagery can detect pollution or other contamination on the Earth’s surface. Use of these spectral data along with other information can provide monitoring and assessment of urban areas that can be used to detect changes due to natural or human-induced disasters.

Forster, University of Utah assistant professor of geography, measures changes in the Earth’s surface, including earth displacement or sinking – even the geometry of urban structures.

The University has provided GIS services to private firms, state and local governments since the mid-1980s and provides the state’s Automated Geographic Resource Center (AGRC), a clearinghouse for all state geographic data, with many highly-specialized geography graduates.

“The U’s Geography Department ( is one of the leading programs in the western U.S. in GIS/remote sensing because over the last 15 years we have really focused on faculty and graduate student recruitment, program and curriculum development and funded research,” says Hepner, who also directs the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. “The State of Utah is one of the leaders in GIS/remote sensing in the nation. This is due to the University’s long term support and the activities of Dennis Goreham, director of AGRC and other state agencies, in using GIS/remote sensing to address critical state and national needs.”