NEO impacts: on the disaster-planning agenda



It’s now official – as a result of fruitful collaborations over the past year or so, NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have agreed to form and co-lead a Near-Earth Object (NEO) Impact Working Group that will be “responsible for reviewing disaster response and recommending future exercises and messaging” for NEO impact scenarios. This group will hold its first meeting in 2014.

In a February 12 letter to John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden reported on this agreement as “one aspect of better preparing the Nation to respond” to NEO impact hazards. Their report follows an October 15, 2010, letter from OSTP to Congress reporting on the responsibilities of Federal in the event of a NEO impact event.

Along with the letter, NASA and FEMA gave Holdren a report on a NASA-FEMA NEO impact tabletop exercise held April 5, 2013, at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“A primary goal” of the April 2013 NASA-FEMA exercise “was to acquaint FEMA with the nature of an asteroid or comet impact and how a warning of an impact might evolve if the threatening object was detected a short time prior to possible impact,” according to the report (“Tabletop Exercise for Short Warning Near Earth Object Event,” summary report for NASA HQ SMD Planetary Sciences Division NEO Program Office, August 19, 2013. See the link at the left for this “TTX” report.)

I observed the 2013 exercise – it was fascinating, a learning experience for all present. (Reminder: I do communication research for NASA’s NEO Program.) NASA and FEMA agreed to form their NEO Impact Working Group as a result of this exercise. Here’s the scenario for it:

“An asteroid…as large as 100 meters in diameter was discovered approximately one month before it might impact. The initial probability of impact was about 10%, or based on the initial tracking data, there was 90% likelihood that the object would not strike Earth. As more tracking data was obtained, the object’s orbit was refined, resulting in certain impact being predicted two weeks prior to the projected impact date. At that time, the locations of possible impact points extended roughly from Pittsburg, PA, to the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, which included possible impact in the neighborhood of Washington. D.C. Final orbit measurements in the last two weeks placed the most likely impact as being in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Virginia/North Carolina coastline.”

(Are you all awake now? Can you imagine hearing this announcement on National Public Radio? Can you see why communication planning is critical?)

Even though we were dealing with a hypothetical scenario, the actors kept it real in the exercise. It was not until one week before (hypothetical) impact that scientists could say with certainty where the impact would occur. Thus the need for long-term planning was made apparent.

The three primary recommendations coming out of this exercise were to:

  1. “Improve tools for communications” about NEO impact hazards.
  2. “Develop a national response plan.”
  3. “Explore establishment of a FEMA-led NEO Impact Working Group.”

NASA and FEMA are planning another NEO impact exercise for this spring. According to the February 12 letter, “FEMA leadership has agreed to conduct a Federal Interagency NEO TTX through the Emergency Support Function Leadership Group in 2014.” The International Asteroid Warning Network Steering Committee, meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last month was informed of NEO impact tabletop exercises being planned in Europe this year. NEO impact hazard planning and disaster mitigation is now on the metaphorical radar.

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