October 1999

Mapping out trouble

CD-ROM database will help planners identify populations at risk when disaster strikes

A LandScan image of population distribution across Europe.
In Europe, a nuclear power plant has an accident, releasing radiation to the environment. In the Far East, an earthquake causes an explosion in a chemical plant, and a plume of toxic gases hovers ominously over a sprawling suburb. In North America, a terrorist group releases anthrax spores and poison gas in a city’s streets and subways.

Can international agencies predict which way the hazardous releases will go and how many people are at risk in these make-believe scenarios?

ORNL is helping to solve this problem for the U.S. Department of Defense as part of the DOD Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability, or HPAC. ORNL is a major contributor to HPAC, which is a research and development project for improving the modeling and understanding of various communities’ vulnerabilities to nuclear, biological and chemical attack; contaminant transport; and casualty estimation.

A Computational Physics and Engineering Division group has completed the LandScan Global Population Database for identifying populations at risk when disaster strikes. It is now available on compact disc (CD-ROM). Researchers in the project, headed by Jerry Dobson, are Edward A. Bright, Phillip R. Coleman, Richard C. Durfee, and William L. Jackson. LandScan’s ORNL component is managed by Brian A. Worley and Robert H. Morris.

"LandScan directly contributes to the development of policies and strategies aimed at saving lives."

“Terrorism and regional conflicts are rapidly becoming the chief security concerns for public safety throughout the world,” says Dobson. “Knowledge of population distributions could lead to better protective measures for people.

“The LandScan Global Population Database directly contributes to the development of national and international policies and strategies aimed at saving lives,” Dobson says. “In addition, it also helps a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State for developing policy responses to global environmental issues.”

Many of their solutions will serve equally well in natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

The researchers have developed a worldwide digital database of ambient population distribution at a resolution of one square kilometer. This readily available information will help emergency response teams identify and estimate the size of populations at risk from nuclear, biological or chemical threats.

Using these data, planners and emergency teams will know better how to prepare for and respond to these events.

LandScan 1998, a database of the entire world, was completed in April 1999 and is available to the public. Three DOD agencies designated LandScan as their official population database, and other federal agencies, foreign governments and international organizations such as the World Bank and World Health Organization have expressed interest and acquired the database. The Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing journal has accepted a paper on the LandScan methodology for publication.
Carolyn Krause