Artificial intelligence and satellite technology is being used to develop an early warning system for Irish communities at risk of severe flooding.

CeADAR, Ireland’s centre for applied artificial intelligence, is using data collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite to map historical flooding events in flood-prone areas of Ireland.

The maps were fed into an artificial intelligence model designed to predict the extent of future flooding events in these areas, which researchers say is accurate up to approximately 20 metres.

It is hoped the model will soon be used to forewarn communities threatened with flooding ahead of periods of heavy rain, providing time to take emergency measures to limit damage to homes and businesses, evacuate residents and protect livestock.

Areas which were studied as part of the project include Carrick-on-Shannon in Co Leitrim, Middleton in Co Cork, Athlone in Co Westmeath and Limerick city.

‘Major implications’

Director of applied research at CeADAR Dr Oisín Boydell said the project has “major implications” for communities at high risk of flooding in Ireland.

“Predicting when and where a flood will strike allows time to organise mitigation measures, like preparing sandbags and evacuating people and livestock from certain areas.

“Traditionally, flood prediction and mapping would have been based on weather models and low-resolution elevation maps, whereas this one is very much data driven, based on events over the past decade and the current situation in a given area,” he said.

Middelton flooding

Post-doctoral researcher leading the project Dr Omid Memarian Sorkhabi monitored the Middleton flooding in real time during storm Babet with the Sentinel-1 satellite.

It uses advanced radar technology to penetrate heavy cloud cover, measuring soil moisture and water bodies at any time of day and night.

Data from the event, Dr Sorkhabi says, will help refine the model and improve its accuracy.

“Sentinel-1 was right over the area at the time, so we have gathered a lot of valuable data that will help predict the extent of the next event and ensure that future damage is limited.

“We’re in the process of developing, testing and validating the tool, but there’s huge potential for it to be made available to local authorities and other research projects.

“There is also a global scope to this. Sentinel-1 is always monitoring, so there’s a lot of historical data on other parts of the world on which we could train and expand the model,” he said.

Earth observations

The flood prediction model forms part of CAMEO, a €9m project led by University College Dublin (UCD), to develop an earth observations (EO) services sector in Ireland and explore the potential impact of EO data in the areas of climate, agriculture and the marine.

The project is funded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Enterprise Ireland under the Disruptive Technology Innovation Fund.

Earlier this year, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council warned that extreme flooding events resulting from climate change could cost the State around €500m a year by the end of the decade.

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