Features

doi:10.1038/nindia.2017.140 Published online 17 November 2017

The flying geophysicist who wants to create an Asian seismic data bank

Indian geophysicist Paramesh Banerjee, elected President of the Asian Seismological Commission (ASC) in August of 2017, takes on a big responsibility – given that a third of the world’s population lives in Asia where small, and sometimes big, devastating earthquakes are frequent.

K. S. Jayaraman

The geophysicist with a commercial pilot license (and 300 flying hours) flies research planes himself to make geophysical data affordable for Asian scientists. Banerjee speaks to Nature India about his dream of creating a freely accessible Asian seismological and geodetic data repository.


Paramesh Banerjee received the Indian Geoscience Award in 2009 for his work on Himalayan tectonics. Earlier with the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, he is now the technical director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) and has been responsible for establishing a vast network of geodetic and seismological instrumentation networks in seven countries of Asia.


Paramesh Banerjee with the plane he flew over Nepal after the 2015 earthquake to construct a 3-D Digital Terrain Map of the Himalayan faults.

Nature India: What would you like to accomplish as the ASC president?

Paramesh Banerjee: My main objective is to build a common platform that can help promote cooperation among Asian nations in seismic research to better tackle earthquake related disasters.

NI: What approach do you envisage for that?

PB: We hope to set up an Asia-wide seismological and geodetic data repository, where seismic data from all Asian countries can be stored and freely accessed by scientists throughout the region. Currently US Geological Survey is virtually the only source of reliable earthquake information for any significant event. In many Asian countries, there is no proper seismic network, or mechanism for automatic earthquake detection due to lack of expertise or shortage of seismologists. The ASC common facility could also be a centre for training local scientists and technicians, who could then maintain their own processing facilities.

We also hope to develop a programme to analyse existing earthquake hazard for each major Asian city. For instance Jakarta, Yangon, Dhaka and Kolkata are all high risk cities with almost their entire population living in buildings designed and constructed with scanty knowledge or implementation of building code. An accurate and precise microzonation map, and earthquake hazard assessment models using latest techniques and extensive, updated data, are a crying need. Our target will be to make some implementable decisions during the next Chengdu ASC General Assembly in May 2018.

NI: How soon you think ASC will create the common facility for data and resource sharing for successful disaster mitigation?

PB: For this, it is crucial to bring the policymakers of Asian countries together. Myanmar is willing, China is very receptive and India too is eager. Discussion with other members is on.

NI: You also have a pilot licence. What prompted you to take up flying? 

PB: Yes, I hold a commercial pilot license (USA) for multi-engine aircraft. The training expenses were 70% my own and the rest came from EOS. Other than the passion for flying, the major motivation was to find an affordable solution for Asian scientists to collect data for geophysical research from airborne Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) and other equipment. Commercial operators charge heavily.

NI: Where did you first fly the plane with Lidar?

PB: After the 2015 Nepal earthquake I covered more than 1000 square kilometres using airborne Lidar to construct high-resolution 3-D Digital Terrain Maps (DTM) of the Himalayan faults.

NI: Which are the places you plan to fly the Lidar in the immediate future? What are the applications of Lidar data?

PB: Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia. I have also been encouraging Indian scientists and research institutes to take advantage of our expertise and low-cost service. High resolution DTM is useful for flood early warning systems, town planning, slope analysis, landslide studies and for oil, mineral exploration and other studies.

NI: Do you plan to buy your own aircraft?

PB: My dream! I am looking for support from government agencies or investors so that an airborne geophysical/geospatial unit can be created in this part of the world. Other than airborne Lidar work, the same small aircraft can carry out aerial photogrametry survey and airborne geophysical surveys.