NASA’s domain is normally extraterrestrial, but its latest project is rooted firmly in earthly concerns: The space agency has helped create a risk map predicting the spread of the Zika virus throughout the United States, in hopes that it’ll help identify the communities that are most at risk.
The map, published in the journal PLOS Current Outbreaks, shows the likelihood Aedes aegypti mosquitoes being present in a given city, combined with the risk from travelers arriving from Zika-infested areas further south.
When Zika broke out in Brazil earlier this year, Americans could, for the most part, breathe easy. Stateside, winter temperatures kept the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes at bay. But now, as warm summer weather begins to settle in, much of the eastern and southern United States are becoming the perfect breeding grounds for the disease-carrying mosquito.
Because of their already-warm temperatures, it’s no surprise that southern cities like Miami, Orlando, and Houston are at high risk. But those further along the East Coast, like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., also run a moderate risk because of the incoming summer weather as well as the large number of travelers touching down in those cities after visiting countries on the CDC’s Zika travel advisory list.
West of Kansas, the abundance of the mosquito appears to be relatively low, but then again, the number of potentially Zika-stricken travelers passing through depends on how big the city is (Los Angeles and Denver, watch out!)
To create the map, NASA researchers collaborated with scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Taking into account factors like temperature, rainfall, and socioeconomic status, they predicted where outbreaks might occur based on what they already knew about Aedes aegypti, which has also been known to transmit dengue and chikungunya viruses.
It’s not the first time NASA’s gotten involved in predicting the spread of disease. The organization has previously been involved in modeling the spread of malaria, plague, yellow fever, West Nile virus, and Lyme disease.
Locally transmitted Zika has yet to emerge stateside, but travelers have already brought the disease over from infected countries. NASA’s map serves, in this case, as both a preventative tool and an ominous warning: Zika’s American invasion is not a question of if, but when.