A system of systems

The GEOSS program is a global environmental monitoring effort that can generate critical benefits.

Apr 1st, 2005

The GEOSS program is a global environmental monitoring effort that can generate critical benefits.

Understanding the Earth as an interconnected whole would seem to require more coordination than scientists, governments, and institutions could muster. Yet it’s with some surprise and optimism that we can find a program created for just this purpose in a short timeframe and supported by 60 countries, the European Commission, and 33 international organizations. At the third Earth Observation Summit, held in Brussels this past February, this international group formally inaugurated the 10-year Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) endeavor to monitor the world’s environment, including a tsunami detection network.

GEOSS was sparked in large measure by Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., U.S. undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). His original goal was to improve studies of climate change, which he saw as handicapped by researchers’ need to compete for grants, publish results, and move on, without a way of capturing what is going on over the long term. Lautenbacher believed the best way to bolster ocean monitoring-a central element of climate study-was with a sustained and globally integrated research effort based on satellites and sensing devices in the oceans that would generate continuous data streams. Such Earth observations can be used in many areas, including ­agriculture, forestry, and public health. The widespread and enthusiastic interest in Earth observations led to the first Earth Observation Summit in 2003 and, soon after, the worldwide political will to support improvements in observation strategies and systems, coordinated sharing of data, and access by developing countries to the technology.

A total of 73 Earth-observing satellites are currently in orbit, of which 25 are owned by the United States. Of these, most are deployed by NASA, with the remaining operated by NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and a few private firms. The European Union, India, Russia, China, Brazil, ­Japan, and Canada also have Earth-observing satellites. Most satellites have primary instruments that measure visible or infrared radiation. Remotely gathered data from these and other satellite instruments such as synthetic aperture radar can be combined with more Earth-bound tools such as weather balloons, aircraft, and ocean buoys.

The immediate priorities for GEOSS include the creation of a governance organization and resolving technical issues related to sharing and integrating data from space, terrestrial, seaborne, and airborne monitoring sources. The U.S. has set up an Interagency Working Group on Earth Observations to outline a framework for U.S. participation. The European Union has a Global Monitoring for Environment and Security initiative under way.

The potential applications for this system of systems is evident in many fields, but none more so than in protecting human health, which is highly susceptible to changes in climate. Increased mortality and morbidity rates can be caused by extreme heat, cold, drought, or storms, and by the rise of infectious diseases. For example, outbreaks of cholera in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Mozambique have been closely correlated with sea surface height, temperature, and chlorophyll content (which are all potentially linked to plankton blooms harboring the bacterium that causes cholera). The chlorophyll data came from satellites. The ocean temperature and height data came from buoys.

Mapping land-use change such as deforestation and building homes on floodplains can provide a warning of the devastation caused by flooding and landslides, as shown in studies of the damage wrought when Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in1998: 9600 people died, widespread disease ensued, and 1 million people were left homeless. And high-resolution thermal mapping can help study urban sprawl, which can cause surface warming. Airborne thermal imagery combined with Landsat Thematic Mapper satellite data showed Dallas, TX, is an urban heat island 5°C to 11°C warmer than surrounding rural areas. The fact that 22,000 to 35,000 heat-related deaths occurred across Europe during two weeks in August 2003 speaks to all of us about the problems that may afflict urban areas.

The benefits to the economy, society, and public health from a coordinated Earth-observation system of systems would be far reaching and lifesaving. The question is whether the political will and financial commitment to such a "system" is as sustainable as the benefits we could accrue.

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