Integrated Earth Observation Systems Continue To Gain Momentum at National and International Levels

NOAA operates a complex network of observing systems consisting of satellites and an extensive surface network of towers, balloons, buoys and aircraft. NOAA — or the United States for that matter — alone cannot create a global observing system. scientific benefits of an integrated Earth observation system can only be achieved as an international effort.

April 5, 2004 — It has been almost a year since retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, publicly announced the United States’ intention to lead an international effort towards a need for comprehensive, integrated and sustained Earth observing system to provide a deeper understanding of the complex systems of Planet Earth. “The forces of societal change and global development present new challenges for the world’s leaders — challenges that will require future advances in our existing observing systems to the next level of Earth observation,” explained Lautenbacher at the recent meeting of the Group on Earth Observations held in South Africa. Lautenbacher is effectively rallying the international community to join together in building “a system of systems” that will provide the tools needed “to take the pulse of the planet.” Just as medical doctors must understand the pulse, blood pressure and temperature of their patients (as well as the interrelation of these vital signs) to make an accurate diagnosis, so too should the Earth be viewed as an interrelated and complex living system.

Lautenbacher speaks from a somewhat unique perspective as head of what might be described as the United States’ “operational ecosystem science agency.” NOAA itself operates a complex network of observing systems consisting of satellites and an extensive surface network of towers, balloons, buoys and aircraft. But Lautenbacher knows that NOAA — or the United States for that matter — alone cannot create a global observing system. As a result, his message and involvement in Earth observations has gained momentum at both the national and international levels:

  • Domestically, Lautenbacher is one of three co-chairmen on the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources, which is developing a multi-year plan for U.S. observational activities, through an Interagency Working Group on Earth Observations. IWGEO has 15 agencies working together to develop the U.S. national plan, as well as the U.S. inputs to the international effort.
  • Internationally, Lautenbacher serves as the U.S. representative (co-chair) to an intergovernmental working group on global Earth observation systems (known as GEO), along with representatives of the European Commission, Japan and South Africa. GEO strives to monitor global climate and environmental systems at the international level and has five working subgroups (i.e., architecture, capacity building, data utilization, user requirements and outreach and international cooperation).

First-Ever Global Earth Observation Summit
The U.S. hosted Earth Observation Summit held almost a year ago (July 31, 2003) in Washington, D.C., was the first step in bringing together high-level ministers of the G-8 industrial countries (plus Russia, other interested nations and international institutions) to discuss the kind of political commitment that will be needed to build a comprehensive and integrated Earth observing system. As a result of the historic meeting, 34 nations, plus the European Commission, joined the United States in adopting a declaration calling for action in strengthening global cooperation on Earth observations. Today that number has grown to 46 participating countries.

The declaration also established the ad hoc intergovernmental group on global Earth observations (GEO). Meeting for the first time immediately after the Summit, GEO agreed to design a framework for a 10-year implementation plan for a global EOS, which will soon be presented at a second ministerial level Summit meeting on April 25, 2004, in Tokyo. Two other deliverables will also be presented at this meeting: 1) the GEO Subgroup Reports to the Earth Observation Summit II, technical documents, which will serve as the foundation for developing the 10 year implementation plan and 2) a communique, which will communicate the ministerial agreement. Since its first meeting, GEO has met two more times in both Italy and South Africa to work on steps required for connecting and sustaining observing systems, data management and standards and incorporating user requirements.

A recent example of international cooperation towards establishing a global Earth observing system took place during the last GEO meeting in South Africa. On Feb. 26, 2003, a group of researchers departed from Cape Town with NOAA’s Jim Farrington (Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory) and University of Cape Town’s Pieter Truter for a 20-day expedition where these two countries jointly deploy 12 Argo profiling floats, 10 surface drifters and approximately 240 XBT’s on the way to Newark, NJ. One objective of this trip is to train South African personnel on the deployment of these instruments. This, and other projects like it, will help to further understand the Earth’s ocean and will be a key component of a comprehensive global observing system.

Three Imperatives Behind Earth Observation
There are three imperatives — social, economic and scientific — that drive the need for building an integrated Earth observation system:

  • Social: As populations move from rural areas to urban centers (especially along the coast), there has been a dramatic shift in the distribution of goods, services and land use, which in turn has increased competition for access to resources (such as water, arable land and improved living conditions). These changes call for a quantum improvement in such products as precipitation forecasts for food production, warnings of natural disasters, seasonal forecasts for climate and drought, etc.
  • Economic: The potential economic benefits of an Earth observation system are enormous. With more than $3 trillion of U.S. GDP (about one-third of the nation’s economy) affected by climate and weather (including agriculture, energy, construction, finance, insurance, real estate, retail and whole sale trade, manufacturing and the travel and transportation industry sectors) there are powerful economic, as well as environmental, incentives for gaining a greater understanding of these phenomena. Fortunately, the return on investments in Earth observation systems to date has brought great benefits to the general public. Just imagine, the return on investment which could be achieved for a fully networked global EOS.
  • Science: A truly integrated Earth observation system will be needed to provide the sound science necessary to make policy decisions in the global context of social and economic change. Sound science begins with observations and is based on robust data sets that are consistent and standardized.

Benefits and Blind Spots
Most people today are aware of the benefits of satellite, aircraft and ground-based measurements that document environmental changes. Existing operational data acquisition, analysis and distribution systems already constitute an essential — but far from complete — source of information for scientific studies and assessments of the global Earth system and climate. However, there are too many individual data sets and limited observation systems that lack integration and consistency. Additionally, there are many “blind spots,” such as data in the upper atmosphere and on the oceans in the Southern hemisphere. Sustained data from these “blind spots” will be essential to unraveling the complexities of such entities as the carbon cycle, water cycle and numerous other biological processes (including more accurate predictions of climate change, crop production, energy and water use, disease outbreaks and natural hazards). The bottom line is that the entire globe needs to know much more about how the planet works. Furthermore, with the difficult social and economic issues facing the world today, we must all move beyond the separate disciplines of science (i.e., chemistry, physics, biology, geology) toward a “big picture” view of life on Earth.

Existing Observations Systems
One of the best examples that can be used as a smaller-scale model for what is needed in order to establish a fully integrated global observing system is what has been accomplished in understanding, forecasting and modeling the El Niño phenomenon. It took intense international cooperation and 20 years to build, but the major investments in predictive capability — and the observing platforms that provide the data — have proven to be of immense economic and social benefit. Understanding El Niño and its influence on the atmosphere requires the ability to observe the physical state of the oceans and atmosphere on a continuing basis. This was achieved by using a combined satellite and in-situ observing system consisting of a moored array, the TAO array and complementary subsurface observations spanning the Tropical Pacific. Resulting observations are then used to produce seasonal forecasts of the impact of El Niño on North America. In fact, NOAA successfully predicted the very large 1997-1998 El Niño — six months in advance — thanks to Earth observation systems. The next step is to expand and build upon these pieces to diagnose mid-term and long-term climate effects — and climate is just one piece of the puzzle. Future observing systems should include sensors capable of unraveling the mysteries of the wide variety of physical, chemical, geological and biological cycles.

NOAA has contributed significantly to both national and global observing systems, especially those pertaining to the oceans and atmosphere. Specifically, NOAA’s geostationary and polar orbiting satellites provide continuous coverage of North and South America and its adjoining oceans 24-hours a day, and these space assets are complimented by an extensive surface network of towers, balloons, buoys, ships, and aircraft.

Which Pieces Are Missing?
NOAA has been working to organize itself so that its mission can be achieved in a way that looks at the “whole Earth system.” As part of this effort, NOAA is collecting an inventory of all of its observing systems and creating the NOAA Observing System Architecture to document and identify ways to evolve them in an integrated manner. Thus far, NOAA has found that it has 102 separate observing systems measuring 521 different environmental parameters (Click on NOAA image to the right for a larger view of NOAA’s Global Observing Platforms). By understanding its existing observing systems and how they are structured to meet mission goals (such as climate change), NOAA hopes to provide a basis upon which its systems can easily be integrated with other agency observing systems and international programs. In the meantime, NOAA will continue to operate, sustain and enhance existing national observation programs — monitoring sea level, estuarine reserves and of shoreline change to name just a few. NOAA is also committed to continued cooperation with its international partners and efforts to assist developing countries with the capacity building required to participate in this effort.

NOAA applauds similar efforts by other organizations. The World Meteorological Organization, for example, has played a pioneering role in the global coordination of geophysical and meteorological experiments that have helped to create the operational foundations for the worldwide monitoring of atmospheric chemical composition and climate variability. Other monitoring systems in development include Global Ocean Observing System, Global Climate Observing System, Global Atmosphere Watch and the Global Terrestrial Observing System. The Committee on Earth Observation Satellites and the Integrated Global Observing Strategy have also made significant contributions to this effort.

Data Management & Super Computers
Perhaps the most important, but easily neglected components of an integrated information system for planet Earth are the areas of data management and high-performance computing capacity. In order to realize the full benefits of an integrated global EOS, there needs to be the capacity to standardize, analyze, exchange, store and disseminate new and historic data and information on a free and open basis. Supercomputers are also needed to model the complex ecosystem-based processes that define the world.

NOAA applauds the latest developments in this field, such as Japan’s Earth Simulator, and has also upgraded its own weather and climate supercomputers. Specifically, NOAA’s new computer system has more than twice the processing power of the Class VIII supercomputer it replaced. Making more than 450 billion calculations per second, it is poised to give the NOAA National Weather Service the ability to improve local and national forecast accuracy, as well as extend watch and warning lead times for potential severe weather. Yet this is only the beginning — the development of a fully integrated Earth observation system will require sustained investment in this and other data management and high-performance computing tools.

The social, economic and scientific benefits of an integrated Earth observation system can only be achieved as an international effort. Only by building upon existing systems, and working cooperatively on a global scale will it be possible to meet the challenges associated with planning and developing such a system. The combined global observations of terrestrial, ocean and atmospheric phenomena around the globe will move the world closer to providing “sound science for sound decisions” to national and international decision-makers. At the third meeting of GEO in South Africa last February (2004), Deputy Minister Sonjica of South Africa’s Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology lauded the work of GEO as “finding solutions to human problems.” A benefits-centric approach is helping to achieve that goal of a comprehensive Earth observation system of systems.

Image Credit: NOAA

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Thanks to National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for this contribution. See also for additional information on this topic.


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