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Geologic Mapping for the Future
Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr.

Current efforts to develop an integrated Global Earth Observation System of Systems are helping us launch a new voyage of scientific discovery. Over the next decade, the system will revolutionize our understanding of Earth and how it works.

Right now, many thousands of individual pieces of technology are gathering scientific observations around the globe. They are demonstrating their value in estimating crop yields, monitoring water and air quality, and improving airline safety. U.S. farmers gain about $15 of value for each $1 spent on weather forecasting. Benefits to U.S. agriculture from altering planting decisions based on remote sensing are estimated at over $250 million. The annual economic return to the United States from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s El Niño ocean-observing and forecast system is between 13 and 26 percent.

Satellites talking to ocean buoys, ground-based stations and air-quality sensors will give us a view of Earth unlike any we’ve ever seen.

But while there are thousands of moored and free-floating data buoys in the world’s oceans, thousands of land-based environmental stations and more than 50 environmental satellites orbiting the globe — all providing millions of datasets — most of these technologies do not yet talk to each other. The true test will come in connecting all the dots and making these separate pieces work together as one seamless system.

Once we determine what pieces are needed to develop systems to meet the program’s goals, the task will be to develop an architecture for the immense job of data management and to work each of these individual systems into a completely integrated “system of systems.” Satellites talking to ocean buoys, ground-based stations and air-quality sensors will give us a view of Earth unlike any we’ve ever seen. We will be able to take the pulse of the planet everywhere.

From saving lives and stabilizing world markets to conserving resources and reducing infectious outbreaks, there is hardly a corner of the planet that will not be dramatically affected by the power of this system. Given its potential, it is not out of line to consider it alongside other epoch-shifting events, such as the age of steam, the industrial revolution or the advent of the Internet.

The potential is great and it is real. Even with such great promise, however, we will not achieve success in this venture easily. It will require years of work by many of the world’s greatest minds, with historic international collaboration.

The process to develop the Global Earth Observation System of Systems is now just over a year old, and the international participation is stunning. Currently, 51 countries are aboard for this historic effort and the list keeps growing. Countries as geographically different as Russia and Sudan, as economically different as Germany and Nepal and as culturally different as Ireland and India are working together to make this system a reality. In today’s geopolitical climate, that kind of international cooperation can only be interpreted as a consensus on the value and benefit of this global effort.

As part of this effort, the United States recently completed its draft strategic plan for developing a U.S. system that will eventually be linked to the rest of the world. Fifteen federal agencies and three White House offices collaborated to develop the U.S. plan and decided to focus on nine societal benefits the observing system could achieve.

The resulting areas of benefit are improving weather forecasting, understanding climate variability, protecting ocean resources, reducing life and property loss from natural disasters, supporting sustainable agriculture, understanding environmental factors of human health, developing the ability to make ecological forecasts, protecting water resources, and managing energy resources. These areas give us a firm base from which to start developing the U.S. observing system and eventually a global one. We will first study what systems will help us achieve each of the listed benefit areas and where gaps may exist. In many cases a great deal of the pieces are already in place.

This is an amazing time to be involved in any scientific discipline. From the life sciences and earth sciences to areas such as economics, science policy and education, the development of a global observation system will fundamentally change our understanding of the world and our place in it.

The system, however, only will reach its full potential if it completely meets the needs of those who will use it. Therefore, it is critically important that scientists, educators, policy-makers and business leaders review the draft U.S. plan and offer their ideas and insights.

Our imagination is our only limitation to innovation as we move ahead on this project that offers so much promise for scientific knowledge and everyday life. With a complete system in place, we can travel through the next century with far greater safety, confidence and prosperity.

Lautenbacher is the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

GEOSS draft plan (link to NASA Web site with link to PDF document)

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