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New Eyes in the Sky, Land and Sea
Naomi Lubick

Weather, water, disease and more

Weather forecasters once relied on human observations, recorded in long-maintained historical sources, to painstakingly calculate incoming weather patterns. They used a mix of statistics and gut-level instincts colored by experience. Today’s weather prediction models — calculated by computers using algorithms — rely on data collected by an army of satellites and ground-based measuring devices. These machine observers provide a wealth of information around the globe, but even they remain spotty in their coverage.

A buoy in NOAA’s equatorial Atlas TOGA-TAO array, used to track El Niño or La Niña events by measuring depth profiles of ocean temperature, underwent maintenance in 1999. The Global Earth Observing System of Systems will facilitate data sharing among those scientists who use buoy data, among other information. Image courtesy of Lieutenant Mark Boland, NOAA Corps.

An international effort is under way to fill in the gaps in weather and climate data through the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS). But its mission is broader than just weather: The undertaking will provide links to data around the world, from ocean hydrophones to the dozens of satellites circling the planet. Following on the coattails of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which spearheaded modern international data-sharing efforts in the 1950s, almost 60 countries and over 40 international organizations have agreed to set up a huge infrastructure within less than a decade. The idea is for data to flow freely across national borders, just like the weather.

Some observers say that such an endeavor will have amazing benefits if it can get off the ground. The consortium’s participants have only recently hammered out their priorities for research in a wide array of earth science fields, and their goals eventually should be used to guide participating countries’ future investments in science, infrastructure such as satellites, and other elements that GEOSS members will eventually identify. Intended for use in hazards reduction and sustainable development, GEOSS could potentially benefit the meteorological community as well.

Data sharing

More than 150 years ago, WMO started to forge data-sharing agreements to patch together the bits and pieces of information collected by many nations. Temperature records, for example, kept by local governments, as well as those reported on ships crossing oceans, became elements of the catalog. The complexities of data sharing meant determining protocols not only on how to collect it, but also how to format it (for example, ship captains followed rigorous rules in their notations), not to mention how to deliver it. Today, “metadata” describe just exactly what the numbers represent and how they are stored, the data’s original source, and sometimes how to correct them — preferably in electronic databases accessible via the Internet.

In the beginning, “weather data were not really worth anything,” says Paul N. Edwards, a historian at the School of Information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “The transmission was not fast enough” — sometimes taking months to mail from stations around the planet, and even longer to finally publish — “and the quality was very poor,” he says. In addition to those conditions, the state of forecasting made the data economically and politically unimportant, so countries didn’t bother to control the information flow.

Nevertheless, the growing meteorological community established a philosophy of worldwide cooperation, Edwards says. Through WMO, an autonomous body that cooperates with the United Nations, countries can get certain datasets from each other easily, due to shared protocols and simplified politics as a result of longstanding agreements. And now the data have proven to be very important, economically and politically, as science and technology have improved forecasting abilities.

“You’ve got a very blurred distinction now between weather and climate” forecasting, says Elbert Friday, former head of the U.S. National Weather Service and now at the Sasaki Applied Meteorology Research Institute at the University of Oklahoma. “Long-range weather forecasting” used to mean two weeks, or a month. “Some people now call that a ‘short-range climate forecast,’” he says, something that took off starting with the demand for more accurate weather forecasts in the Vietnam War. At the time, when Friday was serving as the last U.S. weatherman stationed in Vietnam, the best estimates of weather were “very crude,” he says. Today, people expect National Weather Service models to kick out forecasts reliable to the hour.

The success in climate and weather models started in the 1980s with advances in computing power. Forecasters now rely on more densely packed datasets, and they need data on many parameters both to describe the starting point of a system (initial conditions) and to update a model as it runs (data assimilation). Of course, the more accurate the data, the more accurate the predictions, says Marshall Shepherd of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is the deputy project scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, expected to launch by 2011 — a part of the GEOSS era.

More real-time data worldwide would “improve our ability to resolve these processes at the timescales at which they occur,” Shepherd says, whether using the soon-to-be-completed Indian Ocean tsunami buoy system to track a large wave moving across the ocean, or ocean surface temperatures to forecast the development of a hurricane. As seen with recent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami, “more data, at the right time and space scales, could be very valuable for assessment, prediction, or recovery,” he says.

Gap filling

GEOSS eventually should serve as a conduit for getting more data from around the world to fit into weather and climate modeling efforts. As new satellites or ground-based observations are made in a variety of fields, they will be put online or otherwise made available to a variety of users. Researchers see several areas where such an infrastructure could fill in gaps.

Boeing employees check a geostationary satellite, the GOES-N, before its launch earlier this year. The satellite, along with its predecessors, is sponsored by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and makes measurements for use in weather, solar and space science. Image courtesy of NASA Kennedy Space Center.

For hurricanes, “one of our main ways of improving the prediction of the path and intensity of the hurricane is not only monitoring the hurricane itself but also its environment,” Shepherd says. One of the primary reasons Hurricane Katrina became so large so fast was because the Gulf of Mexico waters were a couple of degrees warmer than average. Forecasters were still able to accurately anticipate where the hurricane would travel and its ultimate size. Still, they need data “to resolve small gradients or changes in sea-surface temperature, wind shear, convection, and other variables that influence the intensity of such storms,” Shepherd says.

Meteorologists say that sea-surface temperatures and wind profiles are the major pieces of data they are missing. Ronald McPherson, emeritus executive director of the American Meteorological Society, says his “personal top priority” over the past two decades has been arguing for the development of atmospheric wind profiles over the world’s oceans.

A network of weather balloons, launched twice daily to track temperature, humidity, pressure and wind on their flights up through the atmosphere, has existed since the 1930s, and has been a “backbone of weather and climate systems, as far as those variables are concerned,” McPherson says. But the stations have mostly been over land, with spotty coverage over the world’s oceans coming from planes and a few satellites tracking cloud movements. Such measurements are “hideously expensive” with current technologies (one weather balloon costs several hundred dollars, for example), and McPherson says that he is hoping that GEOSS will help fill that gap by directing funding from several partner countries to maintain such everyday programs.

In addition to winds, Friday has a wish list that includes details of atmospheric, ocean surface, land surface, and ice and snow conditions. Variations in land surface conditions, for example — whether an area is vegetated, has been recently harvested or has changing soil moisture content — feed back into weather forecasts. “Because all of these [conditions] interplay, weather forecasting is not a simple process,” Friday says. “You can forecast for your own area, maybe by knowing what’s going on in the nearest 100 to 200 to 300 miles. But when you want to know what’s going to happen in the next week, … and in the next season, then you need a global understanding of what’s going on.”

For now, earth-observing efforts consist of individual governments’ activities, sometimes conducted in concert, but in the end, for their own needs. Europe, for example, receives less severe weather than the United States, Friday says, and so European meteorological bureaus focus more on supporting aviation and agriculture. But the data they collect could be more universally useful, GEOSS supporters argue, shared among the meteorological and other science communities for other countries’ purposes.

Problem solving

GEOSS is only in its initial stages, with a 10-year plan under way for completion by 2013. (One of its many committees just embarked on a two-year project to settle on data-sharing protocols.) Initiated by the international community in various meetings under the auspices of the United Nations and Group of 8, and carried most recently by the enthusiasm of Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others for the past five years, the consortium has been housed and sponsored primarily by the United States. Early this year, GEOSS headquarters moved to WMO’s offices in Geneva, Switzerland, but the organization remains outside the United Nations — a potential drawback, according to some observers.

“The challenge will be to ensure the commitment to GEOSS from all the agencies and countries involved, when the organization responsible for implementing it is outside the United Nations system,” says John Zillman, former president of WMO and former director of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Its success ultimately will depend on building “a strong sense of ownership within WMO and the other earth-observing U.N. agencies,” says Zillman, who is now president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. He says that others think it will succeed better initially outside the U.N. framework.

Whether or not GEOSS remains independent, the issues it represents have now been moved “up to the ministerial level, instead of [to] directors of weather services, which is primarily the membership of WMO,” Friday says. That means “that there are national commitments being made” for support and money for Earth observations.

Aside from the politics involved, the new secretariat in charge of GEOSS must oversee a potentially bewildering assortment of efforts. The system requires agreements on formats and protocols for data exchanges, as well as standards for observations — the same as what the meteorology community has agreed to over the past century, but now for the seismology, oceanography, ecology, chemistry, sociology and other communities (see sidebar, opposite page).

The newly chosen GEOSS secretariat must encourage or support countries in their work to launch satellites and maintain ground-based observation systems. In this voluntary alliance, potential problems could occur, for example, with funding issues, such as in the United States, where long-term stream gage data — tracking a key part of the hydrologic cycle and therefore important to weather observations — are perpetually in danger of running dry with the potential loss of funding from Congress and state and local partners. Even within the meteorological community, trends in collecting atmospheric weather balloon data, for example, have not been promising. Over the past several decades, the number of balloons launched has been about halved, according to Friday, particularly in several South American and African countries, which cannot afford to maintain their systems.

The international community also adopted another mission for GEOSS: to pull less-developed countries along with those already in the throes of major observation programs. Such efforts are noble, but also could be partially thwarted. Several countries have already made it clear that they consider both the data and potential products stemming from it to be economically valuable or state secrets. Iraq notably has sequestered its hydrologic and dam data for its rivers for decades. More recently, India’s government banned any monsoon forecasts that might compete with the official one from the India Meteorological Department, telling Nature on July 14 that it was too economically important to be undermined. Such a dictum may be difficult to enforce if nations or foreign companies choose to make their own forecasts.

Meanwhile, the United States and Europe, particularly Britain, have had what McPherson calls “a shaky détente” in the debate over the value of weather and climate observations, and whether governments that make them “should recover all or a portion of the cost.” Unlike in some European countries, in the United States, law requires that information obtained with taxpayer funding be made available “at no more than the cost of making it available,” he says, which created a “bitter divide” between Europe and the United States, “especially in the weather communities.”

“Satellites have made it possible for one country to collect data from the whole world,” Edwards says. “To the extent that this works, you don’t need data from other countries, so you might start to think about selling [data] or restricting access.” Although this creates the possibility that countries might become “highly proprietary” toward their meteorological data, Edwards does not think this shift will be a big problem. “A great beauty of the meteorological system is its long tradition that most data should be freely exchanged.”

National pride or protectionism still could lead some countries to remain outside the GEOSS data-sharing process, but a simpler problem that may leave nations out of the loop is a lack of Internet access, McPherson says, particularly in some African countries and elsewhere where the communications infrastructure is minimal. Although that issue remains a challenge for some of its 187 members, WMO, nevertheless, has managed so far to keep them in the loop, providing and sharing other countries’ data with success.

GEOSS may not have a large impact on weather forecasting “simply because the WMO already has that game sewn up,” says Geoff Love, director of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. But Love says that GEOSS will make a difference: “Put very basically, there are generally few or no international standards for the collection and free exchange of data in areas beyond meteorology,” he says, “and given the way observing, data-exchange and data-management technologies are evolving, it is high time this was done.”

Weather, water, disease and more

Weather forecasting may be one of the most widely recognized products to come from earth observations, but the intention of the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) is to bring together all kinds of information on everything from hazards to sustainable development, with the potential to create ripples across many disciplines, and from the government to the commercial sector.

The most widely cited internationally coordinated project is the tsunami warning system being built in the Indian Ocean and worldwide, which eventually will feed into GEOSS. Organizations such as the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology and the Federation of Digital Broadband Seismic Networks also want to make sure that stationary, land-based data stations — from hydrophones to seismometers, which are a rarity in most parts of the world — are not lost in the shuffle to promote satellite data. Concerns over sharing seismic data have risen from India in particular. Although seismologists already have a data repository that receives real-time information in Vienna, Austria, for tracking explosions under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, some seismologists say that the information is not available fast enough, something GEOSS could potentially foster.

GEOSS also might foster connections between earth sciences and biology, among other fields. Users from the Biological Resources division of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) note that the National Biological Information Infrastructure, a nationwide electronic data-sharing initiative, is a version of GEOSS at a smaller scale and should one day be part of it.

“When you look at biological information, no one federal agency holds the majority,” says Gladys Cotter, associate chief biologist for information at USGS in Reston, Va. In addition to working with federal partners, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Land Management, USGS is working with state and local governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations to gather and store data.

Eventually, the available biological databases will track native species that are endangered as well as encroaching nonnative species — which will benefit or be thwarted by changing weather and climate cycles, something resource managers must track. The researchers also will focus on wildlife disease, particularly with an eye toward animals that may harbor human diseases, such as West Nile Virus or malaria — diseases affected by weather cycles that affect their carrier, mosquitoes (see Geotimes, May 2005). The National Biological Information Infrastructure has partnerships in Central and South America, with national and nongovernmental organizations also providing data.

Another part of the National Biological Information Infrastructure relies on water resources information that USGS already makes available. USGS will add sediment data to the mix, which allows users to track effects of deforestation and indicates dissolved oxygen available for animals and plants. USGS also provides water and hydrological cycle data from stream gages and more, all of which tie back into agricultural, ecosystem and other regional management plans — and all part of weather and climate cycles.

Meanwhile, the companies in developed countries that create the technology to observe all these elements — biological to geological to atmospheric and more — are looking ahead to ensure that their new products are built for “interoperability,” says Paul Turczynski, director of analysis and technology at Boeing in Springfield, Va., who worked on the GOES-N satellite to be launched this year by NASA. The satellite is “the first of the modernized instrument vehicles that will contribute data to the GEOSS system,” he says. Designed for 3-D data collection, 2-D users can still use the data as well.

Boeing is now planning for the next satellite, GOES-R, and Turczynski says that making sure it can “interchange” with other platforms around the world has become “an implicit requirement” in its development. Industry groups such as the Open Geospatial Consortium have worked with Boeing and others on common standards for the collection, processing and distribution of geospatial data, as well as standardizing platform architecture.

Turczynski also predicts that there “will be an emerging market in data transformation,” as researchers and others try to bring old data into sync with the new. “Even though old data isn’t to a certain standard, you still want to use it, especially for climatology.”


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Lubick is a staff writer for Geotimes.

"Malaria Mapping and Prevention," Geotimes, May 2005

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