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The Earth Observation Summit held this summer in Washington, D.C., inaugurated a collaborative research effort by more than 30 nations to do just that: observe Earth in order to study its global climate and how it changes, while learning more about how the planet’s ocean, air and land systems interact.

Earth observing systems already exist in many developed countries, particularly in the European Union, the United States and Japan, where space-based satellites have provided global snapshots of Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. However, smaller and less technologically developed countries want future efforts to be a collaboration, rather than dominated by already-existing programs, says Chip Groat, head of the U.S. Geological Survey and delegate to the summit.

This first Earth Observation Summit began with a political meeting held on July 31, attended by ministers and cabinet-level officials from countries around the world. A two-day scientific session immediately followed to draft an Earth Observation plan. The summit concluded with completion of a mission statement and a 10-year implementation plan. Scientists and policy-makers who met in the scientific session debated the first issues to address. One important task will be determining what information individual countries need, in addition to complex technical issues surrounding the infrastructure of such an endeavor.

Groat says that the half dozen committees working on the Earth Observation plan will examine existing networks to “see how they work, and to see what data gaps … need to be filled.” For example, an existing global seismic network could serve as a model for a comparable water database that would contain hydrologic models, stream gauge data and other information. However, technology gaps mean that access to systems, Groat says, “varies tremendously around the world, and even from state to state in this country.” Conventionalizing such systems and adding in situ observational systems for ground, water and air will particularly benefit those countries that do not have the technology to use the space-based systems already functioning, Groat says.

However, the international community has voiced some skepticism over the impetus for the Earth Observation Summit, which is sponsored by the Bush administration as part of its Climate Change Research Initiative. Environmental groups and other countries that have signed international treaties on global climate change, such as the Kyoto Protocol, are pushing for action instead of more research on the issue.

Some scientists also remain skeptical. “Is this a red herring to give us more money to go out and keep measuring things, instead of doing something about it?” says Paul Falkowski, a biological oceanographer at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J. More data, he says, will not change the position of a majority of scientists that current global climate changes are human-driven.

Nevertheless, Falkowski says, earth observation systems are an extremely valuable tool, and he would be pleased to see “one-stop shopping” in a centralized database. Integrating data from existing systems already has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. “We have huge libraries of data of the globe in this country and certainly in Europe,” he says. “Sitting at a computer in Venezuela, you can access data from NASA Goddard, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, or even my own Web site.” But translating formats and other technological issues consumes valuable research time.

That’s what the Earth Observation plan is all about, says Rick Ohlemacher, policy advisor to Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, who is undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and currently a co-chair of the Earth Observation Summit. “It will take a lot of the pieces and put them together.” So far, Ohlemacher says, funding remains in question, until the countries involved resolve issues of technology infrastructure and administration of the project. The planning committees will meet again at the end of November in Italy, and the next summit will convene in Japan in May 2004.

Naomi Lubick

Links:
Earth Observation home page

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