International 10 Year Plan for Earth Observation Takes Shape

TOKYO, Japan, April 20, 2004 (ENS) - Forty-seven countries and the European Commission are set to convene in Tokyo Sunday to adopt a 10 year plan for collaboration on observing the planet. Their goal is to establish an international, comprehensive, coordinated and sustained Earth observation system.

Earth observation covers all terrestrial, airborne and space observations to enable better understanding of the planet, including concerns such as climate change.

The first Earth Observation Summit, hosted by the United States last July, attracted 33 countries and the EU. The ministerial level summit in Tokyo builds on that meeting, and fulfills a commitment made last year by the G-8 industralized countries. The outcome will feed directly into the G-8 meeting in June in Georgia.

“The summit will set us on a path to take the pulse of the planet,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt, who will lead the U.S. delegation. “The system will provide us with the tools to protect people, the planet and prosperity.”

The U.S. delegation will include Dr. John Marburger, the president’s science adviser, and Retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lautenbacher is one of four co-chairs of the Group on Earth Observations.


An artist's concept of the European Space Agency's ACE+ space mission now on the drawing board. (Photo courtesy European Space Agency)
Other co-chairs are Dr. Achilleas Mitsos, director general for research, European Commission; Akio Yuki, deputy minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, Japan; and Dr. Rob Adam, director-general of the Department of Science and Technology, South Africa.

The framework for a 10 year implementation plan will be presented for adoption in Tokyo. Over the past nine months the plan has been drafted at a series of meetings by a senior level intergovernmental group drawn from the participating countries of the Earth Observation Summit, the Intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO).

The fourth GEO meeting opened today in Tokyo in preparation for Sunday's Summit. The GEO draft outline for the implementation plan focuses on action. The objective is "to focus the senior people on making decisions on specific issues, rather than endorsing a pretty text," the Plan Task Team wrote. They outlined three categories of actions: short-term, low cost fixes, such as using new standards to improve interoperability, or new GEO products from existing systems; more difficult, higher cost issues such as new missions; and organizational issues both short term and long term.

The GEO Plan Task Team will present to the Summit a proposal for the minimum viable secretariat team or project office needed to ensure implementation at least in the initial follow-on phase.

Much of the team's presentation will focus on nine benefits to society from the Earth observation system. These are defined as:

“The new network will yield the potential for such breakthrough achievements as telling us what next year’s winter weather will be like; indicating where the next outbreaks of West Nile, malaria and other infectious diseases will hit; and, in the U.S. alone, saving at least $1 billion yearly in energy costs, among innumerable other vital benefits worldwide,” said Lautenbacher.


A second wave of flooding on the Zambezi River pushed south toward Lake Liambezi April 17. The lake has been dry since 1985. This year’s floods have affected some 50,000 people and are being called the worst floods the region has seen since 1958. (Image courtesy Jesse Allen, based on data from the MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
To achieve these benefits, the GEO Plan Task Team is preparing the outline of elements for a "System of Systems." This section describes linked components and how they articulate; what exists and what must be created; where and who the hosts should be of various parts. In situ elements for land, ice, seas, freshwater, atmosphere; space based components; models; databases; product-generating components; interfaces to the world, users and data suppliers; capacity building elements; technical and standards-generating panels.

The goal of a linked global system is to finally understand how forces in one part of the globe will affect nearby and distant regions.

Many thousands of individual technological resources around the globe are already at work - estimating crop yields, monitoring water and air quality, and improving airline safety. But what systems are still needed and who will pay for putting them in place are some questions that are expected to find answers in Tokyo.

An insight into what kinds of systems are being considered for launch is available today at the European Space Agency's establishment in Frascati, near Rome. There the ESA Directorate of Earth Observation is holding an Earth Explorer User Consultation Meeting to conduct scientific and technical evaluations of the six candidates for the next generation of Earth Explorer space missions. They are being presented and discussed by leading scientists from the European Earth science community.

One candidate is EarthCARE – Earth Clouds Aerosols and Radiation Explorer – which would send instruments into space to improve understanding of the Earth’s radiative balance in climate and numerical weather forecast models by acquiring vertical profiles of clouds and aerosols, as well as the radiances at the top of the atmosphere.

Another candidate is SPECTRA – Surface Processes and Ecosystem Changes Through Response Analysis. From a near-polar orbit 670 kilometers above the Earth's surface, SPECTRA will collect data over a selection of regions representative of all the Earth’s major biomes. The purpose of this mission is to describe, understand and model the role of terrestrial vegetation in the global carbon cycle and its response to climate variability under the increasing pressure of human activity.

A third candidate is ACE+ – Atmosphere and Climate Explorer – which aims to establish highly accurate measurements of humidity and temperature in the troposphere and the stratosphere for climate trend observations.

The information these and other systems can provide is more than theoretical. With some $3 trillion of U.S. GDP affected by climate and weather, including the agriculture, energy, construction, travel and transportation industry sectors, there are powerful economic as well as environmental incentives for gaining a greater understanding of these phenomena.

“The U.S. and our international partners have made significant strides in putting systems in place to monitor the Earth, but crucial data gaps remain,” said Commerce Secretary Don Evans at the close of last July's Earth Observation Summit.

“The world’s oceans cover 70 percent of the planet and drive climate trends that affect every nation of the globe, yet they are sparsely monitored and poorly understood. The Earth Observation Summit creates an international coalition to address emerging global issues and lays the groundwork for improved environmental decision-making and economic growth and prosperity,” Evans said.

The observations will have to produce practical results within a structured time frame. The GEO Plan Task Team will present a number of key target dates that they call "challenging but achievable," the observance of which will be a first demonstration that the Plan is starting to have a positive effect.

Two baseline levels of performance assessment can be set out. First, whether the GEO process is improving the observational network, the data usability, and the collection and dissemination of data. These can be established using straightforward metrics, and can be assessed in the short term;

Second, if GEO is making a difference to the needs of society for this information. That will take longer, but it is essential. The reason for the entire exercise is to make people and economies around the world healthier and safer.