Global Earth Observing System of Systems Wins 10 Year Mandate

BRUSSELS, Belgium, February 17, 2005 (ENS) - At the Third Earth Observation Summit here Wednesday representatives of 54 nations and over 40 international organizations endorsed a 10 year plan that details concrete steps towards comprehensive cooperation for Earth observation.

The Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) brings together many of the nations and agencies that have been using Earth observation tools independently. In the past, cooperation has been limited, but now with many countries and organizations agreeing to work together to collect and share data from individual systems, the benefits of Earth observation are expected to multiply and will be available to citizens around the globe.

"It is very fitting that we are today, on the date of entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol, launching a system that will greatly enhance our understanding of the environment and will hopefully help us to do what we can to improve it," said European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, who delivered the opening address to the summit.

Gaining a better understanding of climate change trends and their impact by pooling scientific information is a key interest of GEOSS participants. This spring the European Space Agency plans to launch CryoSat as the first satellite in the agency’s Living Planet Programme a mission that responds to the issue of climate change and its effect on the Earth’s polar ice masses.

A precision radar altimeter has been designed to determine rates of change in the thickness of polar ice sheets and floating sea ice. This data will help improve understanding of the relationship between the Earth’s ice cover and global climate.


The hardware that does the work, a SAR/Interferometric Radar Altimeter designed to measure the thickness of polar ice. This instrument will be aboard a new European environmental satellite, CryoSat. (Photo courtesy ESA)
CryoSat is due to be shipped to the launch site in Plesetsk, Russia in mid-February to be readied for launch, which is scheduled for March 25.

GEOSS will be a system of systems such as the European Space Agency that now exist or will be created in the future. It will supplement but not supplant each system’s own mandates and governance arrangements.

The GEOSS 10 year agreement will provide the overall conceptual and organizational framework for global Earth observation to meet users' needs. It will provide the institutional mechanisms for ensuring the coordination and strengthening of existing global Earth observation systems. GEOSS will build on the success of Earth observation research programs, and facilitate the practical use of these systems.

Dimas said, "Collecting and managing observation data is an expensive business, so acting globally and sharing the information freely - between stakeholders, between governments, between institutions and with the public - ensures that scarce resources are used as efficiently as possible, reducing overlap and double-funding."

"By adopting an implementation plan for the GEOSS, we have accomplished the first phase of realizing our goal of developing a comprehensive, integrated and sustained Earth Observation System so that the world can better predict weather and climate, prepare for natural hazards and protect people and property. Today's action is a true milestone," said U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who is heading the U.S. delegation to the Earth Observation Summit.


Louisiana's Atchafalaya River, seen from space, diverts large quantities of sediment from the Mississippi River to Atchafalaya Bay. (Photo courtesy NASA)
"Over the next decade, I believe we will look back at this period, at the beginnings of GEOSS, and recognize what an enormous turning point it represents in the scientific understanding of our planet," said Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


Retired Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"The goal of the United States, and every country participating in GEOSS, is to ensure that this understanding leads to improved operational capabilities that will be put to work for the benefit of people throughout the world and the economies they depend on," he said.

Lautenbacher is one of four international co-chairs of the Group on Earth Observations. Also co-chairing are Achilleas Mitsos, director general for research, European Commission, which hosted the Brussels summit; Tetuhisa Shirakawa, deputy minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, Japan; and Dr. Rob Adam, director-general of science and technology, South Africa.

"The tsunami disaster has shown us just how important Earth observation can be, by providing invaluable data to support the immediate humanitarian response and now reconstruction," said European Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik.


Janez Potocnik of Slovenia is European Commissioner for Science and Research (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
In addition to serving to mitigate tsunamis and other natural disasters, GEOSS will allow winter weather forecasts months in advance, better climate forecasts, dramatic cuts in energy costs, predictions of where and when outbreaks of malaria, SARS and West Nile virus are likely to hit, and more effective monitoring of air quality and wildfires.

"Global problems need global solutions," Potocnik said. "By working together across the world to interlink all our earth observation systems, whether in space, in the air or on the ground, we will be giving ourselves the instruments to tackle these problems more effectively."

NOAA has been monitoring the Earth's environment for more than 30 years with tens of thousands of sensors in more than 100 observing systems from satellites to marine sonars to human observations of marine mammal populations. As part of its participation in the Global Earth Observing System of Systems, NOAA has developed a new website that provides a comprehensive description of all of its observing systems.


Marine scientists deploy NOAA's undersea laboratory, Hydrolab, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The Brussels Earth Observation Summit is the third in the series, following the Washington Earth Observing Summit in July 2003 and the Tokyo Summit of April 2004. The event takes place within the context of Earth & Space Week, sponsored by the European Union and the European Space Agency covering nine days of public exhibitions and activities, showcasing Earth observation and space.

As part of its GEOSS effort, the European Commission Wednesday launched a dedicated Environmental Information System based on satellite and computer mapping technologies. This tool, developed by the Joint Research Centre, supports EU development activities in Africa, by providing information on food needs, helping the European Commission Humanitarian Office provide aid in the aftermath of natural disasters and other emergencies, and assisting long term development through sustainable management of natural resources.

As the world’s largest donor of development aid, the European Union has, over the last decade of research, used satellite imagery, maps, statistics and computer models to address diverse environmental monitoring issues. In the process, strong links have been established with UN agencies, with counterparts throughout the developing world, as well as space agencies and other data providers.

The European Commission is using this experience to create an Environmental Information System for Africa.

Africa has 17 percent of the world’s forest, at least 20 percent of its grassland and 11 percent of wetlands. Changes, such as the burning of much of the grassland each year, affect Africa and the global environment, especially the climate.


South African scientist studies species frequency as related to climate change for the 3rd Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Photo courtesy National Botanical Institute SA)
The rural peoples of Africa are some of the most vulnerable to climate change; they have little adaptive capacity and are among the worst affected by droughts, floods and storms; their agriculture, forestry and livestock too are all sensitive to climate.

Environmental measurements help determine Africa’s role in the global climate system, and highlight how climate change will affect the ecosystem services the poorest rely upon.

The European Commission and European Space Agency have launched an initiative to establish, by 2008, a European capacity for global monitoring for environment and security (GMES) to support the EU’s political goals regarding sustainable development and global governance.

"It is the developing countries that have the most to gain from the setting up of a global Earth Observation system," said Rob Adam, South Africa’s director general of the Department of Science and Technology and GEO co-chair. "The lack of such makes it terribly difficult to adequately deal with the developing world’s economic, environmental and humanitarian challenges."

"In developing nations, many of which lack strong traditions in cartography and mapping," Adam said, "Earth observation technologies have proven essential tools for addressing public policy issues such as deforestation, urban planning, agricultural production and environmental assessment."