The View From Here

The View From Here

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

The grim statistics become more precise daily. The massive (7.9 on the Richter scale) earthquake that hit Sichuan province on May 12 has affected millions of Chinese - more than 60,000 dead, more than 26,000 still missing, 353,290 known injured and as many as five million left homeless. In Myanmar, where Cyclone Nargis struck a month ago, 130,000 are dead or missing and two million are homeless.

These twin tragedies underscore the critical importance of a major global space effort that hasn't gotten anywhere near the press it deserves, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). This emerging public infrastructure, 'system of systems,' is interconnecting a diverse and growing array of instruments and systems for monitoring and forecasting changes in the global environment. Satellites that will be linked into the diverse GEOSS sensor mix gave forecasters the first data on the formation of Nargis and aided in tracking the killer cyclone. Additional satellites gave the world its first images with which to assess the devastation in Myanmar and Sichuan.

These satellites are in both equatorial and polar orbits provide a wide variety of Earth observation imagery and data. And before anyone starts gloating about how nice it is that our satellites allow us to see what's going on in places like China and Myanmar, make a note that China itself is part of GEOSS. Earth-imaging satellites built and operated by the Chinese in collaboration with Brazil will be part of GEOSS, with two currently in orbit and two more set to launch in the next three years. These satellites make constant real-time imagery available, for free, to any GEOSS member country that can downlink from the satellites as they pass overhead. Member countries without a domestic downlink need only wait a bit before they can download the imagery, free, over the internet through a GEOSS data processing center in Germany.

As Germany's contribution suggests, there's a lot more to GEOSS than satellites and there are many countries involved. While the U.S. is taking a primary role (some 15 federal agencies, with NOAA in the lead, are involved), the 'G' in GEOSS really does stand for Global. At the first global Earth observation summit in 2003, GEOSS was launched and the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) was tasked to develop the GEOSS framework. Working as a voluntary alliance where each nation or organization contributes whatever is within its means, GEO which now includes more than 70 nations, the European Commission, and 40 international organizations, and has framed a 10-year implementation plan for GEOSS. Its aims are far more visionary than just giving us a look at tragedies in progress. Linking together existing and planned observing systems around the world, GEOSS will not only provide decision makers access to data and information, it will facilitate more predictive capabilities. GEOSS is working to address nine areas of critical importance to humanity.

  • Improved weather forecasting
  • Reduced loss of life and property from disasters
  • Understand, assess, predict, mitigate, and adapt to climate change
  • Support sustainable agriculture and forestry and combat land degradation
  • Understand environmental impacts on human health
  • Develop capacity for ecological forecasting
  • Protect and monitor water resources
  • Monitor and manage energy resources
  • Improved biodiversity conservation

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, GEOSS holds the potential to shape a future in which we can:

  • Forecast next winter's weather months in advance
  • Predict where and when malaria, West Nile virus, SARS and other diseases are likely to strike
  • Reduce U.S. energy costs by about $1 billion yearly
  • More effectively monitor forest fires and predict the effect of air quality on sensitive populations in real time
  • Provide farmers with immediate forecasts essential to maximizing crop yields
  • Predict the pattern of the North American monsoon (I didn't even know there was such a thing as a North American monsoon, but they sure do in Arizona - a state that derives two-thirds of its water from the phenomena.)

But GEOSS is not just a space system - although more than 50 environmental satellites in a wide variety of orbits provide millions of data sets for GEOSS; commercial satellites provide some of the communication backbone for GEOSS; and GPS satellites provide the precision timing signals that enable the terrestrial GEOSS computer networks and internet nodes to talk to each other. There are also thousands of land-based environmental stations and thousands of moored and free-floating ocean buoys plugged in (many by satellite, of course) providing millions of additional data sets to GEOSS.

The trick now is to make all the parts and pieces talk to each other - to synthesize the babble of all these systems, which were independently and individually conceived, developed, built, owned, and operated, into a seamless system-of-systems. Through the GEO, progress on GEOSS is being made on a daily basis.

When GEOSS reaches its full fruition, the planetary good of this space-essential system will be mind-boggling. In the U.S. alone, about $1.7 billion in weather-related aviation delays can be avoided. For every degree (Fahrenheit) we can more accurately forecast weather, we can save a billion dollars in annual energy costs, and with accurate long-lead weather forecasts, operating efficiency can be improved for weather-sensitive industries that account for one-third of the nation's GDP, or about $3 trillion.

Now, extend those benefits to every country on the planet.

Imagine having weeks, rather than hours, to prepare for the next Cyclone Nargis. Or that Holy Grail of seismologists - the ability to forecast the next killer earthquake before it hits.

Nor should we lose sight of the tremendous geopolitical significance of GEOSS. Thanks to this remarkable effort, countless human beings from all around the planet, from every kind of background, culture, race, religion, national origin, socio-economic, and political system are working together for the common good. It is precisely this kind of collaborative global effort that can help bring people together to promote understanding, acceptance, and eventually friendship and peace. It should not go un-noticed that despite all the recent tension between China and the U.S., we are collaborating on GEOSS; nor should it go un-noticed that among the first flights of international aid to reach Sichuan province were U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jets, tasked by Pacific Air Forces, in a fledgling U.S.-China military-to-military operation.

The view from here is that there is currently no more important effort in international space collaboration than GEOSS. It serves as a potential model for future international space ventures, and as a shining beacon of how what we do in space really can improve life for every living being on the home planet.

This article is part of Space Watch: June 2008 (Volume: 7, Issue: 6).