BRUSSELS -- Nearly 60 nations signed a 10-year program to tighten international coordination on Earth observation to include common standards and improved maintenance for ground-based sensors and reduced duplication of satellite capacity.

Meeting here Feb. 16 as part of the Third Earth Observation Summit, these countries have committed themselves to work harder to assure that technologies already available and operating in many places are extended worldwide.

Uppermost on the minds of many government representatives was the Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which killed an estimated 240,000 in Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere.

Had ocean buoys already in place in the Atlantic and Pacific ocean regions been installed in the Indian Ocean, the number of casualties could have been much lower, officials said.

The 10-year implementation plan for what is called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) establishes a small secretariat to be housed by the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. It is not legally binding, but backers hope it will raise public awareness in such a way as to pressure governments to honor their commitments.

If GEOSS is successful, it will lead to the following changes in the way both developed and developing nations approach Earth observation for disaster monitoring and other purposes:

  • The developed nations that launch Earth observation satellites will coordinate among themselves to fill in any gaps in the availability of specific types of needed sensors following the advice of an international advisory board. Sponsoring nations will select from among a common list of priorities for Earth-observation payloads.
  • The developing nations that are responsible for installing and maintaining land- or sea-based sensors, including those designed to provide early warning for volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other violent natural phenomena, will keep these sensors up to date. The hardware will be equipped with standardized software enabling the buoys to send information to overhead satellites in a timely fashion.

Government officials said one common problem today is that a nation will deploy buoys in its territorial waters but refrain from making them capable of communicating internationally. "Basically, they are viewed as national assets to send data to national authorities," said Conrad C. Lautenbacher, administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "They simply don't communicate beyond their borders."

  • Standard communications interfaces will be used globally to assure that, for example, environmental data sent over the Internet by Brazilian authorities is easily understood in Thailand.
  • In the event any nation is unable to deploy or maintain a minimum amount of data-collection stations deemed necessary, an automatic formula will be applied to finance the investment. In most cases this will be small-scale investment in ground-, air- or sea-based hardware.

GEOSS began taking shape at the First Earth Observation Summit held in July 2003 in Washington.

Achilleas Mitsos, director-general for research at the European Union Commission, which hosted the Feb. 15-16 summit, said GEOSS is designed to maximize the use of available assets.

"We don't envision that this will cost much money," Mitsos said. "What we need is a much better integration of existing information. It's things like GMES that cost a lot of money, but that kind of investment is not made by GEOSS."

Mitsos was referring to the European Union's proposed Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program, which will be Europe's principal contribution to GEOSS.

Borrowing terminology from the defense sector, government officials said they were aiming at a network-centric system of systems that will cause national or regional efforts already underway or planned to act in concert.

Toshio Kojima, Japan's senior vice minister for education, culture, sports, science and technology, said the 10-year plan adopted here was remarkable for the level of backing given by so many nations less than two years after Washington summit.

"Developing countries have learned that they should expect not just to receive technology from us, but also to participate" by agreeing to measures they are best-placed to adopt, Kojima said.

Mosibudi Mangena, South African science and technology minister, said the summit was a success because of the shared view of rich and poor nations alike. South Africa represented the developing world in the meetings leading up to the summit.

"For the first time the views of the developing world are really represented," Mangena said. "For the developed world, the challenge is to coordinate data from their systems. As for us -- we have to establish our own Earth observation systems."

The GEOSS signatories agreed to set timetables at regular intervals in the 10-year implementation period to assess progress. The first one comes in two years. Among the first goals is to establish and maintain a predetermined number of sites for in-situ measuring networks.