60 Nations Sign Earth Observation System Agreement

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

Meetinghere Feb. 16 as part of the Third Earth Observation Summit, these countrieshave committed themselves to work harder to assure that technologies alreadyavailable and operating in many places are extended worldwide.

Uppermoston the minds of many government representatives was the Dec. 26 tsunami in theIndian Ocean, which killed an estimated 240,000 in Indonesia,Thailandand elsewhere.

Hadocean buoys already in place in the Atlantic and Pacific oceanregions been installed in the Indian Ocean, thenumber of casualties could have been much lower, officials said.

The10-year implementation plan for what is called the Global Earth ObservationSystem of Systems (GEOSS) establishes a small secretariat to be housed by theWorld Meteorological Organization in Geneva.It is not legally binding, but backers hope it will raise public awareness insuch a way as to pressure governments to honor their commitments.

IfGEOSS is successful, it will lead to the following changes in the way bothdeveloped and developing nations approach Earth observation for disastermonitoring 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.

Governmentofficials said one common problem today is that a nation will deploy buoys inits territorial waters but refrain from making them capable of communicatinginternationally. "Basically, they are viewed as national assets to send data tonational 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.

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

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

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

Mitsos was referringto the European Union's proposed Global Monitoring for Environment and Securityprogram, which will be Europe's principalcontribution to GEOSS.

Borrowingterminology from the defense sector, government officials said they were aimingat a network-centric system of systems that will cause national or regionalefforts already underway or planned to act in concert.

ToshioKojima, Japan's senior vice minister for education, culture, sports, scienceand technology, said the 10-year plan adopted here was remarkable for the levelof backing given by so many nations less than two years after Washingtonsummit.

"Developingcountries have learned that they should expect not just to receive technologyfrom us, but also to participate" by agreeing to measures they are best-placedto 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 poornations alike. South Africarepresented the developing world in the meetings leading up to the summit.

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

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

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Space.com and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at http://www.sciwriter.us