Post-Cold-War Partners: Spies And Scientists
ECO-EYE IN THE SKY
For decades, US spy satellites, surveillance planes, and naval vessels have crisscrossed the earth, keeping tabs on critical regions and enemies. In the process, they have gathered much more than snapshots of military bases.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The mountains of intelligence also contain a treasure trove of data on the global environment: a statistical and pictorial chronicle of such phenomena as radioactive contamination in the Arctic, ocean temperature fluctuations, and the ebb of forests and flow of deserts.
Once reserved for wartime use, this top-secret database is now being tapped into by a select team of US scientists. It is a cold-war dividend from the billions of dollars spent by the Pentagon and CIA to build a world-class surveillance system.
The data and equipment now made available to the group of scientists represent important new tools for understanding the human and natural forces shaping the global environment. They could lead to breakthroughs in weather prediction, global-warming documentation, and the tracking of deforestation, as well as the development of new methods for protecting vulnerable ecosystems and warning of potential disasters, officials say.
But some in the intelligence community are concerned that granting scientists access to what was once the domain of CIA and military analysts could interfere with intelligence-gathering goals. And some scientists question how useful the collected data will be.
The task of organizing this newly available information belongs to some 70 scientists from academia, the private sector, and civilian-government agencies that have formed the Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis (MEDEA) team. The group is an outgrowth of an initiative by Vice President Al Gore and is overseen by the CIA.
Among other projects, the group is culling and archiving secret environmental data so it can be efficiently accessed by scientists and others when it is declassified by law in the next century. MEDEA has already used some of the data to aid rescue efforts in recent natural disasters.
MEDEA is also refining and expanding the collection of data. Since its inception in 1994, it has been using spy satellites to regularly monitor selected sites around the world, such as glaciers, high-altitude forests, and coastal wetlands. The studies will build an even clearer record over coming decades of incremental environmental changes that could bolster global-warming research.
"Our challenge is whether we can identify change as a result of human activity. This is an opportunity to obtain a whole new archive," says Michael McElroy, chairman of MEDEA and head of Harvard University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
Finally, in an extraordinary example of post-cold-war cooperation, MEDEA is joining Russian environmental initiatives. MEDEA has "sanitized" US data to conceal intelligence-gathering secrets. The resulting data are being combined with similar information from MEDEA's Russian counterpart. In their most ambitious effort to date, the two sides will soon release a compact disc containing the most comprehensive oceanographic atlas of the Arctic ever produced.
The digitized atlas comprises more than 2 million observations made between 1947 and 1993 by Russian ice stations and ships and data from US submarines and surveillance buoys. Those who have seen it say it will double the knowledge in the public domain - especially concerning the massive Arctic Ocean mechanisms that help produce the world's weather. It will also bolster efforts to monitor the migration toward US and Canadian waters of radioactive pollutants that Russian nuclear plants dumped into Arctic rivers.
Two other digitized Arctic atlases are being developed: one of meteorology, the other of sea ice.
"One of the big mysteries we have is the role of the Arctic in global climate," says James Baker, director of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. "All things being equal, you would expect to see global warming first in the Arctic, and yet it is not showing much change. Why is that? By having that data, it will allow us to understand how the global climate system works."