WASHINGTON — 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.
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."
The CIA has long used satellites to track droughts in Africa and the exploitation of natural resources, such as Middle Eastern oil and crops in the former Soviet Union and China. But such surveillance was to assist US officials in predicting economic and political impacts, not environmental.
Similarly, the Navy has built the world's greatest archive of oceanographic data. But the service collected measurements of ocean temperatures, salinity, and current for the purpose of operating its submarines and gaining knowledge of areas it might have to go to war in - not to monitor the environment.
To those involved, MEDEA represents a new use for environmental intelligence, a "peace dividend" from the end of the cold war. Requiring minimal expenditures, it capitalizes on the estimated $100 billion invested over the past 36 years in "black" programs like surveillance satellites and high-flying U-2 and SR-70 spy planes.
"It is defense conversion writ large," says Dr. Baker.
Intelligence officials concede that some in their community are uncomfortable about using US intelligence-gathering systems for purposes other than national security. But a CIA official explains that they are employed for MEDEA mostly at off-peak hours: "We ... constantly attempt to enforce that ... [MEDEA] will not hinder the use of these systems," he says. "Does everybody in the whole rank and file believe that 100 percent? I'm not sure."
Additionally, it is difficult to obtain independent evaluations of MEDEA. Few experts outside academia and government have heard of the group, even though its existence is not classified. Those who do know about it say its value is difficult to assess because it has released very little of its work.
"These guys disappeared behind the green door a few years ago and haven't been heard from since," says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "From the few things that have come out, it's very hard to figure out if this is 'greatest hits' or a tip of the iceberg."
The quality of the collected data is also in doubt, Dr. Pike says. "It is very rare that you get any kind of scientific data set that is extraordinary. Most data is boring and most science not newsworthy."
But MEDEA's Professor McElroy contends there are important advantages in being able to use the government's surveillance systems for environmental research. One is that they are so much more advanced than commercial systems.
"One very sensitive indicator of climate change would be movements of vegetation systems on mountains or mountain glaciers. Getting that kind of information is not easy," he explains. "Often you are dealing with fairly harsh environments. In order to see changes that are quite subtle you often need high resolution detection systems. That's where [the government] can be a real boon."
While the precision of US surveillance systems is a closely held secret, some experts believe they can focus on individual trees. That could be useful in a MEDEA study of the long-term growth patterns of forests in Siberia, Alaska, and on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Data obtained in the study, says McElroy, should help validate models predicting the effects of global warming caused by the atmospheric buildup of human "greenhouse" gases. "Predictions on global warming suggest that you may see amplified effects at high altitudes," he says.
The study is being bolstered by US-Russian exchanges of data derived from cold-war satellite photos. In focusing on Soviet military bases in Siberia, US lenses accumulated a chronological record of encircling forests; Soviet satellites captured the environs around US bases in Alaska.
Another area selected by MEDEA for monitoring is the northern edge of the Sahara. Scientists hope that tracking the movement over time of vegetation on the desert's fringe will help unlock the mystery of the birth of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes.
"We can really begin to understand profound questions about our global climate, about global warming, and open a new set of optics about the fundamentals of the future of the planet," says an administration official of the data produced by MEDEA.