Thursday, world ministers meet in Washington in a historic effort to coordinate data from satellites to deep-sea floats to forecast the planet's environmental changes.
Like restaurateurs watching food-laden plates move from the kitchen to customers, scientists with the US Geological Survey have been watching - and measuring - nitrogen and phosphates pouring down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers into the Gulf of Mexico.Skip to next paragraph
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While algae in the Gulf have been munching on these nutrients, a team of scientists has fed their measurements into computers and announced last Friday the first annual forecast for the Gulf's "dead zone" - a vast region of ocean deprived of dissolved oxygen as the area's algae population explodes, dies, and then decays.
For top federal officials here, the effort is a small-scale example of what they hope will grow into a coordinated, long-term international effort to monitor the environment planet-wide.
Thursday, ministers from 34 nations and several nongovernmental organizations are meeting at the State Department to lay the political foundation for pulling together disparate systems of sensors - from "floats" gathering data deep below the sea surface to satellites in Earth's orbit. The idea is to create a more tightly linked set of tools for tracking and forecasting environmental changes that can affect fisheries, agriculture, water resources, and climate.
If successful, the effort would be historic. Not since scientists around the world marshaled their efforts for a coordinated study of the planet during the International Geophysical Year, which began in July 1957 and involved 67 countries, has the global community put such a plan on the table.
But while a 21st-century global network will pay scientific dividends, "this is not a scientific hobbyhorse," says Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. (ret.), who heads the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is the lead US representative to today's Earth Observation Summit. Any network, he says, must be able to support efforts to provide useful forecasts - from the effects of solar storms on communications and climate to the emergence of harmful algae blooms along coasts to crucial shifts in the salinity of water in seaports, which effects the buoyancy of cargo ships.
The summit comes a week after the Bush administration unveiled its blueprint for reorganizing and setting priorities for federal climate-change research. It listed efforts to establish an international Earth-observation network as one of those initiatives.
Yet Admiral Lautenbacher points out that the concept of a global environmental observation network has a long pedigree, and it covers far more than elevation alone. For the past 20 to 30 years, he says, various scientific organizations have been interested in establishing what he terms "a Hubble Space Telescope for the Earth." Meanwhile, population growth, economic development, and the degradation they can bring to ecosystems have prompted increased interest in using an Earth-observation system to help manage the planet's resources.
Finally, watershed events like last year's summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg and the growing recognition that environmental problems are no respecters of international boundaries have helped pave the way politically.
"The confluence of these things makes this an interesting period, and a time when we're ready" for a truly international environmental monitoring effort, Lautenbacher says.