Future forecast - from seafloor to ionosphere

Weather radar is nifty. Satellite images are awesome. But geoscientists want a more comprehensive view.

So 44 nations, the European Commission, and 26 international organizations will meet in Tokyo April 25 to plan an unprecedented campaign to pull together Earth-monitoring instruments from all over the world into one giant network. When finished, the system would reveal what's happening on Earth from the ocean floor to the tops of volcanoes to the electromagnetic fields enveloping the planet. Its objective is to better inform scientists and the public about how natural events half a world away might affect their own backyards.

The Group on Earth Observations that is holding the meeting hopes to integrate existing networks that monitor land, sea, and sky. Any remaining observational gaps would then be filled by additional monitoring programs.

Such omniscience should "bootstrap the world" to gain benefits from earth science, says Conrad Lautenbacher, co-chair of the initiative and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.The system would not merely tweak your local weather forecast. Dr. Lautenbacher expects a major improvement that could benefit farming, transportation, and other activities sensitive to natural events. Over time, the accumulation of such comprehensive data should help us better understand humanity's impact on the planet.

However, such a large network requires cooperation among nations that span the political and cultural spectrum. Some consider geophysical data as proprietary information. Some fear that technologically advanced nations will benefit more from a global database than less-developed countries. Lautenbacher expects the project to break through such political barriers. When all nations share data, all benefit, he says. Technically advanced members of the group could help the less advanced.

There's a familiar ring to this. Fifty years ago a distrustful world rallied around President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative. Atomic science was secret and it looked as if only the nuclear powers would derive any civilian benefits from the atom.

In an address to the United Nations Dec. 8, 1953, Eisenhower urged nuclear powers to drop as much secrecy as they felt prudent and work with the rest of the world to develop nuclear science in ways to benefit all humanity. While today's environmental challenges don't match the nuclear threat of 1954, they are serious, and the global observing system provides an arena where nations can cooperate.

Eisenhower framed his initiative as the search for "a way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall ... [be] consecrated to his life." You could say the same for this unprecedented effort to monitor the earth.

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