Q&A: The Earth Observation Summit

Peter Spotts reports on science and technology for The Christian Science Monitor. He writes news and feature articles on scientific developments across a wide range of fields, as well as on science policy. Mr. Spotts discussed the coming summit with csmonitor.com's Tim Rauschenberger.

Why now? Why hasn't such a concerted effort to share environmental data been made for almost 50 years?

The short answer is the lack of political will. Also, a desire to keep the information close to the vest for national security reasons. Remember, the cold war ended only about a decade ago. All during that period, the US Navy was gathering all sorts of useful oceanographic information so it could more effectively counter Soviet submarines. But much of that information was classified, and only came to light after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. And the idea that pollution knows no boundaries -- while a no-brainer to specialists in the field -- caught on relatively slowly in the political arena. The global reach of radioactivity from the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the mid-1980s helped drive the lesson home in a major way. And it's only within the past decade or two that instruments and computing horsepower have advanced to a point where a truly global network was possible.

What are some examples of applications for the environmental data that the sensors will gather?

Scientifically, we still know very little about some 70 percent of the planet's surface -- the oceans. So this is expected to be a major thrust of any global observing network. Measurements of conditions in the North Pacific, for example, can improve weather forecasts for the US West Coast. They also can yield insights into atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns that can affect climate. Biological sensors on buoys or on underwater vehicles could yield insights into how plankton takes up nutrients and carbon dioxide, which also bear on climate-change issues.

And, of course, satellite information already is being used to track the response of terrestrial plants to changing climate, aid in battling forest fires, and even in search-and-rescue efforts.

The Earth Observation Summit (EOS) is being held at the US State Department. Is the US government leading this endeavor, or are they on an equal footing with other participants? How much influence will other G-8 countries have?

The US is hosting the Earth Observation Summit. But it is at the behest of the G-8. The question of "footing" is probably one that will be worked out. While countries such as Britain, Japan, and Germany have very active research groups working on issues such as climate, the US is the world leader in gathering environmental data in the field. And many of the satellites the US launches are the result of collaborations between US and overseas researchers.

After Thursday's session, technical experts will continue to work on this through December, when they will present a draft plan for the proposed sensor network. The final plan is due at the G-8 meeting next spring. But it seems clear that for this to be a truly international effort, the data must be available to everyone. In addition, there should be some way for less-developed countries to make use of the information.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development was organized by a United Nations commission. Is there a reason the UN is not the organizing body of the EOS?

Sure. First, this is a G-8 initiative, although it also is the G-8's response to a need identified at the UN Johannesburg summit. Sustainable development not only requires specific techniques, but a means of assessing the effect those techniques have on the ecosystems people want to protect. And as new ideas for sustainable development come along, the data from an Earth-observation network will measure progress, yield new insights into how those ecosystems work, and allow -- through the use of modeling -- some means of "testing" fresh ideas for sustainable-development approaches before they are implemented.

Second (and this is speculation), environmental groups and many of this country's traditional allies have watched in dismay as the Bush administration pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The White House also is taking what some see as a much more pro-business approach to a range of environmental and energy issues at home.

With this project, it's hard not to be on the side of the angels. Scientists have been interested in doing this for nearly 30 years. Potential commercial users are interested, and even environmental groups say this kind of effort is long overdue. So taking the lead on this could be seen as a way for the White House to earn some brownie points on the environment at a time when so many of its other initiatives are under attack.

If the Earth Observation Summit is a success, what can we expect in the future?

That we won't know until after we get there. Proponents say it could lay the groundwork for a new suite of tools to forecast a range of environmental conditions whose changes can have a major effect on economic development. It could provide scientists building those forecasting tools with the kind of consistent, long-term, high-quality data that gives them greater confidence in the trends and fresh discoveries the data yield. Those in turn get fed back into forecast models to improve their accuracy. In short, the network would become the most powerful tool yet for understanding and managing humanity's pervasive influence on Earth and its ecosystems.

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