In wake of tsunami, push for a global weather watch

Lifted by a surge of public interest following the South Asian tsunami, more than 60 countries are set today to adopt a plan to create a comprehensive Earth observation system.

The 10-year project is designed to deliver a worldwide network that could predict droughts and other harsh weather, reduce energy bills, deliver a better understanding of climate change, and forewarn of impending natural disasters like tsunamis.

Demonstrating how December's devastating tsunami has energized efforts to better understand the earth's workings, the global observation project is benefiting from interest in both the developed and developing worlds. "A year ago our plan was already ambitious, but now as we [formally create the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS], we see it has captured the imagination and the will of an unexpectedly growing number of countries," says Achilleas Mitsos, director general for research at the European Commission here.

Before the tsunami, fewer than 40 countries were on track to sign on to the ambitious project.

With many international organizations and countries, especially in the developed world, already working on various aspects of Earth observation, the idea is to "fill in the gaps" - especially in developing regions that lag behind - so that observation and warning systems can become truly global.

For example, countries like the United States and Japan already have extensive tsunami warning systems, but the technology is lacking in the Indian Ocean basin, where the December tsunami occurred. Creating a global observation system is also key to addressing a global scourge like malaria, which is now thought to be affected by such oceanic cycles as El Niño.

An irony of the GEOSS project, which is strongly supported by the US, is that it is to be created on the same day that the Kyoto Protocol on climate change - an international accord the Bush administration rejected to worldwide disdain - takes effect.

Though the timing is coincidental, US officials say keen American interest in the earth observation system - one of whose goals is to promote an understanding of climate change - should soften the US image by drawing attention to the many ways in which the US is addressing the issue.

"This should help give a more nuanced picture of the US, which has really been a leader to the world for observing climate change and variability and developing new ways to address" it, says retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The US spends nearly $6 billion a year on climate change study and technology, he notes.

"It's also important to highlight the enormous economic benefits of implementing a global observation system, both in terms of new activity that will be prompted by this but also in terms of what can be avoided," says Admiral Lautenbacher, one of the original "dreamers" of a global observation system. "Imagine the lives that could have been saved and the devastation that could have been at least reduced if this system had been in effect just a few months ago."

The GEOSS summit, co-chaired by four sponsors - the US, Japan, the European Union, and South Africa - announced Tuesday that the project will be overseen by a small secretariat within the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva.

"The pace of progress will be driven by the countries and international organizations that sign on. But judging by their interest this is something that will move forward," says Rob Adam, director general for science and technology in South Africa.

The economic gains to be made by the development and dissemination of new observation technologies are one reason that representatives of private industry expect the GEOSS project to maintain its head of steam. But another reason is that the mounting devastation from extreme weather will keep the world focused on promising ways of attenuating such destruction.

A recent WMO report found that in 2003 alone, 249 million people were affected by severe weather, with more than 38,000 killed and nearly 900,000 left homeless. The report also found that while the number of annual "natural disasters" doubled over the decade of the 1990s to about 400, the annual number of "geophysical" disasters, such as earthquakes, remained constant.

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