Building a Better Watchtower

Many observers claim the United States has dodged the growing issues of global warming, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change. Observers recall how the Bush administration has refused to endorse the international Kyoto Protocol, initiate mandatory GHG emission controls or otherwise take decisive measures to stem anthropomorphic climate effects.

Q: How can the United States justify its decision to avoid teaming with other nations and delay taking firm actions to mitigate GHGs? How can the nation recapture the good graces of the international community regarding responsible environmental management?

A: The Bush administration insists that we need to step back and gain a more complete scientific understanding of the world around us before we take drastic steps that could adversely affect our economies. This strategy involves establishing a sophisticated Earth observation mechanism.

According to Bush administration officials, obtaining a better understanding of our world will also bring quick economic benefits. Improved weather forecasting, for instance, can have enormous economic impact -- especially to the agricultural and natural disaster management sectors.

Earth Observation Summit
The U.S. State Department hosted the first Earth Observation Summit (EOS) on July 31, 2003. Leaders from more than 30 nations met in Washington, D.C., to discuss establishing an integrated Earth observation system that highlights space-based, air-based, land-based and ocean-based technologies.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who happened to earn a bachelor of science in geology from the City College of New York before beginning his military career, kicked off the summit. The secretary noted that an integrated observation system will improve our understanding of the Earth and immediately benefit our weather, agricultural and natural-disaster management capacities.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham also appeared, noting how his office evaluates technology to mitigate anthropomorphic climate impacts, and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans announced a $103 million, two-year federal initiative to accelerate new global observation technologies. The Bush administration has brought total government spending on climate-change related programs to a level of $4.5 billion.

U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy
Following the secretaries, Dr. John Marburger, science advisor to President Bush and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, explained how the observation system will deliver several benefits.

Dr. Marburger emphasized that, while the Earth observing system will support long-term climate science to some degree, it will more significantly help scientists improve short-term weather forecasting. "One of the most important functions of EOS is to provide data needed for shorter term forecasting of phenomena like El Niño that have important economic implications," he reported. "This kind of monitoring is necessary regardless of actions associated with long-term climate change. While some EOS data may be useful for climate-change analysis, that is not its only, nor necessarily its most, important function."

Dr. Marburger acknowledged that scientists have already gained a good foundation of Earth observation data, but he stressed that we still need more information. "Many important components of the Earth system remain to be measured, such as sea surface salinity, vertical distribution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, soil moisture and the size and chemistry of aerosols," he explained. "Recent advances in technology provide optimism that these variables will be measured during the coming decade."

Health Research Benefits
Later in the day, Dr. Rita Colwell -- director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) -- told the summit ministers how observing technologies also support health sciences.

She explained how satellite remote-sensing equipment supported her own research on cholera epidemics. Dr. Colwell found that satellite imagery data helped her research team measure sea surface temperatures and sea surface heights. Her group noted that rising temperatures and heights were linked with cholera outbreak patterns in Bangladesh and South America. Therefore, Dr. Colwell's team was able to test her hypothesis that El Niño triggered the resurgence of cholera in Peru in 1991.

The NSF director further explained how investing in innovative observing instruments will expand research potentials.

International Teamwork
International cooperation is essential to establish an effective Earth observatory. While most of the attending nations expressed a keen willingness to support the summit initiative, the Group of Eight (G-8) Industrial Nations -- Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia -- will probably be able to make significant contributions.

  • Canada. For instance, Canada's Minister of the Environment, David Anderson, stated that a main objective involves evaluating ocean dynamics, including sea ice levels and heat transfers. To demonstrate the need to share scientific information, Anderson declared that his nation would freely make available climate data gathered since 1840.

  • United Kingdom. Brandishing its own wealth of data, the United Kingdom announced it has accumulated 300 years of weather and geophysical records that note historical trends. According to the minister, these records can place current Earth observation data -- and facts pointing to apparent global warming -- in scientific context. At the same time, the minister announced Britain currently plans to reduce GHG emissions 60 percent by the year 2050.
  • France. Acknowledging its role as a leader in space technology, France emphasized that "better observation will lead to better understanding," and that participating nations need a functional data exchange policy.
  • Japan. In order to support "a legacy for future generations," Japan stated that it would make available supercomputer capacities needed to distill enormous volumes of global data, including information related to greenhouse gases and global warming.

Current Satellite Observations
Satellite systems have already provided scientists with a great deal of earth science information. These accomplishments offer an excellent platform for launching further space-based studies.

The world's first meteorological satellite launched from Cape Canaveral on April 1, 1960. Named TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite), this polar-orbiting spacecraft mapped the Earth's cloud cover from satellite altitudes. Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) probably control the nation's most prominent Earth-monitoring satellites.

NOAA
NOAA spacecraft include the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and the Polar Operational Environmental Satellite (POES) series. Cooperating with Japan, the GOES-9, GOES-10 and GOES-12 satellites estimate thunderstorm rainfalls, measure snowfall accumulations and, most importantly, monitor severe events like tornadoes, flash floods, hail storms and hurricanes.

Along with the UK and France, POES mission satellites provide long-range weather forecasting. One mission satellite, NOAA-M, was launched in June 2002 and additional satellites are in the planning stages.

NASA
NASA satellites have collected earth science data for over 30 years. Today, NASA accesses 14 earth science satellites in orbit (with six others in the works). These orbiting satellites include:

  • ACRIMSAT: Launched in December 1999 to measure how much of the Sun's energy reaches our planet's atmosphere, surface and oceans.
  • ADEOS II: Launched in December 2002, this joint mission with Japan monitors global climate changes and their effect on weather phenomena.
  • Aqua: Launched in May 2002 to monitor ocean surface waters, sea ice, atmospheric water vapor, humidity, precipitation infiltrations and runoffs.
  • EO-1: Launched in November 2001 to acquire images of land and coastal surfaces.
  • GRACE: Launched in March 2002 to measure the Earth's gravity, ocean circulation and the transport of ocean heat to the poles.
  • ICESat: Launched in January 2003 to quantify ice sheet mass balance and evaluate how changes in the Earth's atmosphere and climate affect polar ice masses and global sea levels.
  • Jason-1: Launched in December 2001, this joint mission with France monitors ocean circulations, quantifies the link between oceans and atmosphere and monitors events like El Niño, La Niña and ocean eddies.
  • Landsat-7: Launched in April 1999 to acquire images of land surfaces and coastal regions from 440 miles above Earth (and complement the Landsat mission that began in 1972).
  • OrbView-2: Launched in August 1997, this third-party satellite detects subtle color changes on the Earth's surface, thereby monitoring ocean plankton, ocean sedimentation levels and land-based vegetation (NASA purchases this data from the vendor).
  • QuikScat: Launched in June 1999 to measure near-surface wind speeds and directions over the oceans.
  • SAGE III: Launched in December 2001 to measure the vertical structures of aerosols, ozone, water vapor and trace gases in the upper troposphere and stratosphere and to evaluate natural and human-derived atmospheric processes.
  • SORCE: Launched in January 2003 to measure total solar irradiance, solar ultraviolet and solar far ultraviolet.
  • Terra: Launched in December 1999 to monitor solar radiation interactions with the atmosphere, land and oceans.
  • TRMM: Launched in November 1997 to fly a low-orbit, 217-mile altitude, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission is a joint mission with Japan. This mission involves measuring tropical and subtropical rainfall through microwave and visible infrared sensors.

Conclusion
Building an international Earth observation system will reemphasize how nations can maintain effective working agreements, realize summit declarations and address complex environmental issues for the benefit of everyone everywhere.

The main advantage of this system may be improving short-term weather forecasting using ocean-based, land-based, air-based and space-based science platforms. Resulting data should give international scientists a better understanding of how our planet functions.

Borce Brende and Terje Lind, representing the nation of Norway at the EOS, summarized this need for a joint observation system. "We need to strengthen observation to improve our understanding of the state of the global climate system and of impacts on the environment," Lind reported in a written statement. "Strengthening is needed for the atmospheric, the oceanic and the terrestrial networks."

But despite the expected economic derivatives from improved short-term weather forecasting, long-term climate-change questions and concerns about U.S. actions will not go away.

In fact, at the EOS, Japanese Environment Minister Shunichi Suzuki once again asked the U.S. to return to the Kyoto Protocol as a signatory party.

Lind echoed this concern. "On climate change, we have sufficient data and knowledge to start acting now," he emphasized. "The Kyoto Protocol was a first modest step in controlling GHGs. However, significant reductions are needed and there is no reason for delaying further action.

"Actions cannot wait for results of the improved observation systems; actions and gaining more knowledge should proceed in parallel. If we wait for the full and perfect understanding, it may be too late."

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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