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Earth, Laid Bare

Today's Washington Post reports on the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a multinational effort to continuously monitor our home planet's land, sea, and air. The GEOSS capabilities are potentially immense:

For starters, the network would link data from 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys and 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, officials said. Ultimately, it would vacuum up information from myriad other sources, including satellites monitoring ground and air movements, and feed it all into computers that will process it.


Much of the sensing capacity is already in place: There are 50 satellites collecting environmental data from orbit; 68 moored buoys operated by the United States and Japan monitor the equatorial Pacific; 14 nations collaborate on a network of another 1,288 buoys that constantly rise and sink over a two-week period, from the ocean's surface to more than a mile below, to measure temperature and salinity, then transmit the data to satellites. There will be 3,000 such buoys in the next three years, Lautenbacher said.

Other technology still in development, such as a synthetic aperture radar that will be flown on a satellite, can help predict volcano eruptions by measuring "how land is moving, down to a few millimeters," said Greg Withee, a NOAA assistant administrator. At the other end of the technology spectrum, data will also come from monitoring devices as simple as buckets that collect rainfall or human spotters who look out from towers for signs of smoke to detect wildfires.

While many of the tools being combined into the GEOSS network come from the United States, over 50 countries are participating in the project. As the Post article notes, this includes nations which are unhappy about American policies regarding Iraq, regarding climate change, or both -- the potential value of this network is so great, and the implications are so far-reaching, that the political friction of the moment pales in comparison. The GEOSS site at the EPA includes an impressive (albeit somewhat hard-to-read) graph mapping out the myriad "measurement and monitoring datasets, models, decision support tools, and programs" connected to GEOSS via the EPA. This is really quite a big project.


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