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The Struggle to Go Global

We posted about GEOSS -- the Global Earth Observation System of Systems -- just about a year ago. GEOSS is a multinational program to monitor the Earth's land, sea and air, using data pulled from more than 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys, 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, and more than 50 satellites. This is a massive undertaking, and given that several dozen nations are involved, quite complex both technically and politically. A recent article in Nature (PDF) covers what has happened over the last year and, as should be expected, successes are well-mixed with roadblocks.

The December tsunami was a wake-up call for many potential participants, emphasizing the danger that they face by not having good access to broad sources of information. It's ironic, then, that one of the countries proving a bit recalcitrant is India:

India, which has a strong telecommunications and scientific infrastructure, has been reluctant to share data from its network of seismometers. Because the information is considered vital to national security, the government prevents it from being sent out in real time — a serious potential problem for the fledgling Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. Some data are held indefinitely as they may pertain to nuclear testing. And economic considerations also come into play: satellite images and other kinds of high-resolution data are sometimes reserved for sale.

There's also a fear of "outsourcing," although not in the typical way. A number of meteorological offices in the developing world are afraid that US and European weather services, given access to local data, would be able to provide weather data more swiftly than could they. (Unmentioned in the article, however, is the possibility of the opposite happening, too -- there's no reason why weather scientists in places like India couldn't provide technically proficient services at a lower cost, too.)

All of that said, the development of GEOSS continues. It recently moved from the US to the offices of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva, Switzerland, and now receives more balanced funding (the US was the primary supporter initially). Efforts are focused now on creating uniform and consistent formats for the data coming from the various monitors, but big organizational questions remain: should GEOSS be an independent effort, like the IPCC, or entirely under the UN umbrella? Independence would allow for greater flexibility and far less bureaucracy, while UN auspices would give a built-in mechanism for resolution of disputes between participants.

If they manage to pull this off -- and all signs are still generally positive -- GEOSS would be a tremendous step forward in the collection and analysis of geophysical information. As climate disruption more and more takes center stage, we'll be quite happy to have the GEOSS data at our fingertips.

Comments (1)

hans samuelson:

Should one wish to look more deeply into some of the history of such projects, a good place to look is the site (and work) of the researcher Paul Edwards, and more particularly the upcoming book "The world in a machine," presently available in draft form at

I recommend his work; highly informed, highly readable.

-- Hans in Montreal


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