SAN FRANCISCO – Executives at computer networking giant Cisco Systems are calling on public and private organizations around the world to take part in an ambitious effort to develop and prototype one of the important pillars of an international effort to address climate change: a system for monitoring and reporting carbon stocks and carbon flows. This type of system, which will rely heavily on space-based, airborne and terrestrial sensors, is designed to assist world leaders in determining the most effective ways to confront climate change and to provide a verification mechanism for future carbon pricing initiatives.

“The challenge of climate change mitigation and adaptation is very complex,” said Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, manager director of climate change strategy for Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, the strategic consulting arm of the San Jose, Calif.-based company. “To solve it, we will need to pool the assets, abilities and skills of many players around the world.”

Cisco’s first partners in the initiative, which the company has named Planetary Skin, are scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Cisco and NASA Ames have been working together for 18 months to develop concepts for global monitoring and decision support mechanisms. As part of a Space Act Agreement announced March 3, NASA will assist Cisco in an effort to develop the first Planetary Skin prototype, an online platform called Rainforest Skin, which will gather data on the world’s rainforests and present that data through useful tools to help local forest managers and regional leaders monitor the ecosystems, said Forrest Melton, senior research scientists for science and environmental policy from California State University, Monterey Bay, who is working at Ames to create Rainforest Skin. Forest managers will be able to start working with initial prototypes of Rainforest Skin within a year, Castilla-Rubio said.

Rainforest Skin draws on data from existing sensors, including those aboard NASA’s Terra environmental spacecraft and the Landsat 5 and 7 land-imaging satellites, said Christopher Potter, senior research scientists in the NASA Ames Ecosystems Science and Technology Branch. Scientists at Ames will use that information to create detailed pictures of forest carbon cycles as they change from week to week through the seasons, Melton said. This detailed picture of the carbon stored in the world’s rainforests will demonstrate the value of living trees as they absorb carbon. It may also spur development of a system to compensate nations for protecting forests, Potter said.

During the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December, world leaders are expected to discuss national targets for reducing carbon emissions and ways to put a price on carbon, such as carbon taxes or cap and trade systems, Castilla-Rubio said. Those initiatives cannot succeed without the type of monitoring and verification mechanism that the Planetary Skin program is designed to provide, he added.

During the next three years, Cisco, NASA and any international partners who join the project will continue development of the Rainforest Skin and begin to develop similar tools for monitoring other important resources such as water, food and energy, Castilla-Rubio said.

The goal of all of the Planetary Skin projects is to gather information from a wide array of sensors, process it and use it to create tools that enable public, private and community leaders to make informed decisions when managing environmental resources, risks and markets. “Without that information, they are flying blind,” Castilla-Rubio said.

While NASA and Cisco are developing Rainforest Skin and other Planetary Skin prototypes, officials involved in the program say they have no intention of continuing to lead the effort when prototypes are completed and the program is ready to be tested on a regional and, eventually, on a global scale. “We are trying to create a reporting, verification and decision infrastructure for both mitigation and adaptation to climate change in the context of the global negotiations associated with climate change,” Castilla-Rubio said. Once developed, that infrastructure will have to be managed by a trusted, multinational organization, he added.

Creating that organization, however, is only one of the daunting tasks faced by the Planetary Skin program. In addition, public and private institutions will have to deploy additional space-based, airborne, maritime and terrestrial sensors. “There is quite a bit of this data in some domains, it’s very poor in other domains.” Castilla-Rubio said. “If you consider both, there will be a big need for governments to heavily invest in the sensor networks.”

In addition to deploying new sensors, scientists and mathematicians will have to create computer models that use information gathered to estimate the amount of carbon contained in different areas as well as information processing tools to enable leaders to use that data to inform actions and policies, Castilla-Rubio said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...