Government, Industry Officials Tout Benefits of GEOSS

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An ambitious effort to coordinate the environmental remote-sensing activities of some 60 nations will help prevent wasteful expenditures on activities ranging from environmental protection and disaster mitigation to development and use of energy resources, a panel of U.S. government and industry officials agreed.

The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) is a 10-year effort to coordinate and share data collected by satellites, airborne sensors and ground-based systems . The project is expected to provide a comprehensive picture of the global environment, including more precise terrain maps and better climate prediction capabilities, both of which will lead to more efficient resource allocations, the panelists said.

The United States released its plan to participate in the effort this past April.

Private industry leaders should get on board with GEOSS because it has a number of important practical applications, the panelists said July 22 at a Washington forum dubbed “Power in the 21st Century: Putting Earth Science To Work For America.” The event was sponsored by commercial imaging satellite operator Orbimage of Dulles, Va., and the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce.

Samuel Bodman, U.S. secretary of energy, said more accurate weather predictions, as promised by the GEOSS, would provide huge financial benefits. Improving temperature-forecast accuracy by 1 degree could save $1 billion in energy costs, he said. For example, building managers and homeowners waste considerable sums of money on heat or air conditioning in response to temperature forecasts that turn out to be inaccurate, he noted.

Conrad Lautenbacher , U.S. undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, said better forecasts would enable authorities to fine-tune their planned responses to disasters such as wildfires and floods. GEOSS also could help identify weaknesses in power grids, Lautenbacher said. The August 2003 blackout that struck eight northeastern states and parts of Canada cost between $5 billion and $11 billion in lost revenue and productivity, he said, adding that closer attention to grid problems could avert similar incidents in the future .

Another potential GEOSS application is predicting when temperatures will be hot enough to cause flight delays, Lautenbacher said. When temperatures reach above 45.5 degrees Celsius , planes have to shed weight because otherwise they need more runway distance to take off. Flights in areas of the southwestern United States especially are plagued by heat-related delays.

Weather problems, in general, account for between 50 and 70 percent of all airline delays, depending on the month of the year, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics.

Matthew O’Connell, chief executive officer of Orbimage, said his company’s remote sensing satellites can play a key role in GEOSS by performing tasks ranging from assessing damage to infrastructure caused by hurricanes to searching for energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. Satellite imagery also is valuable for mapping out the placement of pipelines, and can be a tool for examining the environmental impact caused by construction projects , he added .

GEOSS’s role can extend beyond saving resources — it also can be used as a tool to develop alternative energy sources, said John Davis, chief meteorologist for the Chesapeake Energy Corp. of Oklahoma City, Okla.

Improved mapping technology can show which locations are best suited for alternative energy-generating systems such as windmills, Davis said. Vague, outdated maps are of little benefit in this regard , he said.

“Before we had better resolution, you wouldn’t even know Indiana had wind,” Davis said, noting that improved satellite technology has identified many spots throughout the midwestern United States that can be exploited for energy production .

Better maps also can locate concentrations of decaying vegetation that may be converted into energy, according to Davis.

The panelists said a ll countries involved need to understand the benefits of GEOSS for it to be a success . Lautenbacher said this understanding is increasing, whether countries are interested in environmental or energy benefits or simply national security.

“I believe we’re coming to a status where things are much more visible,” Lautenbacher said. “It is creating political pressure — not just an interest in the data, but an interest in finding out what other people know about them.”

Improved technology also tends to make countries more honest and up front about their activities, O’Connell said, noting, for example, that satellites can identify nuclear facilities. Nations ” can’t deny as much as they used to,” he said.