Plan To Guide U.S. Role in International Observing Effort

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WASHINGTON – A newly released White House strategic plan intended to help guide U.S. participation in an international environmental monitoring effort has identified numerous gaps in U.S. Earth observing capabilities.

But the “Strategic Plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System” is not necessarily a shopping list for satellites and other environmental-monitoring platforms, White House officials said. Some of the gaps it identifies will be addressed by new generations of U.S. weather satellites now under development, while others could be filled by other participants in the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a 10-year effort involving roughly 60 nations.

Conceived in 2003, the GEOSS will attempt to coordinate and share data from observations made by satellites, airborne sensors, buoys and ground-based facilities operated by participating nations. The objective is to improve weather forecasts, climate change research, economic planning, and disaster monitoring and mitigation.

The Group on Earth Observation, the ad hoc international group responsible for coordinating the effort, is slated to meet for the first time May 2-4 in Geneva.

“Whether it is agriculture, or land use, or water planning, or transportation, or energy, there’s a lot of data … that has to be collected,” John Marburger, science advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, told reporters during an April 18 briefing on the strategic plan. A draft of the plan was released last year.

Marburger said the payoffs from an enhanced understanding of the Earth as a system will be rich. An integrated system linking ocean instrumentation with better Earth observing satellite coverage, for example, could enable accurate long-term weather forecasts that include probabilities for events such as droughts.

Marburger said another focus of the GOESS effort is identifying and filling gaps in certain Earth observing capabili�ties while minimizing wasteful overlap between and among nations.

The U.S. strategic plan identifies a number of deficiencies in American collection capabilities that serve as barriers to more accurate weather forecasting, better disaster mitigation, improved ocean monitoring and an enhanced understanding of global climate change.

Retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and co-chair of the interagency group that produced the U.S. strategic plan, said identifying gaps and eliminating overlap begins at home but does not end there.

“The U.S. has a very robust investment in Earth observation. The issue is to harness it to be more beneficial which we all believe can be done,” Lautenbacher said. “We can get more advantage out of our research satellites, we can transition them better to operational satellites, and by combining them with ground-based, atmospheric-based and ocean-based sensors, [we] are going to be able to do things we have never done before.”

Lautenbacher said new generations of U.S. weather satellites will address some of the gaps identified in the strategic plan, as will a NASA-led international constellation of global precipitation-measuring satellites slated to start launching around the end of the decade .

Other holes in U.S. observation capa�bilities might best be plugged through in�ternational cooperation, Lautenbacher said. As an example, he cited satellite-based synthetic aperture radar for moni�toring anything from iceberg movements and oil spills to the extent of floodwaters in areas obscured from optical sensors by darkness or cloud cover.

NASA has tried and failed more than once in the past 15 years to build support for a U.S. civilian radar satellite . Lautenbacher said the U.S. could satisfy at least some of its synthetic aperture radar needs by relying on systems either operated or planned by Canada, Europe and Japan.

Marburger added that the strategic plan also will help U.S. government agencies settle both longstanding and emerg�ing turf issues in environmental monitoring, and to make the case for funding programs that support the goals laid out in the plan.

“Having something like this to … get Congress to support some of the president’s [budget] request will be very useful,” Marburger said.

The strategic plan was released just ahead of the National Academy of Sciences’ expected publication of a 10-year plan for NASA’s Earth science program, which was merged with the agency’s space science program in 2004. Sources familiar with the forthcoming report said its intent is to influence the Bush administration’s stewardship of NASA’s Earth science program and head off big funding cuts in this area.

Marburger said fears that the White House plans to gut Earth science funding are unwarranted. “No such decision has been made to stop all work on Earth observing spacecraft,” he said. “Earth observations are a very important aspect of our space policy and will continue.”