2003 WMO Congress
“Three Imperatives for an Integrated Earth Observation System”
Vice Admiral (Ret.) Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., U.S. Navy
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans & Atmosphere,
NOAA Administrator
Geneva Switzerland, May 2003

Welcome – Thank You

Good Morning. It is a great pleasure and privilege to be with you. I thank the WMO for inviting me to meet with you here at this most important WMO Congress. I have been deeply impressed by the achievements that have resulted from the long-standing partnerships within the WMO and its member countries over many decades – with one of the most notable being the WMO Global Observing System for weather that has brought so many benefits to the nations of the world. In short, the WMO is a model international organization demonstrating to the entire world the enormous benefits that can be gained by serious cooperative efforts.

I am indeed honored to have the opportunity to address an organization like the WMO, which has a worldwide reputation for being both productive and effective in meeting its mission. This reputation is derived in no small part from the dedicated work of all of you – the members, as well as those of you who have been willing both to serve and to lead this great organization. I must pay special tribute to two individuals in particular who have served so well and have provided decades of service to this organization – such as Dr. John Zillman and Professor Obasi. Dr. Zillman is completing 8 years as the indispensable President, and 30 years of major contributions to WMO Programs from the Global Atmospheric Research Program and World Weather Watch to the World Climate Program and the IPCC. Professor Obasi is completing 20 years as the Secretary General and tireless architect for weather, climate and water in the Halls of the UN and with Governments around the world promoting the cause of National Meteorological and Hydrometeorological Services. On behalf of the United States and NOAA, I thank you both for your service and extend to you my very best wishes in the future.

NOAA’s Unique Perspective

I speak to you today from a somewhat unique perspective as head of what might be described as the United States’ “operational ecosystem science agency.”

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is the largest agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce, 65% in budget terms, and carries out a daily mission of monitoring and understanding our oceans, coasts, fisheries and weather as well as developing forecasts and disseminating that information for economic and public benefit. We operate a complex network of observing systems. Our geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites provide continuous coverage of the Earth 24-hours a day, and these space assets are complimented by an extensive surface network of towers, balloons, buoys, and aircraft. During my tenure as the Head of NOAA, I have come to be most impressed by the current and future potential of this network. Having all of these technical capabilities as well as a complete roster of first class earth scientists of all disciplines under one roof offers enormous possibilities. This enables to concentrate expertise and technology to address the significant earth environmental and resource management issues that are emerging on the horizon of our collective future. I have also come to be most impressed with NOAA’s partnership with the WMO. This partnership has extended the value of our internal skills to the international level of collaboration where indeed we all must be to meet the challenges we face this century.

Observing Systems – Intro

My remarks today are focused on the importance, the benefits and the way ahead for what I will refer to as a comprehensive, integrated, and sustained earth observing system. I strongly believe we have reached a time for an “Earth Science Renaissance” – a new era where human ingenuity must be applied to developing a deeper understanding of the complex systems of Planet Earth. That understanding begins with observations. All of us are aware that not a day passes that we do not reap the benefits of satellite, aircraft, and ground-based measurements that document environmental changes across the globe. These measurements are essential to every nation to assist in such essential tasks as monitoring crops, exploring the oceans, improving weather forecasts, or assessing disasters, among others. In terms of weather information, much of the credit goes to the WMO; countries are experiencing thanks to WMO work on observing systems and free exchange of data.

However, collectively, we can and we must do much more. The forces of social change and global development present a number of serious issues for the world’s leaders, decision-makers, and international institutions, such as the WMO. We are confronting a future that will require advancing our existing observing systems to the next level of Earth Observation – that is, to build a system of systems that will give us the tools we need to “take the pulse of the planet.”

As we do for weather today, so must we do for climate, for water, for ecosystem definition and management, for wise use of all earth resources, for sustainable development and for other newly arising environmental challenges.

I. Three Imperatives for an Integrated Earth Observation System
There are many ways in which we could present a case for a fully integrated Earth information and data management system, but in the short time I have today I will focus on a limited selection of these imperatives organized in three broad categories – the are:

  1. social
  2. economic, and
  3. scientific


Perhaps the most pressing set of social needs stems from a growing population that will continue to demand access to crucial resources like clean water and plentiful food. Projections of global population growth show roughly a doubling, and perhaps more, beyond our current number of 6 billion people over the next few decades. Trends show that the concentration of populations is shifting from rural areas to the urban centers, which will dramatically alter the distribution of goods, services, and land use. And many of these cities are located in coastal regions – the very regions we rely upon for healthy fisheries, and reliable transport and navigation. In the United States, more than half of the population lives within 50 miles of the coasts – and that number continues to climb.

With this kind of increased crowding comes increased potential vulnerability to natural disasters – and we have seen the considerable damage that is caused by floods and hurricanes, especially in those areas in proximity to coastlines. Under these conditions, we must improve our understanding of the complex workings of earth systems in order to manage our resources in a more efficient way. Much more can be said about social imperatives, but in the interest of time let us discuss the second category – economic factors.


Sustainable development has become a popular term for addressing many of the economic issues that arise from the pressing social changes that I have described. With shifting concentrations and growth of population, we see shifts in competition for resources that affect our economies:

  • Twenty-Five percent of the Earth’s biological productivity and an estimated 80-90% of the global commercial fish catch is concentrated in the coastal zones – where our populations are rising.
  • For the United States, weather and climate sensitive industries, both directly and indirectly, account for about 1/3 of our nation’s GDP – $2.7 trillion – ranging from agriculture, finance, insurance, and real estate, to retail and wholesale trade, and manufacturing.

Statistics compiled from insurance companies from 1950-1999 show that major natural catastrophes across the globe caused economic losses of $960 billion. However, citing a statement from Professor Obasi: over the same period, loss of life in countries with good observation systems for warning and preparedness has fallen.

I must point out that the benefits from weather forecasting do not end with early warnings for natural disasters. In pure economic terms, studies show that national institutions that provide weather, climate, and water services to their citizens contribute an estimated $20 – $40 billion dollars each year to their national economies.

Clearly, the return on our investments for Earth observation has brought great benefits to the general public.

Imagine then, the return on our investment for a fully networked observing system of Earth information for all nationsÖ. Just think what that return might beÖ

We can examine regional or industry specific statistics and uncover many positive indicators of economic return on investments in observing systems:

  • The annual economic return to the U.S. economy of NOAA’s El NiÒo ocean observing and forecast system – an international effort I might add – is between 13 and 26 percent. Any business would be happy to operate at a return of 5%!
  • Experts estimate that the agricultural sector benefits from weather services at a cost ratio of about 15 to 1. That is, farmers get about $15 of value out of every dollar spent on forecasting the weather.
  • One new industry – seasonal weather derivatives – has seen exchanges between parties at a level of $2 billion per year in 1998-2000 and $4 billion in 2001. This has resulted in a total notional value of $11.8 billion in weather risk management contracts over the past five years. (Weather derivatives are financial contracts in which money changes hands based on seasonal average temperatures, degree-days, or precipitation amounts).

It is clear that a comprehensive Earth observation system calibrated by the relevant measurement standards is essential to the information infrastructure necessary for sustainable development. It would indeed be the basis for improving the management of natural resources and use of the environment that underpin our economies.


However, improved management of resources cannot be achieved without a much more comprehensive and detailed understanding of the earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems. A truly integrated Earth observation system will be needed to provide the sound science necessary to make policy decisions in the global context of social and economic change. Scientists and scientific method require data, and we simply have too many “blind spots” such as in our oceans, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, and numerous biological processes. We need to know much more…

With the difficult social and economic issues facing the world, the time has come to move beyond considering the separate disciplines of science as “stand alone” components of the big picture of life on earth. Chemistry, physics, biology, geology, and the variety of new disciplines that have arisen in academia and industry are all part of an interrelated system for interpreting the world in which we live. We understand now that boundaries between disciplines will always be present. Thus, we need a collaborative approach to bridge understanding and management at the ecosystem level. Our collective challenge now is to understand and describe the complexities of this planet we inhabit – and we turn to science to help us do this.

We are faced with a number of pressing science questions. How are all of earth’s “life systems” interrelated? In terms of climate, a major need is to distinguish the human influences from the natural variability. This calls for an interdisciplinary Earth Science approach. In addition to the pure science considerations, this is also an organization and management challenge. We should look at organizing “earth scientists” similar to the way many of our single discipline scientific communities have organized so well in the past. It also means a collective approach to preparing a plan and pressing for the resources to achieve this giant step forward in advancing the capability of Earth Science to support the difficult policy issues facing world leaders. In many respects, this is an organizational, not a technical challenge.

The direction of science today supports this idea. Reductionism, the approach of “describing the smallest bits possible one part at a time” – was a rousing success for the double helix (celebrating its golden anniversary). But now that the sciences are moving towards a Systems focus, this approach is shifting. For complex Earth systems, listing the parts of system or organism with its various functions is no more adequate to understanding the complexity of a living thing than listing the parts of a submarine, Boeing 777 or Airbus 340 to understand how they function.

We need to ask how the parts fit together and function as a whole. A well-connected global integrated information and data management system is the first step.

I do not underestimate the difficulty of organizing and building the next level earth observing system – it is an enormous challenge that will require a profound change in the way we work. Governments, professional societies, international institutions, industry, and academia need to work together in new ways but paved by the successes of the past, most of which originated with the WMO.

II. Fitting the pieces together

Existing Pieces

The WMO’s World Weather Watch and the nations that contribute to the network have put in place a system for nations around the world to receive daily weather analyses and forecasts. The WMO has played a pioneering role in the global coordination of geophysical and meteorological experiments, thus laying down the operational foundations for the worldwide monitoring of the chemical composition of the atmosphere and of climate variability.

The Global Observing System of the World Weather Watch is a good example for what we can build from – over 10,000 surface stations around the globe. This system is focused on weather, but it is also enhanced by some relatively new initiatives, which create the opportunity for more comprehensive earth observing:

  • the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), which is focused on oceans, but has a weather and climate component.
  • the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), with weather and climate components.
  • the Global Atmosphere Watch, which has a climate component but NOT a weather component, and
  • the Global Terrestrial Observing System

From these additional pieces we see plans already in place for components like 3000 Argo floats for measuring ocean salinity and temperature; and 1250 surface drifting buoys; 150 GCOS Upper Air Network instruments; and 1000 GCOS Surface Network stationsÖ

And as we seek funding to fulfill these plans, we also have a great need to sustain funding to maintain and upgrade systems over time.

  • For example, preliminary estimates for replacing 333 GCOS Surface Network sites, 50 radiosonde sites and 3 Global Atmosphere Watch sites will require at least $42 million over a 10 year period. I am happy to announce that NOAA’s budget allocates $4 million this year to strengthen the climate observing capabilities under GCOS.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the current systems, pioneered and advanced by the WMO, is the widespread trust that the general public has in weather forecasts. Yes, people seem to always have something to criticize about the accuracy of forecasts, but they DO rely on this information and use it to make important daily decisions – as evidenced by the economic value that I cited beforeÖThat trust will be an important element of a future comprehensive earth observing system.

Such an Integrated Earth Observing System will move us to accomplishments that go far beyond the next day’s weather. El Nino, for example, provides an excellent preview of what future environmental services can be:

El Nino

As you know, we have a combination of in situ and space observing systems, computers and models that we use today to predict El Nino cycles. This information has significantly increased our skill levels associated with the forecast of general and seasonal winter and summer conditions 3 – 6 months in advance. It took intense international cooperation and 20 years to build, but the major investments in predictive capability – and the observing platforms that provide the data – have proven to be of immense economic and social benefit. It is fairly clear from this demonstrated success that for climate prediction we need to expand and build upon these pieces to diagnose mid-term and long-term climate effects.

Because, As much as we know about the Earth’s climate system – and we have achieved a significant base of knowledge thanks to basic research, critical uncertainties remain. And these uncertainties derive from the incomplete nature of our Earth observation systems.
And climate is just one piece of the puzzle. We need to expand our horizons to include the sensors necessary for unraveling the mysteries of the wide variety of physical, chemical, geological, and biological cycles.

What are the missing pieces?

Recently NOAA has established an observing system architecture effort. The first step was to inventory of our observing networks. We found that we have 99 separate observing systems measuring 521 different environmental parameters. We also found that we have room to further optimize the system. We are now in the process of identifying where duplication exists, and where critical gaps remain. Understanding and cataloguing user requirements will be a major part of this effort. If we can develop an integrated system, fully wired and networked together without duplication, we then have the freedom to install needed new observing stations as well as add new sensors to current platforms. In addition, and most importantly, user data will be easier to process, distribute, and archive in an accessible and affordable.

NOAA applauds similar efforts underway at the WMO, such as the “Redesign the Global Observing System” activity – and we are participating in this important exercise. This is exactly the kind of leadership we need internationally to get this process on to the next level of achievement.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that perhaps the most important, but easily neglected components of an integrated information system for Planet Earth are the areas of Data Management and computing capacity. In order to realize the full benefits of an integrated system, we need the capacity to exchange, store, and disseminate data and information on a free and open basis. We also need supercomputers that have the capability to model the complex ecosystem-based processes that define our world. We certainly applaud the latest developments in this field, such as Japan’s Earth Simulator.

Again, I am pleased to note that the WMO is out front paving the way through the “Future WMO Information System” initiative, and we at NOAA are paying close attention to this activity.

III. The solution – a true integrated Earth observation & information system

Earth Observation Summit

In furtherance of the objective of achieving an integrated and sustained earth observing system, I am pleased to announce that the U.S. will host an Earth Observation Summit on July 31 in Washington DC to bring together Government Ministers of the G-8 and other interested nations, as well as established international organizations including the WMO to promote the concepts I have discussed with you today. The summit will provide a chance to explore and discuss what is needed to commit on the political level to building a comprehensive, integrated and sustained observing system for the Earth. In addition to the Ministerial level meeting, the plan is to establish an international Intergovernmental Ad Hoc Working Group, which will meet the next day. This group will begin development of an international ten-year plan for fielding such a system of systems.

The United States believes that the combined global observations of terrestrial, ocean, and atmospheric phenomena around the world will move us closer to providing “Sound Science for Sound Decisions” to our national and international decision-makers.

The driving social, economic and scientific imperatives that I have described put us in a race against time. We need to take effective collective action. Across the ages, the human species has endeavored to predict the future – and thanks to the WMO and the national partnerships represented here today we have reached a great measure of success with weather forecasts. It is time to take this model and move forward into the full range of earth sciences data observation. The task is difficult, but the stakes are high and the benefits will accrue many-fold to all the nations of the world.

Just as medical doctors must understand the pulse, temperature and blood pressure of their patient, as well as the interrelation of those vital signs to make an accurate diagnosis – we must also look at the Earth as a complex and interrelated system.

We have an historic opportunity before us to truly “take the pulse of Planet Earth” – and address the significant challenges of the 21st century. I look forward to the WMO playing a significant role in meeting this challenge. With your experience and established record of success in building observing systems, you have the ability and the mandate to play a key role and serve as a catalyst for this next level of achievement for the future of humankind. Success is essential. Failure is not an option.

Thank You for your time and attention.

Contact: Richard Ohlemacher – 202.482.1567