Figure 1 Miansizhen, China after the May 12, 2008 earthquake, taken by IKONOS on May 23, 2008. Credit: GeoEye.

Observing Earth

In a Changing Political Climate

The year 2008--with a devastating cyclone in Myanmar, a catastrophic earthquake in China, and a tornado season off to a record-setting pace and massive flooding in the United States—has demonstrated like never before the importance of environmental information to protecting life, property and economic well being (see Figures 1-4).

Figure 2 Floods from high volumes of rainfall and breached levees created major problems alon rivers throughout the Midwestern region of the U.S. for several weeks. This IKONOS image of Gulfport, Illinois was taken on June 20, 2008. Credit: GeoEye.

Figures 3-4 Rangoon (or Yangon), Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. These 1-m satellite images were collected by GeoEye's IKONOS satellite as part of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. The "before" (left) image was taken on Nov. 27, 2007 and "after" was post-cyclone on May 7, 2008. Extensive damage and flooding occurred inthe city of Rangoon. Standing water has engulfed trees and made small tributaries into swollen rivers. These images also appear on the cover. Credit: GeoEye/CRISP-Singapore.

This being a presidential election year, interest is building within the U.S. Earth-observations sector, and in sectors that depend on observational data, as to how high a priority the next administration will assign to observing the planet, especially as many of the nation's Earth-observing instruments approach the end of their operational lifetimes.

"The playing field for Earth observations has changed. Not only are U.S. observing systems in decline, but the demand for climate and environmental information is greater than it's ever been," said Nancy Colleton, executive director of the Alliance for Earth Observations, a group of industry, academic and nongovernmental organizations that promotes the use of Earth observations for societal and economic benefit. "You can't have sound climate or environmental policy, mitigate risk or develop adaptation strategies without credible and timely Earth observations. This has to be a priority for the next administration."

Earlier this year, a group of organizations led by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) urged the next administration and Congress to "take actions to make our nation resilient to severe weather and climate change." Its recommendations included increasing funding for satellites and land-based instruments, increasing the computer power available for Earth science research and weather and climate forecasts, and supporting education and training to use observations, models and related tools.

Anything less will put both individuals and the country as a whole at risk, says UCAR president Rick Anthes. "Earth and its life support systems—and its ability to provide people with the rapidly increasing demand of clean fresh water, food, energy and other vital needs—are under severe and increasing stress, which threatens national security on many fronts," Anthes said. "We must move Earth observations and related information systems to a much higher priority."

There's been plenty of talk in recent years about the need for U.S. investment in sustained observations of the Earth system, and about the potential social and economic consequences of failing to do so. A 2007 report by the National Academies went so far as to outline a strategy for Earth observations over the next decade, including specific steps necessary to ensure continuity of existing observations in the face of a deteriorating fleet of Earth-observing satellites. See Figures 5-6.

But talk is cheap compared to action. Development, launch and operation of the NASA and NOAA missions recommended by the National Academies would cost an estimated $7.5 billion.

Rep. Mark Udall argues that it's a small price to pay for a potentially big return. "The knowledge gained carrying out the missions recommended by the National Academies Decadal Survey will return benefits to society far in excess of the cost of our investment in those missions," said the Colorado Democrat.

In May, Udall introduced a NASA authorization bill (H.R. 6063, which passed the full House on June 18, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on June 24) that compels NASA to submit a plan to Congress describing how the agency intends to implement the missions recommended by the National Academies. The bill allocates just over $1.5 billion for Earth science in fiscal year 2009, out of a total NASA budget of $20.2 billion.

"NASA has an important role to play in advancing the nation's Earth-observations research and applications capabilities, and H.R. 6063 will help to ensure that NASA is able to meet its responsibilities in that regard," Udall said.

H.R. 6063 also requires NASA to provide a plan that ensures continuity of Landsat thermal infrared data, used to calculate evapotranspiration and water use on a field-by-field basis. Landsat is a series of satellites, managed jointly by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, that have imaged the Earth's landscape since 1972.

Figure 5 Recommended missions supporting extreme-event warnings would enable effective evacuation planning and preparation. These missions would provide for long-term, more reliable storm track forecasts, storm intensification predictions, and volcanic eruption and landslide warnings. Credit: Reprinted with permission from the National Academies Press, Copyright 2007, National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists and policymakers have expressed concern that funding for a thermal sensor has not been included in the budget for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission scheduled to launch in 2011 as a replacement for the aging Landsat 7 spacecraft, and that a gap in this data could mean a loss of information critical to monitoring drought conditions and managing water resources.

While adequate funding is always a concern for the Earth-observations community, so too is a lack of organization and leadership. The question of who should take the lead when it comes to planning and managing U.S. Earth observations has long been a complicated issue, with Earth-observing activities and budgets scattered among several different agencies, including NASA, NOAA, and USGS.

To address the issues of organization and leadership, H.R. 6063 will instruct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to "enter into an arrangement with the National Academies for a study to determine the most appropriate governance structure for United States Earth Observations programs," and to provide a plan for implementing the study's recommendations within two years of the bill's passage.

Figure 6 Space-based missions from 2000-2020. All the recommended missions are assumed to operate for 7 years, including 4 years of extended mission. Human health is not a separate category as a theme because the committee determined that most missions contribute to human health. Credit: Reprinted with permission from teh National Academies Press. Copyright 2007, National Academy of Sciences.

OSTP and other White House offices are the subjects of a report that was released in June by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a research center in Washington, D.C. The report's findings—based in part on interviews with science and technology leaders from the public and private sectors, including former White House science advisors—were expected to present a set of best practices designed to enhance the effectiveness of the next administration's science and technology policymaking.

"Looking ahead, the United States must position itself to be a global leader in advancing Earth-observation systems and the decision support tools that will integrate the data generated by these systems into a wide range of value-added products," said Mark Schaefer, coauthor of the Wilson Center report. "This is one of several important areas where OSTP must have the capacity to shape the next administration's policies and ensure an efficient, well-coordinated, multi-agency effort to implement them."

Efforts to increase the impact of Earth observations have been hampered not only by a void in leadership, but also by a failure to transition new technology from research to operations efficiently. While NASA's role is traditionally one of mainly research, the agency often launches and manages satellites that provide data used by NOAA for operational purposes, such as weather and climate forecasts. On this front, H.R. 6063 will direct OSTP to work together with NOAA to develop a process for federal agencies to transition appropriate NASA missions or sensors to operational status.

Both NASA and NOAA have been targets of congressional scrutiny in recent years. Attention on NASA has focused on whether its emphasis on returning humans to the moon and eventually reaching Mars and beyond, as outlined in President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration announced in 2004, has shortchanged agency activities in Earth science and disciplines.

Interest in NOAA, meanwhile, has centered on its management of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), discussed in multiple congressional hearings and documented by the Government Accounting Office. NPOESS, the first satellite of which is scheduled to launch around 2013, has fallen victim to cost overruns, delays, and the stripping of some sensors from the mission during the past several years.

However, at the pleading of scientists and the recommendation of the National Academies, some sensors that had been removed have been restored, either to NPOESS or to the NPOESS Preparatory Project, scheduled for a 2010 launch and meant to bridge the gap between NASA's dying suite of Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites and NPOESS. These include the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), which measures the total amount of solar energy coming into the Earth's atmosphere, and the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite Limb, an instrument for measuring the vertical distribution of ozone.

Earth and its life support systems —and its ability to provide people with the rapidly increasing demand of clean fresh water, food, energy and other vital needs — are under severe and increasing stress, which threatens national security on many fronts.
— Rick Anthes, UCAR
Also of note is the addition of the Clouds and Earth Radiant Energy System (CERES) on the NPOESS Preparatory Project. CERES will complement TSIS measurements by providing information on how clouds influence the Earth's energy balance and the role they play in regulating climate.

Charles Kennel, formerly the director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and associate administrator for NASA, warns that the restoration of a few sensors and implementation of the National Academies recommendations may still fall short of what is needed.

NASA and NOAA Earth-observing satellites "are aging and the replacement plans are fragmentary, inadequate and were started much too late," said Kennel, who heads the Environment and Sustainability Initiative at the University of California, San Diego. "On the NASA side, there is no plan to explicitly replace EOS, and what the decadal survey has recommended is only a down payment on what will be needed."

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a policy research institute in Washington, D.C., is due to release in mid-July a report assessing the current state of Earth observations. The report was to identify the gap between user requirements and the current and planned Earth-observation capabilities, and to recommend long-term strategies for acquiring the data needed to understand and respond to global environmental change.

"In order for the U.S. to derive full benefits from its past investments in Earth observations and deliver on their potential for its citizens and people around the world, it is critically important that the U.S. set a long-term strategy for Earth observations," said Lyn Wigbels, senior associate for CSIS's Space Initiatives Program and primary author of the report.

Many of the deficiencies expected to be highlighted in the CSIS report were supposed to be addressed by the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System (IEOS), the U.S. component of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), an international initiative of more than 70 countries and the European Commission to link observing instruments around the world. A strategic plan for IEOS released in 2005 set goals and requirements for U.S. observing systems organized around nine societal benefit areas, ranging from improved weather forecasting to the monitoring and managing of water and energy resources.

But some Earth-observation advocates say privately that IEOS and GEOSS have not lived up to their billing, in part because the Bush administration has not made either a high enough priority, even as it acknowledged in a scientific assessment released in May that a changing climate "is very likely… to have significant effects on" U.S. water resources, agriculture, land resources, biodiversity, and human health and other resources over the next few decades and beyond.

Kennel still sees a bright upside for GEOSS, albeit slow in the making. "All international voluntary efforts are necessarily slow, and GEOSS is only now beginning to show results that affect actual observations," he said. "It is important that these efforts continue, as there is nothing better on the horizon. GEOSS has not failed, but it has not yet succeeded."

The slow pace of efforts to improve Earth observations and to enable more informed decision-making poses an increasing risk to lives, livelihoods and economies in the United States and around the world as weather becomes more extreme in some places, natural disasters pile up, and evidence for climate change mounts. The refrain is much the same every time nature strikes, says Michael Keebaugh, president of Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems, which is working on ground segments of NPOESS.

"We hear almost daily about the devastating and deadly impacts of floods, droughts, forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes or volcanoes around the world," Keebaugh said. "A recurring theme in each of these natural disasters is the need for better and more timely information, both pre- and post-disaster, greater accessibility to that information, better integrated and more accurate forecast models, and improved decision support tools."

The restoration of a few sensors and implementation of the National Academies' recommendations may still fall short of what is needed.

By Dan Stillman, Science Communications Manager, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Arlington, Va.


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