Environmental Intelligence

A National Strategy

Fig. 1

In their statistical analysis of worldwide natural disasters, Munich RE data identified 255 natural disasters between January and May of 2011. These produced 31% of insured losses in North America alone.

Fig. 2

Participants of the Environmental Intelligence Roundtable: Three Perspectives on U.S. Needs. From left: Richard L. Engel (Major General USAF, Ret.), National Intelligence Council; Thomas R. Karl, L.H.D., NCDC, NOAA; Charles F. Wald (General USAF, Ret.), Deloitte Services LP.

Fig. 3

During his keynote speech, Carl Hedde of Munich RE presented statistical analysis of natural disaster events and related losses. This graph shows overall and insured losses since 1980, indicating increases. Credit: Munich RE NatCatSERVICE.

Fig. 4

IFPRI researchers show that income and population growth increase food prices. This chart shows author estimates, based on analysis underlying Nelson et al, 2010. Monograph may be found at: www.ifpri.org/publication/food-security-farming-and-climate-change-2050.

Fig. 5

When climate change was added as a variable, prices increased significantly for three stable crops: maize, rice and wheat. Credit: Nelson et al, 2010.

Fig. 6

John L. ‘Jack’ Hayes, Ph.D., Assistant Administrator, Weather Services and Director, National Weather Service, NOAA

Earth Observations Associate
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)
Washington, D.C.


This year, the United States experienced record-breaking extreme weather events and natural disasters. From devastating tornadoes, drought and flood, to hurricanes and record temperatures, every corner of the United States has been impacted. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that in 2011, the U.S. has suffered more than ten billion-dollar disasters, with economic losses totaling almost $50 billion (see www.ncdc.noaa.gov).

Beyond U.S. borders, the situation is not much different, with ongoing recovery efforts from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, storms in Australia, floods in Thailand, and extensive famine in the Horn of Africa. See Figure 1. These events serve as a sobering reminder of the growing need for individuals, businesses and governments around the world to monitor the Earth’s resources and understand the extent and impact of environmental changes.

With this context in mind, and amid a highly uncertain U.S. policy and budgetary environment, Earth observations leaders met in Washington, D.C. this past summer for the Alliance for Earth Observations signature event, The Forum on Earth Observations V: Creating a National Strategy for Environmental Intelligence. The Forum brought together a variety of government, industry and academic leaders to assess U.S. environmental information capabilities and examine the need for a national strategy for environmental intelligence – the most accurate and timely information about our planet, key to improved decision-making.

The final report of the Forum, released in September, captures the findings and recommendations of those who participated in the event as well as the contributions of various thought leaders who shared their views on how to improve the nation’s environmental intelligence capability. Highlights of the report, discussed below, revealed shared concerns about how to meet global demand on environmental information, and how to strengthen the environmental information supply chain, as well as about the need to craft a comprehensive national strategy that ensures the availability of this critical information – now and in the future.

NASA, USGS, NOAA, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation, CSC and Lockheed Martin Corporation sponsored the Forum. For more information and to download the final report, please visit www.forumoneo5.com. To learn more about the Alliance for Earth Observations, visit alliance.strategies.org

Environmental Intelligence and Climate Change

Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ to the mounting pressures of a world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, according to Dr. Gerald Nelson, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). IFPRI recently considered the impact of income and population growth in scenarios of food security through 2050. See Figure 2. When climate change was added as a variable, the price increase of maize, a staple crop, was estimated to double from about 50% increase by 2050 to 100% in the same period (see Figure 3). According to Dr. Nelson, environmental information is critical to understanding the state and changing nature of the planet in order to develop policies that ‘increase the likelihood of sustainable food security even in a world with climate change.’

Climate change is playing a similarly central role in the short- and long-term planning of numerous sectors, including national security, as potential conflict and instability may arise with water and energy scarcity. These findings served to highlight the need for long-term, sustained observations from a variety of platforms for developing global forecasting models. The ability to build resilient communities that can withstand and easily recover from changes in climate depends on environmental information.

Key observations:

  • Environmental information is indispensable for individuals, governments and businesses to adapt to the growing costs imposed by natural disasters.
  • Climate change is considered a critical national security issue. Meeting the challenges it poses requires a long-term planning perspective.
  • Earth observations are fundamental to the activities of the U.S. agencies and other institutions engaged internationally.
  • Unbalanced quality and availability of data hamper the delivery of global assessments of the changes and of growing demand on the world’s resources.
  • Climate change and the need for improved environmental information present an economic opportunity.
  • Research must expand to be more multidisciplinary to incorporate the human component of a changing climate.
  • Education and public outreach are key to addressing climate change and to fostering better uses of limited resources.

Meeting Growing User Demand

Investments in U.S. Earth observation capabilities go well beyond national borders. In the flat world of the 21st century, the effects of disasters that occur in one corner of the world can be felt across continents. Talking about their impact on businesses, Carl Hedde, Senior Vice President of Munich Reinsurance America, described these events as ‘contingent business interruptions’ or ‘business income loss.’ As businesses around the world understand the impact of weather and climate on their bottom lines, environmental intelligence becomes an integral part of business intelligence and the basis for decisions that avoid losses down the road. Figure 4 shows geographic distribution of natural disasters.

Our view here is – use science, use the observations we can get to better prepare America to take actions to prepare for something we can’t avoid.

– John L. ‘Jack’ Hayes, Ph.D., Assistant Administrator, Weather Services and Director, National Weather Service, NOAA

Agencies engaged abroad and in the plant-based sector are part of a growing list of communities that now depend on environmental intelligence. To meet current demand and ensure continued U.S. leadership in Earth observations research and technologies, measurements must be sustained in the long-term, and better data sharing practices must be implemented.

Key observations:

  • A national strategy is needed that ensures long-term measurements and the widespread availability of Earth observations data.
  • Meeting user needs can be improved. Better communicating the information that is collected is a necessary step in this direction.
  • Landsat is one of the most important U.S. contributions to the world.
  • The U.S. open data access is revolutionary and key to facilitating the use of important environmental information around the world. Data sharing standards are essential to enable different organizations and communities to share and use data.

A Changing Landscape

It is not business as usual in the Earth observations world. Budgetary constraints, advances in technology and a rapidly growing private sector are creating pressures and opportunities in the old environmental information data model. Government systems are now bolstered by academic, international and commercial platforms, such as the in-situ systems of companies like Earth Networks and Liquid Robotics. Matching user demand and doing more with less may depend on these kinds of innovative partnerships, where public-private partners share costs and risks and reap the benefits of improved global measurements. To support these initiatives, government can develop standards and design policies that facilitate these relationships while connecting the dots between taxpayer investments and the social and economic benefits enabled by these technologies.

Key observations:

  • A paradigm shift for business intelligence is under way, with more industries realizing the important role of environmental information in the short and long terms.
  • Opportunities exist for improved international cooperation.
  • Fiscal constraints create opportunities to innovate.
  • The data flow model is shifting. Assets include academic, international and commercial platforms, greatly augmenting government capabilities.
  • Public-private partnerships are essential and must be improved.
  • U.S. leadership in Earth observations should be leveraged to present greater economic opportunity for the nation.
  • Given the difficult budget environment, the private sector is expected to play a greater role in the future.


Environmental information does much more than tell us about the Earth’s environment and resources – it also informs decisions. From small decisions at the individual level, such as whether to carry an umbrella, to big decisions at the community or business level, such as where to place a wind farm or how to define building standards, this information plays a fundamental role.

Environmental intelligence is an essential part of efforts to address the 21st century challenges – from transnational threats and food security to climate change. As was noted throughout the Forum, the United States’ declining ability to monitor land, ocean, and atmospheric changes could have devastating consequences, particularly in the area of risk management. Experts agree that environmental intelligence must be a national priority, as it is essential to protecting our citizens, economy, and national security.

At a time of difficult budgetary decisions, the United States must develop a long-term strategy for environmental intelligence that ensures investment on the critical systems and programs upon which the nation and the world depend.

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