GEOSS agreement reached

Almost 60 countries agreed last week to implement a worldwide environmental monitoring system that would include a tsunami detection network.

At the third Earth Observation Summit in Brussels, the leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration met with officials from other nations to talk about examining the environment's health, from detecting early warning signs of tsunamis to diagnosing reports of second-hand Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The leaders agreed to implement the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a 10-year endeavor.

"The goal of the United States, and every country participating in GEOSS, is to ensure that this understanding leads to improved operational capabilities that will be put to work for the benefit of people throughout the world and the economies they depend on," Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator said, in a press release.

Lautenbacher, a retired vice admiral and one of four international co-chairs of the Group on Earth Observations, described the gathering as a turning point in understanding the planet.

As part of America's contribution to GEOSS, NOAA officials proposed spending $9.5 million to expand the U.S. Tsunami Warning Network in fiscal 2006. During two years, $24 million will go toward enlarging the current six-buoy tsunami detection network by 32 buoys in the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The amount will also secure three redundant buoys off the Alaskan coast as backups and 38 new sea-level tide gauge sensors. In addition, NOAA officials will upgrade 20 tsunami detection seismometers and promote community preparedness. This is a public/private partnership.

A global tsunami warning system is just a vision at this point. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission will meet in early March to discuss a technology strategy. One idea floating around is buoys with a two-way communication capability. NOAA expects each country to cooperate with neighbors to develop regional strategies rather than country-by-country solutions.

"There's no commitment yet on how we're coordinating it with all the countries," said Dave Green, who leads integration and planning in NOAA's National Weather Service office of science and technology. As in any international project, GEOSS participants face numerous technical difficulties. Other GEOSS information technology challenges include data sharing and assimilation. The global tsunami warning system will also need new software and commercial satellites, requiring more bandwidth and infrastructure.

GEOSS will build on what is already working in the United States and bring more players to the table, Green said. Supercomputing will be a definite part of the equation. Modeling, crucial to the project, will feed off supercomputer server networks and nodes, churning out real-time data and archiving data.

GEOSS will incur mammoth costs if the plans come to fruition. To predict the course of malaria, SARS and West Nile outbreaks, NOAA officials want to spend $95 million in fiscal 2006, much of which will support satellites.

The project would also produce better drought monitoring, winter weather forecasts months in advance and intricate air quality reports. These results will tell policy-makers where to irrigate farms and when parched drainage basins require upstream water resources.

"The intention is not to observe things but to gather and distribute information," Green said.


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