- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

While a lot of people are talking about potential environmental disasters in the future, not many are doing anything terribly practical about it. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the Bush administration actually is doing something. For example, last week, ministers from more than two dozen countries joined Secretary of State Colin Powell, NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and several other Bush administration officials for an Earth Observation Summit.

The goal of the project is to set up an Earth observation system, a global network of environmental sensors ranging from satellites to ocean buoys, which will monitor everything from air quality to deep ocean currents. Information streams coming from those sensors will be integrated, allowing changes in the states of complex interrelated phenomena such as water cycles and the health of regional ecosystems to be measured accurately. It is hoped that that information will then be used to better predict potential disasters and provide better guidance for policy decisions.

Such an integrated system is needed since most climatological information is currently gathered on an ad hoc basis, even though the systems that drive them are linked. Rainfall in Dallas could affect the water level of the Amazon, but unless those data sets are combined, the picture of hemispheric weather conditions will be incomplete, making regional droughts and drenchings far harder to predict. That problem is multiplied over and over again, because the factors driving climate systems are neither fully known nor fully understood.

However, accurate information can make a huge difference in effective resource-management decisions. Iceland’s sustainable fishing practices are set in the detailed information that its policy-makers have about the state of its fisheries. As a fact sheet from the summit noted, farmers receive about $15 in value for every dollar spent on forecasting — better El Nino forecasts alone are estimated to save the U.S. agricultural industry between $265 million and $300 million each year.

That does not account for the lives that can be saved by better forecasting. For instance, the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900 killed more than 8,000 people, while hurricane Andrew, a storm of roughly equal strength, killed fewer than 50 people when it clobbered Florida in 1992.

It is estimated that the Earth Observation System will take about a decade to become fully operational. A number of difficulties still must be surmounted, ranging from the technical (making sure that computer systems can communicate with one another) to the political (encouraging developed and developing nations to share the environmental data they collect).

“The future of countries large and small, developed and developing, depends upon the global ecosystem that embraces and sustains us all. Whether we are talking about geophysics or geopolitics, our 21st century world is profoundly interconnected,” as Mr. Powell said during his opening statement at the summit.

It is easy for activists to rail against the administration for not taking steps against global warming each time that evidence for what could be significant changes in the climate appears. It is far more difficult for policy-makers — and scientists and engineers — to set up interlinked systems that actually monitor the changing of the climate, so that, when necessary, policy-makers can do something about it.

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