Friday, February 18, 2005

As South Asia’s recent tsunami tragedy dramatically demonstrated, we cannot prevent nature’s incredible power. Under President Bush’s leadership, the U.S. led international efforts to assist the victims of the tsunami.

Now the United States will again lead creation of a comprehensive and integrated Earth observation system that can save lives. This will allow countries throughout the world to better predict weather and climate and prepare for natural hazards before they strike.

This week, in conjunction with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, I led the U.S. delegation to Brussels for the Earth Observation Summit. We presented the Bush administration’s plan for an integrated Earth observation system to ministers from nearly 60 countries and the European Commission. The goal of this third Earth Observation Summit was to agree on a framework for integrated monitoring of our ever-changing environment.

The value of observation systems was clearly demonstrated by the tsunami catastrophe. For the first time, there are countries as geographically removed as Russia and Sudan and as culturally different as Ireland and India uniting behind this effort. The moment has come to move Earth observation to the next level.

When this system is completed, the world will be linked through thousands of separate sensors on land, sea, air and space. The technology is available, but the many individual data sets and limited observation systems lack integration and consistency. There are too many gaps in the present system; we need to fill in the missing pieces and complete the Earth observation puzzle. These data will contribute to our understanding of the complex interactions on Earth. People anywhere in the world will be able to take the pulse of the planet by sharing information and research. This will create enormous benefits for the economy, the environment and public health and safety.

More than $3 trillion, a third of our national economy, is affected by climate and weather. Agriculture, energy, construction, insurance and transportation industries are among those at risk. Studies have shown that, for the United States, forecasting the weather with just 1 degree Fahrenheit greater accuracy could save at least $1 billion annually in electricity costs. Today, our ability to more accurately forecast hurricanes has prevented nearly $2 billion in yearly damage costs.

The environmental implications are especially promising. Resource managers will be able to see in real time the effect of various phenomena on ecosystems and make informed policy decisions. The effects of drought can be mitigated, protecting citizens from deadly wildfires and directing supplies where needed. More accurate predictions about rainfall or the amount of water retained in the soil would empower farmers to alter crops and increase yields.

The health of our water, endangered species and air can be monitored constantly. The combined global systems will provide sound science for sound decisions.

An integrated observation system will also help protect communities from natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes and even tsunami. Coastal storms account for some 70 percent of U.S. disaster losses annually. Each event costs about $500 million. Improved tracking and forecasting will help save lives and will save businesses millions of dollars lost to unnecessary closures and evacuations.

The recently announced tsunami detection and warning systems are a vital component of the Global Earth Observation System. Their safety net over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans will provide more advance warning.

The global observation system’s importance will only increase. Worldwide population is projected to nearly double in coming decades. This will increase demands for food, clean water, energy and safe and healthy habitats.

The meeting in Brussels recognized these challenges. This initiative is an international commitment to promote the health, safety and prosperity of all the world’s citizens via innovation, technological advances and inspired cooperation.

Another example of U.S. leadership. It should make us proud.

Carlos M. Gutierrez is the U.S. secretary of commerce.

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