“It is the developing countries that have the most to gain from the setting up of a global Earth Observation system. The lack of such makes it terribly difficult to adequately deal with the developing world’s economic, environmental and humanitarian challenges” -- Rob Adam, South Africa’s Director General of the Department of Science and Technology and GEO Co-Chair.
In developing nations, many of which lack strong traditions in cartography and mapping, Earth Observation (EO) technologies have proven essential tools for addressing public policy issues such as deforestation, urban planning, agricultural production and environmental assessment.
However, major impediments to their full exploitation remain in place, including lack of data, lack of tools and lack of expertise.
According to Gilberto Câmera of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the trend has been for the developed world to encourage a private sector-driven approach, increasingly viewing all nations as paying customers. This trend has led to a reduction in the ability of developing nations to access important EO data, given their lack of resources. While some niche institutions in developing countries have been able to use some EO data, widespread access is still denied.
It is argued that, by establishing joint projects and exploiting open source and non-restrictive copyright policies, developing nations are in a position to establish a strong network of co-operative institutions capable of realising the full potential of EO.
Bringing the developing world up to EO speed is one of the goals of the GEO, set up in 2003 and charged with developing a ten-year plan to strengthen co-operation in Earth Observation.
“As the GEO Co-Chair representing South Africa,” says Rob Adam, “I am very happy to see the inclusion of developing countries in the GEO. Today, most of the people in my own country have some notion of EO as a weather monitoring-related technology, but its full impact has not yet come into their awareness. So, in addition to giving them access to EO data, educating our people and bringing them up to speed on the potential benefits of EO is now an important task for all of us.”
Underlying many of the pressures that weigh on the developing world is human population. There are now more than six billion human beings on the planet, and on present trends the UN says we will probably number about 8.9 billion by 2050.
Population growth means that while the proportion of people living in poverty may be falling, the absolute number goes on rising, because fecundity outstrips our efforts to improve their lives. Poverty matters because it leaves many people no choice but to exploit the environment, and it fuels frustration. How can we expect poor people to respect the environment when they need to use it to survive?
Humans have always watched the Earth, at least the part of it they inhabit. Although we often gaze at our surroundings just for pleasure, most of the time people observe the Earth to understand and manage things better, and have done so for a very long time.
Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers watched the seasons to predict animal migrations and organise hunting expeditions; and the first farmers tracked the weather, to know when to plant and when to reap their crops, just as farmers do today. The ancient Egyptians used a ‘nilometre’ to measure rising waters that announced the seasonal floods and unleashed the planting season further downstream. And sailors throughout history have followed and recorded the behaviour of the sky and sea, to ensure safe, ice-free waters and favourable winds on their journeys.
Today there are measuring devices all around us: weather stations at sea inform shipping; seismometers on volcanoes monitor for potential eruptions; pollution meters in cities warn those with allergies; tidal meters in estuaries protect vulnerable communities.
The advent of satellites gave a huge boost to our ability to observe the Earth. The European MeteoSat series of satellites has brought images from space into our television weather forecasts for the last 26 years. International co-operation has always played a role. Even at an early stage, the European Space Agency (ESA), and later Eumetsat, the European organisation for the exploitation of meteorological satellites, co-operated closely with the US TIROS system of weather satellites and its successors.
Before weather satellites were launched meteorologists could only monitor a fifth of the Earths surface, today they can see the whole globe with continuous updates on cloud cover, storms and a host of other parameters.
As satellite and remote sensing technologies advanced satellites began to look at more than just the weather. The US Landsat and French-led SPOT satellites of the 1970’s and 1980’s provided imagery from space for a wide variety of purposes, in science, resource exploitation agriculture and forestry, as well as the monitoring of natural disasters, and they continue this task today.
In 1991 the ESA launched the first of the European remote sensing satellites, ERS-1 and 2, that have provided a wealth of data on the ozone layer, the polar caps and land surfaces; as well as monitoring the consequences of earthquakes and flooding. Europe’s Envisat, launched in 2002, carries sophisticated sensors that, as well as monitoring land, sea and atmosphere, contribute to research on climate change, for example by measuring the radiation reflected by the Earth and chlorophyll production in the seas.
And Envisat is not alone, advanced nations around the world have launched similar satellites and new, more advanced versions are in the planning stages in Europe, the US and Japan. Importantly, international co-operation and coordination has been and remains a key feature of Earth observation activities.
While this international co-operation and coordination has produced many benefits for all, the countries and agencies concerned have been aware that even greater synergies are possible if more of the many monitoring stations, whether earth or space bound, could be linked together.
Set up in 2003, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is an intergovernmental body charged with developing a ten-year plan to strengthen co-operation in Earth Observation, particularly with regard to developing countries. By linking existing land and marine based in-situ, sensor networks with airborne and space-based platforms: duplication can be avoided, gaps can be identified and costs reduced. Such a linked network of sensor platforms, known as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, the GEOSS, would revolutionise not only our understanding of how the world works, but also our ability to manage it for the benefit of all.
Significantly, the GEO not only unites those countries that build, launch and operate satellites, but also many developing countries that would derive great benefits from access to information from the GEOSS. The GEO will present its ten-year plan during the ‘Earth and Space Week’ event, hosted by the European Commission in Brussels in February 2005. The European Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), now in the making, is one of the networks that will contribute greatly to the GEOSS.
Existing EO satellites provide examples of how GEOSS can contribute to a wide range of sectors, humanitarian, health and, of course, environmental, among others:
--The European Commission-funded PUMA project, led by Eumetsat, assists 53 African partners with training and equipment to receive data directly from Europe’s Meteosat MSG satellites. In addition to traditional meteorological information, African national meteorological services can now access data for their own requirements in a whole range of critical areas, such as water management, flood forecasting and monitoring, agricultural management, landslide risk monitoring, food security, post-crisis food aid assessment, forest fire risk assessment, and pest monitoring.
--The EPIDIMIO project is part of ESA’s Tiger initiative for water resource management in Africa that includes the World Health Organisation and partners from Niger, Madagascar, and the Gabon among others. EPIDIMIO is part of the fight against malaria that kills 1.5 million people every year. Using satellites to monitor local climate that influences outbreaks, and water bodies where mosquitoes breed, EPIDIMIO will help predict malaria outbreaks.
--Humanitarian crises in remote areas pose particular problems for aid agencies and politicians alike, they are often difficult to reach and wracked by conflict. Darfur in the Sudan is a case in point. Initially the extent of the crisis was unclear. However, before and after satellite images from the region show clearly the massive destruction of villages by burning, which can be quantified by measuring the difference in albedo (reflected light) from the ground as black ash absorbs sunlight and reduces reflection.
The ability to look down on our planet from space has proved its worth over the last fifty years, bringing better weather forecasting and data on the environment, land use, climate change and a host of other measures that were simply unknown before. As these systems become integrated, so we can expect even more benefits, not only for the developed world, but also in the less developed regions where disease, disasters and the vagaries of the weather hurt most.