Nations Team Up for Earth Observation

Global accord. Representatives from 47 countries have agreed to an ambitious plan to share Earth-observation data.

TOKYO--Representatives from 47 nations have endorsed a 10-year plan to share Earth-observation data, identify gaps in observational efforts, and come up with ways to fill them. The agreement, reached at the second Earth Observation Summit here on 25 April, could help improve forecasting of abnormal weather, understanding of climate change, and management of natural resources.

The idea behind the effort, called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, is straightforward: Dozens of observational systems are now generating reams of data that could be far more powerful if they were combined and widely disseminated. But achieving that goal means overcoming major technical and political hurdles.

"One of the big barriers to combining these systems is to find common data formats," says Paul Gilman, assistant administrator for research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That will be the first order of business under the new plan. Another hurdle will be agreeing on what data will be shared. Japan, for example, won't disclose fisheries data that could help Chinese and Korean fleets plying their shared oceans, says Akio Yuki, deputy minister of Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. Some countries also may be reluctant to share information that has national security value.

There are also fiscal challenges ahead. Maximizing the benefits from existing observational schemes "will require a significant effort in capacity building for developing countries," says Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of the International Oceanographic Commission. U.S. officials have said that the industrialized world needs to stand ready to foot the bill.

Despite the slew of unresolved issues, participants at the summit are ready to move ahead. "It seems a simple paper," says Achilleas Mitsos, director-general for research at the European Commission. But behind the parchment lies a significant amount of work, he says, and the hope that it "will lead to action and not just wishful thinking."

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