Earth Observation Data Continuity and New Approach to Climate Change Debate Needed

Earth Observation Data Continuity and New Approach to Climate Change Debate Needed

Ensuring the continuity of data streams from earth observation satellites and changing the framework of the debate over climate change were key messages from yesterday’s Forum for Earth Observations V. The Forum was sponsored by the Alliance for Earth Observations and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

Focusing on the need to create a national strategy for environmental intelligence, the day-long meeting brought together business and government representatives to talk about the importance of sustained environmental observations. There was a general understanding that today’s economic situation means that everyone must do more with less. Nonetheless, speakers emphasized that such data are needed not only for research into climate change and government intelligence analyses of global changes in supplies of food, water and energy, but also to support businesses like the insurance industry.

Although the meeting’s emphasis was on satellite observations, William Vass of Liquid Robotics reminded the audience that the Earth is 70 percent ocean and robotic platforms that can operate autonomously at sea for two years, like those developed by his company, are another method of obtaining data.

One business use of remote sensing data highlighted at the Forum was the insurance industry. Carl Hedde of Munich RE reviewed the worldwide natural disasters that have occurred just in the first five months of 2011 — from earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan to tornadoes and floods in the United States. Insured losses in the United States alone from these events total more than $11 billion, he said. His company thinks climate change is one factor in the weather-related events and is investing in climate change research itself.

Climate change is an emotional topic. Sharon Hays, Vice President for the Office of Science and Engineering at CSC and a former congressional and White House staffer, called for a new way to communicate about climate change issues. “What we’re doing doesn’t work,” Hays stressed. Too much attention is focused on whether it is human induced or natural instead of what needs to be done to adapt to it, she said.

Another key message was the need for public-private partnerships between businesses and the government to effectively utilize environmental data. Engaging with corporate executives to help them understand the impact climate change could have on their businesses is one step that is needed, Hays pointed out. “Did you know that all of our data centers are located in the same 100 year flood plain?” she asked. What happens when that becomes a 50 year flood plain, or 25 year flood plain is critical to businesses. She challenged the audience to think about “how we shift the debate,” and “how do we stimulate the climate service industry?”

Hays was on Capitol Hill in 1996 just after Republicans took control of the House after decades in the minority. She recalled that doubling funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was a big issue at the time. Increasing NIH funding to that extent “seemed like fantasy,” but what persuaded the Republican leadership, including then-Speaker and current presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was hearing from biotech and other companies about how that government investment would create jobs. It was not about scientists and the data they needed. The key is appealing to “pocketbook issues,” she said, and harnessing non-traditional users of environmental observations to make them advocates for that data — “Then we start to change the debate.”

The meeting was a love fest for the venerable Landsat series of medium resolution land imaging data. The first Landsat was launched by NASA in 1972. The most recent, Landsat 7, has been in orbit since 1999. It and Landsat 5 (1984) continue to operate with partial capabilities well past their design lifetimes. The need to ensure continuity of that data series was stressed throughout the day by speakers both from the public and private sectors. Many also heralded the 2008 U.S. Government decision to make Landsat data freely available to anyone.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), part of the Department of the Interior (DOI), manages distribution and archiving of Landsat data and its role in the program will change dramatically if Congress agrees. David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), enthusiastically told the audience that in the FY2012 budget request his department has proposed taking over the Landsat program “lock, stock and barrel” from NASA. The budget request proposes that USGS not only take the primary role for the next in the series, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) or Landsat 8 – scheduled for launch in 2012 – but also initiate planning for Landsat 9 and 10.

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