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Global Earth Observation System Could Significantly Cut Disaster Toll


A new global Earth observation system, that could save lives in disasters such as the recent cyclone in southern Bangladash, is being reviewed at a ministerial-level summit in Cape Town this week. VOA's Delia Robertson in Johannesburg has this report.

The Group on Earth Observations, or GEO, is meeting this week in Cape Town to discuss their worldwide effort to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS. The system will build on existing global systems to provide near real-time data on changes in the Earth's lands, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere through a single Web portal.

The global satellite system should come on line within 10 years, potentially saving billions of dollars and thousands of lives by boosting preparedness for natural disasters.

GEO - made up of 71 governments, the European Commission and 46 organizations, including the European Space Agency - says since it was established two years ago it has developed 100 different programs and products to monitor and share data about earth's climate.

GEO's director, José Achache, says the program's goal is to link the world's widely dispersed ocean buoys, weather stations, satellites and other Earth observation instruments into one seamless system.

"We are trying as much as possible to rely on existing resources, existing systems, and we are essentially trying to make these systems connected, and interoperable," he said. "So what we are developing are the rules, the standards, the agreements in order to make these systems interoperable. We are not really developing new technologies specifically for GEOSS implementation."

Achache says a new system has been developed that is benefitting poor countries. The system uses four existing satellites to transmit data to hundreds of small computers in developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America.

"The European Commission [and] other players have distributed these receiving stations to developing countries in Africa, the Chinese have distributed the receiving stations to many countries in Asia, the U.S. is distributing these receiving stations in South America and its working incredibly well," said Achache.

Already there are benefits. In Central America, the Regional Visualization and Monitoring System known by its Spanish acronym, Servir, is using data obtained from satellites to assist in regional weather forecasting, disaster management, and monitoring air pollution, red tides and fire.

Servir's Daniel Irwin tells VOA they have also developed a unique fire-monitoring tool.

"The system would actually send you an email, with a picture from the satellite saying "Hey, you've got a fire going on, in this location," he said.

The system also aims to help health officials prevent epidemics and guard against man-made environmental damage. In the Sahel region, which runs 2,400 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa, GEO's Achache says weather modeling is helping the World Health Organization accurately plan its meningitis vaccination programs.

"We are using environmental data to forecast the next outbreak of meningitis so that the vaccination campaign can be focused on these areas, and we also by anticipating the rainy season which usually announces the end of the outbreak, we can then direct the WHO teams to stop the vaccination in this area, and start moving to more demanding ones," he said.

The group said technology had already significantly reduced death tolls from disasters, and GEOSS would take that further.

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