Earth Observation, Global Perspective

Paul RacetteEarth Observation, OpEd, Original

By means of Earth observing systems and nearly-instantaneous global communication, we now witness with acute clarity the deleterious effects of our newly discovered and unabashed powers – not unlike when an invasive species of beetle in a forest discovers what appears to be an endless food supply. One species of life thrives to the detriment of the health and diversity of the broader ecosystem. The beetle population contracts as the resources that have provided its prosperity dwindle; the ecosystem is transformed and returns to a new state of equilibrium characterized by a sustainable existence of its member species. In seven generations from now, what will be the relationship between humans and Earth’s environment? The next state of equilibrium during which humans will live in balance with the Earth’s ecosystems depends on the choices we make today. In turn, those choices are influenced by the way we view Earth.
On the ground, from ships and aircraft and with space-based sensors, we are witnessing rapid changes in the Earth’s environment. Our home planet is changing at an ever increasing rate. In 2007 we observed the greatest decrease in Arctic sea ice. There’s a large uncertainty as to the impact of a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean that now appears imminent. The increased solar absorption and advection from the open water will likely accelerate the heating of the high-latitude regions resulting in substantial changes in global weather patterns. There is large uncertainty as to what extent human activities will change the planet. However, the uncertainty varies between significant environmental impact (e.g., massive erosion and flooding of coastal regions) to catastrophic consequences for life on Earth as we know it. The rate of increase in which species are becoming extinct is alarming. The impact on human life of a substantial fraction of the Earth’s species becoming extinct is likely severe. The exponential expansion of human population coupled with the increased demand for fresh water, food, energy and other raw materials is causing unprecedented environmental degradation. Daily, we each make decisions that impact our environment; collectively our actions affect the health and well being of Earth. Individually and collectively, we have the power to influence our environment and therein resides our hope for future generations.
Earth observation is essential not only to improving our understanding of the tremendously complex and nonlinear Earth processes on which all life depends but is vital to creating greater awareness of our mutual dependencies. It is through this awareness that we may make decisions that will lead to renewed sustainable relations with our environment. Increased awareness and improved understanding of our delicate relationship with Earth may be the greatest legacy of integrating the humanity’s Earth observing systems.
Arriving at a comprehensive system with which to observe the highly dynamic Earth is a formidable challenge, but one we must believe is possible to surmount. The challenge entails technical as well as cultural and political issues. Impacts move across the globe, whether they are severe storms, tsunamis or air quality degradation. To make decisions at a national and regional level that affect the global environment, society’s decision makers must have information that can be trusted and which is accessible on a image of a meadow along a fence with colorful flowerscontinuing basis. The Global Earth Observing System of Systems (or GEOSS) is an endeavor to bring together Earth’s observing systems thereby making available Earth information across disciplinary, geographic and political boundaries. By targeting nine societal benefits areas (disasters, health, energy, climate, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture and biodiversity), GEOSS will result in better understanding of anthropogenic effects and improve life on Earth. As an IEEE contribution, Earthzine strives to increase awareness through fostering and sharing Earth observations.
In October 2007, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the birth of the space age. Subsequently, technological advances have provided astonishing and spectacular views of the universe, including our own home planet. Emergent perceptual powers, like our ability to view Earth in context of its minuscule size relative to cosmic scales, are transforming global awareness. Today, images of Earth from space are ubiquitous. These images enhance our ability to perceive the Earth as an integral body on which all life as we know it depends, including our own. These new perceptual powers enable us to see Earth not as a reservoir of resources for human consumption, but rather as a symbiotic relation essential to sustain human existence.
By creating awareness along with an improved understanding of Earth’s complex interdependent processes, Earth observations provide hope that the human species may live in harmony with Earth.

Paul Racette