The GEO and GEOSS process: an Austrian perspective

EarthzineArticles, Disasters, Earth Observation, GEO/GEOSS News, Original, Sections, Technology, Weather

Image of the Austrian flag

G. Wotawa1, E. Rudel1, E. Koch1


GEOSS, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, is envisioned to eventually become a global public infrastructure that generates data needed for the benefit of society. The system is being established by GEO, the Group on Earth Observations. Austria formally joined GEO in 2009, after having participated as an observer since 2005.

Austria has been highly active in space research for many decades. It joined the European Space Agency (ESA) as an associate member in 1981 and as a full member in 1987. The AustroMIR project with the former Soviet Union provided the opportunity to participate in a manned space mission and to perform various experiments (Besser, 2004). Austria is also being active in the domain of meteorological satellites, in particular regarding the utilization of such data to improve weather analyses and forecasts. Today, Austria contributes more than 1% of the annual ESA budget. It is a member country of the European Meteorological Satellite Organization (EUMETSAT) as well as the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). The first Austrian Nano-Satellite, TUGSAT-1, BRITE-Austria (BRIght Target Explorer) is scheduled for launch in 2011. It is an astronomical research satellite (investigation of the brightness oscillations of massive luminous stars by differential photometry).

Regarding space technology applications, Austria is generally very engaged in the area of Earth observations, compared with manned spaceflights and the exploration of other planets where no particular priorities are set. Thematic areas of interest are geo-informatics, geodesy, geophysics (seismology, magnetic, gravimetric), meteorology/climatology, environmental sciences, snow and ice cover and energy. There is certainly a strong focus on capacity building and international cooperation as a result of the large number of international organizations working in Austria. Due to the geographical situation of the country, mountain research is also a priority.

The notion of a full international exchange of quality-controlled and standardized data, one of the backbones of the whole GEO process, is in essence nothing new from the meteorological viewpoint. The establishment of an International Meteorological Organization (IMO) was agreed at the International Meteorological Conference in Vienna in September 1873. IMO was the predecessor of today’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) founded in 1947 (agreement on WMO Convention; entry into force 1950). The free global exchange of meteorological data and products is still a role model of how things should develop in other areas. The world-wide meteorological infrastructure is both unprecedented and unmatched, compared with other areas GEOSS deals with. On the other hand, it is understood that the current global meteorological infrastructure is not sufficient to monitor the status of the whole Earth system, and that the meteorological community needs to take into account external user requirements as well.

Austria’s Involvement in the GEO/GEOSS Process and Similar EU Initiatives

The European Union as well as most of its member states take part in the GEO/GEOSS process. As part of the EU space program, the EU Earth observation program GMES was established. Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) consists of a space component, an in-situ component and a service component. The program is being legally implemented by an EU regulation. The EU defines GMES as a European contribution to GEO (European Commission, 2009). Within GMES and other European initiatives, general links to GEO/GEOSS are made, but direct references to GEO/GEOSS are frequently missing. This reduces the general visibility of GEO/GEOSS within the EU, but also within the member states. For example, regular calls for proposals are issued as part of the Austrian Space Program (ASAP). These calls have referred to GMES, but not to GEO and GEOSS. In general, Austrian players have been very successful in receiving funding in the area of GMES. This is particularly true for small and medium enterprises (SME), working in the areas of remote sensing, data analysis and geo-informatics, some of them spinoffs from university institutes or research institutions.

There is also an EU legal initiative related to the GEO/GEOSS process, namely the INSPIRE Directive (EU, 2007). This directive creates a legal framework to ensure that the individual spatial data infrastructures of the EU countries are compatible and usable within the whole community. This directive is currently being implemented by Austria in a 10-year process that started in 2009. The national contact point of INSPIRE is hosted by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (Lebensministerium). The Austrian government’s approach is to implement INSPIRE: (i) without modification of any competencies and responsibilities between federal government (‰ÛÏBund‰Û) and provincial governments (‰ÛÏLänder‰Û); (ii) to stay with the decentralized data ownership and distribution; and (iii) to implement only what is strictly legally required (‰ÛÏno golden plating‰Û). The current situation is that a federal implementation law was adopted by the Austrian parliament and is in force (Austrian Federal Law Collection, 2010). However, some required provincial implementation laws are missing, and thus law infringement proceedings against Austria were initiated by the European Commission. The first INSPIRE-compatible catalog, mapping and download services are scheduled for implementation in 2011.

Figure 1: Austrian Federal Ministries in charge of the policy areas GMES, INSPIRE and GEO and existing governmental/inter-ministerial coordination processes.

Figure 1: Austrian Federal Ministries in charge of the policy areas GMES, INSPIRE and GEO and existing governmental/inter-ministerial coordination processes.

In Austria, most of the geographical as well as environmental data are collected and stored under the responsibility of the Provinces. The GEO portal of the Austrian Provinces, GEOLAND.AT, offers free access to important Geodata available in Austria. Environmental data is made available by the Austrian Federal Environment Agency, the ‰ÛÏUmweltbundesamt‰Û (UBA). Under international obligations, data are regularly transmitted to the European Environment Agency (EEA), and put into the EEA’s AIRBASE database, a public air quality database containing air quality monitoring information for more than 30 participating countries in Europe. A portal of all environmental data in Austria, however, does not exist yet. Such an environmental information portal is, for example, available in Germany (PortalU). Meteorological and climatological data and information are collected by a federal agency, the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics (ZAMG), by the weather service of AUSTRO CONTROL, a government-owned Austrian Air Traffic Management and Control Company, and also by the environmental offices of the Austrian Provinces within the framework of their air quality monitoring networks. Some of the meteorological data is regularly put into the Global Telecommunication System (GTS) of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and is thus internationally available in a standardized format.

National Competences, Responsibilities and Inter-Ministerial Coordination

Looking at areas of responsibility within the current Austrian government structure, GMES is a policy area of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology (BMVIT). The Austrian space policy and the related funding mechanisms are managed by this ministry. On the other hand, GEO/GEOSS is a policy area of the Federal Ministry for Science and Research (BMWF). This ministry is in charge of the universities and large research institutions. INSPIRE in Austria is, as mentioned, coordinated by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (Lebensministerium). There are some government coordination mechanisms in existence, namely the Inter-Ministerial Group Space Politics (IMG Weltraum), and the E-Government Project Group for Environmental Data and Information (see Figure 1). There is, however, no coordination process in place that directly interlinks GEO, GMES and INSPIRE at the Austrian ministerial level. Also at the European Community level, there is no linkage between the European GEO High Level Working Group (HLWG) and the GMES Partners Board. These boards are set up differently and do not have joint meetings. GEO is managed by the Directorate General for Research (DG-Research) of the European Commission, while GMES is managed by the Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry (DG-ENTR).

Figure 2: Key research infrastructure in Austria: The Mount Sonnblick high-mountain observatory in Salzburg and the Conrad geomagnetic and seismic observatory in Lower Austria.

Figure 2: Key research infrastructure in Austria: The Mount Sonnblick high-mountain observatory in Salzburg and the Conrad geomagnetic and seismic observatory in Lower Austria.

The Federal Ministry of Science and Research has appointed the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics to host a small Austrian GEO Secretariat. Tasks of the secretariat include: participating in the GEO Assembly and the meetings of the European High-Level Working Group; acting as a national point of contact for persons and institutions interested and/or involved in GEO activities; coordinating Austria’s involvement in specific GEO tasks (national prioritization); identifying GEO-related research and development needs and the channeling of these requirements to the BMWF; and last but not least, public information activities related to GEO. On 25 November 2010, the first Austrian GEO/GEOSS workshop organized by the Austrian GEO secretariat took place in Vienna. More than 60 experts from different relevant areas participated.

Austrian Contribution to GEO/GEOSS

Regarding the Austrian contribution to GEO, Austria has been active in the User Interface Committee (UIC) and in the Capacity Building Committee (CBC). At the GEO-VII Assembly in Beijing, Austria nominated a co-chair to the CBC. Austria contributed to some GEO tasks, including the task US-09-03d global phenology data as co-chair and the tasks CB-09-03a (Building National and Regional Capacity) / CB-09-03b (Establishing Regional Capacity Building Networks). Austria is hosting a meeting of the GEO User Interface Committee from 25-28 January 2011. Austria has not registered any datasets for GEOSS so far, but plans to start doing so in the near future.

Figure 3: The eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallaj̦kull in Iceland in April 2010 as seen from space in EUMETSAT satellite images (copyright, EUMETSAT 2010).

Figure 3: The eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallaj̦kull in Iceland in April 2010 as seen from space in EUMETSAT satellite images (copyright, EUMETSAT 2010).

There are a number of international organizations in Austria with direct or at least indirect relevance to GEO/GEOSS. The Vienna-based United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) supports developing countries with the provision of Earth observation data in crisis situations (earthquakes, flooding) through the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER). UN-SPIDER was established in December 2006 by a U.N. General Assembly Resolution. This program is strongly supported by the Austrian government. The International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) was founded in 1972 as an international research organization that conducts policy-oriented research into problems that are too large or too complex to be solved by a single country or academic discipline. It is based in Laxenburg in the vicinity of Vienna, Austria and participates in GEO as a cooperating organization. It has led studies investigating the economic benefit of GEOSS within the framework of the GEOBENE project (Fritz et al., 2008). There are other Vienna-based organizations that either work in GEO-related areas or own GEO-relevant data, but are not part of the GEO process for various reasons. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has a number of thematic priorities including energy and the environment, which is a GEO Societal Benefit Area (SBA). The aim of this work is to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns with programs addressing the delinking of economic growth and environmental degradation through improved efficiency and sustainability in the use of resources and production processes. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also has an energy-related program and performs analyses for sustainable energy development. The aim is to enhance the capacity of Member States to perform their own analyses regarding electricity and energy system development, energy investment planning and energy-environment policy formulation which supports developing countries in the development of their energy systems.

A very special case is the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), an international organization that is building up a world-wide network of monitoring stations to detect clandestine nuclear explosions. This International Monitoring System (IMS) consists of four technologies, namely seismic, infrasound, hydroaccoustic and radionuclide. The system has a variety of civil and scientific applications, including tsunami warning, seismic risk analysis, early detection of earthquakes and climate change research. Thus, IMS data cover a range of GEO SBAs. Nevertheless, since the CTBTO is working in the disarmament area and the treaty verification data are protected and confidential, any exchange in the framework of GEO/GEOSS appears to be currently unfeasible for political reasons. Some countries are generally very restrictive regarding the IMS data due to the fact that they can, in principle, be used for various surveillance purposes (e.g., monitoring of explosions, missile starts and nuclear activities); other countries will not agree on data exchange until the treaty has entered into force. One of the major reasons that the CTBT is not in force yet, and is not expected to enter into force in the foreseeable future, is the missing U.S. ratification.

National Assets and Priorities

Figure 4: Volcanic ash plumes as recorded by ground-based optical instruments: Ceilometer of the DWD (Deutscher Wetterdienst) on Hohenpeissenberg (top) and LIDAR of the Max-Planck Institute in Hamburg (bottom). Backscatter from clouds are highlighted as ‰ÛÏWolken‰Û and the atmospheric boundary layer as ‰ÛÏBodennahe Grenzschicht‰Û (copyright: Deutscher Wetterdienst and Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology)

Figure 4: Volcanic ash plumes as recorded by ground-based optical instruments: Ceilometer of the DWD (Deutscher Wetterdienst) on Hohenpeissenberg (top) and LIDAR of the Max-Planck Institute in Hamburg (bottom). Backscatter from clouds are highlighted as ‰ÛÏWolken‰Û and the atmospheric boundary layer as ‰ÛÏBodennahe Grenzschicht‰Û (copyright: Deutscher Wetterdienst and Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology)

Austria has two observatories that also serve as platforms for national as well as international research in different areas (see Figure 2). Both observatories are operated by the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics. Firstly, there is the high mountain observatory at Mount Sonnblick (3105 m above sea level) in Salzburg, where meteorological, climatological and environmental monitoring are performed (see, e.g., Coen, 2009). The observatory has been operated continuously since it was established in 1886, based on the insight that surface observations alone are insufficient to describe the four-dimensional state of the atmosphere. Second, there is the Conrad Observatory, which is named after the famous seismologist and climatologist Victor Conrad (1876 – 1962), who worked at the Central Institute for many years. The observatory is situated about 50 km south west of Vienna, within a nature reserve at the outskirts of the Eastern Alps, at the so-called “Trafelberg” in Lower Austria (1000 m above sea level). The observatory serves three different geophysical disciplines, namely seismology, gravimetry and geomagnetism. The observatory is in its final construction phase. Upon completion in 2011, the observatory will have one 413 m tunnel deep into the mountain in addition to the 145 m tunnel that is already in operation. One of the devices currently operated there is a supra-conducting gravimeter GWR C025 of which only 20 are in existence world-wide. The observatory hosts the master station of the seismological service of Austria, and is also utilized for verification activities related to the CTBT, for example seismic monitoring (for Austrian national purposes) and infrasound monitoring (CTBTO test array).

Figure 5: Volcanic ash recorded by in-situ measurements at the European high-mountain observatories of Sonnblick, Austria (top;particles above 5 åµm diameter increased) and Jungfraujoch, Switzerland (bottom; enhanced concentrations of PM10 and SO2).

Figure 5: Volcanic ash recorded by in-situ measurements at the European high-mountain observatories of Sonnblick, Austria (top; particles above 5 åµm diameter increased) and Jungfraujoch, Switzerland (bottom; enhanced concentrations of PM10 and SO2).

Importance of Free Data Exchange for Disaster Management

There is hardly an area where the importance of the GEO process, especially the data sharing principles, becomes as evident as in the areas of disaster management and emergency response. A recent example was the situation in Europe after the eruptions of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in April and May 2010. Large parts of European airspace were shut down for several days. The total financial impact of the event has been estimated at ‰â 5 billion (Oxford Economics, 2010). In the first phase, satellite measurements were the only tool available to monitor the transport of the ash plume (see Figure 3). Monitoring results from LIDARS (EARLINET network; see Ansmann et al., 2010) and Ceilometers (operated by weather services to monitor cloud cover) were made available after a few days, strongly supporting the assessment of the situation (see Figure 4). Furthermore, data from the UK Met Office and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) BAe 146 aircraft, the German (DLR) Falcon aircraft (Schumann et al., 2010) and the UK NERC Dornier aircraft proved invaluable for assessing the concentrations of ash in the air over Europe during the April/May crisis. Last but not least, aerosol number densities and PM10 concentrations from the high-mountain observatories in Austria and Switzerland provided important input to the situation assessment (Figure 5; Wotawa et al., 2010 a,b). This underscores the crucial importance of data sharing and international cooperation during emergency situations.


Ansmann, A., et al. (2010), The 16 April 2010 major volcanic ash plume over central Europe: EARLINET lidar and AERONET photometer observations at Leipzig and Munich, Germany, Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L13810, doi:10.1029/2010GL043809.

Austrian Federal Law Collection (2010): Bundesgesetz Ì_ber eine umweltrelevante Geodateninfrastruktur des Bundes (Geodateninfrastrukturgesetz ‰ÛÒ GeoDIG), NR: GP XXIV RV 400 AB 590 S. 53. BR: 8276 AB 8279 S. 781., CELEX-Nr. 32007L0002

Besser, B. P. (2004): Austria’s History in Space. European Space Agency, Document HSR-34, Harris, R. A. (ed), ISSN: 1638-4704, ISBN: 92-9092-545-0.

Coen, D.R. (2009): The Storm Lab: Meteorology in the Austrian Alps. Science in Context 22(3), 463‰ÛÒ486.

European Commission (2009): Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES): Challenges and Next Steps for the Space Component. Document COM(2009) 589 final, Brussels, 28.10.2009.

European Union (2007): Directive 2007/2/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 March 2007 establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE). See

European Union (2010): Regulation (EU) No 911/2010 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2010 on the European Earth monitoring programme (GMES) and its initial operations (2011 to 2013). See

Fritz S, Scholes RJ, Obersteiner M, Bouma J, and Reyers B (2008): A conceptual framework for assessing the benefits of a Global Earth Observation System of Systems. Systems Journal, IEEE, 2(3):338-348 (September 2008).

Schumann, U. B. Weinzierl, O. Reitebuch, H. Schlager, A. Minikin, C. Forster, R. Baumann, T. Sailer, K. Graf, H. Mannstein, C. Voigt, S. Rahm, R. Simmet, M. Scheibe, M. Lichtenstern, P. Stock, H. Rüba, D. Schäuble, A. Tafferner, M. Rautenhaus, A. Dörnbrack, T. Gerz, H. Ziereis, M. Krautstrunk, C. Mallaun, J.-F. Gayet, K. Lieke, K. Kandler, M. Ebert, S. Weinbruch, A. Stohl, J. Gasteiger, H. Olafsson, and K. Sturm (2010): Airborne observations of the Eyjafjalla volcano ash cloud over Europe during air space closure in April and May 2010. Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss. 10, 22131-22218.

Oxford Economics (2010): The economic impacts of air travel restrictions due to volcanic ash, Report prepared for Airbus, 12pp, Available from:

Wotawa, G. and M. Kerschbaum (2010 a): Modeling and measurement of the volcanic ash plume transport from the Eyjafjallaj̦kull volcano towards Central Europe in April 2010-Methods applied and lessons learned. EMS Annual Meeting Abstracts, Vol. 7, EMS2010

Wotawa, G., P. Skomorowski, A. Kasper-Giebl, G. Schauer, and R. Werner (2010 b): Simulation der Vulkanaschekonzentrationen Ì_ber Europa nach dem Ausbruch des Vulkanes Eyjafjallajökull in Island, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Alpenraumes. Kurzfassungen der Meteorologentagung DACH, Bonn, Deutschland, 20.‰ÛÒ24. September 2010

1 Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, Austria

The authors:

Dr. Gerhard Wotawa works in the division for Data, Methods and Modelling of ZAMG under the division head. He was appointed by the Federal Ministry of Science and Research as Austrian GEO Coordinator. He holds a PhD in meteorology and a postgraduate M.A. in international relations. Before the current appointment, he worked for almost nine years as Atmospheric Sciences Officer at the CTBTO Preparatory Commission.

Dr. Ernest Rudel is the Head of the division for Data, Methods and Modelling of ZAMG. He holds a PhD in Meteorology. He is the GEO Principal Alternate for Austria and the General Secretary of the Austrian Meteorological Society. He has been representing Austria in WMO Commissions and EUMETNET Program Boards.

Dr. Elisabeth Koch is Unit Head of the unit ‰ÛÏClimatology‰Û in the Section ‰ÛÏCustomer Service for Austria‰Û of the Customer Service division of ZAMG. She holds a PhD in Meteorology. She is co-chair of the GEO task US-09-03d, global phenology data, and Vice-Chair of the Phenology Commission of the International Society of Biometeorology (ISB).