Seventeen federal agencies are about to take a step toward wiring the world -- and taking its pulse, temperature and blood pressure on a round-the-clock basis.
The grandly titled Global Earth Observation System of Systems, which boasts nearly 50 countries as participants, is an ambitious attempt by governments, scientists and industry to launch a network that will continuously monitor the land, sea and air. If it meets expectations, it could transform the way farmers plant their crops, sailors plot their voyages and doctors work to prevent the spread of disease in remote regions.
For starters, the network would link data from 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys and 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, officials said. Ultimately, it would vacuum up information from myriad other sources, including satellites monitoring ground and air movements, and feed it all into computers that will process it.
"It's a great step forward in understanding the basis of life and our society and our economy," said retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is spearheading the project.
The federal agencies have spent years on the idea, and it gained steam last year at the urging of Lautenbacher and other Bush administration officials. The United States will outline its draft plan by the end of next month, NOAA officials said. In mid-February, the project's international coalition will unveil a 10-year plan to accomplish its mission.
Its scope is enormous. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Mike Leavitt predicted it will allow countries across the globe to get "a pulse of the planet."
"It will foster an atmosphere of cooperative collaboration that will produce the next frontier of human productivity," he said in an interview last week. "It's the power of a network."
The international partners include such unlikely nations as Sudan and Uzbekistan, which have embraced the idea of sharing weather and geological information that can inform their countries' decision making.
"This is not a power grab by the United States or ultra-extremist organizations trying to seize control of the Earth," Lautenbacher said, adding that some nations are joining even though they "don't like our Iraqi policy. They certainly don't like our Kyoto policy" -- the Bush administration's decision to reject the 1997 pact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.
The project amounts to a massive information management system, in which countries would trade data they collect on an array of subjects. Officials are still contemplating how they will disseminate all the information: Although they will rely on existing networks at first, they will probably need powerful new computers, NOAA officials said, in addition to using the Internet and some satellites' broadcasting abilities.
Much of the sensing capacity is already in place: There are 50 satellites collecting environmental data from orbit; 68 moored buoys operated by the United States and Japan monitor the equatorial Pacific; 14 nations collaborate on a network of another 1,288 buoys that constantly rise and sink over a two-week period, from the ocean's surface to more than a mile below, to measure temperature and salinity, then transmit the data to satellites. There will be 3,000 such buoys in the next three years, Lautenbacher said.
Other technology still in development, such as a synthetic aperture radar that will be flown on a satellite, can help predict volcano eruptions by measuring "how land is moving, down to a few millimeters," said Greg Withee, a NOAA assistant administrator. At the other end of the technology spectrum, data will also come from monitoring devices as simple as buckets that collect rainfall or human spotters who look out from towers for signs of smoke to detect wildfires.
Despite all the sensors already in use, scientists often struggle to make long-term weather predictions, monitor pollution or detect Earth's movements. By sharing information, they hope to do better.
"The U.S. cannot do it alone," said Kathie L. Olsen, an associate director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Many scientists -- including critics of President Bush's decision to opt out of the Kyoto treaty -- have endorsed the push for global monitoring. American Meteorological Society Executive Director Ronald D. McPherson says he is "a passionate supporter" of the project. "From the point of view of weather and climate-sensitive economic sectors, this is one of the most important investments taxpayers can do to provide better information," McPherson said.
NOAA officials said it was difficult to give an exact cost estimate. The United States already spends a few billion dollars a year monitoring the environment, and it will make an incremental investment in coordination and new technology.
The payoff will come in such things as better drought prediction, which could save American farmers $8 billion a year, NOAA estimates. In Portland, Maine, a recent experiment found that a single oil tanker saved $10,000 on one voyage when it got better weather and current information, because it spent less time idle in port.
Industry groups such as the National Ocean Industries Association, whose members conduct offshore energy exploration, say the system will detect underwater cyclonic currents that can stress oil rig platforms.
"There are a lot of unknowns," said Thomas Michels, the association's spokesman. "It would be great if we could know when to pull up stakes and move out of the way."
More accurate climate data could also ease humanitarian and health crises, aiding scientists who are focusing on the link between ecology and disease, said Paul Epstein, associate director of Harvard University's Center for Health and the Global Environment.
Jonathan Patz, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin who uses satellites to track conditions that promote diseases, said that by systematically collecting such data, "you can get more time for health prevention and you can focus attention in specific areas."
A few environmentalists complain that the administration is focusing on information gathering as a way to avoid making tough decisions, but most say better monitoring will foster better policies.
"Ecosystems are the lifeblood of civilization," said Mark Schaefer, president of NatureServe, whose group conducts analyses for conservation groups and federal agencies. "It's really important we monitor changes and put information in the hands of decision makers that is scientifically valid, so they can make sound decisions."