Natural Hazards News

Earth Observation Plan Focuses on User Needs and Measurements

A new U.S. National Plan for Civil Earth Observations focuses on user needs and defines a framework for constructing a balanced portfolio of Earth observing systems, White House officials said.

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The White House’s new U.S. National Plan for Civil Earth Observations focuses on user needs and measurements while defining a framework for constructing a balanced portfolio of Earth observations and observing systems, officials with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) said at a 4 September forum about the plan.

The plan’s focus on user needs and measurements “is the key shift that we were aiming for here, rather than the focus on systems,” said Peter Colohan, assistant director for environmental information at OSTP, at the forum held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D. C.

“Historically, it is easy to think about the big satellite programs, big deployed platforms like the Nexrad Doppler radar [network]. People tend to think of the platforms and instrument because it’s the major investment. But at the end of the day, it’s the data that we end up caring about. And we care about it for a specific reason: There is a measurement need,” Colohan stated.

The plan, issued by OSTP on 18 July, reviews the impacts of 362 U.S. civil observing systems (see Eos, 95(33), 295, doi:10.1002/​2014EO330003). It is built around a framework of two broad categories: sustained observations that federal agencies are committed to collecting on an ongoing basis for public services and experimental observations that are taken for limited periods for research and development purposes.

The plan establishes a ­rank-​­ordered prioritization of Earth observations. The top priority is the continuity of sustained observations for public services such as weather and hazard forecasting. The plan also identifies ­rank-​­ordered supporting actions to maximize benefits from Earth observations and is organized around 13 unranked societal benefit areas such as climate, energy and mineral resources, disasters, and human health.

Determining Which Observations to Sustain

Colohan said that an additional step will be needed to determine which observations need to be sustained. “That question we still have to answer,” he said. “We are answering it over time in a kind of need-by-need way.” Colohan said the OSTP plan creates a framework for working on that issue.

He also applauded the Obama administration’s recent commitment to implement a ­25-year program of sustained land imaging for routine monitoring of land cover characteristics. “This is a huge development, in my opinion. We have waited years to have this level of commitment from the government,” Colohan said. “That is a major step forward for Earth observations, and we will continue to think about which other measurements require sustained continuity.” The OSTP plan states that future ­land-​­imaging data will be fully compatible with ­Landsat observations.

Colohan said that on a practical level, there will always be some gaps in Earth observations because “if we don’t have instruments measuring at a particular lat/long at a particular time of day, that observation can never be taken again.” Regarding the question about what critical gaps in Earth observations cannot be tolerated, he said that “it is important to set about the task of identifying our requirements, our needs, and then laying out how the systems we have are going to meet those requirements.”

“Each mission agency does a very good job defining requirements and meeting them to the fullest extent that they can with the appropriations they have been given,” Colohan added. “A step toward getting to the right kind of accommodation is about identifying measurement priorities and then seeing how well measurements meet the gaps.”

While the OSTP plan primarily focuses on U.S. federal civil Earth observations, the document also calls for identifying and pursuing cost-effective commercial solutions for Earth observations and for maintaining and strengthening international collaborations.

At the forum, Tim Stryker, program director for the federal interagency U.S. Group on Earth Observations at OSTP, said, “The content of the plan in terms of how we state measurement categories—priorities for observations—is an important signal to our foreign partners of our commitment to these observations and enabling us to probably work in closer collaboration with their own commitments in the future to expand and enhance our collective capability.”

Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

Stryker also said that crowdsourcing and citizen science dimensions are included in many aspects of the report, such as improving data management, increasing efficiency and cost savings, and improving observational density and sampling. “We hope the plan is a launching pad for agencies collectively through the Group on Earth Observations, to be in dialogue with citizen scientists in ways that observations are taken and shared,” he said.

Noting that all federal Earth observations depend on congressional appropriation, Colohan said he is optimistic that Congress will react favorably to the plan. “I think we have a very strong dialogue with Congress about [Earth observations]. They asked for this plan, and I think they very much welcome its submission,” he said. “There will always be trade-offs in the system, and that will affect our Earth observation budgets as well as everyone else’s. But I think, on balance, this plan is implementable as it is, and I don’t foresee any serious challenges to it at the moment.”

The U.S. federal government allocates about $2.5 billion for civil Earth observation satellite systems and more than $1 billion for civil airborne, terrestrial, and marine networks and surveys. Federal Earth observation activities add about $30 billion to the U.S. economy each year.

The White House plan sets up a ­3-year review and update cycle. For the full plan, see http://bit​.ly/​1lHOHFh.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

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