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What is Earth observation?

Earth observation is the gathering of information about planet Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems. It involves monitoring and assessing the status of, and changes in, the natural and man-made environment.

In recent years, Earth observation has become more and more sophisticated with the development of remote-sensing satellites and increasingly high-tech “in-situ” instruments. Today’s Earth observation instruments include floating buoys for monitoring ocean currents, temperature and salinity; land stations that record air quality and rainwater trends; sonar and radar for estimating fish and bird populations; seismic and Global Positioning System (GPS) stations; and over 60 high-tech environmental satellites that scan the Earth from space.

Earth observation is now more important than ever due to the dramatic impact that modern human civilization is having on the global environment.

What are Earth observations?

There are many different kinds of Earth observations. A few examples:

  • a birdwatcher’s notes on bird sightings
  • numerical measurements taken by a thermometer, wind gauge, ocean buoy, altimeter or seismograph
  • photographs
  • radar and sonar images
  • analyses of water or soil samples
  • processed information such as maps or forecasts

Why are Earth observations important?

Human civilization is having an increasingly powerful influence on the Earth system. Earth observations are invaluable for assessing and mitigating the negative impacts. They can also be used for exploiting new opportunities, such as the sustainable management of natural resources. Some specific applications of Earth observations include:

  • forecasting weather
  • tracking biodiversity and wildlife trends
  • measuring land-use change (such as deforestation)
  • monitoring and responding to disasters, including fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis
  • managing energy sources, freshwater supplies and agriculture
  • addressing emerging diseases and other health risks
  • predicting, adapting to and mitigating climate change

What is the Group on Earth Observations (GEO)?

GEO is a voluntary partnership of governments and international organizations. It provides a framework within which these partners can develop new projects and coordinate their strategies and investments. By collaborating in this way, they can create synergies and maximize the benefits of investments in Earth observation.

As of 2013, GEO’s Members include 89 Governments and the European Commission. In addition, 67 intergovernmental, international, and regional organizations with a mandate in Earth observation or related issues have been recognized as Participating Organizations.

What is GEO’s goal?

GEO is constructing a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) that will link together the many thousands of scientific observation instruments that have until now been operating in isolation.

This is necessary because the need for data and forecasts has evolved beyond the capabilities of single-purpose, stand-alone information systems. It is also possible because today’s new and emerging technologies, which are generating fast quantities of data, can be made “interoperable”.

Because the complexity and dynamism of modern civilization is placing ever greater demands on political and economic decision-makers, GEO aims to make it possible for policymakers and managers to act on the basis of the most comprehensive and detailed environmental information available.

How does GEO work?

GEO is constructing the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) on the basis of a 10-Year Implementation Plan that runs from 2005 to 2015. The Plan defines a vision statement for GEOSS, its purpose and scope, expected benefits, nine “Societal Benefit Areas” (disasters, health, energy, climate, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture and biodiversity), technical and capacity-building priorities, and the GEO governance structure.

The Implementation Plan is being pursued through a three-year Work Plan for 2007 – 2009. This “living” document sets out more than 70 practical Tasks. Each Task supports one of the nine societal-benefit or four transverse areas and is carried out by interested Members and Participating Organizations.

GEO is governed by a Plenary that meets at least once a year at the level of senior officials and periodically at the ministerial level.

Why is GEOSS being constructed?

The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) promises to revolutionize our ability to understand and manage the planet. This emerging global public infrastructure is already starting to generate comprehensive, near-real-time environmental data, information and analyses. It serves a wide range of users and empowering decision makers to respond more effectively to the many environmental challenges facing modern civilization.

GEOSS is interconnecting existing and future Earth observation systems. Investments in environmental monitoring and forecasting have now reached a critical mass, resulting in a vast and expanding array of observation systems and decision-support tools. By adopting common standards to make diverse instruments “interoperable”, GEOSS will generate cross-disciplinary data sets. GEOSS will also reduce costs, boost efficiency, exploit synergies and establish a global infrastructure for generating Earth observations as a public good.

How much progress has been made so far?

Although GEOSS has been under construction for only three years, a great deal has already been achieved. Work on developing the functional architecture that will make it technically possible to interlink the various components of GEOSS is well advanced. Many gaps and overlaps in coverage have been addressed. And new instruments and systems have been strengthened and joined up to the “system of systems”.

To measure the progress achieved so far, in November 2007 the GEO community presented “The First 100 Steps to GEOSS” to Ministers. Many of these “Early Achievements”, as well as other projects and activities contributing to the start-up of GEOSS, are also described in the full-colour book “The Full Picture”.