Ministers from some 60 nations have signed up to a ten-year plan to build a unified, global Earth observation system.

The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) will work with existing agencies to distribute the data needed to address issues ranging from disaster mitigation and climate change to the management of water resources. It received formal backing at a meeting in Brussels on 16 February

The nations agreed to set up the system according to a ten-year plan developed by an ad hoc working group that was led by the United States, the European Commission, Japan and South Africa. The initial costs of the project, which will be agreed over the next two years, are estimated to be of the order of just tens of millions of dollars annually.

Last December's tidal waves in the Indian Ocean lent fresh impetus to the GEOSS proposal, its backers say. “The tsunami disaster has shown us just how important Earth observation can be, in providing data to support an immediate humanitarian response and subsequent reconstruction,” says Janez Potočnik, the European Union's research commissioner.

If successfully implemented, GEOSS will coordinate the plethora of national and international agencies that already spend billions of dollars on Earth observation. And it will aim to provide more complete geographical coverage, on land, in the oceans, air and space, and over time.

Under the Brussels deal, a secretariat will be established at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. It will determine international formats for data and build agreements under which agencies share data for free, or exchange it at low cost. Ultimately, GEOSS is also intended to broker funding and international agreements for new Earth observation instruments and facilities.

The Brussels meeting was the first overseas outing for the new US commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez. He enthusiastically backed the project, saying it would give us “the pulse of the entire globe”.

Think global: GEOSS will coordinate Earth observations. Credit: ESA

Some scientists have been worried that GEOSS, which was first proposed in 2003, would serve mainly as a discussion forum, and a bureaucratic one at that. But at the meeting, they said that the scientific potential of the project was growing. “Potentially, GEOSS could grow into the most significant initiative in Earth observation since the invention of satellites,” says Heiko Balzter, head of Earth observation at the UK-based Climate and Land-Surface Systems Interaction Centre.

The project's most immediate boon may be data that are free and easy to use. Data-access policies vary widely between countries and organizations. “The costs quickly add up,” says David Rogers, an ecologist at the University of Oxford, who works on satellite forecasting of malaria. Data are also often available only after a delay, or in user-unfriendly formats.

And such data can often be analysed only by experts, according to Paul Mason, former chief scientist at the UK Met Office and chair of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS). “In cross-cutting programmes such as climate change, which require inputs from the land, ocean and atmospheric systems, it can be very difficult for individual research groups to use the data,” he says, adding: “I hope GEOSS can change that.”

Scientists also hope that the project will move Earth observation from a research activity to a more ‘operational’ footing, with services funded by governments worldwide, as for weather forecasting. “Basically, we need an operational system for climate observations,” says Brian Hoskins, a climate modeller at the University of Reading, UK, and vice-chairman of the scientific committee for the World Climate Research Programme.

The GCOS programme, which reports to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been developing plans for such a system. “I welcome this GEOSS big brother, which will have the political muscle to pursue some of the difficult things that need to be done,” says Mason.