for National Geographic News
Next month more than 50 nations will meet in Brussels, Belgium, to finalize plans to link up each country's environmental antennaea fleet of orbiting satellites and other Earth observation technology.
The systems are currently used to estimate crop yields, detect earthquakes, forecast droughts, predict floods, and monitor air and water quality.
Linking the satellites and sensors would enable them to "talk to each other," allowing information to be shared across continents to warn of and respond to natural disasters.
Called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), the program aims to pool all national and regional observation data within the next ten years. Once in place, information would be available instantaneously to all countries.
If such a network had already been in place, tens of thousands of lives lost during the Indian Ocean tsunami strikes on December 26 might have been saved.
While there was no tsunami alert system in place in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii detected the earthquake that triggered the deadly waves.
The center, operated by the United States National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), has been criticized by some affected countries, including Thailand. They say more should have been done to raise the alarm.
NOAA officials counter that no proper system was in place for these countries to receive a warning in time to avert disaster.
Earlier this month the Bush administration announced plans to expand tsunami detection and warning capabilities as part of the GEOSS program.
"This plan will enable enhanced monitoring, detection, warning and communications that will protect lives and property in the U.S. and a significant part of the world," announced John H. Marburger III, President Bush's science advisor.
"World attention has been focused on the vulnerability of those near the edge of oceans, and we have the responsibility to respond," Marburger added. NOAA will deploy 32 new Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) buoys, extending coverage throughout the entire Pacific and Caribbean basins. DART buoys record sea surface heights, with data transmitted via satellites.
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