U.S. Official Previews Global Earth Observation Meeting

February 7, 2005

Washington, 04 Feb 2005

Brigadier General Jack J. Kelly, Jr.,
Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere

MR. BRAZIER: Ladies and gentlemen, we're happy at the Foreign Press Center today to welcome Brigadier General John J. Kelly, Jr., or Jack. He is the Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is responsible for the day-to-day management of NOAA's domestic and international operations.

General Kelly is the U.S. principal representative with the World Meteorology Organization or WMO, and he previously was known to many Americans as the Director of the National Weather Service.

So we welcome him. He will make a statement and then take any questions.

Thank you very much for coming today, Jack.

BG KELLY: Thank you. And first, I'd like to thank Margaret for organizing the briefing. Appreciate it. And I'm here representing my boss, who is ill with pneumonia. And since he and I are about the same age, when you get to be our age and you have that, it's not good.

But the reason we're together today is, I want to talk about something called the Global Earth Observing System or Systems (GEOS), as it's called, and he is one of four chairs for that international effort; he is joined by the European Commission, Japan, and South Africa. It should be pretty obvious that South Africa represents the developing world because the other three represent the developed world.

And in a week-and-a-half, in Brussels, on the 16th of February, ministers of 59 countries and 33 global organizations will get together to adopt a 10-year plan to integrate the many observing systems that are currently operating in some state of independence from each other and to try to understand the gaps that exist and find a way to replace or to fill those gaps.

We, in the United States, are particularly delighted that our new Secretary of Commerce, who will be sworn in on Monday, will make his first international trip to represent the United States at that summit. We're also particularly pleased that we started this effort a little over a year-and-a-half ago with some 33 countries, and as I mentioned earlier, we've almost doubled that number. So in this international business, in a year-and-a-half, if you can double the international participation in something, you're really making some progress. And if, in fact, you can come up and reach agreement on a 10-year plan, I think it's moving almost, to use a science term, with the speed of light.

And the reason, I think, that this is happening is everyone understands that the range of benefits from this effort is nearly as vast as the planet itself. And you only have to take a look at the most recent disaster in South Asia, the tsunami, to think about if we would have had a system like this in place, might we have been able to reduce the loss of lives from that tragedy, because the sad fact of life is that that tragedy, while not preventable, was, in fact, detectable.

And so technology was not a limiting factor in our ability to put an early warning system in place. There were other factors that came to bear in that; and hopefully, this GEOSS will help us take care of that.

What GEOSS has done for the first time is got the scientists and the political forces talking together and got the political will to establish a mechanism to put in place observing systems and information systems to help reduce disasters and help provide information that will help both the developed and the developing world make better decisions relative to public safety and the environment. And so it really does put together a planning framework for all key elements to get together.

We're also happy that India, Indonesia and Thailand were part of the system prior to what happened in December. And Malaysia will join us in Brussels, so we do have key elements of that part of the region unrepresented. And as I said earlier, that system will help us get better information to make sounder decisions both about the economy and about safety.

And so with that as kind of the backdrop, I'd be willing to talk to all of you about what you want to know about this effort.

QUESTION: I'm Emanuele Riccardi from Italian News Wire, ANSA.

Could you be a little more specific about the system? What are we going to have in the next few years in a very concrete way?

BG KELLY: Okay. First of all, what we have right now are a number of systems out there, so let's use one that I am intimately familiar with, which is on the weather side.

QUESTION: Okay.

BG KELLY: Right now, 187 countries around the world have banded together under a UN specialized agency called the World Meteorological Organization to agree to exchange weather information and agree to data formats and, in the science business, called metadata, a standard for the weather data; and so weather information moves freely around the world to the weather organizations. That is the exception rather than the rule in most other areas.

A number of countries around the world operate satellites. There is not a like agreement or arrangement among them to exchange information or even to agree on standards. And so we have some countries banding together informally to agree to use a given set of frequencies for certain types of things. Other countries don't agree to that. And so it's difficult sometimes to exchange satellite or observational information from satellites. GEOSS offers the opportunity for the countries in a more formal way to get together to reach some agreement.

On the ocean side, 26 countries in the Pacific -- the United States, Japan and 24 other countries -- reached agreement about how we might be able to develop an observing network and how we could develop a communication network where we would collect data from those observations; how we would then turn that data into information about the occurrence of tsunamis and we get those warnings out. That system works well in the Pacific Ocean. There's not such a system in the Indian Ocean. And a mechanism like GEOS could help to put a system like that in place.

So it's an attempt to take what's out there now and try to organize it better. It's also an attempt to take a look at what's out there now and try to figure out how one could leverage what's out there now so that we don't duplicate each other.

QUESTION: And what about the Atlantic?

BG KELLY: In the Atlantic, Europe and the United States work together very well, but let's talk about tsunamis as an example, and I acknowledge the fact that that happens to be the current focus of everyone. There's no tsunami warning system in the Mediterranean. The risk is not high there would be a tsunami, but it's not zero. There's not a tsunami warning system in the Atlantic or in the Caribbean. The risk is not as high as in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean. About 85 percent of the tsunamis that have occurred around the world have occurred in the Pacific Ocean basin. The risk elsewhere is not zero, but it's not that high. We don't have early warning systems. The United States is committed, at least in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, to remedy that. We're going to put in place a system. But one of the first-order tasks that GEOSS will have is to try to put in place a world or a global system to do it. The first priority will, of course, be the Indian Ocean, but there are other holes that will, in fact, need to be filled.

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