Eavesdropping on Earth? Borrowing a page from NSA’s playbook.

Pick up any newspaper, tune in any TV news network, or surf any news website these days. You’ll be inundated  with breathless reports on how the National Security Agency (NSA) has been hoovering up and storing massive amounts of the world’s emails and cellphone traffic…not so much for immediate use, but to have handy for quick reference if and when a threat posed by any individual or organization (or country) should become urgent. For better or worse, one Edward Snowden has been shining a spotlight on all this, emphasizing bits involving surveillance of world leaders, including many who represent U.S. allies. The revelations have occasioned recriminations and a great deal of soul-searching, all of which promises to go on a while.

Such intelligence gathering has been a staple for national security agencies worldwide, as they work individually (and also collectively, as the news reports show) to identify threats to public safety early on, at a stage where they can be neutralized. Because national security is involved, cost is no object. From what we’re told about those costs, the NSA makes do on about $10B/year.

Interestingly, that’s comparable to what the United States spends each year on environmental intelligence: gathering information about the Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat. We don’t routinely use this vocabulary; instead we have various other terminologies. The label “Earth observations, science and services” is one that comes to mind. Earth/OSS covers myriad activities. Take observations: the satellite observations and surface-based measurements that enable numerical weather prediction; radar monitoring of tornadoes, thunderstorms and other highly-localized severe weather; seismometers pinpointing earthquake epicenters; data buoys probing ocean conditions and circulations, looking for precursors to El Nino events and much more; extensive data-gathering programs designed to track biodiversity, ecosystem state and health. Then there’s the science: basic and applied research on the biogeochemical cycles, the dynamical and radiative processes, and the interplay among all these that govern the behavior of the Earth system and combine with the present and past data to provide hints as to what the system will do next. All that contributes to the services: a range of public- and private sector offerings covering the gamut from public watches and warnings for extreme weather to forecasts tailored for private-sector interests to climate outlooks and assessments.  Add up the budgets for NOAA, USGS, NASA’s Earth missions, NSF’s geosciences, and bits and pieces from DoE, USDA, and others and you might reach a $10-15B/year figure.

The threats might themselves seem comparable. Fatalities from terrorism and natural disasters are each noisy and highly variable from year to year, with large spikes but perhaps averaging in the hundreds. At something like $50-100B, the dollar losses from events such as 9/11 and superstorm Sandy aren’t all that different.

But such a simple comparison would be misleading in a number of respects. For purposes here, let’s focus on just one of these differences. The NSA is able to accomplish its work at such low cost because the world’s peoples obligingly spend a few trillion dollars a year (give or take) to buy and use the IT infrastructure carrying the data streams that are the NSA lifeblood. And the data streams may involve multiple languages and topics, and may be encrypted, but remain largely voice.

The Earth system is by no means so cooperative. To start, it’s not so miked-up, as it were. Many of its most important processes, doings, and goings-on are unheralded, literally under the radar, or obscured from a satellite’s eye, or deep in the oceans beneath the reach of data buoys, or in truly remote polar regions of the globe. And our level of understanding is so puny that even much of what environmental intelligence we gather might as well be encrypted, defying our attempts to discern its full import, or to spot brewing problems, especially when a long way off.

As discussed in the previous post, this ignorance portends trouble. We have good reason to think that our future needs for information about Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat will be qualitatively, not just incrementally, more substantial, complex, and urgent than those we can see today. In a word, we’ve got to put the Earth under surveillance.

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Four pieces of good news to all this: First, the cost above what we’re paying now for Earth/OSS, might be something like a trillion dollars to start, spread over a decade. That’s no more than 0.1% of the world’s GDP over the same period; something like a doubling of what the world is spending now. Not much, in the scheme of things. What’s more, it’s investment in critical infrastructure of the future (as opposed to backward-looking investments in infrastructure, such as dams). The world’s leaders are struggling to identify usch opportunities in their continuing efforts to foster a global economic recovery following the 2008 collapse.

Second, it’s also just the kind of joint project the world’s peoples sorely need after the mistrust generated by the recent NSA dustup.  The G-7, for example, could set this as a target.

Third, those charged with emergency management, protection of coastal cities against sea-level rise, agricultural production, energy supply and distribution, water resource management and other pieces of the national and global agenda aren’t idea-limited. They know what additional investments they need in Earth/OSS and how those investments would contribute to national and global agendas, including geopolitical stability. Any incremental investment would be put to good use, and will return the additional investment many times over.

Fourth, and especially welcome, given the negative news these days, the Earth system won’t mind a bit if we eavesdrop. Given that it’s all in a good cause, the planet – including its landscapes, habitat, plants and critters; the oceans, the coasts and the air, water, and soil – might rather like the attention.

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