One of the greatest technical challenges facing climate science has been the lack of a global network capable of merging real-time satellite measurements and ground information to monitor the changing health of the planet.
Site data can provide snapshots of disturbing climate changes, but scientists haven't been able to give the entire planet a full body scan.
That's about to change.
Today, NASA and Cisco announced a public-private partnership to develop a "Planetary Skin." The project will coordinate information from satellites and air, land and sea-based sensors to monitor environmental conditions around the world, with a particular focus on carbon emissions and climate change.
NASA lost some of its carbon monitoring capability last week when its Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite was destroyed in a failed launch, but it hopes the Planetary Skin network will still be able to provide a clear picture of Earth's carbon sinks and emissions.
The project will start in the world's rainforests, which are valuable sinks for naturally storing carbon and are technically easier to monitor than cities.
"Probably the most urgent task facing us globally at the moment is to reverse the incredible decline in rainforests," said Simon Willis, vice president of Global Public Sector, Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco, which unveiled the project today at a climate symopsium attended by world leaders in Washington.
Rainforests have been under siege from ranchers and farmers, who slash and burn to make room for cattle grazing, palm oil and soy production and other biofuel crops. By The Nature Conservancy's calculations, every second right now, a football-field size area of rainforest is destroyed – about 50 million acres a year. Tropical forests contain up to 40 percent of the Earth's stored carbon, and their destruction releases large amounts of carbon emissions and while the same time destroying valuable carbon sinks.
NASA and Cisco scientists and engineers hope to have a prototype of the Rainforest Skin operating in the next year. They'll use it to work out the bugs of monitoring and coordinating diverse sources of data before moving on to the rest of the planet. The project calls for a collaboration of businesses, universities, think tanks, governments and environmental organizations to develop the Planetary Skin Initiative and work with the data to extract important information and put it into usable forms.
The Planetary Skin Initiative's data and analyses will live on online, where they be open to the public to help individuals understand the science, businesses report and verify their impacts, and government policymakers detect climate changes so they find the best ways to mitigate the dangers and act quickly and effectively to protect societies.
This sort of accurate, holistic information about climate change is vital, Willis says. He also warns that protecting the planet can't be allowed to devolve into a war between economics and science:
"It's a really important point to understand that this vital task is not actually inconsistent with tackling the huge economic problems that we have presently around the world.
"In fact, to the contrary, some modeling work and economic analysis that we've done suggests that between 2010 and 2020 you have the potential here to unlock upwards of $400 billion per annum in funding flows, which has a further positive effect on GDP growth of up to possibly 1 percent, and that in turn, in a slacker employment market, could have a sizable effect on employment."