United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
For UNESCO, space technologies should be harnessed for sustainable development

Paris - For a better understanding of life on Earth we must look to space, through an expanding constellation of satellites, to monitor such critical factors as pollution levels, urban sprawl and the risks of natural disasters.

UNESCO will highlight the ways in which space technologies can be used for sustainable development at the World Space Congress (October 10 to 19), Houston, Texas, (USA) at a major workshop on the subject and chairing several related sessions.

More than 35 leading scientists and technical experts from national space agencies, UN agencies and the private sector will meet during the workshop, (October 10 to 12), organized by UNESCO, the United Nations and the International Astronautical Foundation (IAF). While most of the working sessions of the Congress will focus on technical and financial issues, the workshop will highlight concrete ways in which space technologies can contribute to sustainable development - from the monitoring of river water to the prediction of landslides. For example, a new initiative between UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA) aims to provide satellite monitoring of World Heritage Sites. Work is already underway to track the changes in vegetation cover for gorilla habitats in Central Africa, notably Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Only having stepped out in space and looked at Earth from outside, could humanity, for the first time, see its own planet as an intricate holistic system, with its unique beauty, but also with all the problems created by humans themselves. UNESCO as a key UN agency and a major world forum for intellectual cooperation is very much aware of these problems," says Marcio Barbosa, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, himself a space engineer and currently president of IAF, one of the organizers of the World Space Congress.

The Houston workshop will focus specifically on ways of improving remote sensing of the environment via satellite. Countries of diverse financial means - from the United States, Japan and France to India, China, Brazil and Argentina - have invested in an expanding constellation of satellites equipped with optical, infrared and radar sensors to monitor the Earth's features: topography, soil type, near-surface geology, vegetation, surface water, shoreline resources, oceans, atmospheric temperature and cloud cover, pollutants and so on. These satellites are often the only way to obtain suitable data to understand and predict both man-made and natural changes to the atmosphere, land and oceans. However, the challenge lies not only in developing and launching the satellites but building an integrated network to generate and analyze this data over long periods of time and compare it with land-based observations.

"No country alone can build or even design a truly global observation system," says Mr Barbosa. "It is not just a question of financial constraints or technical expertise. An international and interdisciplinary perspective is essential." This is the rationale behind the Integrated Global Observing System (IGOS), created in 1998 to serve as an umbrella organization for hundreds of research organizations, with a main decision-making body consisting of 14 partners, including UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organization as well as the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites, which represents 23 space agencies.
IGOS has set up scientific committees to develop strategies for improving the monitoring of such critical issues as the ocean currents and climate change, the state of the world's water resources, the global carbon cycle, atmospheric chemistry and geo-hazards such as volcanic eruptions and landslides. The committee reports begin by identifying the type and duration of satellite data that might fill the gaps in current knowledge before developing strategies to integrate land and space based data.

Oceanography was the subject of the first IGOS report released in January 2001. Although it is too soon to evaluate the report's impact, there is one concrete result: the U.S. and European agreement to jointly launch Jason-2 in 2005. This satellite will follow in the footsteps of the Jason-1 and Topex/Poseidon, Franco-American satellites that revolutionized our understanding of oceanography.

Circling the Earth every 112 minutes, Topex/Poseidon was the first satellite (launched in 1992) capable of measuring the height and temperature of sea waves as well as related wind speed. This kind of data is the only way scientists can observe the major ocean currents that regulate our climate by shifting heat around the world. For the first time, scientists could watch major events unfold, like El Nino in which unusual wind conditions bring warm waters to the equatorial Pacific and disrupt normal weather patterns around the world.

At the World Space Congress, IGOS will be presenting the composition of a new committee to develop a strategy to improve monitoring of geohazards, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In the decade from 1991-2000, natural disasters killed a reported 665,598 people (World Disaster Report 2001), probably an underestimate. And every year over 211,000 people are affected by natural disasters - two-thirds of them from floods. While floods cause the most damage, earthquakes run a close second, causing nearly US$270 billion of damage in the decade from 1991-2000 (World Disaster Report 2001).

Contact at UNESCO: Amy Otchet
Office of Public Information, Editorial Section
Telephone: (+33) (0)1 45 68 17 04
E-mail: a.otchet@unesco.org

Asbel López - Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
Tel: (+33) (0) 1 45 68 17 07,
E-mail: a.lopez@unesco.org

Source Press Release No.2002-77
Publication Date 09 Oct 2002
© UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 6900