OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New international organization needed for global environmental monitoring

04/22/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study suggests that a new level of international coordination is needed to monitor global vegetation and help address many challenges facing the Earth by the growth of what’s being called the “technosphere” – the full impact of human-made objects and their interactions on the planet.

The totality of these forces, which range from buildings to roads, machines, energy use, electronic devices and fossil fuel combustion, are increasingly pervasive, and their net effect is comparable to a geologic force, researchers at Oregon State University say.

However, no integrated and sophisticated system exists to monitor their collective impact, the study concluded. Existing monitoring efforts tend to be research oriented rather than operational, and often confined to individual nations.

A new system should be set up under the auspices of the United Nations or other organization to accomplish the type of monitoring that is needed, said David Turner, an OSU associate professor of global change biology, in a new publication in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“Considering the scale of the human transformation of the Earth’s surface, at this point we are clearly failing to do the requisite monitoring,” Turner said. “Many nations have satellite monitoring capabilities, but these efforts are not being brought together in an international, coordinated program, something that can reduce uncertainty and quantify the status and trends in biosphere metabolism.”

Some of the programs now in place are valuable starts, Turner said, such as NASA’s Earth Observation System. But they are not internationally coordinated and don’t go far enough to monitor the totality of changes, he said, such as rates of urbanization, deforestation, desertification, biomass change, land use change, net primary productivity, even insect outbreaks and wildfires.

Just one human-induced change – rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels due to use of fossil fuels – is going to give Earth a climate it hasn’t seen in millions of years, Turner said. But the enormous range of human-created objects, characterized as the technosphere, has acquired a much-broader force of its own.

If the biosphere is thought of as the totality of life on Earth, driven by solar-powered photosynthesis, then the technosphere is a new force that is radically changing and even threatens the function of the biosphere. The impacts of these changes and the complexity of their interaction are sufficient that life might now be thought of as a “technobiosphere,” Turner said.  The technobiosphere could be sustainable, but would require the kind of feedback between the biosphere and society that is provided by satellite-based monitoring and modeling, he said.

Efforts have been under way to monitor environmental changes on a global scale since the first Landsat satellites in 1972, Turner noted, but the technology is now far more advanced, and an international organization could make a more comprehensive analysis of land and vegetation changes than is now being done.

“Synthesis activity of that kind would support the development of global environmental governance institutions, including non-governmental organizations and international bodies,” Turner wrote in the study. “Unfortunately, there is at present only a patchwork of mostly research-oriented efforts to monitor the terrestrial biosphere. A new level of coordination is called for.”

Annual synthesis reports from a new organization could report to the world the changes and environmental impacts as they occur, Turner said.