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Letter from the Chair, Robert Scholes

Adequate information is still lacking
for rational decision-making
on the future of the Earth


The 2002 - 2003 period was a critical watershed for global earth observations. The preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in September 2002 alerted many parties to the fact that ten years after the Rio Earth Summit, we still lacked adequate information for rational decision-making about the future of the Earth. Many sessions at the WSSD emphasized that point, and the report of the Summit called, in several places, for an improved global observation system.

The second Adequacy Report of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), to which GTOS contributed, was published in early 2003 and carefully documents the shortcomings in this most basic sector of global information. The conclusions from the Second Adequacy Report were endorsed by the Congress of the World Meteorological Organization, and renewed efforts have been pledged to ensure sufficient coverage and availability of crucial variables, particularly over tropical regions and developing countries. The Report was extensively reviewed by the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, with the intention of presenting a decision for adoption at the 9th session of the Conference of the Parties, in Milan, Italy, in December 2003.

The Global Earth Observation summit (GEO) was convened in Washington DC in July 2003, partly in response to the growing awareness that a greater level of commitment and co-ordination was required from governments if a sufficiently comprehensive system was to be established. This ministerial-level meeting, attended by representatives from 30 nations and 22 international organizations, including GTOS, has established structures and a work plan to deliver a functional system within years rather than decades. GTOS has contributed to all these activities, and must orient its ongoing work to achieve maximum success in existing and emerging initiatives. GTOS welcomes the rising awareness of the importance of reliable observations, and offers its experience, networks and resources to help build a satisfactory system. In its own right, GTOS continues to make progress towards an integrated system through which critical global variables relating to the land environment can be collected, combined, reported and archived.


The Terrestrial Carbon Observations (TCO) panel completed its design work under the leadership of Dr Josef Cihlar, and is now being made operational through the Chair of Professor Shaun Quegan. The goal of TCO is to have in place, by the end of the first Kyoto Protocol commitment period, all the necessary systems to allow the terrestrial components of the global carbon cycle, including land-atmosphere exchanges, to be quantified with sufficient confidence that the aims of the Protocol can be met. To this end, TCO has embarked on an innovative and comprehensive programme to unify observations derived from ground stations, atmospheric measurements and remote sensing, through the use of mathematical models.


The Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD) panel, under the leadership of Professor John Townshend, has a well established track record in applying remote sensing to quantify changes in forest areas. The panel came to the realization that the task requires more than simply mapping forests, challenging though that may be: it also requires an understanding of changes in landscapes with sparse tree cover; the alternation between forested and non-forested land; and the drivers of the changes, such as fire. For this reason, the panel has repositioned itself as Global Observation of Land Dynamics (GOLD). The name GOFC-GOLD will continue in parallel for a period.


The Terrestrial Ecosystem Monitoring Sites (TEMS) database has grown in both number of locations recorded and the breadth of topics covered. The other main programme activity coordinated by the secretariat, GT-NET, links together many discipline or topic-specific networks. It is within GT-NET that the actual observations are made, by participating organizations around the globe.

The coastal module of GTOS has made considerable progress during the last biennium. Its expert panel has identified the framework for organizing observations and issues relevant to coastal ecosystems, with an implementation plan scheduled for early 2004. Furthermore, Coastal GTOS (C-GTOS) is being linked to other programmes through a proposed coastal theme within the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS).


A top priority for GTOS in the next biennium is to establish a significant activity in the area of biodiversity observations. Initially, this will take the form of expanding the TEMS module on biodiversity to comprise a comprehensive set of variables, and helping to establish a set of agreed protocols for making the observations. In this endeavour, GTOS will work closely with the research community, represented by Diversitas; the data-holders, many of whom are in the GTOS Terrestrial Networks; and the policy community, represented, for instance, by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.


In July 2003, the Programme Director of GTOS, Mr Jeff Tschirley, was promoted to Chief of the Environment and Natural Resources Service (SDRN), within FAO. He has seen GTOS through its formative years, and will continue to have a role in its future. His strong leadership contribution is greatly appreciated and will be missed. The incoming Programme Director, Mr John Latham, is a leading expert in the field of remote sensing and its practical application in land cover mapping. The GTOS team looks forward to working with him in meeting the challenges deriving from the expanding expectations of users.


The vision we have for GTOS in the next two years is that it be recognized as an indispensable information partner in the quest for better management of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. To this end GTOS will prioritize:

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