Our awareness—and our understanding management and stewardship—of the environment depends substantially on observations and measurements (referred to generally as monitoring). These observations and measurements provide the data and information associated with the wide-ranging research, operational and infrastructure activities that are part and parcel of gauging the pulse of ourselves and of our surroundings.
For a variety of motivations, a substantial number and variety of scientific and technical disciplines are asked to generate data and information directly and indirectly usable for purposes of monitoring for assessment and decisionmaking. These disciplines range, for example, from surveys of groundwater or of bear populations to the measurement of various chemical substances in the human body or in the air, soil and water. Additionally, the economic, social and information sciences generate data and information that lend context to monitoring (for example, witness the growing power of geographical information systems (GIS)). Currently, there is growing recognition of—and action to resolve—the longstanding, inherent disconnections among the interdisciplinary1, spatial2, temporal3 and decisionmaking4 dimensions that exist over the wide spectrum of monitoring for assessment activities.
The potential for monitoring is limited only by our ability to pose relevant questions about what, where, when or how much. This data and information forms the basis of assessments that prove useful in supporting decisions by stakeholders. Armed with monitoring information, these stakeholders can pose the more specifically challenging why and what now questions—to chart and guide their management of human and environmental resources, and their stewardship of the ecological, economic and social systems that constitute the biogeosphere. The spectrum of stakeholders ranges from heads of state or environmental or health agencies to farmers, private sector managers, consumers and individuals with a need-to-know.
This monitoring landscape, obviously, is a complicated scene with its inputs from different scientific and technical specialties, questions from diverse interested parties, and a variety of options for addressing problems and issues, or for capitalizing on opportunities. Recognizing that monitoring needs, and data and information, reside within fluid and expansive spatial and temporal dimensions makes the practice of monitoring all the more complex. For example, at a local level of spatial resolution a corn farmer in Iowa shares with a regional disaster manager—and with the head of a national health and human services agency—a real need for weather and climate information gleaned from meteorology. Or, the chief executive officer of a major food company shares with a new mother the need to know about pesticide or microbiological food contaminants. In each case, different questions can arise and there well may be gaps in what information and data generated by monitoring is available. Can such information collected by, for example, the World Meteorological Organization be used in answering a question posed in Iowa? Or, can data on microbiological contamination in California foodstuffs inform health departments and consumers in Florida and New York? Can there be an ideal situation where monitoring data and information are collected once, and used in a variety of situations? That is, can we measure once:use many?
Currently, the answer is a qualified no. But, on the plus side, the question is being asked by a growing number of stakeholders and monitoring practitioners. There is a growing effort to design for complementarity among monitoring programs; in particular, those that generate environmental and human health data and information.
Development of a set of standards for the collection, exchange, analysis and use of environmental data is now on-going. An excellent resource for information on fostering complementarity and standards is the Environmental Data Standards Council. Considerable work in this area has been done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program, by its Environmental Data Registry, by Canada's Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network, and by Mexico's El Fideicomiso para la Administración del Programa de Desarrollo Forestal. The Strategic Plan For the United States Integrated Earth Observation System provides a compelling look at the future of environmental monitoring and the standards necessary to enhance the value of monitoring data.
- Health, Environmental, Economic, and Social disciplines that gather information derived from monitoring.
- Global, International, Regional, National, State, and Local scales of spatial resolution.
- One-Time, Continuous, Short-Term, or Long-Term modes of monitoring activity.
- Decision Support needs of governments, private sector entities, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals.