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Government officials and scientists from more than 30 nations and 20 international organisations have agreed to improve monitoring of the Earth's atmosphere, oceans and land, and to create a global network for sharing the resulting data.

Participants at the Earth Observation Summit held in Washington, United States, last week agreed to work together to fill large gaps in the network of sensors that record the Earth’s "vital signs", particularly in developing countries.

It is hoped that an improved global observation system will provide better tracking of climatic changes and threats to biodiversity. Anticipating such changes could help monitor disease outbreaks, control drought, protect crops and strengthen models of flood prediction and energy use.

Some scientists believe that such a system could have significant economic benefits in addition to tracking emerging environmental problems. For example, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the main organiser of the summit, estimates that by using this type of early warning system California suffered US$1.1billion less damage than it otherwise would have when El Niño struck in 1997-98.

But others argue that the initiative will replicate existing research and is principally intended to stall action to combat global warming.