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2003-10-08

Geodesy on the Move

Presidential address to the IAG Scientific Assembly in Budapest

posted by
Sz. Rózsa
F. Sanso
DIIAR, Sez. Rilevamento, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 32, I-20133 Milano, Italy.


Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Friends and Colleagues,

it seems yesterday that we were leaving the IUGG General Assembly in Birmingham outlining the work program for the next four years and announcing that we would meet here in Budapest to verify whether we were marching in the right direction.

Six lines have been put down as the main streets along which to develop the IAG action:
  • the first, institutional and most obvious is to develop Geodesy as science in itself,


the others are
  • to improve the relations with other sciences and their organization,

  • to improve the IAG impact in terms of Services towards other sciences and the society in general,

  • to improve IAG penetration into the developing countries,

  • to improve the internal IAG organization,

  • to widen the scientific manpower on which IAG is based.


I will try to review these in short with one warning: this talk has been prepared a few days ago in the Alps while I was in the so-called ``vacations'' and I had with me only little material, so it is based mainly on my memory which is scarce and even fading.

I hope I still have clear the overall design, but I am pretty sure that I am forgetting important names and facts, so please accept my apologies for that and take this presentation more as a collection of examples rather than being exhaustive.

Point 1:to develop geodesy as a science in itself.

I will dwell little on that because this item is maybe more appropriate for the last session of this Assembly, when we will have a more precise overview on what is going on in geodesy and surroundings, yet I cannot refrain from saying at least two small things.

Trivializing, we could say that our job is:
  • to survey the earth (and the planets) with new advanced techniques in a consistent worldwide way,

  • to develop new methods to describe our measurement models and to analyze the available data both theoretically and numerically, which means qualitatively and quantitatively.


For the first point I would say that what we already have and we already planned to have in a few years, is what we were dreaming of only few years ago.

Just think of the continuous monitoring of GPS permanent stations by IGS, the global survey by SAR of all the continental topography (I am talking of the SRTM mission) as well as the moinitoring of the oceanic surface by the many altimetric missions and, not to be forgotten, the complete imaging of the earth's global gravity field with CHAMP and subsequently GOCE, including its time variations by the GRACE mission. This is really an age of globalization of Geodesy against which none can protest!

As for the second point the production of new ideas in Geodesy is at the same time too narrow (I will talk about that in the meeting with the young geodesists) and too large to be mentioned in detail. I just want to quote the names of Chris Kotsakis and Rudiger Lehman because they share this year the prize for the bast paper award. I believe it is consulating to see that computers have not killed our thinking in Geodesy letting our beautiful tradition of the Hotine, Marussi, Baarda, Moritz and Krarup continue.


Point 2: to improve the relation with other sciences and their organization.

Are we moving in this direction?
  • Planetology I would say we are in strict and even improving relation.Last spring I was sitting in a room in Matera, listening to Dave Smith that took the audience on a fly across mountains and channels of Mars, I mean the true topography computed by NASA, not science fiction! We know that a new ``train'' is leaving for Mars under an ESA project, where our last Bomford prize awarde, Veronique Dehant, is playing a very important role. If I can mention it, there is another mission, Mercury orbiter, approved by ESA, where Italian geodesists have the same role too. But let us come to the other geophysical sciences.

  • Solid Earth Physics we share the whole subject of geodynamics to which we contribute all the information coming from the ballet of the earth barycenter, the polar motion and the spinning rate as well as the time variations of the first harmonics of the gravity field. This is our contribution to global dynamics, which we primarily provide through the International Earth Rotation Service. To this we have to add the information on plate tectonics, which is basically coming from the IGS international network of GPS permanent stations, jointly with the other space techniques. Not to be forgotten all the other information on crustal deformation and gravity field variations which complete the picture at a local level. On the earthquakes we have important things to say with the new ideas of combining GPS, and SAR information; think of the Colfiorito earthquake in Italy and that of Izmit in Turkey,

  • Oceanography we share again a large number of subjects of common interest; our definition of height datum, the geoid, was historically based on the abstract concept of mean sea level and, unfortunately, we are still discussing about this definition. I do not think I need to underline the importance of altimetric satellite missions for both sciences; I just want to mention that still after many years IAG and IAPSO seem to me like two dogs one running after the tail of the other. We believe that from altimetry we can subtract the dynamic height of oceans to get the geoid there to construct global models, the oceanographers believe that we can provide them a high resolution geoid by our global models so that they can constrain the geostrophic part of the motion. It is a little more complicated than that, but only the forthcoming gravity missions will be able to cut this Gordian knot. Certainly the relations between the two associations are excellent: we have joint symposia and a proposal to run a joint Scientific Assembly could come for the next time, even geophysical associates that were thought to be traditionally far from IAG, like the hydrologists or the atmospheric physicists have discovered that Geodesy is useful to them.


Just six weeks ago at the IUGG Executive Meeting H.C. Davies, the president of IAMAS, has claimed that, contrary to all his expectations, he had to admit that important information could come from GPS or SAR sounding of the atmosphere, and he prized us for that.

So this is the traditional line of "good relations" with geophysical associations, with which we share the union organization as well as with the other geophysical societies and we have the impression that we are serving well this traditional field of action.

But there is the other side of our life which is the relation of Geodesy to Surveying, Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing, Cartography and so forth, all the more applied and engineering disciplines that were borne as particular techniques, with associations taking care of the relations with the world of professions. They drifted away, maybe too much, particularly across the Eighties and early Nineties, and this has been a mistake which our executive has tried to counteract by increasing the contacts and the joint activities with FIG, ISPRS and so on. We had joint symposia, schools, and study groups and not only because we think that we have something to teach, but also because we have something to learn. I am thinking for instance of a nice Symposium on Non-standard Non-probabilistic Methods organized in Zurich by Kutterer (SSG 4.190) together with Alessandrio Carosio who's specialty is GIS theory.

We should never forget that it is in IAG genome to be an interface between geosciences and engineering applications, and whenever we forget it we loose as a science and as an organization.


Point 3: to improve the IAG impact in terms of Services towards other sciences and the general society.

I already mentioned the fantastic work performed by the International Earth Rotation Service and the International GPS Service; they are based on a very large international cooperation and give to IAG quite a substantial contribution in the effort of maintaining its outstanding position among geosciences.

It is incredible that, in spite of the continuous threat of the supporting organizations to cut their budget, they have always been able to evolve facing new challenges and providing new products of larger and larger utility.

We would like to be more powerful and authoritative to say to the supporters that they have to continue their effort because it is a honour to be able to serve such a large community in such a good manner! Nor one should forget the relatively new Services like the Laser Ranging Service and the VLBI Service, who play specific essential roles within the same general subjects. Nor I want to forget the Services related to the gravity field like the glorious Bureau Gravimetrique which, together with the International Geoid Service and the International Center for Earth Tides, will join into a new International Gravity Field Service, already here in Budapest; this also with the support of new centers provided by NIMA and GFZ.

To close this point let me at least mention two Services with a clear strong interdisciplinary character: the Permanent Service for the Mean Sea Level and the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (Time section).

I will explain in a few minutes the enhanced role that Services will play in IAG structure.


Point 4: to improve the diffusion of IAG organization into Developing Countries.

This is not a ritual statement that we repeat every time to keep our soul free of any sense of guilt.

This is a real line for our organization and we proved it by stimulating important projects of international cooperation.

Let us think for instance of SIRGAS and then to the many scientific activities in South America, including the choice of bringing our Scientific Assembly in Rio. We have now a very active South American community which is showing everywhere at the international level. Similar success we had in the South-East Asia Pacific area, where not only our Services and, for instance, International Schools have done very well but also the development of IAG has been boosted by leading nations of the area like Japan, China, Australia.

Nevertheless we always had problems with the African continent.

Despite the historical enterprise of ADOS, despite the many bilateral contacts, we never had a real IAG organization there. At least till recently. However, thanks to the efforts of our Commission X (on Global and Regional Geodetic Networks) and XIV (on Crustal Deformation), as well as of the action of IGS for the full internationalisation of the Earth Reference Frame and our Committee on Developing Countries, we finally see a centripetal motion in Africa around geodetic themes.

In particular, from seven to eight nations in South Africa and six nations in North Africa are setting up joint international geodetic structures under the auspices of IAG and of the Organization Africain de Cartographie et Teledetection.

It was the end of May when I was sitting in Algiers in a room with 150 African colleagues for the Duexieme atelier nord africain de geodesie. We only need to improve our efforts there because we are getting a very positive response; only we still have to think a little bit of the linguistic barrier, but I believe this will be quickly overcome with younger generations.

To achieve that, these nations need support and for sure IAG has not the possibility of financing projects. However, I am proud to say that most of our budget goes to support travels to allow people from developing countries to participate in international meetings. This is a policy with general consensus but we have to acknowledge the particularly firm action of our Secretary General in this direction.


Point 5: to improve the internal IAG organization.

It is not a mania of esthetic order, but the response of a living organism to its needs of growth.

To accomplish what we have illustrated we need:
  • a swifter structure in IAG where people from our or other disciplines, particularly young people, could easily find their place if they are interested.


This implies reducing the number of layers and bureaucracy in IAG;
  • a structure where Services would be more free to act, to set up projects, schools, to penetrate into new nations on behalf of IAG by contacting the national agencies and, more generally, the users of geodetic products, by affiliating them directly and giving them an international stage where to report their new findings;

  • a structure where developing countries could better find scientific support to finally stand on their own legs and contributing back to the IAG evolution.


Along these lines new statutes and bylaws have been elaborated by a commission under the leadership of our Vice President, Gerhard Beutler. They have been discussed by the Executive and then publicized through the IAG home page. I am glad to say that we received reactions, comments and suggestions very sensible and appropriate.

So a final version will be submitted to the IAG Council, which is holding an extraordinary meeting here in Budapest and, in case of approval, they will be already applied in Sapporo at the next IUGG General Assembly.

Also, in this way we feel we have accomplished a mandate by our Assembly in Birmingham, to widen the scientific manpower on which IAG is based. While closing the XXII General Assembly I said to the audience “Come all several and plenty, come to IAG in Budapest and bring your best piece of geodetic work”.

Dear friends, this is the Fifth scientific Assembly, after Tokyo, Edinburgh, Beijing and Rio.

In Tokyo we had 360 people and 177 papers, in Edinburgh 360 and 250 papers, in Beijing 350 people and 295 papers, in Rio 350 people and 279 papers; in Budapest we have up to 3 days ago 472 registrations and 427 papers, and I believe that counting the last minute registration we will end up well over 500!

I do not want to be triumphal but I think I am allowed to congratulate with you, because you are moving exactly in the direction you have chosen in Birmingham and though the way is still long I want to say welcome Geodesy to open your march.