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Project linking 1,200 scientists to "unlock the secrets" of the planet

China is building a global big data network to study Earth and support research on climate change, as well as predict and mitigate natural disasters, scientists said on Monday.

The project will include more than 1,200 scientists at 130 institutions worldwide and cover more than a dozen subjects, ranging from oceanology to meteorology, according to Guo Huadong, who is leading the project for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

He said the network will be the centerpiece of CAS Earth, a five-year, 1.76 billion yuan ($279 million) project to create a robust international environmental research network that will serve scientists and officials in China as well as countries and regions involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

"Big data has opened a new window for Earth-related studies, and it is key for scientists to unlock the secrets and understand our planet," Guo said.

Such information has become a strategic resource for countries, alongside natural and human resources, he added.

Chinese scientists have collected massive Earth science data over the decades, according to Bai Chunli, the academy"s president.

Guo said the academy has about 44 petabytes-46 million gigabytes-of data, although it is relatively lacking in marine data, especially on far seas.

Around four years ago, the United States had about 30 percent of all the data in the world, more than any other country, while China ranked third with 16 percent, he said. By 2020, China aims to have 21 percent of the world"s data.

"Chinese leaders place heavy emphasis on big data because it is invaluable to innovation and the digital economy," he said. "Big data has become a key indicator of a country"s science and development level."

China has also launched many Earth observation satellites in recent years, such as the Fengyun 3D in November and TANSAT-the country"s first carbon dioxide monitoring satellite-in 2016.

"These new tools will collect valuable data to serve researchers worldwide," Bai said.

However, although industries such as finance and real estate have already incorporated big data into their operations, Guo said academia has struggled to keep up due to shortages in resources and research methods, inaccurate data, and a lack of data-sharing mechanisms between institutions and countries.

"The new network aims to overcome these issues by creating an interdisciplinary research platform open to the world," he said. "It will not only support China"s goal of building a sustainable and green society, but also help other countries better understand and protect their environment, and maintain ecological security."

On Monday, the academy and publisher Taylor & Francis Group released the first volume of Big Earth Data, the first international science journal dedicated to studying Earth using big data.

Lyndsey Dixon, the publisher"s editorial director for Asia-Pacific, said the new network and the journal "are extremely interesting and ambitious projects that use new discoveries and knowledge from big data to understand and protect the Earth".