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GEO 2000 Full Report (NSF 00-27)

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image of scientists provided by NCAR image of volcano provided by NCAR lightning bolt



  1. The Context for a Decade of Discovery
  2. A Vision for the Decade Ahead
    1. Goal
    2. Objectives
  3. Ideas—The Research Agenda
    1. The Scientific Agenda
    2. Research Agenda Goals
    3. Knowledge Base
    4. Planetary Structure
    5. Planetary Energetics and Dynamics
    6. Planetary Ecology
    7. Planetary Metabolism
    8. Service to Society
      1. Prediction of Hazardous Events
      2. Assessment of Environmental Quality
      3. Prediction of Longer-Term Change and Variability
  4. People—The Education Agenda
  5. Tools—The Implementation Agenda
    1. GEO Investments
    2. Collaborations: An Essential Strategy
  6. Conclusion

About the National Science Foundation


The geoscience community is eagerly entering the 21st Century and looking forward to the many challenging research and educational opportunities that confront it during the next decade. In recent years, the geosciences have enjoyed major advances in understanding the Earth systems and the complex interactions among the various elements: atmosphere, ocean, land surface and biosphere. These dramatic advances are now providing new and enhanced opportunities for geosciences, in combination with sister disciplines, to provide important services to the nation through prediction of potentially harmful or beneficial events.

To provide a strategy to advance and integrate scientific knowledge across the broad range of geosciences and to provide essential services to the country, the Directorate for Geosciences periodically engages in a long-range planning activity to evaluate opportunities and requirements for research, education, and infrastructure. The process involves frequent communications and active involvement among the scientific research and education communities and the Geosciences Directorate staff. The Advisory Committee for Geosciences has taken a key role in the development of the long-range strategy. The Committee is composed of leading researchers and educators from the geoscience disciplines and from the academic, government, and private sectors. In addition, a special Working Group was commissioned to assist in the development of the strategy and this plan.

The document resulting from this close collaboration, NSF Geosciences Beyond 2000, continues the essential geosciences planning process, but it takes a longer-range perspective in recognition of both the 50th Anniversary of NSF and the start of a new millennium. This plan for its first decade is based on several key assumptions. The funding available to the Geosciences Directorate will likely increase over this period, but pressures will continue to select and make awards to the most highly rated efforts. The Directorate will continue to seek partnerships within NSF, with sister agencies, and with the international community to maximize the impact of its funding. In addition, the Directorate will increase efforts to expand educational opportunities for all levels from kindergarten through graduate school as well as to provide a scientific foundation for the workforce of the 21st Century.

We are pleased to be able to share the vision espoused in this plan. We are certain that the Assistant Director for Geosciences, Dr. Margaret Leinen, and the Advisory Committee Chair, Dr. David Simpson, will strive to expand the role of the geosciences and will support the community in its efforts to bring the vision to fruition over the coming years.

Robert W. Corell
Assistant Director for Geosciences

Susan Avery
Chair, Advisory Committee for Geosciences

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green plantThe Earth is unique in our Solar System. Among the planets, Earth alone has the capacity to sustain such a vast panoply of evolving life. The Earth is also ever-changing. Its orbit around the Sun varies; its physical and chemical structure, climate, weather, and capacity to support life change on many time scales; ocean currents shift; sea level rises and falls; continents drift; mountains build and erode; animal and plant species evolve; and terrestrial and marine ecosystems change. Most of these variations occur and will continue to occur as the result of persistent natural forces.

Because the natural variability of Earth has profound effects on society both economically and in terms of quality of life, geoscientists have sought to understand the basic processes that account for these changes. This is the challenge of the geosciences — the atmospheric, oceanic, and solid Earth sciences. The geosciences have made enormous progress in the 20th Century by unlocking some of the most challenging mysteries of the Earth system and in so doing, have engendered and enhanced our appreciation of the uniqueness of planet Earth.

a deer at twilightToday we are profoundly aware that society has the ability to alter and/or exploit the planet's physical, chemical, biological, and geological environments on all scales — local, regional, and even global. Human impacts on the atmospheric composition, the global ocean, the climate system, the water cycle, the landscape, the solid Earth, and the diversity of life itself will almost certainly grow in the next century as the global population increases and economies expand and technologies emerge. At the same time, because of our increasingly complex social and technological infrastructure, we are more vulnerable than ever to natural hazards, biological variations, and anthropogenic influences. Viewed more positively, because of our more comprehensive understanding of the planet's environment, we are offered new and unforeseen opportunities to improve the standards and quality of life.

A more complete knowledge of Earth as a complex system of interacting physical, chemical, biological and geological processes will enable geoscientists to understand how humans interact with and influence the Earth's environment. This understanding, effectively shared with decision-makers, can be applied to improve detection, prediction, mitigation, and, perhaps, even exploitation of natural and anthropogenic environmental changes. As the "information age" progresses, a vision emerges of an informed society that is empowered to maintain a healthy planet and develop strategies to respond to the continuing challenges posed by the Earth's physical and biological environments. In the future, detailed knowledge of the full range of interacting Earth processes will be essential for sustaining the health and prosperity of nations and individuals. Equally important will be the need for educational innovations to enable the populace to understand the complex and interwoven processes that support and affect their lives. The agenda for geosciences aims to develop the understanding society needs to maintain a healthy and habitable planet.

sun riseRecognizing their significant discoveries and having developed powerful computational and observing technologies, geoscientists, like other scientists before them, are now poised to consider the challenge of prediction. In the geosciences, prediction must be based on careful observation, comprehensive modeling, and thorough understanding of the underlying processes. As a result of the diversity among the geosciences, advances in predictive capability will naturally vary from discipline to discipline: short-term weather prediction is currently rather quantitative; longer-term climate predictability is principally statistical; predictive capability for future earthquakes continues to be characterized using probabilistic hazard assessment. In the time horizon of this plan, we expect that geoscientists will be able to predict the onset of particular, individual, or localized events, but only under certain conditions. However, geophysical predictive capability, used judiciously with other information, will contribute to the mitigation of the tremendous losses currently suffered by society each year as a result of natural phenomena such as floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes, for example. Thus, obtaining quantitative predictive capability, and understanding the limits of predictability, will be a major impetus and a continuing goal for many of the geosciences.

Recent developments enable the geosciences to more effectively play a pivotal role in providing the knowledge and tools to enable humankind to mitigate the tremendous economic losses and societal disruptions caused by predictable geophysical phenomena, and to take advantage of arising opportunities and benefits. One development is the increased knowledge of the Earth system and its inhabitants, based upon unprecedented advances in understanding environmental and planetary processes. We can now aspire to explain many of the world's physical, chemical, biological and geological processes with a level of precision and certainty that provides improved predictive capacity and supplies practical decision-making information to society. Another is the revolutionary improvement in observing systems, computational capability, and information processing. As a result, we have a growing ability to observe and monitor Earth systems on nearly all space and time scales. With our ever-increasing power to store, retrieve, and analyze vast quantities of information, the ability to generate new knowledge is unprecedented. Both the pace of scientific research and the direct application of research results to the needs of society are accelerating. Together, these developments enable the geoscience community to advance the science frontier and benefit society.

volcanoAn outstanding example made possible by these developments is the recent success in predicting the evolution of the 1997/98 El Niño and alerting decision-makers of the potential impact on weather and climate around the world. The short-term prediction still provided adequate time to prepare for the mitigation of some of the worst effects of El Niño on agriculture, property, and civil infrastructure, including the alleviation of flood damage and disease outbreaks. It is important to emphasize that this predictive ability was made possible by previous investments in basic research and scientific infrastructure that greatly advanced the ability to observe and model the interactions between the atmosphere and the oceans.

Our new monitoring and predictive capabilities are based on the recognition that the Earth's environment cannot be explained by studying any element in isolation. The combined effects of many processes interact in complex ways to influence the behavior of other components within the Earth system. Perhaps the clearest example is the Earth's climate system. For example, climate and the water cycle are driven not only by atmospheric phenomena but also by the geologic setting, interactions between the marine and terrestrial biospheres, the circulation and chemistry of the oceans, the radiative properties of the Earth's surface, and planetary effects including the radiant energy of the Sun and the orbital characteristics of Earth, as well as anthropogenic influences. Similarly, other chains of interactive geophysical and geochemical phenomena link global events ranging from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to changes in the productivity of the oceans. In each case there is ample evidence that the components have different quasi-stable states within their natural variability and that transitions between the states can occur surprisingly fast.

In its modern context, geoscience embraces not only studies of the Earth's components and their interactions, but specifically includes studies of human influences and considers the impacts on society. These studies draw upon a broad range of scientific and technological expertise through both traditional disciplinary and expanding interdisciplinary investigations. Growing understanding of the linkages within the Earth system is enabling the development of comprehensive models that are capable of predicting environmental and planetary events more accurately than ever before.

Breakthroughs in observing, modeling, and understanding complex Earth systems are coming just at the time when society is in critical need of sound scientific advice on how to mitigate or adapt to changes in the habitability of the planet. The geosciences stand poised to make tremendous contributions to improve the quality of life by providing useful information to decision makers about the key planetary processes, their complex interactions, and where possible, their future implications. The benefits of comprehensive geophysical insight are everywhere apparent — the need for advanced research in the geosciences has never been more urgent — the promise has never been greater.

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Recognizing the vision of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to enable the Nation's future through discovery, learning and innovation, the Directorate for Geosciences (GEO), in cooperation with the geoscience community, has developed a focused agenda to advance the science frontier through its continuing support of challenging ideas, creative people, and effective tools.

Building on the recent advances in geosciences, the goal of the NSF Directorate for Geosciences for the first decade of the 21st Century is:

  • To benefit the nation by advancing the scientific understanding of the integrated Earth systems through supporting high quality research, improving geoscience education and strengthening scientific capacity.

Through its responsibility for research, education, and service to the nation, the Directorate for Geosciences is committed to achieving the following objectives:

jellyfish Objectives
  • Fostering discovery and understanding of the factors that define and influence the Earth's environmental and planetary processes.

  • Expanding understanding and predictability of the complex, interactive processes that: (i) determine variability in the past, present and future states of planet Earth; (ii) control the origin and current status of the forms of life on the planet; and (iii) affect the interdependencies of society and planetary processes.

  • Providing the resulting scientific information in forms useful to society.

The Directorate accepts this challenge and will address the goal and these objectives through merit-reviewed investments in the work of individual scientists, small groups and centers, and large teams located primarily in the nation's academic institutions and private research organizations. GEO will build on its unique relationship with these individuals and institutions.

The Directorate's strategic long-range plan is offered in the conviction that the time is right to respond to the challenge of achieving these objectives by providing support for a comprehensive national research and educational enterprise. Through its support of the U.S. scientific community, GEO is prepared to engage scientists, governments, industry, and citizens around the world in the effort to increase our understanding of the nature of planet Earth and its present condition. GEO-supported research and science will provide information to decision-makers to secure a sustainable future for our planet and for humankind.

The next chapters will describe, in turn, the scientific and educational agendas and the implementing activities that we anticipate will be undertaken by the Directorate to achieve these goals.

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goes visible imageThis summary version and the associated full plan, Geosciences Beyond 2000, were prepared with the active participation of many individuals. The overall project was conducted under the auspices of the Advisory Committee for Geosciences, chaired by Dr. Susan Avery. A select Working Group was invited to develop materials and review draft versions. Representatives of many of the NSF divisions and programs provided valuable input. The plan was vetted widely in the geoscience community through numerous discussions and town meetings. The assistance of all parties is gratefully acknowledged. Particular recognition should go to Dr. Robert Corell for his vision and enthusiasm for the project, to Dr. Richard Greenfield who led the effort during the critical drafting stages, and to Dr. Thomas Spence who saw the project through to conclusion.

Dr. Susan Avery, Former Chair University of Colorado
Dr. David Simpson, Chair Incorporated Research Institiutions for Seismology
Dr. Eric Barron Pennsylvania State University
Dr. Otis Brown University of Miami
Dr. Inez Fung University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Robert Gagosian Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Dr. George Hornberger University of Virginia
Dr. Emi Ito University of Minnesota
Dr. James Knox University of Wisconsin, Madison
Dr. Charles Kolb Aerodyne Research, Inc.
Dr. Margaret Leinen University of Rhode Island (now at NSF)
Dr. Marcia McNutt Monterey Bay Acquarium Research Institution
Dr. Alexandra Navrotsky University of California, Davis
Dr. John Orcutt Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Dr. Joseph Pandolfo
Dr. Judith Parrish University of Arizona
Dr. David Schimel National Center for Atmospheric Research
Dr. Sharon Smith University of Miami
Dr. Denise Stephenson-Hawk Spelman College
Dr. Lynne Talley Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Dr. Robert White National Academy of Engineering

Dr. William Bishop Desert Research Institute
Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier University of Oklahoma
Dr. Peter Eisenberger Columbia University
Dr. Jack Fellows University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
Dr. Rana Fine University of Miami
Dr. Vijay Gupta University of Colorado
Dr. Bradley Hager Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. Frank Harris University of Tennessee
Dr. Thomas Jordan Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. Timothy Killeen University of Michigan
Dr. William Merrell Heinz Center
Dr. Berrien Moore University of New Hampshire
Dr. Nicklas Pisias Oregon State University

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