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News Release 11-210

NSF Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics Awards Explore Links Among Earth Processes and Systems

Scientists investigate a changing planet now and in the past, with a view toward predicting its future

Images of solar flare, aurora borealis, and glacial ice.

NSF FESD projects such as "Sun-to-Ice" explore linked processes on Earth and the Sun.

September 30, 2011

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Sun-to-ice: solar energy to ice chemistry on Earth; river delta changes; glaciers in a warmer world; earthquakes and fault slip; Earth's mantle and core, and how they interact with our planet's continents, oceans and atmosphere.

To explore the connections among Earth's systems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has made seven awards totalling $33 million. They are the first awards in NSF's Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics (FESD) program.

The FESD program involves the three divisions of NSF's Directorate for Geosciences: Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, Earth Sciences and Ocean Sciences.

Earth is often characterized as "dynamic" because its systems are variable over time and can respond rapidly to changes.

The goals of the FESD program therefore are to: foster an interdisciplinary and multi-scale understanding of the interplay among and within the various sub-systems at work on Earth; catalyze research in geoscience areas poised for major advances; improve data resolution and modeling capabilities to more realistically simulate complex processes and forecast disruptive or threshold events; and improve knowledge of the resilience of the Earth and its sub-systems.

Understanding and predicting the behavior of the complex and evolving Earth system is identified as a major challenge in the 2009 NSF report GEOVision: Unraveling Earth's Complexities Through the Geosciences, released by the NSF Advisory Committee for Geosciences.

"The FESD program is closely aligned with the GEOVision report," says Tim Killeen, NSF assistant director for Geosciences. "The report emphasizes basic research into the 'changing and complex' Earth system. FESD will support teams of scientists focused on attacking some of the most important scientific challenges of our time."

Earth's "systems interact with each other on different scales, linked across space and time," states the GEOVision report. "Changes in one component affect the status and function of other elements, and not always in straightforward or obvious ways.

"Studying one component in isolation yields an incomplete, and sometimes misleading, picture," according to the report.

"One of the most striking characteristics of the Earth system is the presence of patterns," states GEOVision. "Understanding how such methodical arrangements emerge over Earth's history may provide an important key to predicting Earth-system behavior."

The FESD awards address the need to discover and predict rates of change in these systems by fostering an integrated and multi-scale understanding of Earth's processes and systems; improving data resolution and modeling capabilities to discover and predict how rapidly these processes and systems are changing; and determining how resilient they are to the effects of human activities.

The recent human footprint on Earth has been large. The FESD awards will help discover how large, as measured against naturally-occurring events, how Earth might respond and what actions might be taken now and in the future to help shrink that global footprint.

2011 NSF FESD Awards

Sun to Ice: Impacts on Earth of Extreme Solar Events
Harlan Spence, University of New Hampshire
"Sun-to-Ice" researchers are working to understand the chain linking solar energy and particle acceleration on the Sun, with the impact on Earth's atmosphere, chemistry, precipitation and ice chemistry. Scientists will investigate signals frozen in polar ice to discover the history of the extreme solar events that have affected the planet. The "Sun-to-Ice" project is happening at an opportune moment, with the Solar Maximum in 2012 and 2013. The benefits it will provide include increasing the predictability of extreme energy from the Sun reaching Earth's atmosphere, and the effects of that energy on Earth, from affecting power grids to creating the aurora borealis and australis.

A Delta Dynamics Collaboratory
David Mohrig, University of Texas at Austin
Geoscientists will develop and test high-resolution, quantitative models to predict river delta dynamics spanning shorter-term engineering to longer-term geologic time-scales and to address Earth system dynamics, resiliency and sustainability. The focus of this project is on coastal science and management, but the research will point the way to parallel developments in other Earth-surface environments.

PLIOcene MAXimum Sea Level (PLIOMAX): Dynamic Ice Sheet-Earth Response in a Warmer World
Maureen Raymo, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Knowing the maximum sea-level rise that occurred during the mid-Pliocene warm period--around three million years ago--is critical to understanding the response of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets today to global warming. Researchers will develop an improved database of global Pliocene shoreline elevations and a coupled high-resolution atmosphere-ocean-ice sheet/continental shelf Earth model to peer into the future from a look into the past.

Electrical Connections and Consequences Within the Earth System
Jeffrey Forbes, University of Colorado at Boulder
Geoscientists will create a global three-dimensional model that links the electrical processes from Earth's surface with those to an altitude of 1,000 kilometers. The essential elements, such as source currents and conductivity, will be tracked through observations such as satellite-based measurements of magnetic perturbations, clouds and cloud types, ionosphere parameters and aerosol distributions. They will serve as a basis for answering questions about electrical pathways in the atmosphere-near-Earth geospace system.

Open Earth Systems: Whole Planet Models for Global Processes and Major Events in Earth's History
Peter Olson, Johns Hopkins University
The goals of this project are to understand how global-scale interactions among the components of the Earth system--the mantle, crust, core, ocean and atmosphere--control the planet's development and to determine what roles these interactions have played in major events in Earth's history. The investigators will reconstruct mantle convection history that includes major magmatic events and their influence on the ocean-atmosphere system. They will examine the implications of mantle convection history for long-term climate change and other cycles critical to the Earth system.

Earthquake Fault System Dynamics
James Dieterich, University of California-Riverside
Geoscientists will characterize interacting plate boundary fault systems in which earthquakes and other modes of fault slip come from wider, Earth-system interactions. The researchers aim to answer three questions: How do the short-term phenomena of earthquake triggering and clustering relate to the long-term recurrence of large earthquakes; how do fault sections with different modes of slip interact prior to and in response to earthquakes; and how are rupture processes and earthquake ground motions affected by other forces?

Cooperative Institute for Dynamic Earth Research (CIDER)
Barbara Romanowicz, University of California-Berkeley
The Cooperative Institute for Dynamic Earth Research (CIDER), a "synthesis center without walls," aims to bring together researchers across a broad range of Earth science disciplines. It will advance understanding of the dynamics and thermal evolution of the Earth, in particular of the global internal processes that drive plate tectonics. CIDER will build upon the recent progress in the quality and quantity of data collected through the construction of state-of-the-art infrastructure in the Earth sciences.


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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