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  • Kalahari Red Sand Dunes
  • Palau's Coral Reefs
  • Cloud-to-ground Lightning Strike
  • Sea Fan
  • Mountain Wildflowers
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Earth & Environment

The "third rock from the sun"-- Earth. With an orbit neither too close nor too far from the sun, Earth occupies a unique position in the solar system. It's the only known planet with the perfect conditions for the origin, evolution and sustaining of life. During its 4.5 billion-year history, Earth has been transformed by a combination of processes into a watery blue, living planet.

Earth's environments range from polar ice caps to hot, dry deserts, from dark ocean depths to high mountaintops. The planet's ecosystems involve complex interactions between the physical (non-living) and biological (living) worlds.

NSF supports research that leads to an understanding of Earth's environment. These studies help to comprehend effects on the planet, and how the environment, in turn, responds to the impacts of human activities.

New findings advance the knowledge of Earth's resources, such as water, energy, minerals and biological diversity. NSF-supported research improves the ability to predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; severe storms such as tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards; and changes in fisheries. Research on animal and plant species helps us understand our planet's rich biodiversity. That biodiversity, it's been shown, is critical to our health and well-being.

Catch a falling snowflake

In the late 1800s, researchers Wilson Bentley and Gustav Hellmann began photographing snowflakes. Each of their photos revealed different representations of snowflakes. How could nature present so many forms of snowflakes? Today, scientists are solving that mystery with the use of a camera system that photographs free-falling snowflakes. Credit: NSF




Snowmelt provides water resources to downstream communities. Research shows that the timing and rate at which snow melts affects the amount and quality of water available for farming, fishing and other human uses, as well as for ecosystems.




Understanding how an increase in extreme events such as hurricanes affects coastal ecosystems is critical to preparing for a stormier future.



Coral 'oases'

Amid dire reports about the health of the world's coral reefs, researchers have discovered "oases" where corals appear to be thriving. The oases offer hope that all is not lost for these increasingly imperiled ecosystems.