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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"From New Sight to Foresight: The Long View on the Environment"
Address to National Council for Science and the Environment
February 4, 2005

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Title Slide: From New Sight to Foresight: The Long View on the Environment]

Good afternoon to everyone. I would like to thank you, Chancellor Rennick, for introducing me. I know Dr. Rennick as a visionary leader who has worked to enhance his university in multiple ways, whether through electronic infrastructure, new facilities or the interdisciplinary curriculum. He has also been a visionary in providing leadership among a cluster of research HBCUs--Historically Black Colleges and Universities--to build capacity in graduate research.

It is my privilege to address the National Council for Science and the Environment and all participants here today. Our topic--forecasting environmental changes--ranks as one of the grand challenges facing scientists, engineers, policy-makers and concerned citizens in our time. Fundamental research on the environment has great promise to contribute in myriad ways to our nation and our world.

I have titled my talk today "From New Sight to Foresight: The Long View on the Environment." This sums up our evolving vision of environmental research and engineering at the National Science Foundation.

Foresight means the "perception of the significance and nature of events before they have occurred." Another definition is "care in providing for the future; prudence." Both definitions inform the National Science Foundation's role in environmental research and education.

At NSF we embrace three aspects of environment: the natural, social and constructed environments. Insights into all three comprise our ability to perceive, and to provide for, our future.

I've also mentioned "new sight"--by which I mean the expanded vision bestowed by vast observational networks and breakthroughs in sensors. Development of these tools is part and parcel of our ability to foresee.

Then there is the "long view." Some of you will be familiar with NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research Program (or LTER), now celebrating its 25th anniversary. But how many have heard of the "Long-Term Ecological Reflection" Program? A participant in this Oregon State University venture, essayist Robert Michael Pyle, contemplated beauty and decomposition at an LTER site deep in a forest of the Pacific Northwest.

Musing over the unhurried pace of decay and regeneration in the forest, he observed that "Most of us take the short-term view, most of the time." The long view, he noted, "requires faith in the future--even if you won't be there to see it for yourself." In NSF's approach to the environment, we are constantly stretching that view, across disciplines, across time and across space.

For almost two decades, NSF has supported major, cross-disciplinary efforts on the environment, ranging from global change--initially focused on physical science--to biocomplexity in the environment, grounded in biological science but involving all disciplines.

Today we look at the grand challenges in environmental sciences posed by the National Research Council, and all involve people. This is a bellwether, a recognition that environment has a human dimension, and it is critical. Today the biggest challenge in taking the long view is to integrate the social sciences into environmental investigations.

[Slide #2: Historic Aerial View: San Francisco Devastated by 1906 Earthquake]

In the early days of earth observation from the air, a camera aboard a balloon captured this image of San Francisco, devastated by the 1906 earthquake. New estimates of lives lost there have expanded from the traditional toll of a few hundred to at least 3000, because many single women and immigrants who died were not counted. The official count was kept low so as not to slow the pace of rebuilding.

It is chilling how much this view resembles recent images...

[Slide #3: Aerial View of Devastated Meulaboh, Indonesia]

...of the destruction wrought by the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. Turning to this recent event, one of the most lethal environmental disasters in human history, of almost Biblical proportions, I'd like to outline how NSF views its environmental portfolio.

The earthquake and tsunami have heightened awareness in the engineering and science research communities of their responsibility to create new knowledge about our human and organizational institutions, ecological systems, the constructed environment, and about our vulnerability in the face of natural catastrophes.

[Slide #4: Tsunami Propagating Throughout Global Ocean]

We see here, courtesy of NOAA, an animation of tsunami energy propagating throughout the world ocean. In real time, this animation covers 44 hours and 27 minutes. Much attention is being paid by the media and elsewhere--and rightfully so--to the need for improved warning-buoy systems in the oceans.

[Slide #5: Graph of Cumulative Earthquake Energy]

The undersea earthquake that set off the tsunami has gotten less attention. Yet this rare magnitude 9 earthquake was the largest since the Alaskan quake of 1964. This graph shows the cumulative earthquake energy release from 1976 until 2004.

Keeping in mind that this is a logarithmic scale, the tall red bar farthest to the right represents the Sumatran quake, which released approximately as much energy as all global quakes in that period combined. The quake set the earth ringing like a bell--an oscillation that will continue into next month , at least.

[Slide #6: Global Seismographic Network]

NSF's vision of environmental research is a troika of investigations into the natural, constructed and social environments. In the first realm, the Global Seismographic Network--some of whose stations are depicted here in a Sumatra-centric view--is the primary international source of data for locating earthquakes and warning of tsunamis. The GSN is funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Geological Survey. Within eight minutes of the quake, data flashed via satellite and the Internet to the GSN Data Center and beyond.

The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (or IRIS) --the GSN's parent body--has promoted a policy of international openness about seismological data. NSF has supported the GSN for 20 years--and this singular earthquake was the "canonical event" it was set up to record.

Geophysicists will be making discoveries based on these recordings for some time. At the same time, the GSN could serve as part of the foundation to expand our capability for tsunami warning in many areas of the world. Such systems also vitally need social and organizational components, linking geophysics with social science to benefit society.

[Slide #7: NEES Network]

What about the "constructed" dimension of environment? Here we see the sites of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, dedicated to the grand challenge of preventing earthquake disasters. NEES facilities will simulate earthquakes and study how infrastructure and materials perform during seismic events.

Cyber-tools, such as the Web and grid computing, will enable unprecedented real-time, virtual and telepresence collaboration. One network node, Oregon State University's tsunami research facility, is the largest such facility in the world.

[Slide #8: Engineer Measuring Damage]

Here, earthquake engineering researchers from the University of Southern California record details of destruction in Sumatra. Natural hazards researchers traveled to the field within weeks of the disaster before cleanup and reconstruction could obliterate vital data.

Information on physical damage, and on how people responded, helps us to improve not just the stability of buildings and infrastructure, but also the capabilities of communities to protect themselves. Engineers are working alongside social scientists to assess physical damage as well as the social and economic impacts.

In fact, NSF has over 30 years of experience in providing research support for quick-response studies following disasters.

[Slide #9: Satellite Image of Hurricane over Eastern US]

The devastation in Sumatra and Sri Lanka only reinforces the need to take the long view on environmental research. The transformation in scientific tools is helping us to do this--to obtain observations across the disciplines that are unprecedented in quality, detail and scope. This image of Hurricane Floyd over the eastern United States exemplifies the power and beauty of such observations.

Evolving in concert with the new tools are different ways of doing science, such as collaboration across large, multidisciplinary, often multinational teams. These new modes of working are the only way to meet the scientific challenges of our era.

The "collaboratories" employ embedded sensors in large grids, synthesis of massive datasets, and computational models of complex behavior. We see these patterns whether the topic of investigation is earthquakes, ecological systems, oceans, or even gravitational waves.

Although observational capability for human activity has been more limited, we are looking to identify new ways to integrate such variables as population distributions, utilities, transportation flows, and risk perception.

[Slide #10: Computer-generated Model of Monterey Bay Observatory]

Planning is under way for ocean observatories, like the hypothetical one we see here in Monterey Bay. They will take targeted samples and measure multiple factors over space and time. For example, it will be possible to have instruments take samples automatically when triggered by actual events.

A number of institutions are banding together to create a prototype grid of wireless and optical networks to link oceanographers to ocean observatories off the coasts of Mexico, the United States and Canada.

[Slide #11: Earthscope Map]

Here is another example from the geosciences. It shows a platform from the Earthscope program. This observatory, newly installed three kilometers down in California's San Andreas Fault, is now probing one of the world's most active faults. The animation shows how the drill has burrowed down through the granite beneath Parkfield, California--puncturing the fault like a soda straw. Sensors lining the tunnel will be able to search--for the first time--for signals that could alert us to a major earthquake.

[Slide #12: NEON Network on the Globe]

Ecology is another discipline developing a blueprint for a network that will span the continent, and beyond. We know that biodiversity is changing across the United States. We know that human activities are changing the geographic distribution of some basic elements of life, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. We've seen an infectious disease like West Nile Virus emerge locally and then spread across the entire country.

The National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, will support fundamental biological research into such questions on a continent-wide scale.

[Slide #13: Carbon Cycle]

Modeling is the flipside of observation--also essential for environmental forecasting. This model of the carbon cycle for North America predicts that a warming climate will enhance photosynthesis and production of carbon dioxide. The lower line on the graph, "carbon-only dynamics," indicates that the ecosystem will store less carbon in that scenario. That is the prevailing wisdom, anyway.

However, preliminary results indicate that once the nitrogen-cycle model is integrated along with the carbon model, North America shifts from adding carbon to absorbing it. That's denoted by the upper curve, "coupled carbon-nitrogen dynamics."

In any case, we do not currently have the computing capability to run this model. Forecasting calls for having observations, models and the right processes plugged into in the model.

[Slide #14: North Pole Environmental Observatory]

In the polar regions, a major global investigation will take place during the International Polar Year of 2007-2008. I am about to show an animation of a U.S. facility already in place at the North Pole--an effort that exemplifies how we are seeking to characterize the environment at the extremes of the planet. This facility is exploring the little-known Arctic Ocean.

We see a research camp on the sea ice at the North Pole with an oceanographic mooring beneath. The mooring stretches more than 2.5 miles down, and is anchored to the sea floor beneath the ice. It is hung with instruments tracking ocean parameters, to create a benchmark to track fast-moving Arctic change. Unlike Antarctica, which has no native peoples, human populations in the Arctic are already grappling with this rapid change.

The polar regions comprise about a third of the earth's surface--and influence what happens everywhere else. Some potential focus areas for NSF during the IPY are:

  • Arctic climate change research, including building an Arctic Observation System--that includes the Arctic peoples;
  • Ice sheet dynamics; and
  • Studies of life in the cold and dark.

We are looking for ways to link US scientists with counterparts in other nations for collaborative IPY efforts, and planning is underway around the world.

[Slide #15: LTER Network]

We have seen examples of observatories now being planned or under construction. Here are the sites in our longstanding, Long-term Ecological Research program--a case example of how environmental research has evolved at NSF. This program supports scientists and students studying processes over long periods and across broad scales. It now extends to marine sites, the Antarctic, urban areas, and even to agricultural ecosystems.

It wasn't always that way. The LTER network was first conceived as a research program at isolated, pristine sites. Now we recognize that all ecosystems lie on a gradient from "near-pristine" to "highly engineered," or even "constructed."

Today, an LTER site in the City of Baltimore investigates an urban ecosystem, and studies include social and economic factors. "For ecologists this is really a new thing," says Grace Brush, one of the participating ecologists. "Humans were something to be avoided. For me, at least, it has changed my thinking--to look at humans as part of the natural system."

LTER scientists are now working on creating a true network. They are beginning to probe overarching questions that draw upon a number of sites. Eventually the LTER network will be connected to the other networks I have mentioned.

The sites are evolving from a local focus to an orientation toward national research priorities and shared resources. One prime aim has become to enable ecological forecasting. LTER scientists are recognizing that they can pursue very fundamental environmental and ecological research--and make valuable contributions to society by doing so.

[Slide #16: LTER - Research and Education Synergy]

The LTER program has also cultivated a strong synergy between research and education. Scientists, teachers and students at the Niwot Ridge site in Colorado produced a book called My Water Comes From the Mountains. This book explores the water source for the city of Boulder and features brilliant watercolors by third-graders.

[Slide #17: Taiwanese Lake/typhoon Graph of Earthquake Energy]

Our tools and methodologies often change our perception of what we are studying. A revolution in environmental sensors is already underway. Researchers at one LTER site--a Wisconsin lake--have teamed up with counterparts at a lake in Taiwan. Both lakes are fitted with sensors. This graph shows the metabolism of the Taiwanese lake during a typhoon--a quick, episodic event that would have been missed without the autonomous sensors in place.

The graph covers only six days in August, and tracks water temperatures at different depths in the lake. The dark blue tracing in the lower center records the prodigious rainfall the typhoon dumped on the lake. Before the typhoon, the lake waters were well-stratified by temperature. When the typhoon hit, the waters, nutrients and plankton communities essentially "mixed" or turned over. A day-and-a-half later, the waters were stratified again.

If sensors had not been in place to capture this turnover, its occurrence would never have been known.

[Slide #18: Road Wash-out Caused by Typhoon]

The typhoon washed out this road leading to the lake. Even though physical access to remote sites is limited, sensors can still record key events.

[Slide #19: Green Buoys - Scale 1]

Being able to observe at different scales--because environmental processes operate differently at various levels--is also critical for forecasting. We can observe at this scale now.

[Slide #20: Green Buoys - Scale 2]

This scale is problematic, but possible with today's cyberinfrastructure.

[Slide #21: Green Buoys - Scale 3]

Here's the grid scale needed to answer regional to continental questions--

--not currently possible.

[Slide #22: Green Buoys - Scale 4, A Global Network]

Finally, a global network. As we develop observation systems, environmental and cyber-scientists must closely integrate efforts. As LTER scientist Tim Kratz of the University of Wisconsin comments, "We need to develop scalable infrastructure that allows easy inclusion of additional sites--and ways of handling data on that scale as well."

[Slide #23: ARTS Tower on Barro Colorado Island, Panama]

In Panama, on Barro Colorado Island, advanced animal sensing is being used to explore the ecosystem. Here, an antenna tower picks up signals from wild animals wearing radio collars.

[Slide #24: Network of ARTS Towers]

The networked towers send data directly to the Internet.

[Slide #25: Ocelot-Agouti Example of ARTS Detection]

Now down in the forest, we'll see a motion-sensitive camera record an ocelot preying upon a rodent, called an agouti. Watch closely, as it happens fast.

The camera captures the culprit.

[Slide #26: Radio-Signal from ARTS]

And here is the radio-signal from the agouti's collar that was seen in the lab at the time of death. Biotelemetry, in fact, is now letting us track animals down to the size of large insects on scales of hundreds of miles.

[Slide #27: Wasp Hounds: Video of Control and Odor Present]

Nature offers plenty of cues to improving how--and what--we sense. Wasps, for example, are extremely sensitive and can detect a wide variety of odors. The wasps at right have been trained to be attracted to a compound produced by a fungus that infects plants--notice how they are clustering around the odor. (At left are the control wasps.) The wasps are under study as models to detect environmental stress. One potential application might be in agriculture. A farmer might release them in a field to detect a fungal infection in crops.

[Slide #28: Impressionistic Mosaic of Environmental Images]

As we consider how to make a compelling case for how fundamental research on the environment meets critical national needs, incorporating the human scale is the latest challenge. NSF programs like Coupled Human and Natural Systems, and Human and Social Dynamics, are ways to explore and expand that different sort of "long view." Our advisory committee for the environment has created a blueprint, Complex Environmental Systems, laying out the outlines of our environmental directions. The committee also continues to define new, unifying areas of focus for research and education, such as water.

Social science provides insights on how people perceive problems as they interact with the natural environment. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University observed that concerns about storm damage are far more important to coastal dwellers than are long-term sea-level rises associated with climate change.

Substantial early damage from large, infrequent storms generally discouraged rebuilding in vulnerable areas. However, more frequent storms causing minor damage tended not to discourage homeowners from repairing property--even though damage over the long run often exceeded the value of the property.

[Slide #29: Satellite Zoom up the Nile Valley to Mediterranean, and out to the Whole Earth]

Speaking of water and human settlement, this final video takes us, courtesy of NASA, to this most ancient area of human civilization, the Nile Valley.

Beginning at the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, we watch the landscape pattern unfold beneath us, tracing the thin ribbon of inhabitable green through the desert, exemplifying how the natural, the constructed and the social systems here truly encompass "environment" in this part of the world. We see the stark truth: Where there is water, there is life.

I spoke at the beginning about taking the long view on the environment, exploring from the nano to the global scale. The ultimate goal for all of the observation systems--stemming from different disciplines, crossing a breadth of scales, based on the revolution in sensing--is to link up these systems with cyberinfrastructure.

Our nation is strongly committed to developing an integrated and sustainable Global Earth Observation System of Systems--an important U.S. administration priority, and an effort including 54 nations thus far. The U.S. has developed a strategic plan for our nation's contribution.

This perspective we are watching on the screen brings to mind a saying, purportedly from a Swedish army manual: "If the terrain and the map do not agree, follow the terrain."

With global observation capability, with cyberinfrastructure, with contributions from across the disciplines, and with our national needs as a framework, we are indeed poised to follow the terrain. Fundamental research to chart the environment of this planet shared by all nations contributes to the security of us all.

Thank you.



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