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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Before the
Geological Society of America
Annual Meeting

Baltimore, MD

November 1, 2015

[Slide #1: Title slide: Unearthing Earth's Secrets ]

Thank you, President-Elect Mora, for that warm introduction. It is a great honor to be here and have this opportunity to address the Geological Society of America, which is a critically important part of our nation's scientific community.

I'm here today to assure you that NSF is committed to working with you--and your institutions--in continuing to champion scientific research--and especially fundamental scientific research--in GEO-related sciences.

First, let me take this opportunity to note that NSF--and the entire geosciences community--lost a valued friend and colleague when Earth Sciences Division program officer Rich Lane died unexpectedly last month.

For the past 18 years, Rich served the GEO/EAR Sedimentary Geology and Paleobiology community. Many of you have worked with him, and I know you join us in extending our sympathy to his family. Rich will be greatly missed by all of us in the geosciences and the scientific community at large.

For more than six decades, NSF has been a strong and consistent steward of the nation's scientific discovery and innovation process--a process that has been crucial to increasing America's economic strength, global competitiveness, national security, and overall quality of life. This is the mission of the National Science Foundation--"to promote the progress of science."

For all of its history, NSF has helped scientists chase the dreams and visions that have led to today's discoveries.

What will open tomorrow's doors of discoveries will essentially be the same as what drew you and the great scientists of past ages to seek answers to the "what-ifs" of life.

The what-ifs empower curiosity, drive experimentation and lead us to greater purposes and outcomes than we expected or even imagined. NSF will continue to support the promise of research, the quest for discovery and the drive for transformative solutions that improve the lives of people in our Nation and around the world.

[Slide #2: Our ever-changing Earth ]

What is it that NSF brings to the discipline of geosciences? And within that term, I include atmospheric and geospace sciences, earth sciences, ocean sciences and polar programs.

NSF accounts for nearly two-thirds of the total federal funding for basic geoscience research conducted at U.S. academic institutions. In a typical year, we fund about 1,700 awards in support of geoscience research and support nearly 17,300 geoscience researchers as well as 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

These geoscientists work in novel and sometimes challenging environments to evaluate how the atmosphere, poles, oceans, land, water and ice cover respond to and influence changes in the Earth's ecosystems, as well as how the sun and other space-based phenomena affect the environment across multiple scales.

Geoscientists are a varied group. Some are outdoors with hammers and rocks; some are on ships at sea making measurements. Others are trekking across glaciers and flying through all kinds of atmospheric conditions. And still others are analyzing data and modeling variability and long-term change. All are trying to understand how the Earth is changing, and on what time-scale.

Change is the one constant in geoscientists' lives, and they are trying to help us understand the dynamics of the planet that supports us. But we also have to understand that the change is not linear and it's not monolithic. There are frequent disruptive "surprises."

So we need to continue to build the knowledge base that really allows us to understand what makes our planet "tick."

[Slide #3: Geosciences: discovery and application ]

NSF has supported a total of 217 Nobel Prize laureates in the years before they received their awards--including three of the recently announced 2015 awardees. We like to say that we were "there early" in recognizing the importance of their proposed research.

In 2010, I was honored to attend the acceptance speech by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ei-ichi Negishi, who said, "The final reward for any researcher is to see his or her lifetime of work extend beyond academia and laboratories, into the mainstream of global society where it can breathe hope into the world."

Isn't that the goal that all of us in the scientific community strive to achieve?

For the geoscientist, there are breakthrough discoveries, for sure--and I'll get to that in a moment--and there are also real-world applications that improve the lives of millions, if not billions, of the world's people.

Whether it's the study of a major earthquake in Nepal, or the impact of a major tsunami, or the sudden confluence of factors that produces a "superstorm" on the East Coast of the U.S., or the sudden volcanic eruption that destroys dozens of nearby homes--the geosciences provide the growing body of knowledge we have about why the Earth acts the way it does and how human beings can learn to live more safely and productively upon it.

[Slide #4: NSF leads new era of GEO discovery ]

One great advantage geoscientists have today over those of just a few decades ago is that they have extraordinary new instruments to aid their research.

In the geosciences, NSF offers new facilities, platforms, capabilities, networks, and deployed assets literally around the world that provide a deeper understanding of how and why the planet functions.

Pictured above are a few of those capabilities--the National IceCore Laboratory supports research in understanding climate change and the status of ice sheets and glaciers.

EarthScope is a continental-scale geophysical instrument array that provides 3-D images of the lithosphere and monitors plate movements with GPS stations.

Critical Zone Observatories Initiative will improve our understanding of the thin veneer of Earth that extends from the top of the vegetation to the base of weathered bedrock, which provides most of the ecosystem services upon which human societies depend.

The NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center produces highly accurate predictions of natural disasters and weather patterns through a series of complex algorithms that analyze large sets of data.

Firefly--is a small, student-built satellite that will circle the earth, catching glimpses of lightning strikes and help analyze the electromagnetic radiation that accompany such strikes.

The International Ocean Discovery Program helps researchers explore the Earth's structure beneath the seafloor.

NSF's Academic Research Fleet now includes the R/V Sikuliaq, which is a unique world-class platform that will help us understand how the Arctic is changing and why it's changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet.

[Slide #5: The thrill of discovery--Finding Massive magma pool below Yellowstone ]

Now, I mentioned earlier the extraordinary discoveries that have been made by geoscientists.

Yellowstone National Park holds a special place in the hearts of Americans both as our first national park and also for its amazing array of wildlife, ecosystems, and geothermal features. NSF-supported researchers revealed one of the secrets of Yellowstone's unique features--it sits on multiple clusters of nested volcanic craters--calderas--making it one of the biggest super-volcanos in the world.

As one researcher observed, "Sometimes it erupts quietly with lava flow, but once or twice every million years, it erupts very violently." He predicted that if it happens again, such an eruption will obliterate the surroundings within a radius of hundreds of kilometers, cover the U.S. and Canada with multiple inches of ash, and cause global cooling for a period of a decade or longer.

But don't head for your shelters quite yet--he said the research on the current magna-creation cycle suggests such an eruption is not expected for the next one or two million years.

[Slide #6: The thrill of discovery--Solving the mystery of nighttime thunderstorms ]

Another exciting geo-related area of NSF research is an effort to solve the mysterious phenomenon of nighttime thunderstorms.

A new project--the Plains Elevated Convection at Night or PECAN--may help us understand the causes of these sometimes dangerous storms and improve our forecasts of them.

As part of PECAN, scientists and students are using a broad array of ground-based and aerial instruments to take measurements in the atmosphere before and during nocturnal thunderstorms, especially in the Midwest Plains where storms usually form during the months of June and July.

Analyses of the vast amounts of data collected and use of state-of-the-art computer simulation models should, over time, shed light on the atmospheric conditions that lead to the formation of nighttime storms.

[Slide #7: The thrill of discovery--Discovering Earth's oceans are homegrown]

One ground-breaking discovery in geosciences involves the origin of our planet's vast oceans.

Astronomers have long postulated that icy comets and asteroids delivered the water for them during an epoch of heavy bombardment that ended about 3.9 billion years ago. But new research suggests that Earth supplied its own water, leaching it from the rocks that formed the planet.

The finding may help explain why life on Earth appeared so early, and it may indicate that other rocky worlds are also awash in vast seas.

Our planet has always harbored water, but the rubble that coalesced to form Earth was thought to contain only trace amounts of it. Researchers at MIT have conducted chemical and physical analyses of Earth's library of meteorites and then compared that data with computer simulations of early Earth-like planets.

Those models showed that a large percentage of the water in the molten rock would quickly form a steam atmosphere before cooling and condensing into an ocean, perhaps as early as 4.4 billion years ago. Even the scant amount of water in the Earth's mantle, which is much drier than the sand in the Sahara, should produce oceans hundreds of meters deep, they found.

NSF has a long history of supporting ocean-related research, as demonstrated by our recently launched Ocean Observatories Initiative. NSF was an active participant in the Our Oceans Conference 2015 in Chile, where we highlighted the OOI commissioning, later cited by Secretary of State John Kerry.

We also reported on progress in the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling--SOCCOM--project.

It is inspiring to see so many nations taking pro-active steps to protect the health of our planet's oceans, including issues such as ocean acidification. NSF will continue to fund further research into understanding this critically important part of our global ecosystem.

[Slide #8: Five guiding priorities]

Regarding our future funding outlook, I thought it would be instructive to share with you the five guiding priorities we are pursuing in the area of GEO-sciences.

Number one, how can we better understand and predict the changing environment?

Number two, how can we prepare for extreme events, hazards and improve resilience?

Number three, how can we protect and sustain life?

Number four, how can we achieve thrivability for all? A thrivable world is one where humans can live productive and fulfilling lives going forward.

Number five, how can we engage, inspire and energize human capital and capabilities for the future? And that's all about the human capital aspect.

[Slide #9: Understanding and predicting the changing environment]

So let me start with understanding and predicting the changing environment.

Central to this effort is our Ocean Observatories Initiative, which I cited earlier. OOI exemplifies today's exciting developments in ocean sciences because we're literally "instrumenting" the world's oceans with new capabilities that will transform our understanding of the world's oceans through cyber-enabled programs.

We'll be looking at the dynamics of coastal processes, continental shelves, and air-sea interfaces.

We'll be investigating what happens with biomass in the ocean, the role of bacteria, phytoplankton, and larger animals. And we'll be looking into the fundamental biophysical processes operating beneath the seafloor.

We're instrumenting the ocean sea floor as well as the column and the surface to provide for the first time a three-dimensional--24/7--view of the metabolism of the Earth's ocean. Suffice it to say, this is an exciting and promising area for all of us interested in ocean sciences.

[Slide #10: Preparing for extreme events and hazards ]

Let me now move to how we prepare for extreme events and hazards, both natural and human-made, and how we improve our resilience in dealing with these events.

There are many scientific issues here. This is use-inspired science, which for GEO is a natural part of what many do. If you think about it, nature is the toughest peer reviewer out there.

So we need to continue to develop our predictive capabilities and then compare and contrast those with what nature actually is telling us. When those two vectors align, we'll really know we're making progress.

NSF supports GEO research that covers the gamut, from space weather events to droughts and floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, other severe weather and wildfires. For example, research funded by NSF at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and universities was instrumental in the development of Doppler radar, which regularly enhances the lives of millions of Americans through improved weather forecasting.

And we recently announced the launch of a new effort called the Prediction of and Resilience against Extreme EVENTS--or PREEVENTS--which is one of the successors to the Hazards SEES program, and one element of the FY16 Risk and Resilience activity at NSF.

PREEVENTS is designed to enhance understanding of the fundamental processes underlying natural hazards and extreme events; improve models of natural hazards, extreme events, and their impacts on natural, social, and economic systems; and enable development of new tools to enhance societal preparedness and resilience against such impacts.

Let me also add that through our GEO Directorate, we supported more than 70 Rapid Response Research--you know it as RAPID--awards totaling more than $9 million in connection with the Horizon oil spill. Ships engaged by those awards spent more than 220 days at sea investigating the oil spill and providing some of the most definitive evaluations of the extent of the oil plume, the composition of the oil mixture, and what eventually happened with the plume.

Once again--our GEO efforts are focused both on discovery and real-world applications.

[Slide #11: Protecting and sustaining life ]

Protecting and sustaining life--whether of the human, animal or vegetative kind--is obviously a key priority of NSF's funding on an ongoing basis. The photo on the left shows the devastating path of a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, taken by our GEO Directorate leader, Roger Wakimoto, as he was arriving on scene to see the destruction first-hand.

On the right, we see devastation of a different kind in the result of increasing ocean acidification on coral life in the Cayman Islands.

The implications are obvious--the more we know about the geo-scientific forces at work in the atmosphere, in the oceans, in the sun, and in the Earth itself, the more we can do to protect and sustain life on our planet.

We need to focus on resiliency. We need to educate people about what to do when faced with imminent forces of nature. Some years ago, NSF funded studies in the social and behavioral area that showed that warnings about impending hurricanes produced unexpected results.

The studies showed that when authorities advised populations under threat of an upcoming hurricane, they typically did not take the warnings at face value. Most people would move inland, all right--but they generally travelled only about half the distance advised.

Such research is related to GEO because if we are trying to take measures to protect human life, we obviously have to take into account human behavior. This is why NSF has been placing increased emphasis on inter-disciplinary research that draws on the expertise of different fields.

Similarly, NSF invests in engineering studies in building construction for areas such as earthquake zones, coastal areas, and volcanic regions. The more we know about how buildings of different construction fare over time in these environments, the more we can do to protect people from the likely threats they face.

[Slide #12: Moving from sustainability to "thrivability" ]

The U.S. has a long history of investment in and deployment of technological advances derived from advances in basic research facilitated by NSF.

I know that one of the controversial developments of the last few decades is the emergence of hydraulic fracturing--or "fracking"--as a major energy source for the U.S. But there is no doubt that this technological breakthrough has had an impact.

Our natural gas production has climbed, making the U.S. one of the world's leading producers of this new energy resource. Oil production has rebounded, leading to lower prices at the gasoline pump. And the new abundance of these fuels has reduced the nation's dependence on coal.

I raise the fracking phenomenon because we made a GEO award of $50,000 more than three decades ago in a study to test the hypothesis that fracturing rocks by hydraulic pressure might free up the petrochemicals located within those rocks. This award proved to be one of the initial steps that led to the fracking revolution.

Now, new technologies can have both upside and downside impacts. Today we are supporting the development of new tools and techniques that will monitor the subsurface environment during fracking to help ensure it is done in an environmentally responsible way.

GEO is also supporting research in what we call Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems--or INFEWS.

Growing U.S. and global populations, extensive changes in land use, and increasing geographic and seasonal variability in precipitation patterns are placing ever-increasing stresses on the critical resources of food, energy and water.

This is a major issue for many areas of our country, as has been seen in recent years in the drought-parched regions of California and other southwestern states. But critical challenges are emerging in virtually every region.

INFEWS funds interdisciplinary research to tackle these challenges, allowing us to better understand these interconnected forces and design and model solutions to address the variety of urgent natural, social, and human-built factors involved.

We're also focusing on hazards vulnerability and resilience, coastal systems, water sustainability and climate, networks, ocean oscillation and energy activities.

Water sustainability is one of the most urgent challenges facing the world today and NSF is taking a lead role in understanding the hydrological systems of ensuring an adequate supply and quality of water to people in different climates and landscapes.

[Slide #13: Inspiring human capital and capabilities for the future ]

The final priority is human capital and how can we engage, inspire and energize human capital and capabilities?

Our investments in the improvement of STEM learning, teaching, and workforce development will help ensure that the scientific community has the intellectual infrastructure needed to carry out basic research in the future. NSF always keeps in the forefront of our planning the need to develop future talent for the continued leadership of U.S. science, engineering and technology.

One thing that GEO offers young students is a fascination with the natural world--fossils in the field, the ocean, the lakes, the waterways, and the national parks. These are all tangible, real phenomena that the geosciences can bring to the table in order to excite and engage learners at all levels.

In the photos on the slide, we see a Graduate Research Fellow using GPS receivers to monitor bedrock landslides in Norway and another GRF working with Chilean glaciologists to monitor a glacier in the Chilean Andes.

NSF's broader STEM education investments in 2016 will total more than $1 billion, supporting students, teachers, researchers, and the public--especially in undergraduate and graduate education.

One program I am especially proud of is NSF "INCLUDES."

INCLUDES is an integrated, national initiative to increase the preparation, participation, advancement, and potential contributions of those who have been traditionally underserved and/or underrepresented in the STEM enterprise.

It will build on and amplify NSF's current portfolio in broadening participation.

Our investments are intended to produce rapid progress on changing the balance of diversity in science and engineering, have significant national impact for the participation of underrepresented groups, stimulate the community, forge new partnerships, and catalyze new approaches.

[Slide #14: Top geoscience jobs ]

Let me point to some compelling figures compiled by the American Geosciences Institute.

The figures show that while geosciences graduates pursue a wide array of careers, a large portion of them find their calling in the oil and gas industry. 74 percent of those with master's degrees in geosciences are employed in oil and gas, as are 36 percent of bachelor's degree holders and 22 percent of doctorate graduates.

Education and research institutions are chosen by 64 percent of geoscience Ph.D.s and 17 percent of those with bachelor's degrees.

Environmental services get 21 percent of bachelor graduates and 4 percent of master's holders.

Federal and state governments are the choice of 14 percent of doctorates and 18 percent of master's holders.

Those are compelling numbers that indicate the future is very bright for geoscience graduates in some of the fastest growing fields in the country.

[Slide #15: Discoveries yield knowledge ]

As I end my remarks, I underscore that NSF seeks to enable discoveries and breakthroughs. We "assist" your explorations because they lead to discoveries and greater understanding of the endlessly fascinating world and universe in which we live.

In T.S. Eliot's poem Little Gidding, which is the last of his "Four Quartets," are the following lines:

    We shall not cease from exploration

    And the end of all our exploring

    Will be to arrive where we started

    And know the place for the first time.

That is the quest that NSF is involved in, and the geosciences are key to our exploration.