Understanding and Predicting Earth's
Environment and Habitability
Context for a Decade of Discovery
Vision for the Decade Ahead
About the National Science Foundation
community is eagerly preparing to enter the 21st Century and looks forward
to the 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
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.
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 millenium. 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 particular, 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
We are pleased
to be able to share the vision espoused in this plan. We are certain that
the new Assistant Director for Geosciences, Dr. Margaret Leinen, and the
new 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.
Assistant Director for Geosciences
Chair, Advisory Committee for Geosciences
THE CONTEXT FOR A DECADE OF DISCOVERY
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.
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.
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, 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
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.
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
A VISION FOR THE DECADE AHEAD
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.
on the recent advances in geosciences, the goal of the NSF Directorate
for Geosciences for the first decade of the 21st Century is:
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.
its responsibility for research, education, and service to the nation,
the Directorate for Geosciences is committed to achieving the following
discovery and understanding of the factors that define and influence
the Earth's environmental and planetary processes.
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.
the resulting scientific information in forms useful to society.
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.
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 education 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.
IDEAS -- THE RESEARCH AGENDA
The Scientific Agenda
agenda of the geosciences is based on a solid intellectual framework which
- A greatly
enhanced understanding of the various Earth system components largely
achieved through disciplinary basic research;
that understanding the complex interaction among Earth system components
is at the frontier of the key geoscience questions;
advances in the capability of observing systems, computers, and information
of the historical variation in the Earth system components and their
interactions to test our models and to provide examples of states of
the system that might reoccur in the future;
that fundamental knowledge of our Earth system has assumed critical
importance since humans are now capable of influencing processes on
a planetary scale as well as being significantly impacted by planetary
on this framework, the NSF geoscience agenda focuses on enhancing our
base of knowledge in these fundamental areas:
» planetary energetics
» planetary ecology
» planetary metabolism.
of planet Earth is traditionally examined using a disciplinary viewpoint
that includes the atmosphere, ocean, and body of the Earth. Planetary
energetics and dynamics cut across the conventional but somewhat artificial
disciplinary divisions to emphasize their essential linkages. Adding the
elements of planetary ecology allows the realm of living sciences to be
incorporated. The final element addresses the concept of planetary metabolism
in which planet Earth is seen holistically. Each of these elements provides
a number of critical challenges which establish the scientific agenda
to be pursued during the period of this long-range strategic plan.
the spatial and temporal variations of the structure and composition of
all Earth system components, from the inner core to the upper atmosphere,
through improvements in observational, theoretical and modeling capabilities.
the structure of our planetary system has been studied from the perspective
of the established disciplines of atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences,
and solid Earth sciences. Through decades of observational, theoretical,
and modeling efforts, we have developed a fairly detailed understanding
of the basic planetary structure that now leads us to new frontiers in
the integration of these sciences. Knowledge of the physical and chemical
structure of the Earth's components has given us important clues, leading
to an ever greater understanding of the planet's past and its evolution
to the present and into the future. Further research remains to describe
the structure and composition of the solid, liquid, and gaseous components
of Earth, particularly in the geologic past. Examples of these challenges
include understanding and monitoring the compositional variation of the
atmosphere, ocean, and solid Earth; determining the role of clouds, aerosols,
and biogeochemical feedbacks in the radiative balance of the atmosphere
and climate; enhancing the resolution of lateral and vertical variations
of fine structure throughout the solid Earth; and understanding the structural
relationships between the mantle, the overlying crust and lithosphere,
and the underlying core.
Energetics and Dynamics:
the links between physical and chemical processes by focusing on the exchange
of energy within and among the components of the Sun-Earth systems.
have made rapid progress in understanding the dynamics of the mass and
energy fluxes that are driven by energy from two huge reservoirs: the
Sun and the heat produced and stored in the interior of the Earth. The
former drives the atmosphere and hydrosphere, and the latter, the dynamics
of the solid Earth from core to crust. During the past 30 years, our understanding
of planetary energetics and dynamics has been transformed through observational
and theoretical studies. Similarly, understanding of the biogeochemical
cycles has been greatly enhanced. We are now poised to make meaningful
predictions about the implications of climate change on national and regional
scales. The challenge is to extend and build upon these past efforts to
reach a more profound and holistic understanding of the energetics and
dynamics of the complete Earth system. Examples of key challenges are
to understand the evolution of the deep Earth and the interactions between
the planetary interior and exterior; the dynamics of climate and paleoclimate
including the effects of atmospheric constituents and oceanic processes;
natural and human-influenced changes in the biogeochemical and hydrological
cycles; the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere including the energetic
and dynamic consequences of Sun-Earth interactions.
the Earth's marine and terrestrial ecosystems and their evolution, and
the interactions of the biosphere with Earth system processes.
ecology and biocomplexity consider the terrestrial and marine biospheres
which consist of diverse ecosystems varying widely in complexity and productivity,
in the extent to which they are managed, and in their value to society.
Ecosystems directly provide food, timber, forage, and fiber, as well as
water cycling, climate regulation, recreational opportunities, and wildlife
habitat. The proper functioning of sustainability of ecosystems may be
threatened by stresses arising from a number of global environmental changes.
The linked climate-terrestrial biome system is a critical case in point.
Climate affects the terrestrial biome over nearly all time scales since
the climate system integrates the shorter-term processes and applies feedbacks
to the terrestrial biome. Future efforts must track the different stresses
on ecosystems; uncover the key relationships between the environment and
individuals, populations, communities, and ecosystems; and improve understanding
of the physical and biological controls on carbon cycling and CO2 uptake.
Examples of issues facing planetary ecology include the interactions among
biogeophysical processes and terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems; large-scale
atmosphere-ecosystem exchanges, and how they might be altered in a world
higher in carbon dioxide and temperature; the roles of nutrient and toxic
inputs on ecosystems and their ability to support human activities and
sustain biodiversity; and how potential changes to global biodiversity
and climate could affect global net primary production, trace gas exchange,
and other critical ecosystem functions.
the links and feedbacks among the Earth's physical, chemical, geological,
biological, and social systems, how they have evolved, and how they affect
the biocomplexity in the environment of the planet.
three research thrusts, dealing with Earth's structure, mass and energy
cycling, and biogeochemical processes, lead us naturally to address the
integrated issues of planetary metabolism and biocomplexity in the environment.
The novel thrust in the 21st Century will be the recognition that Earth's
past history and future course cannot be understood without an explicit
integration of the effects of its biological activity, including that
of humans. Our understanding of the evolution of life on the planet is
still developing, but it is increasingly clear that life arose relatively
early in Earth history and that its effects on atmospheric composition
and on geological formations have been enormous. Our oxygenated atmosphere
is intrinsically unstable over millions of years and can only be maintained
through biological processes. On the early Earth, primitive photosynthetic
life set the stage for higher cellular life forms and ever-more-efficient
metabolic pathways which ultimately led to Homo sapiens. The challenges
for this research element include determining how the biogeochemical cycles
of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur are coupled; identifying
what energy transformations control the biosphere and climate systems;
and developing sufficiently sophisticated models to explain the historic
evidence and to predict future changes in planetary metabolism.
Service to Society
understanding gained in the four areas outlined in the Research Agenda
will in turn serve society and improve the quality of life. Three principal
areas have been identified: 1) predicting hazardous events, 2) assessing
environmental quality, and 3) predicting longer-term change and variability.
reliable predictions of significant changes to Earth's current state.
Earthquakes, severe storms, solar storms, and biological invasions represent
threats, but we have the opportunity to mitigate these threats for society.
Predictions of extreme planetary events can help save lives and/or lessen
the basis for assessments of potential natural and anthropogenic changes
to the environment such as air and water quality, coastal pollution and
erosion, and soil degradation.
Longer-Term Change and Variability:
information that may be used to mitigate losses, alleviate undesirable
impacts, and take advantage of opportunities arising from climate variation
of reliable information on geophysical phenomena, both natural and human-influenced,
that is well targeted to meet societal needs is a significant product
resulting from geoscience research. Losses in the United States from geophysical
disasters have risen rapidly. Single extreme events, such as hurricanes,
tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, solar storms, and floods,
can cause losses of several billion dollars and severely disrupt commerce
and daily human activity. The cumulative effects of less dramatic conditions
in the environment, such as drought, erosion, long-term changes in climate,
and pollution can be equally devastating.
be recognized that the provision of reliable information also provides
many positive opportunities. Short-term weather forecasts are of inestimable
value in many businesses; projections of El Niņo provide opportunities
to well-informed organizations and economic sectors; advanced characterization
of soils and surface conditions provides critical inputs for agricultural
and hydrological interests; and knowing ground conditions permits estimates
of potential earthquake severity which lead to improved construction techniques.
basic science, engineering, public policy, and economics, it is possible
to develop infrastructures that mitigate the impact of both natural and
anthropogenically induced hazards. Rational policymaking and planning
are critical in reducing risks to an increasingly complex global society.
Fundamental geoscience information is an essential underpinning for developing
rational policies and plans to protect infrastructure in areas at risk.
PEOPLE -- THE EDUCATION AGENDA
next ten years, environmental stresses in society such as those associated
with population growth, pollution, dwindling resources, extreme weather,
climate change, land-use changes, and space weather are expected to become
even more acute and costly. A balanced strategy to respond to these stresses
should include efforts to use the best available scientific data and reduce
scientific uncertainty along with responsible mitigation and adaptation.
The strategy must include an effective educational component to ensure
a competitive workforce for the 21st Century. Thus, the geoscience community
must be prepared with adequate Earth system science knowledge and information
systems, capabilities for prediction and assessment, and an agenda to
develop informed and educated leaders to help make decisions. Geoscience
education at a broad range of levels will be key to ensure the tools and
leadership are in place by 2010. A new, innovative program of Earth system
science training and education at all levels should be initiated and developed
now to ensure an informed citizenship in 2010.
demands a broad range of educational activities with investments at several
levels including: 1) graduate education as training for future research
scientists and educators through research fellowships and training opportunities
to broaden experiences; 2) undergraduate education through new and emerging
instructional technologies and active, hands-on, inquiry-based study;
3) kindergarten to grade12 to feed the insatiable curiosity about the
Earth among young students; 4) public geoscience literacy by taking advantage
of the natural window on the Earth provided by the geosciences; and 5)
an across-the-broad commitment to diversity to increase the participation
of under-represented groups in the field of geosciences. These activities
will all be catalyzed by the development of a vibrant Earth science curriculum
to be developed in concert with other partners both in NSF and other agencies,
universities, professional societies, and the private sector.
a more integrated graduate education agenda that will result in greater
flexibility in training;
interest in undergraduate education in geosciences;
and centralizing K-12 efforts;
the focus on public science literacy and diversity; and
partnerships with the NSF Education and Human Resources Directorate.
TOOLS -- THE IMPLEMENTATION AGENDA
GEO Investments in Research Capability
addressing the new challenges and opportunities in research and education
will require new investments as well as new modalities. Intensive observing,
computing, and information systems will be needed to support the proposed
research and education efforts in the plan.
research often requires large investments in facilities and instrumentation.
Field projects require significant capital investments in order to study
complex, interdependent processes extending over large areas and long
periods of time. Thus, progress in the science requires a commitment to
improve and extend facilities to collect and analyze data on local, regional,
and global spatial scales and appropriate temporal scales. Investments
are needed to equip laboratories with the necessary tools to conduct comprehensive
studies across the broad range of geosciences.
information is the hallmark of much of geosciences. For example, field
programs are now using so-called "targeted observations" to maximize the
predictability of geophysical systems; this activity cannot be performed
after the fact. The value of real-time data in geoscience research and
education is well established, and this mode of data gathering must continue
to be supported if the solid Earth, atmosphere, and hydrosphere are truly
to be studied as a coupled system.
As in all
sciences, modern computational facilities are an essential resource for
research, however, the highly data-intensive nature of much of the Earth
sciences creates some unique problems. Massive data archiving and distribution
systems, both hardware and software, are required to provide access to
geodata. Global communications systems, including the Internet, are increasingly
important in collecting data from remote parts of the planet and distributing
them to researchers. The scale and complexity of models for describing
the dynamics of individual Earth systems, let alone the interactions among
them, requires access to the most powerful of supercomputers. The geosciences
play a central role in developing and using information technology.
for the future in infrastructure and technology include:
and upgrading existing facilities for airborne, shipboard, space-based,
and groundbased instrumentation and platforms;
data collection programs with a commitment to long-term observations;
computational infrastructure necessary to support the increasing demands
of modeling, data analysis and archival, and research;
emerging technologies to build better observational, communications,
and computational tools.
Directorate remains dedicated to investing, primarily through the nation's
academic institutions, in the proposed research and educational programs
and the essential infrastructure. While principal investigator-based peer-reviewed
grants will continue to be the primary mode for research investments,
it will be necessary to augment traditional grants with new approaches
to address the multidisciplinary and team-oriented projects that will
form a part of the future strategy.
approaches that will be explored are:
support for multidisciplinary institutes focused on significant research
proposals to support teams of researchers to undertake research on specific
geoscience problems that require the application of multiple methodologies;
support mechanisms across several science agencies on geoscience research
problems of mutual interest.
partnerships within NSF, across the federal science and mission agencies,
with other U.S. institutions, and international organizations are essential
to achieve a more complete understanding of Earth as a complex system.
GEO will work with and through the NSF coordination mechanisms and will
seek out those new partnerships that are essential to the realization
of the challenges posed by the science agenda. GEO is committed to working
with existing interagency coordinating bodies and individual agencies
to develop the partnerships and programmatic collaborations necessary
to realize the goals laid out in this plan.
It is clear
that many nations and international organizations around the world increasingly
share both the scientific challenges and the goal of gaining a predictive
understanding of Earth systems outlined here. It is evident that the implementation
of science programs flowing from this science agenda will require expanded
and/or new partnerships with other governments and entities abroad. GEO
will continue to work with a variety of national agencies and international
institutions around the world to develop and implement partnership arrangements
to enable the goal and objectives of this plan to be realized. GEO is
committed to playing a key role in U.S. leadership efforts to support
and implement major international cooperative research programs. Finally,
a special effort will be made to expand collaborations that link U.S.
and foreign scientists, particularly scientists from developing countries.
times civilization has clearly become both an agent and a potential victim
of environmental change. The impacts of human-induced changes on the climate
system, on air and water quality, on land use, and on the diversity of
life will certainly increase in the 21st Century. With an increasing world
population, an expanding global economy, and the development of new technologies,
humans have become powerful agents for environmental change on global,
regional, and local scales. Over the period since the industrial revolution,
scientific evidence has documented environmental changes that are the
result of a complex interplay among a number of natural and human-related
successes in geosciences have helped us understand the causes and impacts
of the Earth's natural variations in the atmosphere, oceans, and the planet's
interior and surface. This knowledge, in turn, has led to a better understanding
of how those variations can affect our lives and has begun to illuminate
how our current actions can cause future change.
for the Directorate for Geosciences is an integral part of the overall
National Science Foundation strategic plan for achieving national and
international goals. It is built on the knowledge base that has emerged
from our past accomplishments in research and responds to the challenges
posed by the interactions between the environment and human activities.
The plan outlines the scientific directions needed to continue the expansion
of our base of knowledge of Earth systems through thoughtful investments
in ideas, people, and tools necessary to accomplish our goals.
understanding, combined with the powerful observing and monitoring capabilities
described in this plan, can create skillful predictions of future variations
in our planetary systems. With this capability comes a responsibility
to provide relevant information to society in a timely and comprehensible
manner, and to help educate our citizens and leaders so that they can
make informed decisions responding to environmental changes.
is a key element in setting the future course for the nation. We may long
for the simpler times in which nature functioned beautifully and mysteriously,
and we did not pose a threat to it. However, we have knowledge that we
do pose potentially serious threats to the environment and consequently
we are challenge to act responsibly. With that challenge comes the exciting
vision -- that we can shape and determine a course that will allow both
our society and our unique planet to have a healthy and prosperous future.
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.
of the Advisory Committee for Geosciences during the project
Susan Avery, Former Chair
David Simpson, Chair
Research Institiutions for Seismology
University of California, Berkeley
Hole Oceanographic Institution
of Wisconsin, Madison
of Rhode Island (now at NSF)
Bay Acquarium Research Institution
University of California, Davis
Institution of Oceanography
Center for Atmospheric Research
Institution of Oceanography
Academy of Engineering
of the Working Group
Corporation for Atmospheric Research
University of Miami
Institute of Technology
Institute of Technology
of New Hampshire
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