Understanding and Predicting Earth's
The geoscience 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 events.
To provide 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.
The document 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 21st Century.
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.
The Earth 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.
Because 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.
Today we 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 of life.
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.
Breakthroughs 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 been greater.
Recognizing 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.
Building on the recent advances in geosciences, the goal of the NSF Directorate for Geosciences for the first decade of the 21st Century is:
Through its responsibility for research, education, and service to the nation, the Directorate for Geosciences is committed to achieving the following objectives:
The Directorate 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.
The Directorate's 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.
1. The Scientific Agenda
The scientific agenda of the geosciences is based on a solid intellectual framework which includes:
Building on this framework, the NSF geoscience agenda focuses on enhancing our base of knowledge in these fundamental areas:
The structure 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.
To describe 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.
Traditionally, 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.
To understand the links between physical and chemical processes by focusing on the exchange of energy within and among the components of the Sun-Earth systems.
The geosciences 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.
To understand the Earth's marine and terrestrial ecosystems and their evolution, and the interactions of the biosphere with Earth system processes.
Planetary 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.
To understand 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.
The preceding 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.
2. Service to Society
The enhanced 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.
To enable 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 property damage.
To provide 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.
To furnish information that may be used to mitigate losses, alleviate undesirable impacts, and take advantage of opportunities arising from climate variation and change.
The provision 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.
It should 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.
By linking 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.
Over the 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.
Such readiness 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.
Activities will include:
1. GEO Investments in Research Capability
Successfully 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.
Geoscience 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.
Real time 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.
Challenges for the future in infrastructure and technology include:
The Geosciences 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.
Among the approaches that will be explored are:
2. GEO Partnerships
Innovative 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.
In recent 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 systems.
Our past 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.
This plan 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.
Our increased 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.
This plan 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.
This summary 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.
Members of the Advisory Committee for Geosciences during the project
Members of the Working Group
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