Decadal Survey Recommends “Robust, Resilient, and Balanced” Earth Science Program

WASHINGTON (National Academies PR) — NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) should implement a coordinated approach for their space-based environmental observations to further advance Earth science and applications for the next decade, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

This approach should be based on key scientific questions in areas such as reducing climate uncertainty, improving weather and air quality forecasts, predicting geological hazards, and understanding sea-level rise. The report also recommends building a robust, resilient, and balanced U.S. program of Earth observations from space that will enable the agencies to strategically advance the science and applications with constrained resources.

“The past 60 years of Earth observation from space show us that our planet is changing in multiple ways and for many reasons,” said Bill Gail, chief technology officer at the Global Weather Corporation and co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. “Changes in climate, air quality, water availability, and agricultural soil nutrients are largely being driven by humans. Embracing this new paradigm of understanding a changing Earth and building a robust program to address it is a major challenge for the coming decade.”

This is the second National Academies decadal survey for Earth science and applications from space. Building on the first decadal survey, which was published in 2007, it identifies top science priorities, observational needs, and opportunities for U.S. space-based Earth observations in the coming decade.

Over the last decade, the report says space-based Earth observations – which provide a global perspective of Earth – have transformed our scientific understanding of the planet, revealing it to be an integrated system of dynamic interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, land, ice, and human society. These observations also play a critical role in national security. For example, understanding sea-level rise and impacts of ocean warming associated with climate change is important for naval operations.

“Information about Earth science now plays a significant role in our daily lives, and we are coming to recognize the complex and continually changing ways by which Earth’s processes occur,” said Waleed Abdalati, director of Cooperative Institute of Research in Environmental Sciences at University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-chair of the committee. “In order to progress as a society, we must focus on understanding and reliably predicting the many ways in which Earth is changing.”

The committee developed a set of 35 key questions on Earth science and applications spanning the full range of Earth system science. The questions comprehensively address areas in which advances in Earth science and information capabilities are most needed to improve knowledge about the complex Earth system and allow the development of numerous applications that enable a sustainable and thriving society. Some of the top priority questions identified by the committee are:

  • How can environmental predictions of weather and air quality be extended to seamlessly forecast Earth system conditions at lead times of one week to two months?
  • How do anthropogenic changes in climate, land use, water use, and water storage interact and modify the water and energy cycles, and what are the short- and long-term consequences?
  • What processes determine the long-term variations and trends in air pollution and their subsequent long-term recurring and cumulative impacts on human health, agriculture, and ecosystems?
  • What are the structure, function, and biodiversity of Earth’s ecosystems, and how and why are they changing in time and space?
  • How much will sea levels rise over the next decade, and what will be the role of ice sheets and ocean heat storage?
  • How can large-scale geological hazards be accurately forecast in a socially relevant time frame?

To address these questions, the committee recommended implementing an innovative observing program that builds on the existing and planned instruments and satellites of the U.S. and the international community. The proposed program reflects new needs associated with eight priority observations, including aerosols, clouds and precipitation, Earth’s bulk mass movements, global land and vegetation characteristics, deformation and changes within the Earth’s surface, and three others to be selected competitively from among seven candidates. Each of these are to be measured through a space-based instrument or suite of instruments, and together are intended to ensure effective exploration of the highest priorities among the survey’s 35 key science and applications questions.

Investments in Earth observation capabilities have failed to keep pace with the increasing information needs of businesses and individuals and the overall value of this information to the nation, the report says. Although budget constraints will remain a practical concern during the next decade in terms of progress with new space-based observational capabilities, the committee recommended innovative methods for achieving progress within those constraints.

Research priorities and objectives in this report were developed by a primary steering committee based on input from five interdisciplinary study panels. The panels and committee also received over 300 written white papers from the research community in response to two separate requests for input. In addition, the survey had continual engagement with the community via town halls that were held during annual meetings of a number of professional societies, as well as via webinars, newsletters, and briefings.

The study was funded by the NASA, NOAA, and USGS. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit