Although weather and seasonal climate forecasts are a prominent example, Earth science knowledge has many other important applications. Today, we can track vast clouds of dust and pollution from their source on continents across the oceans, permitting health alarms to be sounded effectively. We can map deformations of Earth’s surface and evacuate regions that may soon experience volcanic eruptions or landslides. We can track changes in soil moisture and then redirect food supplies to areas that may soon face drought and famine. We can monitor long-term changes in the land surface, atmosphere, and oceans and thereby characterize the impacts of human activities on climate. We have documented ozone loss in the stratosphere, resulting in the Montreal Protocol and termination of the production of the causative chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As these examples show, Earth information is essential to ensuring the prosperity and security of society as a whole.

Yet the more we apply this knowledge and observe its benefits, the more we identify new needs for basic knowledge, Earth information, credible forecasts, and decision-support structures designed to serve society. Businesses and national infrastructure elements, from transportation to energy, have a critical need for improved weather information.6 Governments have obligations to manage new environmental treaties and regulations. Much of the U.S. and world population lives in areas that are subject to natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Better forecasts are essential to protect lives and property from such disasters. Improved satellite observations of disaster areas can also speed relief and rebuilding efforts (Box 1.2).7 Finally, effective management of natural resources—from clean water to oil and gas reserves to plants and animals—depends critically on the availability of better information and tools.

Despite many successes in applying Earth science information to improve lives, security, and the economy, we have the ability to do much more. The increase in knowledge produced over the last decade by Earth scientists is itself a tremendous societal benefit with clear public policy implications (Box 1.3). And the experience in applying that knowledge lays a solid foundation for more systematically selecting new missions that address not only important scientific issues but also critical societal needs.

A fundamental challenge for the coming decade is to ensure that established societal needs help guide scientific priorities more effectively, and that emerging scientific knowledge is actively applied to obtain societal benefits. New observations, analyses, better interpretive understanding, enhanced predictive models, broadened community participation, and improved means for information dissemination are all needed. If we meet this challenge, we will begin to realize the full economic and security benefits of Earth science.


It is estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. economy is sensitive to weather and climate. See Bureau of Economic Analysis figures reported in National Research Council, The Atmospheric Sciences Entering the Twenty-First Century, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., p. 25, 1998. A weather forecast indicating a one-degree improvement in temperature is estimated to save companies generating electricity about $35 million per year. See R.A. Williamson, H.R. Hertzfeld, and A. Sen, Future Directions in Satellite-Derived Weather and Climate Information for the Electric Energy Industry: A Workshop Report, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University, June 2004, at <>.


For example, warning times for tornadoes have increased by 8 minutes since 1978. See National Weather Service statistics presented in National Research Council, Satellite Observations of the Earth’s Environment: Accelerating the Transition of Research to Operations, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., pp. 24–25, 2003. In addition, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and tsunamis can be predicted with increasing confidence in areas that are instrumented adequately. For example, scientists predicted the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption, based on the increase in seismicity and surface deformation caused by the motion of magma within the volcano, enabling civil leaders to evacuate surrounding areas in time. See C. Newhall, J.W. Handley II, and P.H. Stauffer, “Benefits of Volcano Monitoring Far Outweigh Costs: The Case of Mount Pinatubo,” U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 115-97, 1997.

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