enhance economic competitiveness, protect life and property, and assist in the stewardship of the planet for this and future generations.

Earth observations from satellites and in situ collection sites are critical for an ever-increasing number of applications related to the health and well-being of society. The committee found that fundamental improvements are needed in existing observation and information systems because they only loosely connect three key elements: (1) the raw observations that produce information; (2) the analyses, forecasts, and models that provide timely and coherent syntheses of otherwise disparate information; and (3) the decision processes that use those analyses and forecasts to produce actions with direct societal benefits.

Taking responsibility for developing and connecting these three elements in support of society’s needs represents a new social contract for the scientific community. The scientific community must focus on meeting the demands of society explicitly, in addition to satisfying its curiosity about how the Earth system works. In addition, the federal institutions responsible for the Earth sciences’ contributions to protection of life and property, strategic economic development, and stewardship of the planet will also need to change. In particular, the clarity with which Congress links financial resources with societal objectives, and provides oversight to ensure that these objectives are met, must keep pace with emerging national needs. Individual agencies must develop an integrated framework that transcends their particular interests, with clear responsibilities and budget authority for achieving the most urgent societal objectives. Therefore, the committee offers the following overarching recommendation:


Recommendation: The U.S. government, working in concert with the private sector, academe, the public, and its international partners, should renew its investment in Earth-observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications.


The objectives of these partnerships would be to facilitate improvements that are needed in the structure, connectivity, and effectiveness of Earth-observing capabilities, research, and associated information and application systems—not only to answer profound scientific questions, but also to effectively apply new knowledge in pursuit of societal benefits.

The world faces significant environmental challenges: shortages of clean and accessible freshwater, degradation of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, increases in soil erosion, changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere, declines in fisheries, and the likelihood of substantial changes in climate. These changes are not isolated; they interact with each other and with natural variability in complex ways that cascade through the environment across local, regional, and global scales. Addressing these societal challenges requires that we confront key scientific questions related to ice sheets and sea-level change, large-scale and persistent shifts in precipitation and water availability, transcontinental air pollution, shifts in ecosystem structure and function in response to climate change, impacts of climate change on human health, and the occurrence of extreme events, such as severe storms, heat waves, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. The key questions include:

  • Will there be catastrophic collapse of the major ice sheets, including those of Greenland and West Antarctic and, if so, how rapidly will this occur? What will be the time patterns of sea-level rise as a result?

  • Will droughts become more widespread in the western United States, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa? How will this affect the patterns of wildfires? How will reduced amounts of snowfall change the needs for water storage?

  • How will continuing economic development affect the production of air pollutants, and how will these pollutants be transported across oceans and continents? How are these pollutants transformed during the transport process?



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