The precipitous decline in the nation’s present and planned research and operational Earth observation satellite programs has implications that extend from the vitality of the research and engineering pipeline to many aspects of the U.S. economy. Indeed, a greater scientific understanding of the coupled Earth system, and the translation of such understanding into useful information and predictions, are essential to protecting human society (Box 1.1) as well as to sustaining stewardship of the natural resources that are vital to economic growth and improved environmental quality. In a 2006 World Bank study, the authors argued that in addition to tracking physical and human capital as traditional sources of wealth, so, too, should exhaustible and renewable natural resources be measured, accounted for, and stewarded as a large and important source of a nation’s wealth (World Bank, 2006). That analysis showed that effective management of natural resources confers a quantitative economic edge—indeed making nations demonstratively wealthier.
The investments in Earth science and applications that are recommended in this report are needed to restore important capabilities that have been lost and to build the capacity for an Earth information system that will be increasingly important in the decades to come. Fundamental improvement is needed in the structure and function of the nation’s observation and information systems to inform policy choices about the economy and security, protect human health and property, and judiciously manage the resources of the planet. It is essential that such systems be viewed as important elements of a linked system, extending from Earth observations to provision of services at the federal, state, and local level, and in the private sector, to communities that have come to trust that such a system will be developed based on the best available scientific understanding and will provide critical information in a timely manner.
To achieve its vision of a decadal program of Earth science research and applications in support of society, the committee makes 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 needed improvements 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 apply new knowledge effectively in the pursuit of societal benefits.
In concert with these actions, the nation should execute a strong, intellectually driven Earth sciences program and an integrated in situ and space-based observing system. Improved understanding of the coupled Earth system and global observations of Earth are linked components that are the foundation of an effective Earth information system. Developing such a system will require an expanded observing system, which in turn is tied to a larger global observing system of the kind envisioned in the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a program initiated by the United States.2 It will also require tools—such as computer models to assimilate the observations, extract useful information, and make predictions—and information technology to disseminate data to user communities. The mission component of the observation system is the primary focus of this report and is summarized in Chapter 2 and detailed in Part II.
More than 60 countries, the European Commission, and more than 40 international organizations are supporting a U.S.-led effort to develop a global Earth observation system. See, “47 Countries, European Commission Agree to Take Pulse of the Planet: Milestone Summit Launches Plan to Revolutionize Understanding of How Earth Works,” available at http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2004/s2214.htm.