Statement of Task

Earth’s surface is a dynamic interface where physical, chemical, biological, and human processes cause and are affected by forcings in the Earth system. This impact-feedback loop occurs over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. It binds the Earth’s surface to a host of scientific and societal issues, and within this context the committee will:

  1. Assess the state of the art of the disciplinary field of Earth surface processes and the fundamental research questions in the field;

  2. Identify rate-limiting challenges or opportunities for making significant advances in the field; and

  3. Identify the necessary intellectual collaborations and high-priority needs to meet these challenges.

Council (NRC) to establish a committee to address challenges and opportunities in Earth surface processes (Box S.1).

In response to its charge, the committee has identified nine overarching scientific challenges for increasing our understanding of Earth’s surface processes and has established four high-priority research initiatives drawn from these challenges. The four research initiatives emphasize the dynamic interactions among the various processes operating on Earth’s surface and require fundamentally new interdisciplinary research approaches to develop and support them. Designed to transform and strengthen the field of Earth surface processes, the initiatives represent promising pathways to meet urgent demands for scientific guidance on issues related to planning, mitigation, and response to changes in Earth’s surface now and in the future. Some of the key intellectual and technical barriers to advance these research initiatives also are identified, as are strategies to overcome these barriers. Because the committee comprised primarily Earth scientists, the focus of the report is on the terrestrial Earth surface.


Each of the nine grand research challenges identified by the committee is presented in the form of a primary research question with associated opportunities for further investigation. The grand challenges are representative of exemplary, interdisciplinary research areas in Earth surface processes deemed by the committee as poised for significant advances. The list is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all important research activities in Earth surface science:

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