Summary

Increasing consumption, a growing and more mobile human population, and climate change are transforming the planet’s surface, creating challenges that scientists and policy makers struggle to understand and address. Yet this era of change is also a time of geographical innovation. In recent years, a rapidly expanding interdisciplinary community of scientists has drawn on new geographical concepts, tools, and techniques to advance understanding of topics such as environmental change, sustainability, globalization, and population dynamics. As a result, geographical ideas and information have become increasingly central to science, as well as to planning, environmental management, and policy making. Dynamic maps and imagery of Earth’s surface are now essential tools for emergency responders, transportation workers, and urban planners, and new user-friendly geographical technologies, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) tools and online maps, are becoming a part of daily life.

Many of the central challenges of the 21st century are tied to changes to the spatial organization and character of the landscapes and environments of Earth’s surface as populations move, natural resources are depleted, and climate shifts. Research in the geographical sciences has the potential to contribute greatly to efforts to monitor, analyze, and prepare for these changes. Technological developments and changing research priorities have inspired the rapid growth of the geographical sciences over the past two decades. Moving beyond geography alone, economists, biologists, epidemiologists, geologists, computer scientists, and others now contribute to the geographical sciences— investigating the links between people and nature, and the flows of mass, energy, people, capital, and information that are shaping Earth’s evolving environment. New technologies such as remote sensing systems have enhanced access to high-resolution, near real-time data, and geographical information systems (GIS), GPS, and geospatial visualization have facilitated the processing, analysis, and representation of geographical data. These technologies are used in contexts from the workplace to everyday life, and they have profound implications for information management, governance, commerce, and travel. At the same time, growing concern about human alteration of the environment and the impacts of globalization, resource depletion, and environmental sustainability have fostered tremendous interest in climate change, land-cover change, watershed restoration, migration, global inequality, and geopolitical conflict. Investigation of all of these phenomena can benefit from geographical research.

Despite the potential of recent advances in the geographical sciences, there is still much to be done to understand the changes that face Earth in the 21st century. Earth’s surface has been in constant flux as physical systems and human societies have evolved, but the pace and extent of human-induced changes have reached unprecedented levels in recent decades. The massive, rapid changes unfolding on Earth’s surface provide a logical starting point for considering strategic research directions in the geographical sciences, with the goal of understanding how Earth’s surface is changing; where, why, and at what rate changes are occurring; and what the implications of those changes might be.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 1
Summary I ncreasing consumption, a growing and more mobile investigating the links between people and nature, and human population, and climate change are trans- the flows of mass, energy, people, capital, and informa- forming the planet’s surface, creating challenges tion that are shaping Earth’s evolving environment. that scientists and policy makers struggle to under- New technologies such as remote sensing systems have stand and address. Yet this era of change is also a time enhanced access to high-resolution, near real-time data, of geographical innovation. In recent years, a rapidly and geographical information systems (GIS), GPS, and expanding interdisciplinary community of scientists geospatial visualization have facilitated the processing, has drawn on new geographical concepts, tools, and analysis, and representation of geographical data. These techniques to advance understanding of topics such as technologies are used in contexts from the workplace environmental change, sustainability, globalization, and to everyday life, and they have profound implications population dynamics. As a result, geographical ideas for information management, governance, commerce, and information have become increasingly central to and travel. At the same time, growing concern about science, as well as to planning, environmental manage- human alteration of the environment and the impacts ment, and policy making. Dynamic maps and imagery of globalization, resource depletion, and environmental of Earth’s surface are now essential tools for emergency sustainability have fostered tremendous interest in cli- responders, transportation workers, and urban planners, mate change, land-cover change, watershed restoration, and new user-friendly geographical technologies, such migration, global inequality, and geopolitical conflict. as Global Positioning System (GPS) tools and online Investigation of all of these phenomena can benefit maps, are becoming a part of daily life. from geographical research. Many of the central challenges of the 21st century Despite the potential of recent advances in the are tied to changes to the spatial organization and geographical sciences, there is still much to be done to character of the landscapes and environments of Earth’s understand the changes that face Earth in the 21st cen- surface as populations move, natural resources are de- tury. Earth’s surface has been in constant flux as physical pleted, and climate shifts. Research in the geographi- systems and human societies have evolved, but the pace cal sciences has the potential to contribute greatly to and extent of human-induced changes have reached efforts to monitor, analyze, and prepare for these unprecedented levels in recent decades. The massive, changes. Technological developments and changing rapid changes unfolding on Earth’s surface provide a research priorities have inspired the rapid growth of the logical starting point for considering strategic research geographical sciences over the past two decades. Mov- directions in the geographical sciences, with the goal of ing beyond geography alone, economists, biologists, understanding how Earth’s surface is changing; where, epidemiologists, geologists, computer scientists, and why, and at what rate changes are occurring; and what others now contribute to the geographical sciences— the implications of those changes might be. 

OCR for page 1
 UNDERSTANDING THE CHANGING PLANET scoPe aNd PurPose oF The rePorT into the impacts of those changes, to promote the development of effective strategies in response to those At the request of the National Science Foundation, changes, and to facilitate the documentation and rep- the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Geographic resentation of Earth’s changing character. The order in Society, and the Association of American Geographers, which the strategic directions are presented reflects the the National Academies established a committee to movement from overarching issues of environmental determine how the geographical sciences can best change and sustainability to matters that bear on par- contribute to science and society in the next decade ticular transformations unfolding in the socioeconomic, through research initiatives aimed at advancing under- geopolitical, and technological arenas. standing of major issues facing Earth in the early 21st century. how to understand and respond to An ad hoc committee will formulate a short list of environmental change high-priority research questions in the geographi- cal sciences that are relevant to societal needs. The 1. How are we changing the physical environ- questions will be written in a clear, compelling way ment of Earth’s surface? and will be supported by text and figures that sum- 2. How can we best preserve biological diversity marize research progress to date and outline future and protect endangered ecosystems? challenges. 3. How are climate and other environmental The committee focused on impacts that are pro- changes affecting the vulnerabilities of coupled human– foundly altering the human and the physical character- environment systems? istics of Earth’s surface, and considered how the geo- graphical sciences could contribute to understanding Increasing human populations, urbanization, indus- and addressing these transformations. In keeping with trialization, and climate change have modified Earth’s the charge, the committee developed 11 high-priority surface and depleted natural resources. Although pre- research directions that have clear societal significance, vious research has documented shifts in climate, soil are central to the core concepts of the geographical erosion, habitat loss, and water degradation, the human sciences, relate to the agendas of the larger scientific role in these changes is often inadequately understood, community, have a strong likelihood of being advanced hindering abilities to predict the magnitude and tim- in the next 5-10 years, and can be investigated using ing of future change. Using paleoenvironmental data methods and sources of data that either currently exist such as tree rings and fossilized pollen, geographical or are expected to be readily available within the next scientists are developing reconstructions of long-term few years. environmental history to learn about fluctuations in The committee solicited input from the greater climate and Earth’s physical systems through time. geographical science community to identify research Geographical scientists are using GIS, remote sensing, priorities and the approaches, skills, data, and infra- and geospatial visualization to analyze alterations to structure necessary to advance research. After arriv- physical processes and patterns over time, and to figure ing at the strategic research questions, the committee out the relative contributions of the physical and the outlined the societal significance of each question, human to environmental change. A more complete discussed the contribution of the geographical sciences understanding of both natural and human-made to the topic so far, and determined how future work changes to Earth’s surface, the distribution of species could produce new insight. and genetic diversity, and the varying vulnerabilities of different ecosystems to environmental change will sTraTegic direcTioNs be fundamental to environmental science, hazards management, and ecological restoration, and can guide The geographical sciences have the potential to im- policy decisions aimed at promoting environmental prove understanding of the extent and causes of the sustainability. changes unfolding on Earth’s surface, to offer insight

OCR for page 1
 SUMMARY how to Promote sustainability how to recognize and cope with the rapid spatial reorganization of economy and society 4. How and where will 10 billion people live? 5. How will we sustainably feed everyone in the 7. How is the movement of people, goods, and coming decade and beyond? ideas changing the world? 6. How does where we live affect our health? 8. How is economic globalization affecting inequality? Earth’s population is projected to peak at 8 to 9. How are geopolitical shifts influencing peace 12 billion people by 2050, with most population and stability? growth in urban areas. Many cities will struggle to From human migration to the movement of freight, accommodate rapidly increasing populations, and global mobility has increased over the past several the spread of cities into rural areas will alter bio- decades, affecting transportation, communication, the geochemical cycles, hydrological systems, climate, economy, and even patterns of political conflict. There wildlife habitat, and biodiversity. Research on the is a pressing need to understand the causes and con- changing geographical distribution of populations, sequences of increasing mobility, mobility differences the processes shaping different settlement forms, and from place to place, and the relationship between virtual the sustainability challenges facing an increasingly (as in the Internet and other media) and physical mo- urbanized population are critical to understand- bility through in-depth assessments of developments in ing the challenges facing a more crowded world. individual places and more spatially extensive studies Ensuring the availability of food resources to feed that use GIS and geospatial information. Globalization Earth’s expanding population will be one of those is also exacerbating economic disparities in many places, challenges. Because starvation currently occurs not raising concerns about the plight of the needy and social because of global food scarcity but because of un- unrest. Geographical research elucidating patterns of equal geographical circumstances and inefficient or inequality and the processes producing those patterns at unfair food distribution systems, meeting the critical different spatial scales can shed light on the inequality challenge of feeding 10 billion people will require a impacts of the changing socioeconomic environment, better understanding of geographical influences on as well as the links between poverty and consumption agricultural production and distribution systems and patterns. The geopolitical framework that dominated on changing food consumption preferences. Access the post-World War II era has also come apart in the to health care will also be stretched by an expand- face of economic and social upheaval, raising the need ing, increasingly mobile population, and standards for expanded research on the territorial agendas of in the treatment and prevention of illness will vary influential governments and groups, the changing sig- according to location. Using spatial analysis, GIS, nificance of boundaries, and the role of resource scarcity and spatially explicit models of disease spread, the in cooperation and conflict. geographical sciences can advance understanding of the impacts of globalization, migration, environmen- tal circumstances, land use, economics, and govern- how to leverage Technological change for the ment policy on health and the spread of infectious Betterment of society and environment diseases. Analysis of disease and health care patterns 10. How might we better observe, analyze, and through the course of people’s lives is fundamental visualize a changing world? to understanding both disease behavior and the 11. What are the societal implications of citizen varying vulnerabilities of different populations. This mapping and mapping citizens? information will be essential to developing policies that promote greater human well-being around the Since ancient times, observation, mapping, and globe. representation of Earth’s surface have been integral to geographical research, and remain central to the modern

OCR for page 1
 UNDERSTANDING THE CHANGING PLANET geographical sciences today. Web sites that provide geo- efforts to expand the scope and reach of geographical graphical information have become a critical part of research. Achieving this goal will necessitate advances daily life, empowering citizens as both the sources and in research infrastructure, training, and outreach subjects of mapping, but the explosion of geographical efforts. For example, most progress in the geographi- information has raised significant concerns about indi- cal sciences to date has been the result of independent vidual privacy. Recent advances in geographical tools research initiatives, but large-scale collaborations and technologies to observe, analyze, and visualize the between researchers with diverse areas of expertise changes shaping the human and physical features on are needed to address many of the challenges facing Earth’s surface will be critical to answer the research Earth in the 21st century. Training the next genera- questions in this report and to advance the geographi- tion of geographical scientists will require an updated cal sciences. However, new approaches are also needed curriculum to promote geographical understanding, both to take advantage of the ability and willingness of spatial thinking, and geographical research skills, and nonspecialists to provide geographical information and to teach students how to make use of recent techno- to protect their privacy. logical advances. Outreach is needed to inform policy makers, administrators, media figures, and others of the potential offered by the geographical sciences, moViNg ForWard and to foster links between the geographical science The 11 strategic directions in this report illustrate community and the general public. The committee the great potential of the geographical sciences to envisions that the research priorities outlined in this address fundamental challenges facing science and report will lead to an increasingly sophisticated, well- society in the early 21st century. Given the extent organized, and powerful geographical science, which and magnitude of the geographical transformations will serve as a foundation for a broad spectrum of currently unfolding, it will be imperative to under- scientific research, inform policy decisions, and enable stand why changes happen in particular places. Al- citizens to understand and critique the geographical though rapid progress has been made in geographical technologies that play an increasingly important role research in recent years, moving forward will require in everyday life.