At the request of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Geographic Society, and the Association of American Geographers, the National Academies established a committee to determine how the geographical sciences can best contribute to science and society in the next decade through research initiatives aimed at advancing understanding of major issues facing Earth in the early 21st century.

An ad hoc committee will formulate a short list of high-priority research questions in the geographical sciences that are relevant to societal needs. The questions will be written in a clear, compelling way and will be supported by text and figures that summarize research progress to date and outline future challenges.

The committee focused on impacts that are profoundly altering the human and the physical characteristics of Earth’s surface, and considered how the geographical sciences could contribute to understanding and addressing these transformations. In keeping with the charge, the committee developed 11 high-priority research directions that have clear societal significance, are central to the core concepts of the geographical sciences, relate to the agendas of the larger scientific community, have a strong likelihood of being advanced in the next 5-10 years, and can be investigated using methods and sources of data that either currently exist or are expected to be readily available within the next few years.

The committee solicited input from the greater geographical science community to identify research priorities and the approaches, skills, data, and infrastructure necessary to advance research. After arriving at the strategic research questions, the committee outlined the societal significance of each question, discussed the contribution of the geographical sciences to the topic so far, and determined how future work could produce new insight.


The geographical sciences have the potential to improve understanding of the extent and causes of the changes unfolding on Earth’s surface, to offer insight into the impacts of those changes, to promote the development of effective strategies in response to those changes, and to facilitate the documentation and representation of Earth’s changing character. The order in which the strategic directions are presented reflects the movement from overarching issues of environmental change and sustainability to matters that bear on particular transformations unfolding in the socioeconomic, geopolitical, and technological arenas.

How to Understand and Respond to Environmental Change
  1. How are we changing the physical environment of Earth’s surface?

  2. How can we best preserve biological diversity and protect endangered ecosystems?

  3. How are climate and other environmental changes affecting the vulnerabilities of coupled human– environment systems?

Increasing human populations, urbanization, industrialization, and climate change have modified Earth’s surface and depleted natural resources. Although previous research has documented shifts in climate, soil erosion, habitat loss, and water degradation, the human role in these changes is often inadequately understood, hindering abilities to predict the magnitude and timing of future change. Using paleoenvironmental data such as tree rings and fossilized pollen, geographical scientists are developing reconstructions of long-term environmental history to learn about fluctuations in climate and Earth’s physical systems through time. Geographical scientists are using GIS, remote sensing, and geospatial visualization to analyze alterations to physical processes and patterns over time, and to figure out the relative contributions of the physical and the human to environmental change. A more complete understanding of both natural and human-made changes to Earth’s surface, the distribution of species and genetic diversity, and the varying vulnerabilities of different ecosystems to environmental change will be fundamental to environmental science, hazards management, and ecological restoration, and can guide policy decisions aimed at promoting environmental sustainability.

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