1

Earth Sciences in the 21st Century

The Earth sciences will become increasingly prominent in the 21st century as humanity confronts daunting challenges in finding natural resources to sustain Earth’s burgeoning population, in mitigating natural hazards that impact huge populations and extensive built infrastructure, and in achieving sustainable environmental stewardship in the context of an evolving Earth habitat. This report adopts the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Earth science terminology: The Earth sciences involve that part of geosciences that addresses Earth’s solid surface, crust, mantle, and core, including interactions between the solid Earth and the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Topics of the Earth sciences range from directly practical applications to society’s survival—such as detecting and extracting supplies of water, minerals, and fuels to fundamental intellectual inquiry into the origin, evolution, and future of our planet—that commonly inform important societal decision making.

The stature of the Earth sciences has grown with each new decade. For the past 200 years, the Earth sciences have played prominent roles in defining the history of life; unveiling the evolution of the planetary surface; quantifying the nature of natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis; locating mineral and fossil fuel resources; and characterizing the history of the climate system. Looking forward to the next decade and beyond, these roles will expand substantially, driving a need for extensive basic research in the Earth sciences and training researchers and practitioners in the discipline that will expand well beyond current capacity.

While this accelerating demand is evident to many in the field, and NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences (EAR) program is guided by a thorough understanding of the importance of the discipline and the many opportunities for it to contribute to the challenges humanity must confront, the reality is that the Earth sciences receive less attention than warranted at all levels in the U.S. education system and in the federal agencies that support basic and applied research and education (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). Across the country, high school and university curricula place little emphasis on learning about Earth and environmental sciences (Hoffman and Barstow, 2007), which limits the draw of high-quality students into the field. This self-limiting situation can only be overcome by proactive efforts by federal agencies and educational institutions to recognize the value of and need for stronger education, training, and career tracking of capable students to address the Earth science challenges of the present and near future.

With the endorsement of the National Research Council (NRC) 2001 report, Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science (BROES), EAR (and the Directorate for Geoscience, GEO) took a first major step forward in elevating the stature of the Earth sciences within NSF by pursuing EarthScope, a Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) project. This project is the first GEO/EAR MREFC project for which the directorate has attracted substantial external resources ($200 million) for construction of facilities from NSF resource pools that have primarily served traditional science disciplines like physics, astronomy, and biology. The



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 7
1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century T he Earth sciences will become increasingly W hile this accelerating demand is evident to many prominent in the 21st century as humanity in the field, and NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences confronts daunting challenges in finding natu- (EAR) program is guided by a thorough understand- ral resources to sustain Earth’s burgeoning population, ing of the importance of the discipline and the many in mitigating natural hazards that impact huge popula- opportunities for it to contribute to the challenges tions and extensive built infrastructure, and in achieving humanity must confront, the reality is that the Earth sustainable environmental stewardship in the context sciences receive less attention than warranted at all of an evolving Earth habitat. This report adopts the levels in the U.S. education system and in the federal National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Earth science agencies that support basic and applied research and terminology: The Earth sciences involve that part of education (National Center for Education Statistics, geosciences that addresses Earth’s solid surface, crust, 2011). Across the country, high school and university mantle, and core, including interactions between the curricula place little emphasis on learning about Earth solid Earth and the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and bio- and environmental sciences (Hoffman and Barstow, sphere. Topics of the Earth sciences range from directly 2007), which limits the draw of high-quality students practical applications to society’s survival—such as into the field. This self-limiting situation can only be detecting and extracting supplies of water, minerals, and overcome by proactive efforts by federal agencies and fuels to fundamental intellectual inquiry into the origin, educational institutions to recognize the value of and evolution, and future of our planet—that commonly need for stronger education, training, and career track- inform important societal decision making. ing of capable students to address the Earth science The stature of the Earth sciences has grown with challenges of the present and near future. each new decade. For the past 200 years, the Earth With the endorsement of the National Research sciences have played prominent roles in defining the Council (NRC) 2001 report, Basic Research Opportunities history of life; unveiling the evolution of the planetary in Earth Science (BROES), EAR (and the Directorate surface; quantifying the nature of natural hazards such for Geoscience, GEO) took a first major step forward in as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis; locating min- elevating the stature of the Earth sciences within NSF by eral and fossil fuel resources; and characterizing the pursuing EarthScope, a Major Research Equipment and history of the climate system. Looking forward to Facilities Construction (MREFC) project. This project the next decade and beyond, these roles will expand is the first GEO/EAR MREFC project for which the substantially, driving a need for extensive basic research directorate has attracted substantial external resources in the Earth sciences and training researchers and prac- ($200 million) for construction of facilities from NSF titioners in the discipline that will expand well beyond resource pools that have primarily served traditional sci- current capacity. ence disciplines like physics, astronomy, and biology. The 7

OCR for page 7
8 NEW RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EARTH SCIENCES EarthScope project underwent construction of facilities science research and reinforces the importance of from 2003 to 2008 and is presently halfway through the pursuing targeted new research opportunities that first of at least two planned five-year operational stages provide the greatest return on research investments. ( Williams et al., 2010). Among the several federal departments and agencies EarthScope was novel for the MREFC program that support research in the Earth sciences, NSF is the in creating a highly distributed facility with many data sole agency whose primary mission is basic research collection nodes dispersed across the United States and education. Only NSF, through its EAR division, (in contrast to typical localized facilities such as an provides significant funding for investigator-driven, astronomical telescope or a physics accelerator) that fundamental research in all of the core disciplines of includes three key facilities that provide unprecedented the Earth sciences. While substantial Earth science observations of the North American continent; the research is pursued by the U.S. Department of Energy P late Boundary Observatory, USArray, and the San (DOE), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth. The EarthScope the National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility construction completed the five-year MREFC (NASA), the emphasis of those programs is largely phase on time and on budget, a rarity in the history strategically focused and mission oriented. For example, of large facilities’ development supported by federal the President’s FY2011 budgets for Earth science agencies. Scientific results from all elements of the activities in these programs emphasize climate change EarthScope project are emerging rapidly, as noted later and renewable energy resources research. Funding in this report, and the project is a tremendous success for carbon capture and sequestration, climate change, for EAR and GEO. and geothermal research and development is slated to This success presents a clear opportunity for EAR increase for DOE and the USGS. NASA is set to have to gain recognition as a sponsor of major research increased funding for Earth-observing satellites. NSF’s activity on a par with the many large efforts in physics, GEO, which provides about 63 percent of all federal astronomy, and biology. Not only will the Earth sci- funding for the geosciences would receive a budget of ences play a critical role in the 21st century, but the about double the EAR funding level at the time of the discipline has now demonstrated the internal organiza- 2001 BROES report. tional capability to rise to the tasks and funding levels The trend in federal funding of geosciences research for major initiatives that will be needed for the field to is of significant concern. Figure 1.1 displays trends in meet future challenges. Emerging research opportuni- funding across all agencies and depicts a decline in fund- ties defined later in this report will require comparable ing as a percentage of total research funding for basic efforts to achieve their objectives; EarthScope has and applied research. This drop in overall percentage of demonstrated that the Earth science community and research funding has been accompanied by a relative EAR can successfully meet these challenges, and NSF increase in the percentage of geosciences funding for will need to recognize the importance and viability universities, which is the domain where NSF and EAR of enhancing investment in basic research in this dis- play a predominant role. cipline. Earth sciences in the 21st century must join the ranks of big science efforts pursued in the United THE COMMITTEE’S APPROACH S tates; it cannot remain a modest activity if new opportunities to expand basic understanding are to be In this report the Committee on New Research pursued as a foundation for tackling the societal chal- Opportunities in the Earth Sciences (NROES) identi- lenges of the upcoming century. fies new research opportunities in the Earth sciences as they relate to the responsibilities of NSF’s EAR divi- sion. In particular, the committee undertook four tasks: FUNDING TRENDS IN THE EARTH SCIENCES 1. Identify high-priority new and emerging This report is released against a background of research opportunities in the Earth sciences declining federal funding for basic and applied Earth over the next decade, including surface and

OCR for page 7
9 EARTH SCIENCES IN THE 21ST CENTURY Percent of Total Federal Research Funding Applied to the Geosciences (1970-2009) 14% Percent of Federal Research Funding Applied Research 12% Basic Research 10% All Geosciences 8% 6% 4% 2% 0% 1970 1972 1974 1976 1978 1980 1982 1984 1986 1988 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 Percent of Total Federal Geoscience Research Funding Applied to Universities (1973-2007) 35% Percent of Federal Research Funding 30% 25% 20% 15% 10% 5% 0% 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 FIGURE 1.1 AGI summary of trends in federal research funding for geosciences. SOURCE: AGI (2009). deep Earth processes and interdisciplinary EAR and other government agency pro - research with fields such as ocean and atmo- grams, industry, and international programs. spheric sciences, biology, engineering, com- 4. Suggest new ways that EAR can help train puter science, and social and behavioral the next generation of Earth scientists, sup- sciences. port young investigators, and increase the 2. Identify key instrumentation and facilities participation of underrepresented groups in needed to support these new and emerging the field. research opportunities. 3. Describe opportunities for increased coopera- The committee was not asked to evaluate existing tion in these new and emerging areas between EAR programs or make budgetary recommendations.

OCR for page 7
10 NEW RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EARTH SCIENCES These questions cannot be addressed without first sciences supported by EAR ultimately affects human acknowledging the context into which this report is welfare in five major areas: being released, and so the following sections provide perspectives on the status of the Earth sciences that 1. Discovery, use, and conservation of natural informed the committee’s approach. resources—fuels, minerals, soils, water; 2. Characterization and mitigation of natural hazards—earthquakes, floods and droughts, Grand Challenges for the Earth Sciences landslides, tsunamis, volcanoes; The 2008 NRC report Origin and Evolution of 3. Geoscience-based engineering—urban devel- Earth—Research Questions for a Changing Planet defined opment, agriculture, materials engineering; 10 grand research questions for the 21st century that 4. Stewardship of the environment—ecosystem will drive the modern Earth sciences: management, adaptation to environmental c hanges, remediation, and moderation of 1. How did Earth and other planets form? adverse human effects; and 2. What happened during Earth’s “dark age” 5. Terrestrial surveillance for national security— (the first 500 million years)? arms control treaty verification, precise posi- 3. How did life begin? tioning, mapping, and subsurface remote 4. How does Earth’s interior work, and how sensing. does it affect the surface? 5. Why does Earth have plate tectonics and Over the past 10 years these issues have only grown in continents? importance and relevance, and every indication is that 6. How are Earth’s processes controlled by this trend will persist through this century. The roles of material properties? basic research in the Earth sciences in each arena were 7. What causes climate to change—and how described in detail in the BROES report and are not much can it change? repeated here because it is clear that NSF and EAR are 8. How has life shaped Earth—and how has committed to sustaining basic Earth science research. Earth shaped life? The committee does note some issues of heightening 9. Can earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and concern as we progress into the second decade of the their consequences be predicted? 21st century. 10. How do fluid flow and transport affect the human environment? Relevance of the Earth Sciences Answering these questions, which the NROES com- The world’s population is expected to reach 7 bil- mittee agrees are fundamental to the field, will take lion by the end of 2011, and about 9.2 billion by 2050, sustained and intense effort and the preparation of relentlessly increasing the demand for food, fuel, raw new generations of researchers capable of building materials, and water.1 Much of this population will con- on current understanding and overcoming current tinue to be concentrated near dynamic coastal zones, limitations. and meeting the requirements of this population and The essential role of EAR is to support basic understanding associated impacts on the environment research on acquiring fundamental knowledge about is a key area to which the Earth sciences contribute. the Earth system, motivated by profound questions like The energy demands of this human population are those above, and to foster that understanding, which immense. In 2008 the total world energy consumption can be directly applied to national strategic needs. was 474 × 1018 J, equivalent to an average annual power Strong partnerships with mission-oriented agencies are consumption rate of 15 terawatts. For comparison, critical to the flow of basic understanding into applied energy flux from Earth’s interior to the surface is esti- research and engineering. The 2001 BROES report (NRC, 2001) identified how basic research in the Earth U.S. Census Bureau. 1

OCR for page 7
11 EARTH SCIENCES IN THE 21ST CENTURY mated at 46 terawatts. All projections anticipate steady damental physical, chemical, and biological insights growth of energy consumption, as long as resources can p rovided by EAR research on the shallow Earth be found to accommodate it. Fossil fuels such as oil, system. Soil management issues related to sustaining natural gas, and coal are the primary sources of energy the human habitat, and issues related to land use, soil that will be harvested from terrestrial reservoirs. With quality, and contamination are prominent in societal most readily located and extracted fossil fuels largely decision making and require fundamental Earth science having been exploited, there is a steadily increasing foundations for ensuring long-term viability under the need for professionally trained Earth scientists to pressure of heightening demands. The value of train- staff oil exploration and development companies. This ing in biogeochemical cycling, sediment transport, and includes demand for expertise in subsurface explora- hydrology will only increase over the next century. tion and in reservoir management, with broad skills in Repeated natural disasters have struck around the seismology, geophysics, hydrology, rock-fluid chemical world over the decade since the BROES report, with interactions, and computer modeling. Nuclear power floods, droughts, severe storms, volcanic eruptions, also requires nuclear materials concentrated in geologi- earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis all impacting cal formations, and hydrological power involves huge society. Great population growth in regions exposed geoengineering efforts that require solid foundations in to natural hazards has magnified the impacts of these hydrogeology and landscape evolution. Growing energy events, and throughout the century human exposure demands will raise the importance of Earth science will increase dramatically. The value of translating training and research throughout the century. Earth science understanding and earthquake hazard Earth scientists contribute to identifying rock assessments into engineering and construction imple- materials, minerals, and ores that serve the demands of mentations has been dramatically demonstrated by society for construction materials and critical indus- the contrasting impacts of the 2010 Haiti and Chile tries. The burgeoning demands for expanded supply of earthquake disasters. Haiti, struck by a moderately materials and mitigating the long-term environmental large magnitude 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010, impacts of locating and extracting them will continue had massive destruction and loss of life, primarily throughout the century, again driving demand for because of poor construction standards. In contrast, Earth science expertise in the processes of petrol - the much stronger magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile ogy, fluid-rock interactions, hydrothermal systems, on February 27, 2010, caused far less damage and loss basin-scale hydrology, and tectonic history. Increased of life in the largely well-built environment of central recognition of biological roles in ore distribution and Chile. Massive flooding events, such as that accompa- sedimentation is further driving demand for geobiology nying Hurricane Katrina in 2005—the costliest natural training and expertise. disaster in U.S. history, with about $81 billion in dam- Fresh water supply is one of the greatest challenges ages and 1,836 fatalities—and the 2010 monsoonal associated with population growth, and informed deci- inundation of southern Pakistan, which flooded almost sion making on water resources requires knowledge 20 percent of the country’s land area, directly affecting of the complex hydrological systems operating in the about 20 million people, are further indicators of the near-surface environment and how they respond to upscaling of human impacts to be anticipated by natural natural and human modifications. A broad suite of hazards throughout the 21st century. The March 11, geochemical, geophysical, and geobiological approaches 2011, Tohoku great earthquake and tsunami in Japan are central to investigation of aquifers and groundwater that devastated the coast of Honshu and precipitated systems. Expanding the trained workforce and advanc- the Fukushima nuclear disaster is further demonstra- ing the analysis tools available for water management tion of this expanding impact of natural disasters. will be a sustained need for the next century. Efforts to mitigate natural hazards rely on precise Soils provide essential resources for agriculture, observations and quantitative understanding of the water filtration, and construction and manufacturing phenomena that are involved. Broadly based EAR activities, and understanding these biologically active, r esearch programs that address the fundamental intricately structured porous media requires the fun- nature of the dynamic geosystems underlying natural

OCR for page 7
12 NEW RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EARTH SCIENCES hazards are essential for pursuing applied research phering the geological record of terrestrial change and engineering efforts to mitigate the hazards. Most and extreme events, (2) facilities for observing active f ederal programs associated with natural hazards processes in the present-day Earth, and (3) computa- are forced by funding constraints to prioritize very tional technologies for realistic simulations of dynamic directed research; without EAR basic science support, geosystems. This perspective is reinforced in the next critical basic understanding of the natural hazards chapter, which identifies areas of research opportunity would lag, thereby reducing the effectiveness of miti- for the near term, all of which intersect with the basic gation efforts. research agenda defined by the BROES study. Indeed, Quantifying complex geosystems requires extensive there are common themes manifested in all of the find- measurement of the fluxes, structures, and evolution ings and recommendations from this updated report; of the systems. Recognition of this has guided EAR technique development, observations on suitable spatial toward developing facilities capable of making the and temporal scales, and integrative simulation efforts spatial and temporal measurements essential to under- underlie all of the frontiers in basic Earth science standing the dynamical geosystems. Particular prog- research. ress has been made in geophysical observations with The Earth sciences in the 21st century have great seismic, geodetic, and magnetotelluric networks being potential but also great challenges. The importance of established both within the EAR Instrumentation and the discipline is being propelled to high priority by the Facilities program and the EarthScope project. Major pressures of population growth, a quest for sustain- advances have been made in facilities for hydrologi- ability of living standards, and demonstration of the cal measurements and database gathering, and several feedbacks on Earth’s geosystems caused by human Critical Zone observatories have been established for activities. EAR is critical to the future of basic Earth addressing the near-surface geosystem. Progress in science research, and can highlight the great success of quantifying the historical climate system and its evolu- such projects as EarthScope, convey the fundamental tion has largely stemmed from accumulation of global contributions of EAR science to resource, hazards, and observations from continental and oceanic drilling, environmental challenges facing the nation, and pro- geological fieldwork, geochemical technique develop- mote the intellectual challenges presented by complex ment, and increased understanding of the roles of geo- geosystems to be quantified by a new generation of biological processes. Essentially these endeavors probe committed Earth science researchers. Earth’s complex environment and quantify attributes This report is organized along the structure of EAR of the dynamical systems that feed into quantitative to facilitate action by EAR on the diverse topical areas. modeling efforts. While some aspects of modeling Chapter 2 of this report describes the status and future efforts are intrinsic to monitoring operations conducted prospects of seven primary research areas and one by mission-oriented federal programs, and numerous cross-cutting methodological area and are loosely orga- interagency partnerships are exploited to provide access nized by spatial and temporal scale (larger to smaller), to essential data, EAR efforts are guided by the design beginning with topics related to the EAR Deep Earth requirements for basic research and a strong commit- Processes section, followed by Surface Earth Processes ment to NSF-based research facilities. section topics. These descriptions and assessments are The BROES report made a compelling argument guided by input from across the Earth science commu- for the importance of sustaining three basic Earth nity and provide the basis for the committee’s findings science research capabilities: (1) techniques for deci- and eight recommendations outlined in Chapter 3.