In another example of an Earth systems problem, land-use practices can affect human-induced changes to a local ecosystem and increase the risk of natural hazards. In some areas, land-use practices may contribute to the inability of the local topography to absorb seasonal rains that may themselves be increasing in intensity over historical levels. The result may be greater likelihood of debris flows and flooding, with attendant effects on local populations and ecosystems. Understanding this kind of Earth system, and developing corresponding datasets for monitoring and analysis, is relevant and necessary for effective hazard abatement.
In the committee’s view, the USGS has adopted a wise course in restructuring its strategic science efforts to encourage more interdisciplinary work and its adoption of an Earth systems approach to address societal issues within its mandate. International science work is typically well suited to employing a systems approach because the scientific problems are frequently not only multidisciplinary but also multifaceted, including socio-cultural and geopolitical dimensions. Furthermore, once the decision has been made to conduct research in another country, combining different types of data collection and monitoring—for different parts of the Earth system being examined—can often maximize the return from the investment of personnel and other resources.
Box 4.1 lists compelling international science opportunities identified by the committee. Some of these opportunities require input and participation from scientists with expertise from several USGS science areas, in effect calling for a systems approach; others are directed to one of the seven mission areas. Where practical, other potential federal partners (outside the Department of the Interior) are also indicated, although the committee does not offer suggestions on the mechanics of interagency engagement on international projects. These opportunities and their anticipated impacts and effects are grouped into two categories: (1) those that complement or extend current international science activities at the USGS in science areas that have traditionally had active and successful international projects; and (2) those that have not yet, to the committee’s knowledge, been conducted by Survey scientists but that fit well within the context of the Survey’s science strategy and recent restructuring. The committee has not assigned priorities to these opportunities, considering all of them to be of high value and with the promise of excellent return to support U.S. government interests and national needs.
Importantly, “capacity building” was cited as a key component of most international projects in discussions with USGS international partners and USGS scientists. Although described explicitly in only a few of the opportunities listed below, the committee urges the USGS to explore ways to implement capacity building in its international projects to help sustain U.S. impact and influence abroad.