The decadal survey’s vision for the future, stated above, was first enunciated in the 2005 interim report of the survey.8 It was subsequently reaffirmed in the survey’s 2007 final report and is highlighted in NASA’s 2010 Science Plan.9 It calls for a program of Earth science research and applications in support of society—one that includes advances in fundamental understanding of the Earth system and increased application of this understanding to serve the nation and the people of the world. Indeed, the decadal survey was emphatic in its recommendation for a renewal of the national commitment to a program of Earth observations in which attention to securing practical benefits for humankind plays an equal role with the quest to acquire new knowledge about the Earth system. These societal benefits10 are critical to a growing and more complex society that is increasingly vulnerable to natural and human-induced changes. The present committee endorses this view and finds that understanding Earth as a system will continue to be a critical scientific goal.

Earth System Science

The various components of the Earth system are so interconnected and interdependent that advances in understanding one component of the Earth system may require scientific progress across disciplines. In contrast to other observational programs at NASA, acquisition of the data needed to enable advances in understanding the Earth system—“Earth system science”11—requires a broad range of active and passive measurements from space, airborne, and in situ platforms and over very broad spatial and temporal scales. Furthermore, the relationship between understanding Earth as a system and the decisions that societies make to achieve prosperity and sustainability likewise is critical in a world in which the population and the consumption of resources continue to grow, vulnerability to weather and natural hazards (Figure 1.1) is increasing, the need for more effective management of natural resources is evident, and aspirations for better quality of life remain only partially fulfilled. Earth observations from space and advances in Earth system science are thus of ever-increasing importance to the nation—they enable accurate weather forecasts and warnings (Box 1.1), support fact-based decision making (e.g., in relation to fire-threat level, forest fire detection, space weather alerts and predictions of geomagnetic storm impacts such as radio blackouts, and volcanic ash tracking for aviation safety), inform policy (e.g., world agricultural production assessments by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service),12 and have the potential to deliver profound societal and economic benefits to the nation.

8National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005.

9NASA, 2010 Science Plan for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, July 2010.

10Earth observations from space are the foundation for weather forecasts and warnings and for wise decision making to support management and operations in a variety of societal sectors, including energy, transportation, water, agriculture, and national defense.

11Earth system science involves the observation, understanding, and protection of the five interconnected components of the system: (1) the atmosphere, (2) the hydrosphere (the oceans and all water on Earth), (3) the cryosphere (all ice and snow), (4) the lithosphere (the ever-changing Earth’s crust and mantle), and (5) the biosphere (with its rich diversity of life including more than 7 billion humans). The social and economic welfare of the entire human population is dependent on this interconnected Earth system for its food, water, energy, health, and quality of life.

12U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, World Agricultural Production, Circular Series WAP 07-10, July 2010, available at

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