Achievements in Earth Surface Processes
As described in this report, Earth surface processes is a new field that has emerged over the past two decades as a result of growing recognition of the need for interdisciplinary science able to answer questions that do not reside squarely within the realm of a single discipline. The 1992 Chapman Conference on Tectonics and Topography and the 2003 Penrose Conference on climate, tectonics, and landscape evolution were landmark events that both illustrated this new approach and indicated that thresholds had been crossed in terms of scientific interest. Growth of the field has also been reflected in a variety of community and organizational developments, including formation of Earth surface processes-related research groups and laboratories; creation of new interdisciplinary Earth surface processes majors at universities and colleges; establishment of multiinstitute-multiresearcher centers or observatories (Boxes 2.5 and 2.7); publication of textbooks, book series,1 and new journals dedicated to research in the field;2 and establishment of focus groups by international professional organizations (e.g., the European Surface Processes Group;3 the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Earth and Planetary Surface Processes focus group, established in 2008).
College and university hiring patterns also point to increasing interest in and recognition of the field. Analysis of new tenure-track faculty position advertisements in Eos, a widely read weekly magazine published by the AGU that has a very broad readership across all of the Earth, atmosphere, and ocean sciences, suggests an increasing trend in Earth surface processes positions. Figure D.1 shows the number of advertisements placed in Eos for the years 1990, 1994, 2001, and 2007 that were considered to be for positions
in Earth surface processes. Categorizing past position postings using a term that has only recently come into use is a difficult and, to a degree, subjective task because institutions only occasionally labeled their open positions specifically for “Earth surface processes.” Interdisciplinary science such as Earth surface processes can be troublesome to fit into the framework of departments that generally reflect traditional boundaries between disciplines. Thus, positions were categorized as Earth surface process positions if the advertisement described a position that was (1) focused on processes operating at the surface of the Earth and/or (2) intended to integrate across disciplines.
A similar survey of articles in the prominent monthly journal Geology, published by the Geological Society of America (GSA), shows a steady increase in the percentage of articles on Earth surface processes (Figure D.2). This journal encourages publication of articles from across all of the Earth sciences, so it is also widely accessible to and read by a diverse spectrum of researchers. As encountered in the examination of Eos, the categorization of journal articles as Earth surface process-related was not unique because few articles used the full term Earth surface processes to title or describe their work. However, the same criteria used
for the Eos review of tenure-track positions were employed to determine if an article was directly related to the field of Earth surface processes.
Efforts in science education and outreach also indicate increasing recognition of Earth surface processes. In addition to Earth science education initiatives such as the National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported Earth science literacy initiative4 and educational programs of the AGU5 and GSA,6 education projects on Earth surface processes have engaged professional educators, professional societies, local organizations (such as museums), communications experts, and members of the research community. Examples of these endeavors include Earth surface process-related exhibits and features at museums across the country, such as the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED)-University of Minnesota-Science Museum of Minnesota collaboration (Box 2.7) and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History exhibition “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.”7 These efforts have also helped increase participation in Earth surface processes by students from under-represented groups.
Nonetheless, a great deal of work remains to be done to capitalize on the familiarity and intrinsic appeal of landscapes to attract students from underrepresented groups into the sciences and engineering.
FEDERAL SUPPORT FOR EARTH SURFACE PROCESSES
Numerous federal agencies provide support for research and other activities in Earth surface processes. In addition to NSF (see Chapter 4), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Naval Research Laboratories, and others have activities that research, use, analyze, regulate, monitor, or manage aspects of the United States’ continental and marine landscapes and the processes that shape them. The next sections briefly examine examples of research programs and activities at the USGS, NASA, and USDA that relate directly to Earth surface processes.
U.S. Geological Survey
The USGS conducts formal and informal interdisciplinary research activities related to Earth surface processes on topics that include geohazards; land use and land change and effects on the carbon cycle; origin and development of land features; and coastal research on erosion, deposition, and extreme weather and their effects on wetlands, ecosystems, and beaches (Larsen, 2008; USGS, 2008). The USGS is also the only federal agency that the committee could identify with designated Earth Surface Processes teams of scientists that dedicate part of their activities to Earth surface-related research and a program called “Earth Surface Dynamics,” which examines climate-landscape oriented issues under the aegis of USGS Climate Change Science activities. Modest funding for all of these activities is derived from various programs within the USGS, as well as through reimbursable funds from other federal, state, and local government agencies.
The USGS also supports and coordinates large, publicly available datasets and operates critical monitoring networks that contribute to research in Earth surface processes and other fields. The Earth Resources and Observation Science (EROS) Center manages, develops, and conducts research on aerial, satellite, land-use or land-cover, elevation, map, and other data and images.8 The U.S. stream gauging program9 provides continuous data to support sound management of the water resources in the nation’s streams and rivers. Notably, a
decrease in funds to support the stream gauge monitoring network in the last decade has resulted in significant data loss and decreased capability to contribute to this management effort (Church, 2008; USGS, 2008).
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
The ability of satellites to measure features of the Earth’s surface globally at high resolution has established an increasing role for NASA in Earth surface processes research. Through the Earth Observing System, satellites produce publicly available data for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans.10 These instruments and data contribute to a range of research projects to understand, manage, and predict various Earth surface processes (Appendix C). NASA is also involved in the development of new sensors and technologies to record Earth surface data (NRC, 2007a).
In addition to designating a portion of its own funding to developing sensors and collecting and analyzing Earth observing data, NASA has cooperative arrangements with other agencies (NOAA and the USGS, for example) to transfer some sensors from research to operational or application-oriented functions (NRC, 2007b). NASA also solicits proposals from the academic research community to conduct work that employs Earth observing data and research results toward practical societal benefits.11 Of the currently operating NASA, NOAA, or USGS satellite missions for making Earth observations, many are past or nearing the end of their expected lifetimes. The report Earth Science Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (NRC, 2007a) described a minimum of 17 high-priority missions that should be considered for development by the federal government to maintain and improve existing Earth observing capabilities over the coming decades; most of these proposed missions have applications directly relevant to the study of Earth’s surface.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
The USDA mission includes six strategic goals, one of which is to “protect and enhance the nation’s natural resource base and environment.”12 Fulfillment of that strategic goal includes active research and analysis of Earth’s surface, including landforms, soils, forests, grasslands, wetlands, water, wildlife habitats, and energy resources. The Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the USDA perform many of these Earth surface data collection and analysis functions. National programs of the ARS, for example, include research in soil resource manage-
http://eospso.gsfc.nasa.gov/ [accessed October 7, 2008].
http://nasascience.nasa.gov/Earth-science/applied-sciences [accessed October 7, 2008].
http://www.obpa.usda.gov/budsum/fy08budsum.pdf [accessed October 7, 2008].
ment, global change, water availability and watershed management, and pasture, forage, and rangeland systems.13 The Forest Service, which manages public forests, grasslands, and ecosystems, conducts research and development projects in watershed science, landscape management, and soil research, among others, and provides cooperative support for grants awarded under the NSF program Coupled Natural and Human Systems (see also Chapter 4).
The USDA supports external research through cooperative research agreements and competitive grants and also supports various online resources to provide information, forecasts, and databases for the public on various agricultural topics.14 Development of online mapping tools has allowed researchers to access various soil, agricultural, and land-use datasets in geographically referenced map coordinate systems.
Church, M. 2008. Presentation to Committee on Challenges and Opportunities in Earth Surface Processes. Washington, D.C., March 17.
Larsen, M. 2008. Presentation to Committee on Challenges and Opportunities in Earth Surface Processes. Washington, D.C., March 17.
National Research Council (NRC). 2007a. Earth Science Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 456 pp.
NRC, 2007b. Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 160 pp.
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 2008. Submitted to the committee, March 14. On file at the National Academies Public Access Records Office.
http://www.ars.usda.gov/pandp/locations/NPSLocation.cfm?modecode=02-02-00-00 [accessed October 7, 2008].