Increasing consumption, a growing and more mobile human population, and climate change are transforming the planet’s surface, creating challenges that scientists and policy makers struggle to understand and address. Yet this era of change is also a time of geographical innovation. In recent years, a rapidly expanding interdisciplinary community of scientists has drawn on new geographical concepts, tools, and techniques to advance understanding of topics such as environmental change, sustainability, globalization, and population dynamics. As a result, geographical ideas and information have become increasingly central to science, as well as to planning, environmental management, and policy making. Dynamic maps and imagery of Earth’s surface are now essential tools for emergency responders, transportation workers, and urban planners, and new user-friendly geographical technologies, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) tools and online maps, are becoming a part of daily life.
Many of the central challenges of the 21st century are tied to changes to the spatial organization and character of the landscapes and environments of Earth’s surface as populations move, natural resources are depleted, and climate shifts. Research in the geographical sciences has the potential to contribute greatly to efforts to monitor, analyze, and prepare for these changes. Technological developments and changing research priorities have inspired the rapid growth of the geographical sciences over the past two decades. Moving beyond geography alone, economists, biologists, epidemiologists, geologists, computer scientists, and others now contribute to the geographical sciences— investigating the links between people and nature, and the flows of mass, energy, people, capital, and information that are shaping Earth’s evolving environment. New technologies such as remote sensing systems have enhanced access to high-resolution, near real-time data, and geographical information systems (GIS), GPS, and geospatial visualization have facilitated the processing, analysis, and representation of geographical data. These technologies are used in contexts from the workplace to everyday life, and they have profound implications for information management, governance, commerce, and travel. At the same time, growing concern about human alteration of the environment and the impacts of globalization, resource depletion, and environmental sustainability have fostered tremendous interest in climate change, land-cover change, watershed restoration, migration, global inequality, and geopolitical conflict. Investigation of all of these phenomena can benefit from geographical research.
Despite the potential of recent advances in the geographical sciences, there is still much to be done to understand the changes that face Earth in the 21st century. Earth’s surface has been in constant flux as physical systems and human societies have evolved, but the pace and extent of human-induced changes have reached unprecedented levels in recent decades. The massive, rapid changes unfolding on Earth’s surface provide a logical starting point for considering strategic research directions in the geographical sciences, with the goal of understanding how Earth’s surface is changing; where, why, and at what rate changes are occurring; and what the implications of those changes might be.
SCOPE AND PURPOSE OF THE REPORT
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
How are we changing the physical environment of Earth’s surface?
How can we best preserve biological diversity and protect endangered ecosystems?
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.
How to Promote Sustainability
How and where will 10 billion people live?
How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?
How does where we live affect our health?
Earth’s population is projected to peak at 8 to 12 billion people by 2050, with most population growth in urban areas. Many cities will struggle to accommodate rapidly increasing populations, and the spread of cities into rural areas will alter biogeochemical cycles, hydrological systems, climate, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity. Research on the changing geographical distribution of populations, the processes shaping different settlement forms, and the sustainability challenges facing an increasingly urbanized population are critical to understanding the challenges facing a more crowded world. Ensuring the availability of food resources to feed Earth’s expanding population will be one of those challenges. Because starvation currently occurs not because of global food scarcity but because of unequal geographical circumstances and inefficient or unfair food distribution systems, meeting the critical challenge of feeding 10 billion people will require a better understanding of geographical influences on agricultural production and distribution systems and on changing food consumption preferences. Access to health care will also be stretched by an expanding, increasingly mobile population, and standards in the treatment and prevention of illness will vary according to location. Using spatial analysis, GIS, and spatially explicit models of disease spread, the geographical sciences can advance understanding of the impacts of globalization, migration, environmental circumstances, land use, economics, and government policy on health and the spread of infectious diseases. Analysis of disease and health care patterns through the course of people’s lives is fundamental to understanding both disease behavior and the varying vulnerabilities of different populations. This information will be essential to developing policies that promote greater human well-being around the globe.
How to Recognize and Cope with the Rapid Spatial Reorganization of Economy and Society
How is the movement of people, goods, and ideas changing the world?
How is economic globalization affecting inequality?
How are geopolitical shifts influencing peace and stability?
From human migration to the movement of freight, global mobility has increased over the past several decades, affecting transportation, communication, the economy, and even patterns of political conflict. There is a pressing need to understand the causes and consequences of increasing mobility, mobility differences from place to place, and the relationship between virtual (as in the Internet and other media) and physical mobility through in-depth assessments of developments in individual places and more spatially extensive studies that use GIS and geospatial information. Globalization is also exacerbating economic disparities in many places, raising concerns about the plight of the needy and social unrest. Geographical research elucidating patterns of inequality and the processes producing those patterns at different spatial scales can shed light on the inequality impacts of the changing socioeconomic environment, as well as the links between poverty and consumption patterns. The geopolitical framework that dominated the post-World War II era has also come apart in the face of economic and social upheaval, raising the need for expanded research on the territorial agendas of influential governments and groups, the changing significance of boundaries, and the role of resource scarcity in cooperation and conflict.
How to Leverage Technological Change for the Betterment of Society and Environment
How might we better observe, analyze, and visualize a changing world?
What are the societal implications of citizen mapping and mapping citizens?
Since ancient times, observation, mapping, and representation of Earth’s surface have been integral to geographical research, and remain central to the modern
geographical sciences today. Web sites that provide geographical information have become a critical part of daily life, empowering citizens as both the sources and subjects of mapping, but the explosion of geographical information has raised significant concerns about individual privacy. Recent advances in geographical tools and technologies to observe, analyze, and visualize the changes shaping the human and physical features on Earth’s surface will be critical to answer the research questions in this report and to advance the geographical sciences. However, new approaches are also needed both to take advantage of the ability and willingness of nonspecialists to provide geographical information and to protect their privacy.
The 11 strategic directions in this report illustrate the great potential of the geographical sciences to address fundamental challenges facing science and society in the early 21st century. Given the extent and magnitude of the geographical transformations currently unfolding, it will be imperative to understand why changes happen in particular places. Although rapid progress has been made in geographical research in recent years, moving forward will require efforts to expand the scope and reach of geographical research. Achieving this goal will necessitate advances in research infrastructure, training, and outreach efforts. For example, most progress in the geographical sciences to date has been the result of independent research initiatives, but large-scale collaborations between researchers with diverse areas of expertise are needed to address many of the challenges facing Earth in the 21st century. Training the next generation of geographical scientists will require an updated curriculum to promote geographical understanding, spatial thinking, and geographical research skills, and to teach students how to make use of recent technological advances. Outreach is needed to inform policy makers, administrators, media figures, and others of the potential offered by the geographical sciences, and to foster links between the geographical science community and the general public. The committee envisions that the research priorities outlined in this report will lead to an increasingly sophisticated, well-organized, and powerful geographical science, which will serve as a foundation for a broad spectrum of scientific research, inform policy decisions, and enable citizens to understand and critique the geographical technologies that play an increasingly important role in everyday life.