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New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences (2012)

Chapter: 1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century

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Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
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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

Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
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EarthScope project underwent construction of facilities from 2003 to 2008 and is presently halfway through the first of at least two planned five-year operational stages (Williams et al., 2010).

EarthScope was novel for the MREFC program in creating a highly distributed facility with many data collection nodes dispersed across the United States (in contrast to typical localized facilities such as an astronomical telescope or a physics accelerator) that includes three key facilities that provide unprecedented observations of the North American continent; the Plate Boundary Observatory, USArray, and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth. The EarthScope facility construction completed the five-year MREFC phase on time and on budget, a rarity in the history of large facilities’ development supported by federal agencies. Scientific results from all elements of the EarthScope project are emerging rapidly, as noted later in this report, and the project is a tremendous success for EAR and GEO.

This success presents a clear opportunity for EAR to gain recognition as a sponsor of major research activity on a par with the many large efforts in physics, astronomy, and biology. Not only will the Earth sciences play a critical role in the 21st century, but the discipline has now demonstrated the internal organizational capability to rise to the tasks and funding levels for major initiatives that will be needed for the field to meet future challenges. Emerging research opportunities defined later in this report will require comparable efforts to achieve their objectives; EarthScope has demonstrated that the Earth science community and EAR can successfully meet these challenges, and NSF will need to recognize the importance and viability of enhancing investment in basic research in this discipline. Earth sciences in the 21st century must join the ranks of big science efforts pursued in the United States; it cannot remain a modest activity if new opportunities to expand basic understanding are to be pursued as a foundation for tackling the societal challenges of the upcoming century.

FUNDING TRENDS IN THE EARTH SCIENCES

This report is released against a background of declining federal funding for basic and applied Earth science research and reinforces the importance of pursuing targeted new research opportunities that provide the greatest return on research investments. Among the several federal departments and agencies that support research in the Earth sciences, NSF is the sole agency whose primary mission is basic research and education. Only NSF, through its EAR division, provides significant funding for investigator-driven, fundamental research in all of the core disciplines of the Earth sciences. While substantial Earth science research is pursued by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the emphasis of those programs is largely strategically focused and mission oriented. For example, the President’s FY2011 budgets for Earth science activities in these programs emphasize climate change and renewable energy resources research. Funding for carbon capture and sequestration, climate change, and geothermal research and development is slated to increase for DOE and the USGS. NASA is set to have increased funding for Earth-observing satellites. NSF’s GEO, which provides about 63 percent of all federal funding for the geosciences would receive a budget of about double the EAR funding level at the time of the 2001 BROES report.

The trend in federal funding of geosciences research is of significant concern. Figure 1.1 displays trends in funding across all agencies and depicts a decline in funding as a percentage of total research funding for basic and applied research. This drop in overall percentage of research funding has been accompanied by a relative increase in the percentage of geosciences funding for universities, which is the domain where NSF and EAR play a predominant role.

THE COMMITTEE’S APPROACH

In this report the Committee on New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences (NROES) identifies new research opportunities in the Earth sciences as they relate to the responsibilities of NSF’s EAR division. In particular, the committee undertook four tasks:

1.  Identify high-priority new and emerging research opportunities in the Earth sciences over the next decade, including surface and

Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×

0309219248_0023_001.jpg

FIGURE 1.1 AGI summary of trends in federal research funding for geosciences. SOURCE: AGI (2009).

     deep Earth processes and interdisciplinary research with fields such as ocean and atmospheric sciences, biology, engineering, computer science, and social and behavioral sciences.

2.  Identify key instrumentation and facilities needed to support these new and emerging research opportunities.

3.  Describe opportunities for increased cooperation in these new and emerging areas between EAR and other government agency programs, industry, and international programs.

4.  Suggest new ways that EAR can help train the next generation of Earth scientists, support young investigators, and increase the participation of underrepresented groups in the field.

The committee was not asked to evaluate existing EAR programs or make budgetary recommendations.

Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×

These questions cannot be addressed without first acknowledging the context into which this report is being released, and so the following sections provide perspectives on the status of the Earth sciences that informed the committee’s approach.

Grand Challenges for the Earth Sciences

The 2008 NRC report Origin and Evolution of Earth—Research Questions for a Changing Planet defined 10 grand research questions for the 21st century that will drive the modern Earth sciences:

1.  How did Earth and other planets form?

2.  What happened during Earth’s “dark age” (the first 500 million years)?

3.  How did life begin?

4.  How does Earth’s interior work, and how does it affect the surface?

5.  Why does Earth have plate tectonics and continents?

6.  How are Earth’s processes controlled by material properties?

7.  What causes climate to change—and how much can it change?

8.  How has life shaped Earth—and how has Earth shaped life?

9.  Can earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and their consequences be predicted?

10.  How do fluid flow and transport affect the human environment?

Answering these questions, which the NROES committee agrees are fundamental to the field, will take sustained and intense effort and the preparation of new generations of researchers capable of building on current understanding and overcoming current limitations.

The essential role of EAR is to support basic research on acquiring fundamental knowledge about the Earth system, motivated by profound questions like those above, and to foster that understanding, which can be directly applied to national strategic needs. Strong partnerships with mission-oriented agencies are critical to the flow of basic understanding into applied research and engineering. The 2001 BROES report (NRC, 2001) identified how basic research in the Earth sciences supported by EAR ultimately affects human welfare in five major areas:

1.  Discovery, use, and conservation of natural resources—fuels, minerals, soils, water;

2.  Characterization and mitigation of natural hazards—earthquakes, floods and droughts, landslides, tsunamis, volcanoes;

3.  Geoscience-based engineering—urban development, agriculture, materials engineering;

4.  Stewardship of the environment—ecosystem management, adaptation to environmental changes, remediation, and moderation of adverse human effects; and

5.  Terrestrial surveillance for national security—arms control treaty verification, precise positioning, mapping, and subsurface remote sensing.

Over the past 10 years these issues have only grown in importance and relevance, and every indication is that this trend will persist through this century. The roles of basic research in the Earth sciences in each arena were described in detail in the BROES report and are not repeated here because it is clear that NSF and EAR are committed to sustaining basic Earth science research. The committee does note some issues of heightening concern as we progress into the second decade of the 21st century.

Relevance of the Earth Sciences

The world’s population is expected to reach 7 billion by the end of 2011, and about 9.2 billion by 2050, relentlessly increasing the demand for food, fuel, raw materials, and water.1 Much of this population will continue to be concentrated near dynamic coastal zones, and meeting the requirements of this population and understanding associated impacts on the environment is a key area to which the Earth sciences contribute. The energy demands of this human population are immense. In 2008 the total world energy consumption was 474 × 1018 J, equivalent to an average annual power consumption rate of 15 terawatts. For comparison, energy flux from Earth’s interior to the surface is esti-

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1 U.S. Census Bureau.

Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×

mated at 46 terawatts. All projections anticipate steady growth of energy consumption, as long as resources can be found to accommodate it. Fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal are the primary sources of energy that will be harvested from terrestrial reservoirs. With most readily located and extracted fossil fuels largely having been exploited, there is a steadily increasing need for professionally trained Earth scientists to staff oil exploration and development companies. This includes demand for expertise in subsurface exploration and in reservoir management, with broad skills in seismology, geophysics, hydrology, rock-fluid chemical interactions, and computer modeling. Nuclear power also requires nuclear materials concentrated in geological formations, and hydrological power involves huge geoengineering efforts that require solid foundations in hydrogeology and landscape evolution. Growing energy demands will raise the importance of Earth science training and research throughout the century.

Earth scientists contribute to identifying rock materials, minerals, and ores that serve the demands of society for construction materials and critical industries. The burgeoning demands for expanded supply of materials and mitigating the long-term environmental impacts of locating and extracting them will continue throughout the century, again driving demand for Earth science expertise in the processes of petrology, fluid-rock interactions, hydrothermal systems, basin-scale hydrology, and tectonic history. Increased recognition of biological roles in ore distribution and sedimentation is further driving demand for geobiology training and expertise.

Fresh water supply is one of the greatest challenges associated with population growth, and informed decision making on water resources requires knowledge of the complex hydrological systems operating in the near-surface environment and how they respond to natural and human modifications. A broad suite of geochemical, geophysical, and geobiological approaches are central to investigation of aquifers and groundwater systems. Expanding the trained workforce and advancing the analysis tools available for water management will be a sustained need for the next century.

Soils provide essential resources for agriculture, water filtration, and construction and manufacturing activities, and understanding these biologically active, intricately structured porous media requires the fundamental physical, chemical, and biological insights provided by EAR research on the shallow Earth system. Soil management issues related to sustaining the human habitat, and issues related to land use, soil quality, and contamination are prominent in societal decision making and require fundamental Earth science foundations for ensuring long-term viability under the pressure of heightening demands. The value of training in biogeochemical cycling, sediment transport, and hydrology will only increase over the next century.

Repeated natural disasters have struck around the world over the decade since the BROES report, with floods, droughts, severe storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis all impacting society. Great population growth in regions exposed to natural hazards has magnified the impacts of these events, and throughout the century human exposure will increase dramatically. The value of translating Earth science understanding and earthquake hazard assessments into engineering and construction implementations has been dramatically demonstrated by the contrasting impacts of the 2010 Haiti and Chile earthquake disasters. Haiti, struck by a moderately large magnitude 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010, had massive destruction and loss of life, primarily because of poor construction standards. In contrast, the much stronger magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile on February 27, 2010, caused far less damage and loss of life in the largely well-built environment of central Chile. Massive flooding events, such as that accompanying Hurricane Katrina in 2005—the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with about $81 billion in damages and 1,836 fatalities—and the 2010 monsoonal inundation of southern Pakistan, which flooded almost 20 percent of the country’s land area, directly affecting about 20 million people, are further indicators of the upscaling of human impacts to be anticipated by natural hazards throughout the 21st century. The March 11, 2011, Tohoku great earthquake and tsunami in Japan that devastated the coast of Honshu and precipitated the Fukushima nuclear disaster is further demonstration of this expanding impact of natural disasters.

Efforts to mitigate natural hazards rely on precise observations and quantitative understanding of the phenomena that are involved. Broadly based EAR research programs that address the fundamental nature of the dynamic geosystems underlying natural

Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×

hazards are essential for pursuing applied research and engineering efforts to mitigate the hazards. Most federal programs associated with natural hazards are forced by funding constraints to prioritize very directed research; without EAR basic science support, critical basic understanding of the natural hazards would lag, thereby reducing the effectiveness of mitigation efforts.

Quantifying complex geosystems requires extensive measurement of the fluxes, structures, and evolution of the systems. Recognition of this has guided EAR toward developing facilities capable of making the spatial and temporal measurements essential to understanding the dynamical geosystems. Particular progress has been made in geophysical observations with seismic, geodetic, and magnetotelluric networks being established both within the EAR Instrumentation and Facilities program and the EarthScope project. Major advances have been made in facilities for hydrological measurements and database gathering, and several Critical Zone observatories have been established for addressing the near-surface geosystem. Progress in quantifying the historical climate system and its evolution has largely stemmed from accumulation of global observations from continental and oceanic drilling, geological fieldwork, geochemical technique development, and increased understanding of the roles of geobiological processes. Essentially these endeavors probe Earth’s complex environment and quantify attributes of the dynamical systems that feed into quantitative modeling efforts. While some aspects of modeling efforts are intrinsic to monitoring operations conducted by mission-oriented federal programs, and numerous interagency partnerships are exploited to provide access to essential data, EAR efforts are guided by the design requirements for basic research and a strong commitment to NSF-based research facilities.

The BROES report made a compelling argument for the importance of sustaining three basic Earth science research capabilities: (1) techniques for deciphering the geological record of terrestrial change and extreme events, (2) facilities for observing active processes in the present-day Earth, and (3) computational technologies for realistic simulations of dynamic geosystems. This perspective is reinforced in the next chapter, which identifies areas of research opportunity for the near term, all of which intersect with the basic research agenda defined by the BROES study. Indeed, there are common themes manifested in all of the findings and recommendations from this updated report; technique development, observations on suitable spatial and temporal scales, and integrative simulation efforts underlie all of the frontiers in basic Earth science research.

The Earth sciences in the 21st century have great potential but also great challenges. The importance of the discipline is being propelled to high priority by the pressures of population growth, a quest for sustainability of living standards, and demonstration of the feedbacks on Earth’s geosystems caused by human activities. EAR is critical to the future of basic Earth science research, and can highlight the great success of such projects as EarthScope, convey the fundamental contributions of EAR science to resource, hazards, and environmental challenges facing the nation, and promote the intellectual challenges presented by complex geosystems to be quantified by a new generation of committed Earth science researchers.

This report is organized along the structure of EAR to facilitate action by EAR on the diverse topical areas. Chapter 2 of this report describes the status and future prospects of seven primary research areas and one cross-cutting methodological area and are loosely organized by spatial and temporal scale (larger to smaller), beginning with topics related to the EAR Deep Earth Processes section, followed by Surface Earth Processes section topics. These descriptions and assessments are guided by input from across the Earth science community and provide the basis for the committee’s findings and eight recommendations outlined in Chapter 3.

Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Earth Sciences in the 21st Century." National Research Council. 2012. New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13236.
×
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The 2001 National Research Council (NRC) report Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science (BROES) described how basic research in the Earth sciences serves five national imperatives: (1) discovery, use, and conservation of natural resources; (2) characterization and mitigation of natural hazards; (3) geotechnical support of commercial and infrastructure development; (4) stewardship of the environment; and (5) terrestrial surveillance for global security and national defense. This perspective is even more pressing today, and will persist into the future, with ever-growing emphasis. Today's world-with headlines dominated by issues involving fossil fuel and water resources, earthquake and tsunami disasters claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, profound environmental changes associated with the evolving climate system, and nuclear weapons proliferation and testing-has many urgent societal issues that need to be informed by sound understanding of the Earth sciences. A national strategy to sustain basic research and training of expertise across the full spectrum of the Earth sciences is motivated by these national imperatives.

New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences identifies new and emerging research opportunities in the Earth sciences over the next decade, including surface and deep Earth processes and interdisciplinary research with fields such as ocean and atmospheric sciences, biology, engineering, computer science, and social and behavioral sciences. The report also identifies key instrumentation and facilities needed to support these new and emerging research opportunities. The report describes opportunities for increased cooperation in these new and emerging areas between EAR and other government agency programs, industry, and international programs, and suggests new ways that EAR can help train the next generation of Earth scientists, support young investigators, and increase the participation of underrepresented groups in the field.

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