Basic research in the Earth sciences has numerous frontiers, with significant progress being made in both subdisciplinary arenas and interdisciplinary coordinated efforts. It is essential to sustain both types of activities, as individual-investigator research remains the most effective and innovative mechanism by which the field advances, even while the complexity and intrinsic interdisciplinarity of complex, dynamic geosystems demand coordination of multiple subdisciplinary efforts. Chapter 2 reviewed the status and prospects of basic research advancing in the next decade in seven important dynamic geosystems spanning a wide range of future research activity in the Earth sciences: (1) the early Earth; (2) thermo-chemical internal dynamics and volatile distribution; (3) faulting and deformation processes; (4) interactions among climate, surface processes, tectonics, and deeper Earth processes; (5) co-evolution of life, environment, and climate; (6) coupled hydrogeomorphic-ecosystem response to natural and anthropogenic environmental change; and (7) interactions of biogeochemical and water cycles in terrestrial environments. Chapter 2 also outlined exciting advancements in geochronology and isotope geochemistry. How to position research facilities for geochronology to better service the diverse needs of these interdisciplinary efforts while sustaining the advances of technical approaches in isotope geochemistry warrants detailed consideration.
This chapter presents the findings and recommendations of the committee regarding promising research opportunities over the next decade as relevant to the responsibilities of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences (EAR). Suggestions for new and enhanced instrumentation and facilities to support these research opportunities are outlined, and important partnerships and coordination between EAR and other programs and agencies engaged in Earth science research that will help pursue these opportunities are also discussed. This chapter also summarizes the committee’s findings and suggestions with regard to sustaining and diversifying the Earth science research community and education in the discipline.
EAR funding of research projects initiated and conducted by individual investigators and small groups of investigators is the single most important mechanism for maintaining and enhancing disciplinary strength in the Earth sciences. EAR is the almost exclusive source of support for a full spectrum of basic research, not all of which is directly linked to immediate societal priorities. With all other federal support for the Earth sciences being strongly mission driven, advancing fundamental understanding of the Earth sciences falls squarely on EAR. Some basic Earth science research involves curiosity-driven inquiry into the fundamental nature of our planet and our existence as its inhabitants, but Earth research directions enhance core understanding, develop new analytic approaches, and ultimately reveal complex dynamical geosystems behavior that frequently impacts our understanding of mission-driven research efforts. It is a combination
of exciting intellectual challenges as well as societal relevance that draws the best and brightest students to the field, and this is critical to bolstering Earth science expertise in the population throughout the upcoming century.
A decade ago, the Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science (BROES) report (NRC, 2001) outlined many examples of the synergism between a diverse, healthy basic research program and the advances of directed research efforts. That report presented examples of how advances in basic Earth science research areas intersect with five national imperatives and, as exemplified in Chapter 2 of this report, significant progress has been made toward each of these imperatives:
1. Discovery, use, and conservation of natural resources continue to benefit from improved theory, data collection strategies, and methods developed in seismology, volcanology, magnetotellurics, geodesy, low-temperature geochemistry, geomorphology, and hydrology.
2. Characterization and mitigation of natural hazards are directly impacted by basic research on earthquake faulting, hydrology, geochemistry, geodesy, geomorphology, and surface evolution.
3. Geotechnical support of commercial and infrastructure development is strongly influenced by basic understanding of soil science, geomorphology, hydrology, seismology, and geodynamics.
4. Stewardship of the environment is informed by historical climate change, separation of secular and anthropogenic contributions, soil science, volatile fluxes, geomorphology, and coastal science.
5. Terrestrial surveillance for global security and national defense is advanced by basic research on Earth’s interior; global geosystems; global seismic, geodetic, and meteorological measurements; and other remote-sensing approaches.
Further documentation of the role of basic science in contributing to these national priorities is provided by the many research community strategic plans and research summaries (see Appendix A), and full details are not repeated here. The emphasis of this report is on identifying key areas of research opportunity that can build on the foundations of sustained core subdisciplinary research to make major advances in the Earth sciences in the next decade.
A large number of critical processes and events formed Earth and guided its evolution to the present state. Unique to the Hadean Eon (the first 500 million years of Earth history) were the formation of planetesimals, planetary embryos, and the moon; the mineralogy, petrology, and dynamics of magma oceans; the dynamics and chemistry of core formation and initiation of the geodynamo; formation of the earliest crust, atmosphere, and ocean; acquisition of surface volatiles; transition from an impact-dominated surface to one shaped by plate tectonics; and the terrestrial consequences of the young sun. The 2008 NRC report Origin and Evolution of Earth identified the question “What happened during Earth’s dark age?” as a research grand challenge in the Earth sciences.
There are multiple avenues for new insights into the early Earth. A primary objective is to increase the inventory of early Earth samples by expanding the search for yet older rocks and minerals. Still another is to quantify early Earth history using novel combinations of isotope systems and new micro-and nanotechnologies. Sustained progress will require synthesizing geochronology and geochemical data with dynamical models that bridge the gap between planet formation and plate tectonics by incorporating the highly energetic conditions of the early Earth. Advances in high-performance computing hardware and parallel advances in software will make it possible to model processes such as giant impacts, magma oceans, crust, and core formation using realistic Earth parameters. The challenges of early Earth history argue for strengthening links with astronomy and astrophysics, planetary science, molecular biology, and biochemistry.
Finding 1: Organizing the diverse expertise within EAR and beyond would address major questions about the early Earth. Advances can come from collaborations with astronomy, astrophysics, planetary science, exoplanet detection and characterization, and astrobiology. EAR coordination with the research efforts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is particularly relevant, because NASA
supports research on detection and comparison with exoplanetary systems; origins of life and biological materials in our solar system; meteorite, asteroid, and solar system dust sampling; and large-scale modeling of planetary system formation.
Finding 2: Expanding searches for and characterization of the oldest rocks and minerals can provide new constraints on the earliest surface environments and Earth differentiation processes.
Finding 3: Refinements in early Earth chronology and rates of early Earth processes can be enabled through novel applications of short-and long-lived isotope systems.
Finding 4: Education of graduate students in venues such as the Center for Interdisciplinary Deep Earth Research (CIDER) program can be an effective strategy to foster the interdisciplinary collaborations and advanced training needed to solve early Earth problems.
Recommendation: EAR should take appropriate steps to encourage work on the history and fundamental physical and chemical processes that governed the evolution of Earth from the time of its accretion through the end of late heavy bombardment and into the early Archaen, perhaps by establishing a specific initiative on early Earth. Specific program objectives and scope may be developed through community workshops that prepare a science plan preceding a separate call for proposals.
Instrument and Facilities Needs for the Early Earth Initiative
Finding 1: The computation challenges of studying planet formation, the impacts that influence this stage of Earth history, magma ocean dynamics, and the coupled early Earth systems are formidable: these are peta-scale applications. Activities and software development similar to those currently done by the Computational Infrastructure for Geodynamics (CIG) will be necessary. This includes developing systems that are optimized for data-intensive computations.
Finding 2: The new generation of high-resolution analytical facilities provide a combination of precision, resolution of small scales, and increased throughput, allowing geochemical measurements for extracting information from the limited number and size of early Earth samples. Modern synchrotron facilities open the possibility of doing mineral physics experiments at pressures and temperatures relevant for the full range of early Earth conditions. Continued access and training support for these community facilities will be important.
Finding 3: Databases for compiling and disseminating data relevant to the early Earth will be important. If supported by NSF, they will need to be continuously evaluated as to timeliness, effectiveness, and usefulness.
Finding 4: Continued access to labs that provide experimental capabilities at extreme pressures and temperatures under the dynamical conditions experienced during energetic collisions early in Earth’s history will remain important.
The most compelling problems associated with the deep Earth, of which three have been summarized in Chapter 2, are on the scale of Grand Challenges. Research frontiers and opportunities in studying the deep Earth system are explicitly highlighted in recent community research plans, such as those for geodynamics (Olson, 2010), seismology (Lay, 2009), high-pressure mineral physics (Williams, 2010), GeoPRISMS (MARGINS Office, 2010), Cooperative Studies of the Earth’s Deep Interior (CSEDI) (Kellogg et al., 2004), and EarthScope (Williams et al., 2010). The NRC (2008) report, Origin and Evolution of Earth, also identifies corresponding Grand Challenges in how Earth’s interior works, why it has plate tectonics and continents, and how the processes are controlled by material properties. Addressing these big-picture problems generally demands capabilities and resources beyond what is normally accorded a single investigator, yet “small grants”-style research remains the source of most innovation. Programs for larger-scale interdisciplinary collaborations, such as GeoPRISMs, CSEDI, CIG, and Continental Dynamics, along with commu-
nity interdisciplinary activities such as CIDER will play increasingly important roles in future synthesis, but core individual investigator programs will remain important to foster the innovation found in more individualized research. Productive synergistic collaborations are often serendipitous, and specific funding mechanisms to prompt them, such as required menus of expertise on proposals, can be ineffective or at least compromised. A sounder strategy is to provide mechanisms for community cross-fertilization and communication, with intermittent bona fide collaborative undertakings being recognized and supported.
With increasing resolution of contributing methodologies and expanding data sets and modeling capabilities, there are opportunities to advance our understanding of fundamental questions such as the configuration of mantle convection, quantities and distribution of volatiles in the mantle, evolution of the core thermal regime, and growth of the inner core. These key questions lie at the heart of understanding how Earth evolves as a planet.
Finding 1: Sustaining progress in studies of the thermo-chemical dynamic system in Earth’s interior requires continued data collection—archival and open distribution of seismic, geodetic, mineral physics, geomagnetic, and geochemical information on a global scale. Community-vetted open software for seismology and geodynamics calculations is very valuable for this research effort. These functions within current NSF facilities and community organizations (e.g., Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology [IRIS], UNAVCO, EarthScope, Consortium for Materials Properties Research in Earth Sciences [COMPRES], CIG) can be evaluated regularly to ensure they are optimized and effective.
Finding 2: Focused research programs that support integrative interdisciplinary coordination on deep Earth dynamic systems (e.g., CSEDI, GeoPRISMS) are valuable for testing hypotheses and creating the synergies needed to answer long-standing questions as a supplement to innovative individual investigator programs.
Finding 3: Graduate student training across the range of interdisciplinary perspectives critical to integrative research is increasingly difficult to provide at single research institutions; thus, community efforts for focused graduate training such as provided by CIDER summer institutes can be valuable in this area. CIDER could continue to serve a function as a synthesis center for focused effort on the problems identified above.
Recommendation: EAR should pursue the development of facilities and capabilities that will improve spatial resolution of deep structures in the mantle and core, such as dense seismic arrays that can be deployed in various favorable locations around Earth, enhanced computational software and hardware to enable increased resolution of three-dimensional geodynamical models, and improved high-resolution experimental and theoretical mineral physics investigations. This will provide definitive tests of many hypotheses for deep Earth structure and evolution advanced over the past decade. The large scope of such facilities will require a lengthy development and review process, and building the framework for such an initiative needs to commence soon.
Instrument and Facilities Needs for Deep Earth Dynamics and Volatile Distribution
Finding 1: Disciplinary-based facilities provide critical data for these major undertakings. This includes the seismological facilities of IRIS, the mineral physics facilities of COMPRES, the computational efforts of CIG, and maintenance of geochemical and petrological laboratories and databases. Sustained access to resources such as synchrotron radiation and large-volume presses along with emerging experimental technologies is also of great importance for mineral physics efforts.
Finding 2: For major deep Earth challenges, understanding follows discovery, and discovery requires new technology and improved data. For example, dense seismic and geodetic arrays such as the EarthScope facilities provide enhanced spatial resolution of mantle and core structure, but more extensive global coverage with fine-scale resolution remains a major goal. Advances in high-performance computing hardware and software will allow construction of more realistic models with improved assimilation of expanded Earth data. Current capabilities are not adequate to achieve the resolution
that is needed to solve the deep Earth problems of dynamical structures and volatile distribution.
Finding 3: Strong coordination with efforts to develop and make accessible supercomputing resources such as TERRAgrid, synchrotron, neutron, and nano-probe facilities for mineral physics experiments in national laboratories, and deployments of additional seismic and geodetic sensors in oceanic and polar environments, can enhance the EAR research programs. This involves a coordination and cooperation across NSF structural entities as well as interagency coordination with the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Rapid discoveries are being made regarding the nature of fault slip and associated deformation processes in active tectonics environments, with a huge spectrum of fault slip velocities being revealed by concerted geodetic and seismic data collection. Tremendously damaging recent earthquakes in Haiti (2010), Chile (2010), and Japan (2011) are only harbingers of the huge societal toll that could be exacted by earthquakes in the upcoming century, with burgeoning populations in seismically active areas being at risk. The combination of rapid scientific advancements and great societal relevance motivates enhanced EAR attention to the processes of faulting and deformation in active tectonic regions. Understanding the behavior of faulting and earthquake occurrence has also been deemed a Grand Challenge in the science plans of geodynamics (Olson, 2010), seismology (Lay, 2009), GeoPRISMS (Margins Office, 2010), EarthScope (UNAVCO, 2009; Williams et al., 2010), and the NRC (2008) report Origin and Evolution of Earth.
The field of earthquake science is now recognized to involve a complex geosystem with multiscale processes from the microscale controls on surface friction up to the regional-scale processes of sedimentary basin reverberation and excitation of tsunamis by ocean water displacements. While single-investigator contributions remain paramount to the discovery and disciplinary advances underlying the surge of progress in earthquake science, there has been profound value in developing communities that address the geosystem perspective by bringing together researchers with expertise spanning laboratory friction experiments, observational and theoretical seismology, geodesy, structural geology, earthquake engineering, field geology, volcanology, magnetotellurics, and deep drilling. These approaches are flourishing, and in the next decade integrative efforts built around natural fault zone and subduction zone laboratories hold promise of greatly advancing our understanding of faulting and deformation processes and associated roles of fluid, volatile, and material fluxes. Large data collection and integrated analysis efforts are intrinsic to these natural laboratory investigations.
Finding 1: Completion of the envisioned Earthscope project through 2018, with the Transportable Array being deployed across Alaska and continued operation of the Plate Boundary Observatory, will provide major advances in our understanding of the North American continent and deformation processes along the plate boundaries in the Aleutians, Alaska, and the western United States. Full realization of the goals of EarthScope will be a major achievement for EAR and will position the Earth sciences for future large facilities development.
Finding 2: Integrative multidisciplinary activities such as MARGINS, GeoPRISMS, and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) are particularly valuable for investigating fault zone and plate boundary environments. The SCEC has successfully bridged the earthquake science and earthquake engineering communities, including strong public outreach. The GeoPRISMS1 community has identified three key regions to explore in the next decade: Cascadia; the Alaskan subduction zone; and the North Island, New Zealand, subduction zone. The faulting and deformation systems and material fluxes within these regions can best be addressed with interdisciplinary programs.
Finding 3: EAR research on the multiscale nonlinear problem of earthquake faulting, seismic wave generation, and ground shaking in complex three-dimensional media is establishing understanding that can transform
1 GeoPRISMS science plan.
earthquake hazard assessment into a fully physics-based approach with potential to more effectively guide earthquake engineering decision making.
Finding 4: Understanding fault zone and plate boundary processes is strongly linked to understanding and mitigating natural hazards; thus, there is great societal relevance to understanding faulting and deformation processes as well as volcanic processes in these environments. Industry, insurance, and municipal partnerships and strong coordination with the USGS are relevant to help EAR connect science to the end user.
Recommendation: EAR should pursue integrated interdisciplinary quantification of the spectrum of fault slip behavior and its relation to fluxes of sediments, fluids, and volatiles in the fault zone. The successful approach of fault zone and subduction zone observatories should be sustained, because these provide an integrative geosystems framework for understanding faulting and associated deformation processes. The related EarthScope project is exploring the structure and evolution of the North American continent using thousands of coordinated geophysical instruments. There is great scientific value to be gained in completing this project, as envisioned, through 2018.
Instrument and Facilities Needs for Faulting and Deformation Research
Finding 1: EAR is currently supporting numerous disciplinary facilities that are gathering essential data for understanding faulting processes and associated deformations. Facilities such as UNAVCO, IRIS, the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM), SCEC, CIG, and high-speed computing are important to advancing understanding of faulting processes.
Finding 2: Advances in fault rupture studies will require support for theoretical developments, new observations (combining accelerometers and global positioning systems), and high-speed computational resources.
Finding 3: InSAR data are proving to be of great value for research on faulting and associated deformation processes as well as volcanic processes. The plan for NASA to deploy an InSAR satellite as part of the EarthScope project remains a high priority.
The broad interactions among climate, Earth surface processes, and tectonics are an area of growing interest and compelling research opportunities. The NRC (2010a) report Landscapes on the Edge identified as particularly intriguing those research questions that center on interactions among climate, topography, hydrology and hydrogeology, physical and chemical denudation, sedimentary deposition, and deformation in tectonically active mountain belts. Strong feedbacks among precipitation and erosion induced by orogenic effects play an important role in the distribution of deformation in mountain belts, whereas size and distribution of high-elevation topography in turn influence global, regional, and local climates. The recent recognition of close coupling among surficial processes of erosion and sedimentation and deeper tectonic and structural deformation creates new opportunities for interdisciplinary research questions that bridge climate science, geomorphology, structural geology, and geophysics. New understanding of the dynamic interactions among climate, Earth’s surface, and the planet’s tectonics over geomorphic to geological timescales will require increased access to—and new developments in—thermochronometry, methods for dating geomorphological surfaces, LiDAR, satellite imagery, modeling capabilities, experimental methods, and field instrumentation and studies.
Understanding the interplay among climatic, geomorphic, and geological/tectonic processes in governing Earth surface processes and landscape evolution requires integrating processes across a wide range of temporal and spatial domains. Addressing the most compelling problems and Grand Challenges under this theme will involve studies of the evolution and dynamics of particular physiographic regions over orogenic timescales and studies to address how to scale-up mechanistic, process-based understanding of short-term processes to quantitatively characterize and constrain system behavior and interactions over longer timescales. Developing theory for the interac-
tions among climate, topography, land cover, and the deeper Earth interior at global, regional, and local scales represents a major research opportunity. Integrating surface processes and deep Earth studies, including petrological and seismological studies, and the record of past surface environments are needed to explore connections between deep Earth processes and Earth surface dynamics. Developing geomorphic transport laws that account for climate and the role of biota to describe and quantify river and glacial incision, landslides, and the production, transport, and deposition of sediment are needed to address how to integrate the effects of event-based processes into long-term system behavior. Measuring and modeling landscape evolution under diverse and varying climatic conditions, with an emphasis on identification of physiographic signatures of climate and climate variability, will allow for the identification of thresholds of landscape response and the limits of landscape resilience.
Finding 1: Significant opportunities exist to encourage coordination and communication within the communities engaged in research on linkages between climate, tectonics, surface processes, and deeper Earth processes such as workshops that promote community interactions around this theme.
Finding 2: New opportunities for studies of climate, tectonics, and surface processes exist within the GeoPRISMS program for research that spans the shoreline within focus areas that include Cascadia, the Aleutians, and eastern North American margin. Development of closer linkages between EAR and the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) within GeoPRISMS can leverage and optimize these research opportunities.
Finding 3: The acquisition of high-resolution topographic data, such as through the NCALM, is essential for continued progress in surface process studies. Maintenance of this capability and expansion to support acquisition of wider areal coverage and to provide more comprehensive distribution of these data are highly relevant for studies of climate, tectonics, and erosion processes.
Finding 4: Seismic reflection techniques provide the primary tools for imaging structure in the crustal interior at geological scales and is a highly desired capability for addressing many deep Earth to surface research questions. However, the capabilities for reflection imaging are diminishing in the academic community. Maintaining and enhancing reflection imaging capability, perhaps through new industry-academic partnerships to acquire new data sets or to obtain access to existing industry data sets for academic study, are also highly relevant for research goals in fault studies and for continental drilling.
Recommendation: EAR should take appropriate steps to encourage work on interactions among climate, surface processes, tectonics, and deeper Earth processes either through a new interdisciplinary program or perhaps by expanding the focus of the EAR Continental Dynamics program to accommodate the broader research agenda of these interdisciplinary subthemes.
Instrument and Facilities Needs for Advancing Research on Interactions Among Climate, Surface Processes, Tectionics, and Deep Processes
Finding 1: Important existing facilities that support research in this area include NCALM (LiDAR data), the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System (CSDMS), unique lab facilities (e.g., National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics [NCED]), UNAVCO permanent and portable geodetic facilities, and IRIS permanent and portable seismic facilities.
Finding 2: Access to geochronometric and cosmogenic dating to support analysis of the large sample collections intrinsic to this field-intensive research remains important.
The deep-time geological record has provided a compelling narrative of changes in Earth’s climate, environment, and evolving life, many of which provide analogs, insight, and context for understanding human’s place in the Earth system and current anthropogenic change. Deep-time studies document a range in variability and impact of climate phenomena far broader than archived in more recent records revealing how
physical, chemical, and biological feedbacks have operated differently during past warmer and transitional climate states (NRC, 2011a). In turn, the deep-time record captures the importance of life as an agent of change in the environment affecting the composition and properties of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. The complexity of this bio-geosystem is only now being fully realized, with new analytic tools from geochemistry, paleontology, and biology enabling unprecedented exploration of the coupled time-evolution of past Earth surface conditions, including temperature, atmospheric chemistry, hydroclimates, chemical composition of the ocean, and the interrelationship and physiologies of ancient life forms. Concerted application of interdisciplinary capabilities to the deep-time record will provide breakthroughs in understanding of this profound and nonlinear bio-geosystem.
Real or virtual paleoclimate/deep-time initiatives can be pursued that draw together a broad community of researchers asking critical questions about key intervals in time or key processes through time that could be evaluated using cutting-edge environmental proxies, paleobiological methods, and numerical models. Such initiatives should bridge our understanding of the geological record of past global “states” with those anticipated in the Anthropocene stemming from changing climate, growing water demand, energy exploitation, land use, habitat change, and extinction.
Finding 1: Understanding the dynamics of past warm periods and major climate transitions that have prevailed throughout most of Earth’s history provides a valuable mechanism for assessing anthropogenic changes in the climate system associated with greenhouse gas emissions.
Finding 2: High-precision and accuracy geochronological tools (both radio-isotopic and astrochronological), environmental proxies, and molecular (genomic and proteomics) methods have placed the community on the cusp of a major advance in our understanding of the influence of major externally driven climate and environmental change on life and the feedbacks on climate caused by the evolution of new life forms. Proxy development and calibration studies need to be matched by complementary efforts to build more spatially and temporally resolved multiproxy paleoclimate and paleoecological time series with high precision and chronological constraints. There is an associated need for improved dynamic models and expanded data-model comparisons.
Finding 3: Major advancements in rapid and relatively inexpensive sequencing techniques and equally impressive progress in numerical analysis of the results are allowing the genome of living, and in some cases extinct, organisms to be mined for historical information of evolutionary relationships and gene products extending from the present to the origin of life itself. Coupled with geologically derived environmental information, this new source of deep-time information is bringing about profound changes in our understanding of the history of life on Earth and its origin and biogeochemical consequences. Enabling further application of genomic and proteomics methods that address deep-time origins of environmentally important clades and physiologies in conjunction with studies of environmental and climate proxies in deep time is a major opportunity for future research.
Finding 4: Sampling at appropriate spatial and temporal scales will require new continental coring and continued ocean drilling. This is a limiting factor in fully developing the deep-time archive of past climates and the co-evolution mechanisms operating through time. Drilling availability is limiting progress.
Recommendation: EAR should develop a mechanism to enable team-based interdisciplinary science-driven projects involving stratigraphy, sedimentology, paleontology, proxy development, calibration, application, geochronology, and climate modeling at highly resolved scales of time and space to understand the major linked events of environmental, climate, and biotic change at a mechanistic level. Such projects could be expected to be cross program and cross directorate.
Instrument and Facilities Needs for Research on Co-evolution of Life, Environment, and Climate
Finding 1: Scientific advances could come from enhancing drilling activities ranging from small-scale drilling with transportable rigs to the drilling scale facilitated
through Drilling, Observation and Sampling of the Earths Continental Crust (DOSECC) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP). Current practice is complicated and inefficient, leading to a discouragingly long process.
Finding 2: There is high value in developing mechanisms for coordinated sampling (e.g., multiproxy sampling of the same materials), analysis, and archiving of drill core. Integrated efforts on the development of digital databases (e.g., SedDB, Macrostrat, GeoStratSys) to store proxy and genomic data and to facilitate data integration and comparison across all spatial and temporal scales are also necessary to support advances. Such an effort might incorporate a strategy to integrate databases where relevant and with paleoclimate model archives so as to make them fully interactive.
Finding 3: Progress can be made through strategic planning by NSF for expanded and coordinated efforts to make both high-precision geochronology and specialized analytical facilities available to all interested scientific parties. The current structure for access to high-precision geochronology labs creates a scientific bottleneck for obtaining geochronological constraints and can be cost prohibitive.
Finding 4: Dedicated computational resources for paleoclimate modeling focused on past warm periods and extreme and abrupt climate events are required for improved parameterization, development of higher-resolution regional-scale models to capture climate variability, and the integration of innovative paleoclimate intercomparison models and data-model comparisons consistent with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)–style assessments. Similarly, additional computational resources are needed for genomic analyses.
The ways in which ecosystems and landscapes have co-evolved through time and the nature of their coupled response to human activity and climate change present tremendous opportunities for advancing our understanding of Earth surface processes. Recognition of the degree to which hydrogeomorphological processes influence ecological systems, and ecosystems in turn influence hydrogeomorphological processes and dynamics, has opened up exciting new areas in the emerging fields of ecohydrology, ecogeomorphology, and geobiology. It is now widely recognized that climate change and disturbance, both natural and human, can have far-reaching consequences for landscapes and ecosystems. Landscape-ecosystem response to environmental change and disturbance can, in turn, affect climate and human populations. The full scope and breadth of these interactions are only beginning to be understood, in part because of the bi-directional nature of such feedbacks. Landscapes and ecosystems in relatively rapidly changing, marginal environments like coastal systems, wetlands, and permafrost regions are particularly vulnerable to changes in climate and land use.
Our ability to anticipate the response of landscapes and ecosystems to disturbance and climate change requires greater mechanistic understanding of the interactions and feedbacks among hydrological drivers, landscape morphology, and biotic processes. Advancing the science requires better theory, observations, and models relating spatial patterns and temporal variability of landscape drivers (topography, hydrology, geology) to the dynamics of biotic communities, including identification of hydrological and morphological leading indicators of landscape and ecosystem state change. Model development can continue to work toward bringing the influence of biotic processes into formal representations of geomorphological and hydrological processes and to couple these with models of climate and human-landscape dynamics.
Finding 1: There is a particularly critical need to better understand the impact of natural and anthropogenic environmental changes in coastal environments, where these changes can be expected to have profound societal and economic consequences globally. Advances in coastal sciences could be accelerated by dedicated NSF initiatives and programs.
Finding 2: Critical zone research contributes understanding essential to addressing larger-scale questions concerning co-evolution of landscapes and ecosystems
and landscape response to disturbances (natural or anthropogenic).
Finding 3: Integrated monitoring of hydrogeomorphic-ecosystem processes will require development of new instrumentation, data archives, and models that can take advantage of large-scale environmental restoration efforts and documented historical change as controlled experiments.
Finding 4: The research required to address many of the priorities and opportunities related to landscape change cuts across divisional and directorate boundaries within NSF. In cases where other federal agencies such as the USGS are addressing related questions, it would be advantageous to coordinate plans, facilities, and activities.
Recommendation: EAR should facilitate research on coupled hydrogeomorphic-ecosystem response to climate change and disturbance. In particular, the committee recommends that EAR target interdisciplinary research on coastal environments. This initiative would lay the groundwork for understanding and forecasting the response of coastal landscapes to sea-level rise, climate change, and human and natural disturbance, which will fill an existing gap at NSF and should involve coordination with OCE, USGS, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Instrument and Facility Needs for Coupled Hydrogeomorphic-Ecosystem Response to Natural and Anthropogenic Change
Finding 1: Advancing our understanding of landscape response to natural and anthropogenic environmental change requires infrastructure and support for community modeling efforts, data archiving, and instrument facilities. These functions of current NSF facilities, centers, and community organizations (e.g., NCALM, UNAVCO, NCED, CSDMS, and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. [CUAHSI]) are valuable and can be evaluated regularly to ensure they are optimized and effective. Centralizing and disseminating a variety of data related to landscape processes (hydrological, geomorphological, geological, biogeochemical, biotic, climate) would be valuable.
Humans are altering the physical, chemical, and biological states and feedbacks among essential components of the Earth surface system. At the same time, atmospheric temperature and carbon dioxide levels have increased and are impacting carbon storage in the terrestrial environment, the water cycle, and a range of intertwined biogeochemical cycles and atmospheric properties that feed back on climate and ecosystems. Advancing our understanding of integrated soil, water, and biogeochemical dynamics in the critical zone and the responses and feedbacks of carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles to climate change and human impacts requires new theory, coupled systems models, and new data. Several reports and science plans underscore the need for integrated studies of biogeochemical and water cycles in terrestrial environments, particularly in the critical zone, and their response to climate and land use change, including Landscapes on the Edge (NRC, 2010a), Challenges and Opportunities in the Hydrologic Sciences (NRC, in preparation), Frontiers in Exploration of the Critical Zone (Brantley et al., 2006), A Plan for a New Science Initiative on the Global Water Cycle (USGCRP, 2001), and the BROES report (NRC, 2001).
Among the key research opportunities is development of a theoretical framework for the interactions among hydrological, geochemical, geomorphic, and biological processes in the critical zone, including the roles of climate and geological setting that have heretofore been only loosely constrained. New advances in our ability to understand and quantitatively simulate carbon, nutrient, water, and rock cycling will depend on new measurement approaches and instrumentation that capture spatial and temporal variability in atmospheric and land use inputs superimposed on complex vegetation patterns and underlying anisotropic subsurface geomedia. This will require a substantial investment in in situ environmental sensors, field instruments, geochemical and microbiological tools, remote sensing, surface and subsurface imaging, and development of new technologies. There is also a critical need for development of coupled systems models to explore how these systems respond to anthropogenic and climatic forcing.
Finding 1: EAR is poised to play a leadership role in comprehensive, uniquely integrated studies of the terrestrial environment in the face of human activity and climate change. New efforts could coordinate with complementary NSF programs in hydrology, geomorphology, sedimentology, climatology, atmospheric science, geodesy, geophysics, geochemistry, geobiology, and terrestrial ecology, as well as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). Extending this coordination to related programs outside NSF could be valuable.
Finding 2: The Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) model provides a fruitful template for evaluation and possible expansion of integrated studies of the critical zone in complex terrestrial settings. These observatories and other integrated approaches are most valuable if they capture a broad, but differentiated, array of settings, processes, and controls (natural and anthropogenic) and are effectively coordinated. Critically evaluating the success of the CZO program at regular intervals will ensure its long-term success.
Finding 3: To advance our understanding of the cycling of water, carbon, nutrients, and geological materials in terrestrial environments, it will be valuable to have measurements at single points on the landscape integrated smoothly with more broadly distributed estimates derived from remote sensing. All of these measurements will have to be coordinated with new theory and models appropriate for landscape and regional scales to resolve spatial and temporal trends caused by climate change, land use, and other human impacts.
Finding 4: There is a major role for modern critical zone science as a bridge between ancient analogs archived in the geological record and the anticipated consequence of future changing climate, growing water demand, and greater and evolving land use.
Recommendation: EAR should continue to support programs and initiatives focused on integrated studies of the cycling of water, carbon, nutrients, and geological materials in the terrestrial environment, including mechanisms and reactions of soil formation; hydrological and nutrient cycling; perturbations related to human activities; and more generally the cycling of carbon between surface environments and the atmosphere and its feedbacks with climate, biogeochemical processes, and ecosystems.
Instrument and Facilities Needs for Biogeochemical and Water Cycles in Terrestrial Environment and Impacts of Global Change
Finding 1: Advancing this research priority will require a substantial focus on in situ environmental sensors, field instruments, geochemical and microbiological tools, remote sensing, surface and subsurface imaging, and development of new technologies. There is also a need for computational facilities and community modeling efforts like the CSDMS and the Community Hydrologic Modeling Platform (CHyMP).
A strong theme developed in many of the previous sections of this report is the pressing need to enhance the community’s capacity to produce high-quality dates. The recent pace of innovation of new methods, ranging from radiometric dating to thermochronometry to surface exposure dating, has generated exciting new scientific opportunities and a large unmet demand for measurements. New mechanisms for supporting geochronology laboratories will be required to efficiently develop these opportunities and to promote continued technical advances in the coming decade. In this regard, this aspect of EAR-funded facilities requires the special attention given in this report to how to service the expanding needs of the community relative to other core facilities noted above that underlie opportunity areas.
Traditionally, age determinations have been made in single principal investigator (PI) laboratories. These laboratories are usually funded by a combination of grants directly to the laboratory PI and to investigators with which the PI collaborates. However, as the technical complexity of the measurements and the cost of instrumentation rise, this model is becoming financially unsustainable. In addition, there is a sense among potential users that this model does not serve the community as broadly and effectively as it could. One way forward is for EAR to entertain proposals that seek funding for major new facilities capable of meeting these challenges. The committee prefers to avoid being overly prescriptive of what such a facility should look
like—whether it be a single laboratory or an alliance of multiple laboratories, whether it be focused on a single method or a range of methods, and so forth. However, a collection of important objectives for such facilities is offered:
1. The best science outcomes occur when strong intellectual engagement exists between the investigators who make the measurements and those who use them. This extends all the way from the inception of a project, through sampling strategy and sample selection, to the collection and interpretation of results. The committee believes that a simple analysis-for-hire scheme is unlikely to yield results of consistent high quality.
2. It will be useful to identify mechanisms that will encourage broad community access to the facilities.
3. It would be useful if facilities were encouraged or required to routinely demonstrate that the quality of their results meet the standard expected by the community they serve. Such a demonstration would eliminate any questions regarding the integrity of ages produced.
4. The education of investigators, especially students and post-docs, is an essential goal of these facilities. The education of geochronologists and that of users of geochronology are equally important. Intellectual isolation of measurements from applications is best avoided.
5. A component of the support given to facilities could be used to innovate new or better methods.
6. Traditional single-PI laboratories doing high-quality, innovative research will remain essential to the vitality of the field.
The facilities envisioned here could be quite expensive, and the committee does not prescribe a specific funding mechanism. In its boldest implementation the committee can envision creating one or more national geochronology centers that would require capitalization and operating costs that exceed the capacity of existing NSF-EAR programs, including the Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program. Alternatively, single PI laboratories or networks of such laboratories could potentially fulfill the same objectives but would require substantially more support and more commitment to serving community needs than if implemented through current EAR programs.
Recommendation: EAR should explore new mechanisms for geochronology laboratories that will service the geochronology requirements of the broad suite of research opportunities while sustaining technical advances in methodologies. The approaches may involve coordination of multiple facilities and investment in service facilities and may differ for distinct geochronology systems.
At present there is no mechanism within EAR for proposals of the large scale the committee envisions; therefore, a bold new program with appropriate goals and guidelines would need to be created.
All of the research opportunity areas and associated facilities identified above intersect interests and capabilities of other Federal agencies and international programs. EAR can enhance the impact of its research portfolio by encouraging and supporting interagency and international coordination of facilities, community consortia, and individual investigations. Each activity is distinctive, and in some cases a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between agencies may clarify relationships, and in other cases direct EAR representation in international programs may be appropriate.
The early Earth opportunity area overlaps with mission objectives of NASA and research activities supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. Large-scale modeling capabilities of U.S. National Laboratories offer potential points of coordination as well. Investigation of global thermo-chemical dynamics of the mantle directly engages the global seismological communities loosely organized under the Federation of Digital Seismic Networks, the in situ Global Earth Observation System of Systems, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) International Monitoring System (IMS). EAR can coordinate with these international activities best through university consortia efforts such as IRIS. Development of increased resolution capabilities for global imaging will require international coordination on data acquisition,
and EAR could work together with the USGS to support that international effort. Expanding data collection to oceanic and cryosphere environments remains a key challenge for global investigations, and EAR coordination with OCE and Office of Polar Programs (OPP) in instrument development and data acquisition in these challenging locations needs to be sustained and expanded.
Pursuing the advances in understanding faulting processes requires continued operation of GPS networks, and EAR can advocate for sustaining and upgrading these capabilities of NASA and U.S. Department of Defense–supported satellites. The broad infrastructure required for EAR science applications of geodetic data is often not appreciated, and EAR can play a valuable role in sustaining this infrastructure in other agencies by communicating and, as appropriate engaging in MoU to sustain data flow. Research opportunity topics involving surficial processes and coastal dynamics address problems that are at the core of the missions of the USGS, NOAA, and U.S. Forest Service. Continued efforts to develop and maintain these partnerships are key to maximizing the impact of EAR research programs.
Capitalizing on the research opportunities set out in the preceding sections will require researchers with the skills and knowledge to advance the science. As several high-profile reports have recently laid out (e.g., CGS, 2007; NRC, 2010d), providing the appropriate training remains a major challenge in the United States, both within the Earth sciences specifically and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines in general. Earth science K–12 education standards are still inconsistent from state to state (Hoffman and Barstow, 2007), and The Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011 by the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the quality of math and science education (Schwab, 2010), continuing a downward trend that presents a significant challenge to the nation’s ability to draw on domestic sources of expertise in the Earth sciences. Many of the research areas discussed above require advanced skills in computer science and information technology. The specialized skills in these areas are not typically developed in Earth science curricula and a possible approach is to foster attraction of more students with good computational skills into Earth science research through outreach to those programs and students. EAR might help this process by creating incentives for computer science participation in key research areas rather than the current focus on cyberinfrastructure, which often has Earth scientists trying to find ways to collaborate with computer science initiatives.
Most university curricula in the Earth sciences have moved toward some level of geosystems perspective for developing the cross-disciplinary foundations needed for research in opportunity areas like those described above. EAR can build on the successful example of internship programs (notably those for IRIS, UNAVCO, and SCEC), along with interdisciplinary educational workshops like CIDER, to foster broad cross-disciplinary training in other areas. The model of summer graduate training workshops, with several weeks of lectures by diverse experts addressing a cross-disciplinary topic, developed by CIDER and several European-based organizations holds potential for all of the opportunity areas. Few, if any, university programs are now able to provide in-house expertise across the relevant areas for many of the geosystems of interest and immersive training in short-courses can be an effective way of developing awareness, understanding and competency for cross-discplinary research for undergraduates, graduates, and faculty alike.
Increasing the participation of historically underrepresented groups is an equally important and directly related challenge. There remains an uneven minority exposure to science and math (NRC, 2010c), as well as a significant science knowledge disparity between poor and affluent students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). A gender gap persists in the Earth sciences and, although the Earth sciences are doing better than other math and physical sciences in terms of gender equity, there remains substantial room for improvement. The female share of Earth science students at all levels has steadily increased over the past decade, but still only 35 percent of Earth science post-docs are women (NSF, 2011). As in other sciences, at each career step through graduate school to professorship, the number of women relative to men declines
(NRC, 2006), a condition that increases women’s isolation as they advance in the discipline. The committee agrees that including ideas and perspectives of underrepresented groups serves both underrepresented groups and the discipline itself.
To some extent, the disparities in training and inclusion are driven by larger social issues that are beyond the capacity of the EAR division or this committee to address. However, NSF is making progress on many of these challenges (see, e.g., NSF, 2008, 2010), and EAR is working to enhance diversity, education, and knowledge transfer through the outreach efforts of EAR-funded groups, such as IRIS and NCED, and the committee encourages EAR to continue these efforts. There are several areas in which the committee believes EAR could benefit from focusing its resources, and the following suggestions are meant to guide those efforts. The committee mentions several specific NSF initiatives as examples but does not mean to imply that these initiatives are the best vehicles for EAR efforts going forward. The EAR division will know best how to implement these suggestions, including the specific initiatives that could be expanded or developed.
Finding 1: Bringing the Earth sciences into the high school curriculum at the same level as chemistry, biology, and physics would pay large dividends to the discipline in the next generation. As an integrative discipline, the Earth sciences can be used as an umbrella course to bring together core math and science knowledge and, while other integrative disciplines such as “environmental science” and “human geography,” have Advanced Placement (AP) courses available to high school students, the Earth sciences remain notably absent from the AP course list. The EAR division may also consider both laboratory and deployable scientific instruments for high school classrooms. Much of the exciting and relevant work in the Earth sciences is done using unique instrumentation, and some underrepresented minorities may prefer a laboratory setting to fieldwork (O’Connell and Holmes, 2011). Exposing students to the types of instruments they would use in a career in the Earth sciences, with an emphasis on laboratory instrumentation, could boost interest and understanding. A schoolyard version of the Long Term Ecological Research program with an Earth science emphasis would build on existing NSF programmatic infrastructure.
Finding 2: Promoting early awareness of the Earth sciences on college campuses is key. One of the best times to capture students’ interest is as they are entering college. Earth science gap-year internships would incentivize early exposure to the Earth sciences for students who defer college entry for a year. Deferring college entry is becoming increasingly common, and students who take a gap year may perform better as undergraduates (Birch and Miller, 2007). Gap-year internships could be incorporated into research proposals as a supplement to encourage this specific type of pre-undergraduate outreach. An initiative to target the parents of freshmen with a kiosk and brochures during “Parents Day” events could help parents realize that the Earth sciences offer a legitimate career path for their children. Outreach to computer science majors could highlight the exciting applications of high-performance computing available in the Earth sciences. The EAR-funded Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation is a valuable mechanism to attract Earth science majors as they transition from high school to undergraduate institutions. The NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program has also been successful and could be further geared toward underrepresented groups.
Finding 3: Place-based research that incorporates indigenous landscapes and ways of thinking is one way to attract indigenous students. Indigenous peoples are underrepresented in the Earth sciences despite these cultures having a rich sense of place when it comes to the natural world (Palmer et al., 2009). Incorporating concepts like ethnogeology (how geological features are interpreted by cultures) into lessons can increase the accessibility of the Earth sciences. Presenting the Earth sciences in a way that is commensurate with, rather than in opposition to, native perspectives of Earth systems has had some success and is worthy of EAR education resources. An initiative such as NASA’s Earth Science Division’s Tribal Earth Science and Technology Education Program could be partnered with or emulated. The lessons learned in developing place-based Earth science education for native cultures may also be transferable
to other groups, such as teaching watershed hydrology to urban students (Endreny, 2009).
Finding 4: The decline in traditional science journalism may be partly offset by fostering the scientist communicator. Support for the Earth sciences depends on citizens and policy makers understanding the high social and economic value of the Earth sciences to the nation. Traditionally, the most effective way of communicating the results of jargon-laden Earth science articles to laypeople has been through science journalism. With the decline in the number of science journalists nationwide (Brumfiel, 2009), the capacity to communicate the Earth sciences to laypeople is diminished, and there is a danger that U.S. citizens’ understanding of the Earth sciences will be further challenged. One solution is to provide training and support for scientists interested in popular science writing such as online science blogging, short videos, or nonfiction book writing. Assisting scientists in developing a narrative that explains a new science concept will enhance communication with laypeople as well as interdisciplinary communication. Writing fellowships, media training, workshops, and courses that address science communication skills in today’s media climate are several mechanisms for supporting science communication.