The Earth Science Division (ESD) at NASA is organized within the agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), whose programs seek to answer the following questions:
1. How and why are Earth’s climate and the environment changing?
2. How and why does the Sun vary and affect Earth and the rest of the solar system?
3. How do planets and life originate?
4. How does the universe work, and what are its origin and destiny?
5. Are we alone?
The first four of these top-level questions inform the activities of SMD’s Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science, and Astrophysics divisions, respectively, while the fifth refers to a cross-division program in astrobiology. Another variant of the top-level objectives of the Earth science program—one that emphasizes the centrality of “Earth system science”1—appears on the SMD website, where it is stated, “The purpose of NASA’s Earth science program is to develop a scientific understanding of Earth’s system and its response to natural or human-induced changes, and to improve prediction of climate, weather, and natural hazards.”2
In developing its overall strategy and implementation plan, ESD draws extensively from the guidance provided in the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) 2007 report Earth Science and Applications from
1The origins of “Earth system science” at NASA are associated with the creation in 1983 by the NASA Advisory Council of an Earth System Sciences Committee, which was chaired by Francis Bretherton. A 1986 report from that committee states “The goal of Earth system science is to obtain a scientific understanding of the entire Earth system on a global scale by describing how its component parts and their interactions have evolved, how they function, and how they may be expected to continue to evolve on all timescales.” (Earth System Science Committee, Earth System Science: A Program for Global Change, Washington D.C., 1986, p. 26.)
Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond.3 Indeed, in ESD’s portion of the SMD 2010 Science Plan, the connection between the objectives of the division and the decadal survey’s “vision” is explicit:4
At NASA’s request, the National Research Council conducted the first ever Decadal Survey for Earth Science, and released in 2007 the report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. In it, the NRC articulates the following vision for the future:
Understanding the complex, changing planet on which we live, how it supports life and how human activities affect its ability to do so in the future is one of the greatest intellectual challenges facing humanity. It is also one of the most important challenges for society as it seeks to achieve prosperity, health, and sustainability.
NASA’s ability to observe our changing planet from the vantage point of space and use these observations to advance understanding and to support applications that support society is essential to realizing this vision.
The 2007 decadal survey outlined the components of an Earth information system to address recognized national needs for Earth system research and applications to benefit society.5 It also described an observational portion of a strategy for obtaining an integrated set of space-based measurements essential to such a system over the period from 2010 to 2020.6 Although they are but one part of the requisite Earth information system, space-based measurements provide unique and key data for analyzing Earth as a global system of interconnected human activities and natural processes.
With its emphasis on advancement of Earth system science, the SMD science strategy is well aligned with that expressed in the survey. In particular, the SMD 2010 Science Plan states,7
NASA’s strategic goal: “Advance Earth System Science to meet the challenges of climate and environmental change” is expressed by the fundamental question, “How is the Earth changing and what are the consequences for life on Earth?” and its component questions:
• How is the global Earth system changing? (Characterize)
• What are the sources of change in the Earth system and their magnitudes and trends? (Understand)
• How will the Earth system change in the future? (Predict)
• How can Earth system science improve mitigation of an adaptation to global change? (Apply)
The alignment of NASA’s objectives for its Earth science program and that articulated by the survey is also recognized in the present study’s statement of task, where it is stated that “the National Research Council shall convene an ad hoc committee to review the alignment of NASA’s Earth Science Division’s program with previous NRC advice, primarily the 2007 NRC decadal survey report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond” (see Appendix A).
In summary, for purposes of the present study, an evaluation of NASA’s Earth science program is effectively an assessment of progress toward achieving the objectives of the decadal survey.
3National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2007.
4NASA, 2010 Science Plan for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., July 2010, p. 24.
5See Chapter 1, “An Integrated Strategy for Earth Science and Applications from Space,” pp. 17-26 in National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond, 2007.
6See Chapter 2, “The Next Decade of Earth Observations from Space,” pp. 27-60 in National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond, 2007.
7NASA, 2010 Science Plan for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, July 2010, pp. 24-25.
The decadal survey’s vision for the future, stated above, was first enunciated in the 2005 interim report of the survey.8 It was subsequently reaffirmed in the survey’s 2007 final report and is highlighted in NASA’s 2010 Science Plan.9 It calls for a program of Earth science research and applications in support of society—one that includes advances in fundamental understanding of the Earth system and increased application of this understanding to serve the nation and the people of the world. Indeed, the decadal survey was emphatic in its recommendation for a renewal of the national commitment to a program of Earth observations in which attention to securing practical benefits for humankind plays an equal role with the quest to acquire new knowledge about the Earth system. These societal benefits10 are critical to a growing and more complex society that is increasingly vulnerable to natural and human-induced changes. The present committee endorses this view and finds that understanding Earth as a system will continue to be a critical scientific goal.
The various components of the Earth system are so interconnected and interdependent that advances in understanding one component of the Earth system may require scientific progress across disciplines. In contrast to other observational programs at NASA, acquisition of the data needed to enable advances in understanding the Earth system—“Earth system science”11—requires a broad range of active and passive measurements from space, airborne, and in situ platforms and over very broad spatial and temporal scales. Furthermore, the relationship between understanding Earth as a system and the decisions that societies make to achieve prosperity and sustainability likewise is critical in a world in which the population and the consumption of resources continue to grow, vulnerability to weather and natural hazards (Figure 1.1) is increasing, the need for more effective management of natural resources is evident, and aspirations for better quality of life remain only partially fulfilled. Earth observations from space and advances in Earth system science are thus of ever-increasing importance to the nation—they enable accurate weather forecasts and warnings (Box 1.1), support fact-based decision making (e.g., in relation to fire-threat level, forest fire detection, space weather alerts and predictions of geomagnetic storm impacts such as radio blackouts, and volcanic ash tracking for aviation safety), inform policy (e.g., world agricultural production assessments by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service),12 and have the potential to deliver profound societal and economic benefits to the nation.
8National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005.
9NASA, 2010 Science Plan for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, July 2010.
10Earth observations from space are the foundation for weather forecasts and warnings and for wise decision making to support management and operations in a variety of societal sectors, including energy, transportation, water, agriculture, and national defense.
11Earth system science involves the observation, understanding, and protection of the five interconnected components of the system: (1) the atmosphere, (2) the hydrosphere (the oceans and all water on Earth), (3) the cryosphere (all ice and snow), (4) the lithosphere (the ever-changing Earth’s crust and mantle), and (5) the biosphere (with its rich diversity of life including more than 7 billion humans). The social and economic welfare of the entire human population is dependent on this interconnected Earth system for its food, water, energy, health, and quality of life.
12U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, World Agricultural Production, Circular Series WAP 07-10, July 2010, available at http://www.fas.usda.gov/wap/circular/2010/10-07/productionfull07-10.pdf.
FIGURE 1.1 Global weather-related disasters, 1980-2009. SOURCE: OECD (2012), Global weather-related disasters, 1980-2009, in OECD Environmental Outlook, OECD Publishing; available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/env_outlook-2012-graph71-en.
The 2007 decadal survey report was developed over nearly 2 years and through numerous face-to-face meetings by an 18-member steering committee and seven interdisciplinary study panels of approximately 14 members each. Members of these groups were among the nation’s leading Earth science researchers and policy experts; in addition, the survey included end users of Earth information data. A key strength of the decadal survey process is that it is informed by the collective wisdom of the broad community. Survey organizers conducted an extensive outreach effort to the larger community, which resulted in numerous town hall and public meetings as well as the submission of more than 100 detailed white papers and conceptual proposals. These submissions came in response to a decadal survey request for information that went out over many outlets to an audience numbering in the many thousands.
BOX 1.1 WEATHER-RELATED NATURAL HAZARDS—A NATION AT RISK
The spring and summer of 2011 brought the United States a string of disastrous weather-related events unmatched in recent years, with 10 events delivering more than $1 billion in impact to the U.S. economy, causing approximately $50 billion in economic losses and resulting in almost 600 fatalities.1
• Wildfires—Drought-induced wildfires in Texas and Arizona burned more than 3 million acres.
• Tornadoes—The April 27, 2011, super-tornado outbreak in Alabama and other southeastern states killed at least 350 people and caused more than $3 billion in insured property losses, making it the deadliest tornado outbreak in 80 years and the costliest in history. Less than a month later a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, killed more than 100 people, the deadliest single twister since 1947. By September 2011, the United States had experienced some 1,784 tornadoes causing 546 fatalities.
• Flooding—Extremely heavy rains across the Midwest led to the greatest floods of the Mississippi Valley since 1927. Heavy rains also combined with snowmelt to produce record flooding in the northern Great Plains, with thousands of homes inundated in Minot, North Dakota, and elsewhere. Rains and flooding continued into the summer in many areas, including a 13-inch-plus rainstorm near Dubuque, Iowa, on July 27-28, 2011, that caused the Mississippi to rise 4 feet in a matter of hours.
• Heat waves—In July 2011, one of the worst and most prolonged heat waves of recent decades developed over the eastern two-thirds of the country, accompanied by extremely high amounts of moisture. The heat wave set more than 2,000 daily record-high temperatures, taxed power grids to the limit, and resulted in the deaths of dozens of people.
• Tsunami—Worldwide, the most damaging natural disaster of 2011 was the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on Friday, March 11. Some 16,000 people lost their lives (most as a result of the tsunami that followed the magnitude 9.0 quake), and preliminary estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme placed the damage total at some $309 billion.2 In the United States, western portions of Washington and Oregon are considered in particular danger of a similar quake and tsunami event.
The human and economic costs of these disasters would have been even greater without satellite observations provided by NASA, NOAA, and international partners that contributed vital input data to weather forecast models (Figure 1.1.1).
1Statistics in the following list are from L. Furgione, U.S. National Weather Service, “Meeting the Nation’s Evolving Needs for Space Weather Services: Building a Weather-Ready Nation,” presentation to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, September 29, 2011, available at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/com/files/2011.09.27_spacebusinessroundtable.pdf.
2For United Nations estimates of damage, see http://www.unep.org/tsunami/. Casualty estimates from Japan’s National Police Agency on September 11, reported in “The Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster: Latest Figures,” available at http://nippon.com/en/features/h00004/.
FIGURE 1.1.1 Relative contributions of different Earth observing systems to accuracy in the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) weather forecast model, a numerical model that runs out to 10 days that is used by NOAA in developing operational forecasts. The percentage contribution to the reduction of forecast error, which is a measure of errors in temperature, pressure, water vapor, and wind over the entire atmosphere, is shown for each observational system for the period September to December 2008. This measure is a robust indicator of the contribution to the overall accuracy of forecasts of high-impact weather phenomena such as hurricanes, tornadic and winter storms, floods and droughts, and heat and cold waves. The top five observing systems are (1) microwave sounders from satellites, (2) an infrared sounder on the Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer, (3) the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), (4) aircraft measurements of temperature, winds, and humidity, and (5) Global Positioning Satellite radio occultation sounders on the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC) and other satellites. Thus four out of five of the top contributors to forecast accuracy are satellite systems, and all are currently operating beyond their design lifetimes. NOTE: IASI, the Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer, first launched in 2006 on the nominal 5-year-lifetime METOP-A, is also included on METOP-B, scheduled for launch in May 2012. SOURCE: Courtesy of European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts.
The end result of these efforts was a proposed set of activities that included space missions to be undertaken by NASA and NOAA, as well as supporting and complementary in situ and suborbital programs, programs for sensor and technology development, a robust research and analysis program, and a data analysis, archive, and dissemination program to exploit the enormous quantities of raw data that would result from these activities. The breadth and balance of the 2007 survey’s recommendations were both intentional and essential, because increased knowledge of the entire, interconnected Earth system, not just a comprehensive understanding of just one or two of its components, is a primary goal.
Finding: NASA responded favorably and aggressively to the 2007 decadal survey, embracing its overall recommendations for Earth observations, missions, technology investments, and priorities for the underlying science. As a consequence, the science and applications communities have made significant progress over the past 5 years.
However, the implementation of the decadal survey’s recommendations has proven difficult. The launch failures of two missions (Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory); budgetary shortfalls, the result of both diminished resources and cost growth; and new administration and congressional priorities have resulted in delays, descopes, and cancellations (in some cases at the direction of the Office of Management and Budget). As NASA responds to these and other challenges that may be encountered in implementing the survey, the committee urges NASA to continually refer back to the fundamental goal of nurturing Earth system science, to engage the broad Earth system science community, and to consider the implications of its decisions for the entire portfolio of interconnected activities and—as important—for the next generation of scientists and technologists.