Ongoing understanding and prediction of Earth’s changing environment, using space-based observations, provides essential knowledge that helps make society safe, secure, and prosperous. These benefits are in turn made possible by the investments we choose to make in observing and exploring our planet and in transforming new discoveries into useful knowledge.
From the time of the earliest humans, knowledge about Earth has been fundamental to our fate and prospects. Our ever-growing understanding of Earth’s dynamic processes and long-term changes, along with their causes, has helped enable society’s advance. Yet today Earth is changing in ways that are very different from the past, largely as a consequence of our own influences. From growing demand for limited resources, to air quality degradation, to climate change, human impacts that were once local or regional are now increasingly global. Similarly, where human impacts were once largely transient, today they may last millennia. As a result, accumulated knowledge about Earth’s past is no longer a sufficient guide to the future. Increasingly, we must observe and understand the ways that nature’s patterns and processes are being altered—alterations that will likely pose significant challenges and present new prospects for both society and ecosystems, requiring environmental awareness to successfully manage.
Examples are increasingly abundant. Evolving rainfall patterns may open new agricultural opportunities, but will likely bring drought to other currently fertile regions. Without an understanding of where, when, and how these changes will occur, our agriculture faces economic risk. An ice-free summer Arctic will introduce major perturbations to climate, weather, and ecosystem patterns, but will also provide access to new resources and reduced shipping times. Managing the risks and understanding the opportunities inherent to a changing world requires observations and knowledge—not only of the changes that are occurring, but also of the reasons for them and the associated implications.
This tension—between society’s deep dependence on knowledge about our planet in order to thrive, and the challenges of acquiring and updating this knowledge as our planet changes—reflects an emerging aspect of civilization’s progress. It is the theme embodied in this report’s title Thriving on Our Changing Planet. The word “thriving” was chosen carefully for its breadth: it encompasses economic success, intellectual progress, societal prosperity, personal well-being, scientific exploration, and much more. The com-
mittee’s proposed program of science and applications priorities, and the observations needed to pursue them, addresses the scientific and societal challenges inherent in this tension.
ALL IN A DECADE
The successes of modern civilization have been achieved in no small part through advanced understanding of our planet’s behavior and its fundamental resources. Characterizing and explaining the ways in which Earth changes over time, and identifying the complex natural and human mechanisms by which that change occurs, have been critical elements of our nation’s scientific progress. Earth continually amazes us, as we make new discoveries that reveal its beauty, complexity, and wonder.
As we move forward, society’s growing dependence on Earth information1 (illustrated in Figure 1.1)—for our daily lives, our businesses, and our government policies—requires ongoing investments in the observation, understanding, and prediction of Earth’s environment. Earth observations from space are critical in this effort. Over the past few decades, the United States has been a clear leader of the global effort to acquire sophisticated observational data from satellites. Such investments in knowledge and its applications support our efforts to continue thriving on our complex, ever-changing planet.
Even a mere decade reveals the pace of advance and the many successes we have experienced. Over the past decade, new types of Earth information have empowered us all:
- Individuals. Greater access to this information has helped us as individuals by placing at our fingertips a wide variety of vital information about the world around us, helping each of us make important decisions. Examples range from minute-by-minute weather information to satellite images that allow us all to explore and navigate in our home towns and “visit” even the most remote places on Earth.
- Businesses. Scientific discoveries and the resulting applications have helped us advance business interests, such as making our agriculture more productive, our energy use more efficient, and our transportation more reliable. Many companies have leveraged technology originally developed for Earth observations to provide valuable services, ranging from consumer Internet mapping to weather-based shipping optimization and much more.
- Society. Being able to observe the Earth in new ways has helped us prosper as a society. Our revolutionary ability to view the world as a whole from space allows us to watch the natural course of rivers and forests change, to observe changes in our climate, to discern our role within those and other changes, to understand the risks and benefits of our actions and inactions with regard to our planet, and to apply the resulting knowledge. This expanded perspective has positioned us to benefit from the economic opportunities it creates, increased our resilience to the environment’s risks, and inspired citizens and nations everywhere with the wonder of Earth’s scientific challenges.
Progress during the past decade, building on advances from prior decades, confirms the special ability of Earth satellites to comprehensively observe the entire Earth in detail and to reveal new aspects of our planet’s complex behavior.2 Over time, we have augmented what was once a sparse surface-based observ-
1 A growing body of literature characterizing how society uses Earth information and quantifying its benefits to individuals, businesses, and governments (e.g., Boulding, 1966; Daly and Townsend, 1996; Williamson et al., 2002; Macauley, 2006; Sagoff, 2007, 2008; Lazo et al., 2011; Trenberth et al., 2016; Hsiang et al., 2017; NWS, 2017). Nevertheless, there is no definitive study of the value of U.S. Earth observation to the nation. In Europe the economic benefit-cost ratio of the European Space Agency (ESA) Global Monitoring for Environmental Security (GMES) program, now known as Copernicus, has been estimated to be 10:1 (Booz and Co., 2011). Similarly, Australia assessed the direct and indirect contributions of space-based Earth observation to be 0.3 percent of its gross domestic product (ACIL Tasman, 2010). (See also Figure 1.1 and Box 4.1, later.)
ing network with a powerful space-based infrastructure for observation and prediction on global scales, making it possible to monitor aspects of the Earth system not previously accessible using surface-based observations alone.3 The global view from satellite observations remains unmatched in its ability to resolve the dynamics and variability of Earth processes. Using both space and in situ observations, we increasingly understand the extent to which Earth is an intricately connected global system, within which interactions between the atmosphere, land, ice, and oceans affect us on time scales of minutes to decades. Characterizing these Earth system interactions is key to understanding how the Earth system functions today, how it supports life, how conditions might change in the future, and how humans influence such change. The challenge is to further advance this knowledge, and to progressively apply it in ways that improve our lives and help us plan for the future.
By building from this knowledge base, what can we expect in the next decade? While significant progress has been made this decade and previously, it is surprising how much we still do not know about the Earth system and the human interaction with it, especially in the least accessible regions (Box 1.1). Today, Earth’s ongoing change makes the job of understanding and predicting our planet even more difficult than in the past. Through both natural variability and human influences, Earth and its environment are evolving around us—sometimes in ways we can readily predict and other times in ways we have yet to explain. To sustain prospects for adapting in the future, society needs a more comprehensive understanding of how and why our environment is changing and what the associated implications will be.
This report identifies the science and applications, observations, and programmatic support needed over the next 10 years to bring to fruition this vision of more deeply understanding our changing planet. With implementation of its recommended plan, the committee expects the following to have been accomplished by the end of the survey interval:
Programmatic implementation within the agencies will be made more efficient by
- Increasing Program Cost-Effectiveness. Promote expanded competition with medium-size missions to take better advantage of innovation and leveraged partnerships.
- Institutionalizing Sustained Science Continuity. Establish methods to prioritize and facilitate the continuation of observations deemed critical to monitoring societally important aspects of the planet, after initial scientific exploration has been accomplished.
- Enabling Untapped NASA-NOAA Synergies. Establish more effective means for NASA-NOAA partnership to jointly development the next generation of weather instruments, accelerating NOAA’s integration of advanced operational capabilities.
Improved observations will enable exciting new science and applications by
- Initiating or Deploying More Than Eight New Priority Observations of Our Planet. Develop or launch missions and instruments to address new or extended priority observation areas that serve science and applications. Five are prescribed in the committee’s recommended program for NASA, and three are to be chosen from among seven candidate areas prioritized by the committee to form the basis of a new class of NASA competed medium-size missions. These new observation priorities will be complemented by an additional two new small missions and six new instruments to be selected through NASA’s existing Earth Venture program element, and two opportunities for
value of Earth observation satellites in depth.
3 The committee fully recognizes that accomplishing science today and achieving societal benefits from science requires treating information as an end-to-end process, involving observations, analysis, modeling, archive, automated analytics, applications, data communication, and far more. Our strategic guidance in Chapter 2 recognizes this, and the topic is addressed at a simple level in Chapter 4. Nevertheless, this report’s focus is the space-based observing system, so the important topic of an end-to-end information infrastructure is not comprehensively addressed.
- sustained observations to be selected through the new Venture-Continuity strand of this program. The existing and planned Program of Record (POR) will also be implemented as expected.
- Achieving Breakthroughs on Key Scientific Questions. Advance knowledge throughout portions of the survey’s 35 key science questions (see Table S.1) that address critical unknowns about the Earth system and promise new societal applications and benefits.
Businesses and individuals will receive enhanced value from scientific advances and improved Earth information
- Increased Benefits to Operational System End Users. Enhanced processes and tools to leverage low-cost commercial and international space-based observations will allow NOAA and USGS to have greater impact on the communities they serve.
- Accelerated Public Benefits of Science. Improved capacity for transitioning science to applications will make it possible to more quickly and effectively achieve the societal benefits of scientific exploration, generating applications more responsive to evolving societal needs.
- Development of Innovative Commercial Applications. New observations and data products enable innovative commercial applications that have the potential for substantial economic benefit to both developers and end users.
THE TRANSFORMATIVE IMPACT OF SPACE-BASED OBSERVATIONS
Earth is a dynamic planet on which the interconnected atmosphere, ocean, land, and ice interact across a range of spatial and temporal scales, irrespective of geographic, political, or disciplinary boundaries. Today’s leading science often occurs at the system level, with the aim of understanding the linkages between these elements, the processes that connect them, and how variability occurs among them. Even a conceptually simple phenomenon such as sea-level rise (Figure 1.2) illustrates the complexity of Earth system science that must be considered to explain it, to predict its behavior, and to address the diverse societal impacts.
Multidecadal space-based observations are particularly important to this understanding. They allow us to better investigate Earth’s variability across many scales of time and space, and to develop insights needed to understand the fundamental Earth system processes that are relevant to our lives. Since Earth is our home, our survival and quality of life depend on how well we understand its behavior. A commitment to monitoring, understanding, and predicting complex and dynamical Earth systems is a scientific and societal imperative.
The science alone is inspiring and compelling, but understanding and reliably predicting the Earth system is a vital economic, societal, and national security need as well. This need for accurate predictions applies across many U.S. industries (ranging from energy resources to aircraft operations), for which significant functions and products depend on effective use of Earth information. In agriculture, for example, revenue and profits depend on efficient crop management and associated water usage that follows from an understanding of daily and seasonal weather and climate conditions. Weather variability alone—only one driver of the need for Earth information—has been estimated to influence as much as 13 percent of the year-to-year variability of U.S. state economies (Figure 1.3), with the interannual aggregate dollar variation in U.S. economic activity that is attributable to weather variability estimated to be 3.4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP; see Lazo et al., 2011). Space-based observations are a critical source of the needed Earth information used by companies and other providers of applications, with significant return on investment to the economy.
Space-based Earth observations are also vital for national security.4 As an example, understanding atmospheric and oceanic processes (such as sea-level rise and the impacts of ocean warming on ocean circulation associated with climate change) and their implications is critical for naval operations. Operations of all armed services depend on environmental information, such as accurate weather forecasts, characteristics and changes of terrestrial landscapes, atmospheric conditions and processes, coastal information, and more. Satellite observations play a crucial role in addressing these needs. On a broader level,
4 There is increasing academic, business, and government recognition of the national security impact of Earth information, and of climate change in particular (e.g., Barnett, 2003; Nordås and Gleditsch, 2007; Smith, 2007). That recognition is less established at the public level.
understanding the role of climate and other environmental changes is important for anticipating future sources of geopolitical instability.
Finding 1.1: Space-based Earth observations provide a global perspective of Earth that has
- Over the past 60 years, transformed our “scientific understanding” of the planet, revealing it to be an integrated system of dynamic interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, land, ice, and human society across a range of spatial and temporal scales irrespective of geographic, political, or disciplinary boundaries.
- In the past decade in particular, enabled “societal applications” that provide tremendous value to individuals, businesses, the nation, and the world. Such applications are growing in breadth and depth, becoming an essential information infrastructure element for society as they are integrated into people’s daily lives.
BUILDING ON PROGRESS
U.S. investments in Earth observations over the last decade have led to important scientific advancement, and generated considerable economic value (see Chapter 2). This progress has occurred across a wide range of Earth science disciplines, addressing broad societal needs: assessing risks from sea-level rise, understanding the genesis and evolution of severe storms and tornadoes, measuring the health and productivity of our lands and oceans all over the world, managing air pollution risks, and improving weather forecasts. The decadal survey committee’s vision for the next decade builds on these successes, recognizing that society’s need for improved science and Earth information is growing rapidly.5
5 The proliferating use of Internet mapping over the last decade is perhaps the best-known example, though merely indicative of a broad-based trend. Internet mapping integrates space-based, aerial, and ground-based Earth observation data (obtained and used with rapidly advancing fidelity), provides the foundation for value-added services ranging from shipping logistics to commodities speculation, and is an essential information source for a growing set of applications built for financial services, energy, transportation, agriculture, consumers, and many other sectors.
This vision leads to the committee’s recognition of a new Earth science paradigm for the coming decade, building from two important prior themes. In the 1980s and 1990s, Earth scientists and applications specialists began formally viewing Earth as a system, moving beyond study of its individual land, ocean, and atmosphere components. This helped us recognize critical system-scale processes, such as for the El Niño/La Niña oscillation that has such enormous economic and security impacts throughout the world, and begin forecasting them. In the 2000s, we recognized that explicitly integrating pursuit of the societal benefits of Earth research needed to be central to all of our thinking. The natural extension of this thematic progress leads to the following paradigm.
The coming decade is important for many reasons. Decisions we make this decade regarding investments in needed capabilities will determine our capacity during the next decade and beyond to predict Earth’s future changes, including the role of human actions, and to influence the extent to which those changes will impact society. As we recognize the interdependence of and interconnections between human activities and our land, oceans, and atmosphere, there is an increasing need for reliable, science-based guidance to support policy and investment decisions related to fisheries management, river and water basin management, coastal construction, air quality, floods, hurricanes, droughts, changes in ecosystems, wildfires, sea-level rise, navigability of the Arctic, and adaption to climate change—to name just a few.
AN AMBITIOUS COMMUNITY CHALLENGE
It is essential that advances in our understanding of the Earth system support the nation’s growing industrial, agricultural, and environmental needs. Satellite observations will play a crucial role in ensuring that they do. Yet, over the last decade and more, investments in Earth observation capabilities have failed to keep pace with these needs. This is particularly evident in NASA’s Earth science program, which (as shown by the budget in Figure 1.4) has actually seen a decline in its budget from the levels that led in the 1990s to the development of NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) and the Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE).
The committee recognizes that resource constraints are likely to remain a practical concern during the next decade, and that new resources must be applied wisely when available.6 The importance of an effective Earth system science and applications enterprise requires that our entire community of scientists and practitioners rise to the following community challenge within the next decade:
6 Various proposals for reducing agency budgets and eliminating particular Program of Record (POR) missions have been proposed over the year prior to publication of this report. While the committee was aware of the proposals and their undesirable impacts, it was not the committee’s role to speculate on potential outcomes of in-process budget proposals. Instead, the committee focused on ensuring appropriate justification of both the POR and new observing system capabilities, and on clear rules for adjusting the program when available resources either exceed or do not meet the committee’s nominal budget growth expectation. To the extent that future budget issues could lead to a situation similar to that faced in the first decadal survey (NRC, 2007), which described the observing system as “at risk of collapse,” it is critical to regularly reinforce the strategic importance of Earth observation to the nation’s governmental organizations, businesses, and individuals.
Succeeding requires a deep commitment on the part of scientists, our government, and citizens. It will require innovation and discipline, inspiration and dedication. But substantive progress can and must be made in the coming decade. It is a worthy and ambitious goal that will pay off many times over in civilization’s more comprehensive understanding of our changing environment, more efficient stewardship of Earth’s resources, and more effective management of risks against environmental stresses.
Ultimately, a long-term goal of Earth system science research and its applications is a comprehensive capacity to understand, monitor, predict, and steward important aspects of our Earth and its future, across all important scales of space (local to global) and time (minutes to decades), and in all relevant domains. The complexity and growing number of societal needs is increasingly evident; the extent of the potential societal benefits presents a strong motivation for this goal. It is a goal that should push us all to reach high, as the opportunities enabled by success—and the consequences of failure, to ourselves and to this planet—are both tremendous.
THE 2017 DECADAL SURVEY
In keeping with the Decadal Community Challenge, this report proposes an achievable plan of space-based observations to monitor and understand our planet over the next decade, without sacrificing pursuit of ambitious goals. Implementing this program will contribute to safeguarding and improving the quality of life for all citizens.
All three of the report’s sponsoring agencies play essential roles. Sustained NASA, NOAA, and USGS systems are needed to ensure that we have long-term, uninterrupted observations of the Earth system that supports many aspects of our lives. NASA missions already scheduled to be launched, and new science/applications proposed here, have been selected to provide a portfolio of data that will strategically build on existing capabilities, allowing us to substantially advance our ability to understand, explain, and manage observed changes and thus to improve Earth prediction. The recommended program will complement existing U.S. and international programs to provide critical new and follow-on observations of the most fundamental Earth system parameters. Implementation of this program will enable not just more accurate predictions at short time scales (e.g., <14-day weather forecasting), but also extend environmental forecasts into the subseasonal range (e.g., 2 weeks to 2 months) and yield more robust projections at decadal and longer time scales as well (e.g., sea-level rise, drought trends, and climate shifts) as the changing climate and other influences shape the world in which we will live.
Building on the success and discoveries of the last several decades, the report’s balanced program provides a pathway to realizing tremendous scientific and societal benefits from space-based Earth observations. It ensures the United States will continue to be a visionary leader and partner in Earth observation over the coming decade, inspiring the next generation of Earth science and applications innovation and the people who make it possible.
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