Understanding our planet and how it is changing is critical for our nation’s economy, security, and well-being. As individuals, we rely on Earth information in our daily lives for applications ranging from internet mapping and weather forecasting to agricultural productivity and transportation. These and an ever-growing number of applications are possible in large part due to the United States’ sustained commitment to satellite-based Earth observations. Satellite observations, which have only been available since the advent of the “space age” some 60 years ago, provide a unique and crucially important global perspective that continually transforms our scientific understanding of Earth and enables the development of applications and services that are of critical importance to individuals, businesses, the nation, and the world. Indeed, as noted in a publication of the American Meteorological Society, Earth observations, science, and services inform and guide the activities of virtually all economic sectors and innumerable institutions underlying modern civilization.
For decades, the United States has been the global leader in the development of space-based environmental observations of Earth. Federal investments in civil Earth observations are some $4 billion annually. These investments, across multiple agencies, support essential public services, long-term basic and applied research, technology development, and the maintenance of the U.S. Earth observation infrastructure. They ensure that the Nation’s decision makers, emergency responders, scientists, business owners, farmers, and a wide array of other stakeholders have the information they need about climate and weather, disaster events, land-use change, ecosystem health, natural resources, and many other characteristics of the Earth system. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are the three civil federal agencies with Earth observation programs that utilize the vantage point of space.
NASA has an especially important role in the research and observations that aim to advance the study of Earth as an integrated, dynamic system of chemical, biological, and physical processes—a field known as “Earth system science.” NOAA and USGS also contribute in this effort; in addition, they have unique and critical responsibilities to provide an uninterrupted flow of information from their environmental and land-imaging satellites, and the delivery of data products and services to a diverse and growing user community.
THRIVING ON OUR CHANGING PLANET
The Earth information we have come to rely on throughout our daily lives is the result of a sustained commitment to both exploratory and applied Earth science, and to what has become a sophisticated national and international infrastructure of observing systems, scientific research, and applications. A particular strength of the field is the extent to which curiosity-driven science is inextricably integrated with applications-oriented science and societal benefits. The U.S. government’s ongoing commitment to this inspirational and practical science has returned benefits to society many times over and will continue to do so with further support.
Among the most intellectually and practically important revelations from the past 60 years of space-based observation is the extent to which Earth is changing, in multiple ways and for many reasons. Successfully managing risks and identifying opportunities associated with these changes requires a clear understanding of both the human-driven and natural processes that underlie them. Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space (National Academies Press, 2018) provides detailed guidance on how relevant federal agencies can ensure that the United States receives the maximum benefit from its investments in Earth observations from space, while operating within realistic cost constraints. This short booklet, designed to be accessible to the general public, provides a summary of the key ideas and recommendations from the full decadal survey report.
Research directed at understanding the Earth system is both compelling and inspiring. In addition it also serves another purpose, because reliably predicting the Earth system is a vital economic, societal, and national security need. The need for accurate predictions applies across many U.S. industries 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 follow from an understanding of daily and seasonal weather and climate conditions. Weather variability alone is known to influence as much as 13 percent of the year-to-year variability of U.S. state economies, equal to 3.4 percent of U.S. GDP when aggregated over the nation. Space-based observations are a critical source of the Earth information used by companies and other providers of applications, with significant return on investment to the economy.