Research in Earth science is central to revealing how our planet works, from the core to the clouds. The mission of the Division of Earth Sciences (EAR) is more urgent and important than ever before, as rapid changes bring immense consequences and continued progress in understanding will make society better prepared to meet the challenges of a changing Earth. For example, one can consider the impact of remote imaging on earthquake and volcano science or landscape evolution, the consequences of deeper understanding of the properties of Earth materials, and new perspectives on the complex interactions of terrestrial, hydrologic, biological, and atmospheric systems.
In order to facilitate significant discoveries in the next decade, EAR can enhance support for research that investigates the planet as an integrated system. In this “all hands on deck” moment we need a diverse and inclusive group of Earth scientists, working both individually and in collaborative networks, to create and deploy cutting-edge analytical, computational, and field-based research methods, in an open environment where success builds expeditiously on success. An expanded and agile workforce of innovative Earth scientists will further understanding of how human activities are driving fundamental changes to the Earth, including impacts on public health, and will utilize new technologies and approaches to reduce the natural and societal impact of these activities.
A Vision for NSF Earth Sciences 2020-2030: Earth in Time outlines some emerging initiatives and research directions in the Earth sciences, while also recognizing that this rapidly changing discipline will also evolve in directions not yet anticipated. Future advances in diversity and inclusion have the potential to transform what we study—and how we do it—by unlocking new perspectives and creating new ways of framing research questions, such as by building opportunities for citizen science and making information more accessible to decision makers and the public. The committee envisions a bright future, where students and scientists in academia, industry, government, and nongovernmental organizations more accurately reflect the demographics of the United States, with improved gender equality, increased participation by underrepresented minorities, and higher representation across the full spectrum of personal, cultural, and socioeconomic statuses and identities that make up our vibrant society. With substantive inclusion in academia, Earth scientists will be able to more deeply engage with affected communities to solve issues of critical societal importance, such as communicating seismic hazard along the West Coast or mitigating sea-level rise for Gulf Coast communities. The field of Earth sciences will benefit from increasingly diverse perspectives just as substantially as it will from advances in computational geoscience and higher-precision instruments.
Earth science is on a frontier with respect to data access, management, and use. Combined with new analytical and computational techniques, this new wealth of data will allow discovery and advances that were previously unattainable. New technology will help EAR investigators cross disciplinary, organizational, and political boundaries that currently inhibit the research enterprise, as will strengthening collaborations with other parts of the National Science Foundation (NSF), federal agencies, and international partners. Facilitating, embracing, and expanding development and access to data, technology, approaches, and perspectives are at the core of the vision for the next decade.
The priority questions outlined in this report illustrate the significance, breadth, and magnitude of the challenges and opportunities for Earth science research in the next decade. These questions are actionable, varied, and distinct; they pertain to deep-Earth processes, geohazards, and complex surface and near-surface systems that are increasingly recognized as being
intertwined. The priority questions encompass surficial topographic evolution and the connection to deep and shallow water systems, highlighting the value of understanding critical zone, climate, and other surface and near-surface system interactions. These science questions are pertinent to the persistence of life and recognize humans as geologic agents, and thus require a multidisciplinary approach.
The committee envisions a future in which EAR-supported research leads to routine, accurate forecasting of formerly unpredictable, devastating natural hazard events on time scales that permit mitigation of risk. EAR will help enable this by strengthening partnerships with other federal agencies and organizations to more rapidly put new NSF-supported research into use. More accurate forecasting may be accomplished if geoscientists investigate and quantify the full range of geohazards, from the nearly undetectable to the most extreme events, and develop a new understanding of the fundamental factors governing the behavior of the complex, interacting geosystems that cause them.
Over the next decade, scientists will increase understanding of deep-Earth processes and plate tectonics. If coupled with research into rock–water–atmosphere interactions, this will further illuminate the fate of carbon dioxide and other drivers of climate change over short (human) and long (geologic) time scales, improving understanding of critical element budgets in different Earth reservoirs. Furthermore, a better understanding of the processes that control the distribution of critical elements in geologic systems has the potential to put the United States on a pathway to less reliance on other countries for materials that are foundational to a clean energy future.
Researchers need to build collaborations across physical boundaries such as the shoreline and the interface of Earth’s surface and the atmosphere, especially to investigate Earth’s response to anthropogenically driven climate change and shifts in land use. Latitudinal shifts in the water cycle, vegetation dynamics, agriculture, and habitability require researchers to work across disciplinary boundaries, supported by flexible administrative and governance structures that support this approach. The questions and initiatives proposed here will increase our ability to understand the changing planet and devise sustainable responses. Earth science needs to connect and integrate well beyond traditional boundaries.
Although this report was finalized during a global pandemic that has profoundly disrupted the world in which we live, the overarching perspective of this report is one of optimism. EAR is already well on the way to leading the investigation of the Earth as an interconnected system and is therefore poised to launch the next decade of innovative research. This vision for an influential role of Earth scientists will be successful if there is increased development of and access to cutting-edge analytical, computational, and other facilities, leading to scientific breakthroughs that will transform our understanding of geological processes from nano-scale to global scale and from deep time to the present, with profound implications for the future of life on the Earth.