Earth system science in
is at a turning point. On the one hand, U.S. Earth observations are enjoying a golden age. The Earth Observing System is providing a cornucopia of observations. With advanced communications and multidisciplinary laboratory facilities, research ships never have been so capable. Moreover, if recent advances in sensor-net technology and cyber-infrastructure can be captured, Earth system science, together with the environmental, hydrological, and ecological sciences, is poised to make great progress.

The problem is that the Golden Age is nearly over.

Two of the largest government programs that have played key roles in advancing Earth system science have uncertain futures. The Earth Observing System satellites are aging, the system will not be renewed, and replacement planning is in disarray. In retrospect, NASA’s decision to not continue the system concept and instead rely on incorporating climate instruments in the payloads of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was unfortunate.

NPOESS, an operational system, did offer management commitment to long-term observations, but it did not have a strong policy commitment to climate observations. Climate was second priority; weather came first. When large cost overruns and delays overtook the NPOESS program, a natural, if unfortunate, response was to delete key climate measurements from the payload.

Choosing NPOESS for climate was a retrograde step, scientifically and managerially. Its architecture – a very large multi-instrument spacecraft – resembles the original Earth Observing System and not the flexible multispacecraft network that Earth Observing System became. Had NPOESS been designed like Earth Observing System, it might have been able to minimize the expensive, hard-to-resolve conflict between climate and weather.

Such conflicts are inherent in engineering large complex spacecraft in any case. The first launch of NPOESS now has been delayed until 2014, so its climate data would have left gaps in continuity.

The Space Studies Board recently completed a decadal survey of Earth science and applications from space. An interim report was published in 2005 and the final report in 2007. The interim report documented an Earth observation program that it concluded was “at risk of collapse.” As part of a strategy to reverse this trend, the final report recommended 17 missions to be flown by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the coming decade.

The final report notably did not address how those missions might be integrated into a single system capable of coordination with in situ observations. The report further noted that there is a lack of clear agency responsibility for sustained research programs and the transitioning of proof-of-concept measurements into sustained measurement systems, citing the elimination of the requirements for climate research-related measurements on NPOESS as “the most recent example of the failure to sustain critical measurements.”

That point was amplified in a more recent SSB report, which noted that short-term actions would not address the longer-term structural problems associated with providing climate-quality measurements from space systems that are designed to meet national objectives more closely associated with operational weather forecasting. The future remains uncertain, in part because NASA no longer includes Earth observations among its prime missions.

The ships in the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) also are reaching the ends of their lifetimes, and there is no clear path to replacement of the academic research fleet. The Oceanographic Laboratory System has been sustained over the years by an agreement that the U.S. Navy would fund the capital costs and National Science Foundation the operating costs of the research fleet. This arrangement has deteriorated, and it has proven difficult for the Navy to fund the next generation of research vessels.

In the meantime, higher fuel costs and operating expenses are forcing the National Science Foundation to reduce the number of research cruises from its fleet.

The oceanographic research community no longer focuses exclusively on ship-borne observations as it did when UNOLS was founded in 1972, but now uses automated observing systems and space observations as well. This dispersion of focus blurs the impact of community advocacy for UNOLS. This problem will not be resolved until there is a unified plan that embraces ships, observing systems, and space observations. In other words, ocean science must plan from an Earth system science point of view.

When large central programs like the Earth Observing System or UNOLS falter, a key contributing cause has to be an unclear sense of direction. The present difficulties stem in part from conflicts engendered by Earth system science’s transition from a pure research enterprise into one that supports more applications. The conflicts are manifested by disagreements within the government about the relative roles of NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Science Foundation. In the research community, there are disagreements about science versus. applications, discovery vs. monitoring, ships versus observing systems, and research versus operations.

Are the
science and applications agencies presently able to provide forceful leadership? They have done so in the past and they can do so in the future. This does not necessarily mean that the government is presently configured to meet the new challenges ahead.

The challenge of coordinating the programs pertinent to the Earth system science agenda were understood at the beginning, when the first Bush administration founded the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) in 1990. USGCRP is an interagency forum represented at the head of program level.

USGCRP scored major early successes by harmonizing the research goals of its participating agencies and by providing a framework for the Earth Observing System. As time passed, however, needs to develop multidisciplinary technical infrastructure requiring the participation of more than one agency emerged.

Here, the USGCRP was less successful because it could not enforce the budget coordination on a sustained basis that is required to build and maintain infrastructure. The second Bush administration established an even more powerful coordinating council, represented at the head of agency level, and added the Climate Change Science Program to the USGCRP to provide a stronger focus on key policy issues. However, this more powerful interagency council was unable to prevent the serious deterioration in the capacity to observe the Earth from space. This decline is only beginning to be reversed.

Is the government ready to provide the new decision support services made possible by its investments in Earth system science?

Yes and no. By and large, NOAA, in partnership with NASA, has successfully addressed its primary mission, weather, for close to 40 years. It has done less well with its newer responsibility, climate. One reason is budgetary, which limits the technical capacity NOAA can deploy for climate-related purposes when it must continue its weather mission.

But there is a more profound reason: NOAA alone is not configured to provide comprehensive Earth system services, since its mandate does not extend to the land. USGS, which does have responsibility for the land, does not deal with the oceanic and atmospheric processes that convey the impacts of climate change to the ecosystems and watersheds it is responsible for.

Recently, there has been a proposal to create an independent agency by bringing NOAA and USGS together to form an Earth System Science Agency (ESSA). ESSA would be responsible for translating the research of NASA, NSF, the Department of Energy and others into Earth system applications.

In particular, ESSA would have the capacity to assess the regional impacts of climate change and to support decision-making about adaptation to climate change. And there is at least one other managerial advantage. NASA has supported NOAA’s weather mission by providing space technology and building weather satellites for 40 years; it could equally well support an ESSA, with one difference: NASA would have a customer who needs an Earth observing system.

The conflicts within Earth system science will not be resolved until it is realized that the future lies in connecting research and applications. Until the conflicts are resolved, institutional progress will be stymied.

The key steps toward resolution include:
science and applications agencies providing forceful leadership within the
United States
; the
United States
asserting more vigorous leadership in the international Group on Earth Observations and its Global Earth Observation System of Systems; and above all, the Earth system science community adopting sustainability as a long-term goal.

Charles F. Kennel is chairman of the Space Studies Board of the National Academies.