“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.”

The above declaration describes the vision of more than 100 leaders in the scientific community who participated in the National Research Council’s first ever decadal survey of Earth science and applications from space (http://books.nap.edu/catalog /11820.html). To meet the dual challenges of understanding how and why Earth is changing and applying this understanding for societal benefits, we must confront key scientific questions about the world we inhabit.

The questions are related to melting ice sheets and sea-level change, large-scale and persistent shifts in precipitation and water availability, transcontinental air pollution, changes to ecosystems, impacts of climate change on human health and severe weather, and the occurrence of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.

Earth observations are essential for increasing scientific understanding of the Earth system and applying the increased understanding to develop improved weather and climate prediction models and other tools that benefit all parts of society. Unfortunately, as the decadal survey makes clear, the United States is cutting back on the very observations that are needed to meet these challenges. At a time when the need for Earth observations has never been greater, we are faced with a national Earth observation program that will dramatically diminish in capability over the next five to 10 years.

The committee’s 2005 interim report noted that, while NOAA was expected to modernize and renovate its weather satellites, NASA had no plans to replace its Earth Observing System platforms. NASA also had cancel ed, scaled back or delayed at least six planned missions, including a Landsat continuity mission. This led to the main finding in the interim report: ” This system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse.”

Since the publication of the interim report, several additional critical NASA and NOAA missions have been delayed or cancel ed. The missions were designed to provide us with valuable global information about soil moisture, the atmosphere’s energy balance, precipitation, cloud formation, biological activity, atmospheric temperature and water vapor, and a variety of other environmental variables. The final report notes that from 2006 to 2010 the number of operating sensors and instruments on U.S. spacecraft will likely decrease by some 35 percent. The substantial loss of capability is due to a combination of decreased budgets, paucity of new missions and aging satellites already well past their design lifetimes.

Unless the degradation of the Earth observing systems is addressed, the consequences of these cutbacks will be felt in everyday life. Detection and warnings of landslides, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions may be less timely. Weather forecasts, which have steadily improved over the past several decades, could start becoming less accurate. We will have less capability to measure sea-level rise, ocean productivity and associated impacts on coastal communities. Our ability to answer such critical questions as how climate change and variability will affect us, our food supplies, and the frequency and intensity of hurricanes will be diminished.

Earth science is based fundamentally on observations. While it is impossible to predict what scientific advances will not occur without the observations, or what surprises we will miss, we can be sure the rate of scientific progress will be greatly slowed.

This disparity between growing societal needs and diminished observational capability must be corrected. The report’s overarching recommendation states: “The U.S. government, working in concert with the private sector, academe, the public, and its international partners, should renew its investment in Earth observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications.”

It is critical to “right the ship” for Earth science. Both near-term actions and longer-term commitments are required to stem the tide of capability deterioration, continue critical climate data records and establish a balanced Earth observation program designed to directly address the most urgent societal challenges facing our nation and the world. The report makes a number of critical recommendations, including:

   Restoring certain measurement capabilities to key spacecraft in order to ensure continuity of critical data sets.

   Launching a set of 17 NOAA and NASA missions over the next decade to provide a sound foundation for Earth science and associated societal benefits.

   Creating a robust NASA research and analysis program to maximize scientific return on NASA investments in Earth science. The report also recommends the formation of a technology development program at NASA to make sure the necessary technologies are ready to support mission starts over the coming decade.

   Developing a new “Venture” class of low-cost research and application missions that can establish entirely new research avenues or demonstrate key application-oriented measurements, helping with the development of innovative ideas and technologies.

   Conducting suborbital and land-based measurements and socio-demographic studies in order to supplement satellite data.

   Building a comprehensive Earth information system of observational data and climate records, which would be accompanied by efforts to translate raw observational data into useful information through modeling, data assimilation, and research and analysis.

Our survey executive committee also was concerned about the lack of clear agency responsibility for sustained research programs and the transitioning of proof-of-concept measurements into sustained measurement systems. We recommended that the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with the relevant agencies and in consultation with the scientific community, develop and implement a plan for global Earth observations.

Implementing these recommendations is vital for helping to establish the firm and sustainable foundation for Earth science that society needs. Carrying out these recommendations will not only greatly reduce the risk posed to the people of our country and the world by natural hazards of all kinds, but it also will support more efficient management of natural resources. From that perspective, the added cost of improving the Earth satellite program (about the cost of a good cup of coffee, or roughly $2 per person in the United States per year) will be repaid many times over.


Richard Anthes is president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and co-chair of the Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space, National Resources Council, The National Academies. He is also president of the American Meteorological Society.