Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation
"The Role of Science in Earth Observations"
Forum on Earth Observation
Ronald Reagan Center
September 22, 2004
It is a genuine pleasure to be among you who support establishing an integrated Earth observation system. We all understand that meeting this challenge is crucial to sustaining the healthy functioning of our planet's ecosystems and to the social and economic well being of our global society.
One of the most widely-used and mature observing systems in operation today, weather forecasting, recently enabled Americans along the Florida coast and the Gulf Coast states to prepare for the arrival and challenge of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Ivan.
Our ability to predict the imminent threat of these hurricanes facilitated the planning for mass evacuations and prevented a greater loss of life.
Clearly, we've witnessed both the role of science at work and the vital connection between Earth observations and societal benefits.
I want to talk to you this morning about the role of science in observing systems, the integration of multiple observing systems, and the great potential within our grasp. Earth observing systems will help us address key scientific questions concerning the functioning of our planet and our society.
Even as we are able to detect and track the path of hurricanes well off the coast of Florida and other regions, there is clearly room for improvement. Science and technology continuously offer new capabilities and tools to observe and probe our planet's past, as well as to address current and future environmental challenges.
However, preparing for the onset of the hurricanes required the integrated efforts of many segments of society -- namely, scientists, weather forecasters, emergency responders, and the public, all of whom played a crucial part... And what made predicting the hurricanes' development and movement possible, was the integration of various observing systems, such as satellite imagery, ocean research, atmospheric research...
This reminds us that understanding hurricanes is larger than any one entity. So naturally, understanding the Earth in its entirety entails integration and participation on a far greater scale.
Earth observation increases in importance, as our quest to understand planetary change heightens. Among those observable changes are -- damage to coral reefs, rise in ocean temperatures, thinning of perennial Arctic ice, eroding of coastlines, and shifts in violent weather patterns. Such information will determine how we live and where we live -- near or farther away from the coast, as well as sustainable and preventive measures we must take for the sake of our planet and our society.
The future course of discovery calls for multiple perspectives -- observations from the earth, sky, and sea; and from biology, chemistry, and geology. NSF, as the federal agency charged with promoting science and engineering across and among the disciplines, has a growing portfolio of tools that are enabling us to observe the Earth.
Satellite imagery has aided scientists in understanding how important ecological phenomena vary with climate change and human transformations of the earth's surface. Still, even sophisticated and detailed analyses of images can only provide a partial understanding. Fundamental research, experimentation, field studies, and/or manipulations are critical to understand and explain the mechanisms underlying the patterns detected.
Remotely sensed data are increasingly being used to identify environmental factors that might be associated with disease-vector habitat and human transmission risks. Outbreaks of Hantavirus in the southwestern United States have been linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation cycle. Elevated rainfall associated with El Niño triggers an ecological cascade of greater rainfall and food growth that also results in increased numbers of infected rodents.
This research combined with the use of remote observations provide a rigorous model for evaluating the effects of climate variation on emerging diseases by identifying potential rodent habitats and Hantavirus populations from satellite imagery.
Scientists have also used a combination of ground-based and space-based tools to determine how drought conditions, and possibly carbon uptake, in the Amazon rain forest can be quantified. Understanding the Amazon environment is essential to understanding how the biosphere interacts with the climate system. The Amazon is simply too big and complex to study on the ground alone. Without measurements of what happens to the forest during dramatic climatic events, we will fall short of understanding how tropical forests might mediate the effects of fossil-fuels.
From the sea, ocean science research has played a significant role in our holistic understanding of the Earth's climate, environment, and natural resources.
Progress in ocean research has been driven strongly by the ability to make new observations -- either in new places or using new types of measurements that permit natural phenomena or processes to be understood in different ways.
NSF investments have resulted in discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, new underwater volcanoes, and new species of organisms in the ocean.
Modern ocean science research requires long-term, high-resolution observations of critical environmental parameters. Modern ocean tools include in-situ sensors and satellites, along with traditional research vessels.
NSF is funding a number of innovative concepts that will employ new technical capabilities to obtain observations from remote areas of the ocean, and for sufficient duration to provide the basis for understanding complex ocean phenomena.
The Ocean Observatories Initiative will be an integrated observatory network linked to the Internet via seafloor cables and/or satellites and will allow near real-time access to global data.
EarthScope is another innovative tool with exciting possibilities. It is a multi-purpose array of instruments and observatories that will greatly expand the observational capabilities of the earth sciences. It will permit us to advance our understanding of the structure, evolution, and dynamics of the North American continent. Scientists will be able to conduct studies on fault properties and the earthquake process, crustal strain transfer, magmatic and hydrous fluids in the crust and mantle, plate boundary processes, large-scale continental deformation, continental structure and evolution, and the composition and structure of deep-Earth. This data collection unlocks several key paths to understand, manage, and mitigate processes.
These are only a few of the scientific observing capabilities that illustrate how research and technology are constantly evolving and improving our insight into global changes and challenges.
It's going to take a collective effort from all of us in the public, private, and scientific community, to not only understand why this is occurring, but to educate and inform, both the general public and policymakers. Just as hurricane prediction is larger than any one segment of science, so too is the job of communicating and making the decisions on priorities and resources.
One of NSF's strengths is working with the scientific community to identify which policies, infrastructure, and research and education projects will achieve the greatest returns. It will take scientists, working with government, industry, and academia to make informed decisions about the best projects, the needs, and the resources concerning the sustainability of our planet and society.
Business leaders especially can benefit from long-term climate and natural hazard forecasts that might prevent or lessen disruptions.
We should all be motivated to participate, as scientists, engineers, and industry professionals with a stake in developing new more enhanced observing systems and better policies that serve all our needs.
The prospects for adequate support increase if we can demonstrate how knowledge of the Earth can help us address global problems.
While several types of observations that I have mentioned may be beyond the scope of the Earth Observation System that we're here to discuss, we at NSF expect this System to make a major contribution to the ability of the scientists that NSF sponsors to improve their -- and our -- ability to understand Earth System Processes. As a result, we are making every effort to encourage the U.S. research community to make their needs for new observations known to the planners of the new System. We are similarly encouraging the research scientists we sponsor to inform those planning the new System of new operational capabilities that these scientists develop.
We must couple our dreams with an infrastructure that integrates all of our observations into a comprehensive package. And we must couple our research with the education of our entire population.
Our weather has presented a perfect opportunity. Thank you.