Expert Report

New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences (2011)

Topics:

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

A national strategy to sustain basic research and training across all areas of the Earth sciences can help inform many of the most urgent societal issues that will face the planet in coming years. Issues including fossil fuel and water resources, earthquake and tsunami hazards, and profound environmental changes due to shifts in the climate system could all be informed by new research in the Earth sciences. The National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, as the only federal agency that maintains significant funding of both exploratory and problem-driven research in the Earth sciences, is central to these efforts, and coordinated research priorities are needed to fully capitalize on the potential contributions that the Earth sciences can make.

Key Messages

  • Overall, the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences has done an excellent job in developing and maintaining a balance among programs that support investigator-driven disciplinary research, problem-focused programs involving multidisciplinary research, and equipment-oriented programs for new instrumentation and facilities.
  • There are new opportunities to understand the history and fundamental physical and chemical processes that governed the evolution of Earth. These include expanding inventory of early Earth samples, fostering new technologies for analysis of ancient materials, and developing models to simulate the conditions of the early Earth.
  • Developing a better understanding of the systems that circulate heat and materials in Earth's mantle and core will help scientists develop models to reconstruct how these systems operated in the past, and predict how they will function in the future.
  • Due to increased instrumentation around fault zones, scientists have made exciting discoveries regarding the spectrum of faulting processes and mechanisms. These findings present an opportunity to make significant progress on understanding faulting, related deformation processes, and resulting earthquake hazards.
  • Interdisciplinary work on interactions among climate, surface processes, tectonics, and deeper Earth processes are an area of compelling research opportunities.
  • New analytic tools have allowed scientists to learn how parameters such as Earth's temperature, atmospheric chemistry, and ocean conditions have evolved over time. These findings could provide new insight on human-caused changes to the Earth system.
  • In order to understanding how large scale landscapes and ecosystems will respond to climate change, scientists need a mechanistic understanding of the interactions and feedbacks among factors such as the flow of water, the morphology of landscapes, and biotic processes. Reaching this mechanistic understanding will require better theory, observations, and models.
  • Humans are altering the physical, chemical, and biological states of, and feedbacks among, essential components of Earth's system. At the same time, atmospheric temperature and carbon dioxide levels are increasing. Understanding how soil, water, and biogeochemical cycles will change in these new conditions will depend on new measurement approaches and instrumentation to capture an array of data including atmospheric conditions, land use, and vegetation cover.
  • Each research opportunity is associated with specific, disciplinary-based data collection, instrumentation, and facilities, but in addition there are cross-cutting needs such as long-term observatories and portable instrument facilities, for example for hydrology, rock and fossil sampling and drilling, or seismology. The National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences has achieved a reasonable balance in funding these facilities, core disciplinary research programs, and interdisciplinary initiatives. Maintaining a balanced portfolio of resources will be important to sustain efforts to advance Earth science research.