Tracking a Changing Planet: The National Academies Releases its Decadal Survey on Earth Observations from Space

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The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has released the decadal survey for Earth sciences and applications from space, an ambitious road map to guide investments in Earth observation programs over the next 10 years.

Phytoplankton bloom near the Falkan Islands. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, Joshua Stevens.

“Our planet is changing in ways that are impacting the way we live, and the way we live is impacting the way the planet is changing. For us to be successful as a nation, as a society, it is essential that we understand those changes…” – Waleed Abdalati, ESAS Co-Chair

At the January 5th release of the latest decadal survey on Earth observations from space, Survey Steering Committee Co-Chair Waleed Abdalati, opened his remarks with a strong reflection on the importance of Earth observations in supporting everything from individual daily routines to national security.

Thriving on our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy on Earth Observation from Space” is a survey commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Carried out by Committee on the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS), it represents the work of over 100 scientific and engineering experts and will act as a critical guide to the work of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Geological Survey.

In her opening remarks at the survey’s release, Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, stated “[this survey] forms the foundation of the nation’s scientific endeavors in space.”

The decadal survey is indeed an influential document in scientific research in the US. It identifies key questions about the Earth and provides recommendations as to which observations will be necessary to answer those questions. Essentially, the survey acts as a programmatic guide and influences decisions on which projects are most likely to be created or receive continued support in upcoming years.

Over 100 experts from the fields of science and engineering worked together to generate the survey, incorporating feedback and recommendations from an even broader community that includes academics, government servants, and industry specialists.

By comparing observational data needs with existing domestic and international programs (program of record), the steering committee selected 35 key science and application questions that fall broadly into the categories of:
· coupling of the water and energy cycles,
· ecosystem change,
· extending and improving weather and air quality forecasts,
· sea level rise,
· reducing climate uncertainty and informing societal response,
· and surface dynamics, geological hazards and disasters.

For each of the key questions, gaps in existing knowledge or research were identified and used to generate a list of recommended areas of observation to initiate or sustain. For example, if a key question were “How will sea level rise change coastlines in this century?” the observations necessary to support answering that question might include data on rate of melting at the polar ice caps and data on geologic shifts in coastal areas. The identification of these strategic areas of research in allows for prioritization of research including: investment in development of projects not yet ready to launch, recommendation of continuation of current critical projects and recommendations for existing equipment to schedule a launch this decade.

The challenge facing the steering committee is to balance the need for a broad spectrum of Earth observations with the budgetary limitations of the federal agencies tasked with conducting these observations: NASA, NOAA, and the USGS. Observations generated from space, offer a perspective impossible from on the ground research—a truly systems-based perspective that can be applied on a regional to a whole-Earth scale.

“We look at this information as part of the national infrastructure, no different  than highways and railroads and air traffic.” –Waleed Abdalati, ESAS Co-Chair

Beyond questions in academic research, the observations collected from space inform how society operates in ways both small and large. Satellite data is used to support everything from an individual’s use of the weather aps on smartphones when planning a day’s outing to the hurricane tracking systems that cities use to generate storm warnings to protect lives and property. Improved understanding of wind and ocean currents promotes efficient shipping for businesses, while the ability to measure coastal algal blooms has implications for fishing and recreation industries. From emergency preparedness to economic efficiency in daily life, Earth observations play a critical role in how we perceive and interact with the planet.

As Abdalati explained in his presentation,

“Earth observations from space, whether we realize it or not, have become an integral component of our daily lives and an integral component of how we live much more broadly.”

The Earth Science and Applications from Space decadal survey aims to guide investments in those observations for the next 10 years.

Elise Mulder Osenga is a volunteer and senior science writer for Earthzine. Follow her on Twitter @mountain_lark