National Academies: It is Imperative to Understand the Changing Earth in Order to Thrive Upon It

National Academies: It is Imperative to Understand the Changing Earth in Order to Thrive Upon It

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concludes that space observations are crucial to understanding how the Earth is changing and achieving that understanding is critical for humans to thrive upon it.  “Embracing this new paradigm of understanding a changing Earth, and building a robust program to address it, is our major challenge for the coming decade and beyond.”

That is the overarching theme of the 700-page Decadal Survey on Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) entitled Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Survey for Earth Observation from Space.

This is the second ESAS Decadal Survey.  The first was published in 2007.  Decadal Surveys are conducted every 10 years, a decade, for all of NASA’s space and earth science disciplines by expert committees organized under the aegis of the Academies.  In some cases they encompass other agencies with related programs.  In this case, the study was sponsored by NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Study committee co-chairs Waleed Abdalati and Bill Gail summarized the results of the two-year long effort at a briefing today.  Abdalati, a former NASA chief scientist, is currently Director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a professor there.  Gail is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Global Weather Corporation, also in Boulder, and a past president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).  The results of the study will be presented at the annual AMS meeting in Austin, TX next week.

While the report makes many specific recommendations, a key goal clearly is articulating the role that space plays in understanding and living on planet Earth.   The report’s first Finding lays it out:

Finding 1A: Space-based Earth observations provide a global perspective of Earth that has
• Over the last 60 years, transformed our scientific understanding of the planet, revealing it to be an integrated system of dynamic interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, land, ice, and human society across a range of spatial and temporal scales, irrespective of geographic, political, or disciplinary boundaries.
• In the past decade in particular, enabled societal applications that provide tremendous value to individuals, businesses, the nation, and the world. Such applications are growing in breadth and depth, becoming an essential information infrastructure element for society as they are integrated into people’s daily lives.

The report goes on to say that “This ability to observe our planet comprehensively matters to each of us, on a daily level.”  Earth is continually evolving and cannot be understood based only on past experience.  “Decisions we make this decade will be pivotal for predicting the potential for future changes and for influencing whether and how those changes occur.  Embracing this new paradigm of understanding a changing Earth, and building a program to address it, is our major challenge for the coming decade and beyond.”

The authors issue a challenge to the ESAS community:

Excerpt from Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space. National Academies Press, 2018. p. S-3.

Meeting the challenge will require “novel approaches” featuring “programmatic and technological innovation to accomplish more with less, with greater attention to the potential benefits of domestic and international partnerships along with the growing capability of commercial sources.”

With that as the backdrop, the Decadal Survey committee identified 35 key Earth science and applications questions to be addressed and observational capabilities needed to answer them.

The terminology used in the report is somewhat offputting.  “Targeted observables” is typically used in place of “missions” probably because of the Statement of Task negotiated between the sponsoring agencies and the Academies to set the boundaries for the report.  It directs the study committee not to set priorities for instruments or missions, but instead for strategic “science targets” needed to advance Earth system science.  Science targets are described as “a set of scientific objectives related by a common space-based observable.”  The study committee therefore defined “the observable associated with each science target as a targeted observable.”

Abdalati emphasized at the briefing that completing NASA’s “program of record” of existing and planned instruments and satellites is the first step.  Everything recommended in this new study assumes that those observations and measurements are made.   The study then recommends four types of flight program elements at NASA, three of which are new :

  • Designated (new): a set of five cost-capped Targeted Observables — aerosols ($800 million); clouds, convection, and precipitation ($800 million); mass change ($300 million); surface biology and geology ($650 million); and surface deformation and change ($500 million).  NASA may choose to direct a specific entity (like a NASA Center) to conduct one of these missions or open it up to competition.
  • Earth System Explorer (new): a competitive program of principal investigator-led missions cost capped at $350 million (including launch and 3 years of operations) that would be similar to the Explorer missions conducted in NASA’s astrophysics and heliophysics programs.  The study lists seven Targeted Observables in this category: atmospheric winds; greenhouse gases; ice elevation; ocean surface winds and currents; ozone and trace gases; snow depth and snow water equivalent; and terrestrial ecosystem structure.
  • Incubation (new): a program element focused on investing in innovation for the future including an Innovation Fund to respond to emerging needs.  Three observing system priorities are recommended for maturation: atmospheric winds, planetary boundary layer, and surface topography and vegetation.
  • Venture:  this existing class of missions, recommended by the first ESAS Decadal Survey in 2007, would continue with the addition of a Venture-Continuity component for low-cost sustained observations.  Venture-class mission are less expensive than Explorer-class missions.  The study committee identified six Targeted Observables as candidates: aquatic biochemistry, sea surface salinity, ocean ecosystem structure, radiance intercalibration, magnetic field changes, and soil moisture.

The committee believes that can all be accomplished over the next decade with a NASA Earth Science Division (ESD) flight program budget that grows with inflation as shown in this chart (page S-10).

Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space. National Academies Press, 2018. p. S-10.

Gail stressed today that this Decadal Survey committee wanted to ensure that the next Decadal Survey committee that will be charged with recommending priorities for 2027-2037 has sufficient funds at its disposal for whatever the priorities are then.  Thus, this committee sought to avoid recommending missions, or Targeted Observables, that might carry over into the 2027-2037 time period.  He said the values to the right of the vertical line in the chart at 2027 represents this committee’s expectation of what funding will be available next time.

The study includes “decision rules” on what to do if budgets are higher or lower than the committee assumed.  Abdalati said today that a modest reduction in funding could be accommodated by delaying larger missions, then medium missions, and/or reducing the cadence of the Explorer missions.  If budget cuts are more “draconian,” however, he said the agencies should consult with the Academies’ Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space (CESAS), a standing committee of the Space Studies Board that provides an ongoing forum for discussions between the government and the non-government community on these topics.

NASA is responsible for Earth system science, while NOAA and USGS are crucially involved in Earth science applications.  NOAA operates the nation’s civil weather satellites and is responsible for space weather observations (how the Sun and the Earth interact).  USGS operates the Landsat remote sensing satellites.  The report calls for the three agencies to coordinate their activities to advance the Decadal Survey’s priorities.

All three agencies have substantial collaborations with other countries, which the study committee endorsed.

Recommendation 4.5: Because expanded and extended international partnerships can benefit the nation:
 NASA should consider enhancing existing partnerships and seeking new partnerships when implementing the observation priorities of this Decadal Survey.
 NOAA should strengthen and expand its already strong international partnerships, by a) coordinating with partners to further ensure complementary capabilities and operational backup while minimizing unneeded redundancy; and b) extending partnerships to the more complete observing system life-cycle that includes scientific and technological development
of future capabilities.
 USGS should extend the impact of the Sustainable Land Imaging (SLI) program through further partnerships such as that with the European Sentinel program.

The study committee noted that China has significant capabilities in earth observation “but policy constraints limit possible partnerships” even though it “has the potential to fill gaps in our own program.”   NASA is prohibited from engaging with China on a bilateral basis pursuant to annual appropriations language colloquially referred to as the Wolf Amendment after former Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) who first included it in the funding bill for NASA.  His successor as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce-Justice-Science, John Culberson (R-TX), includes it in each year’s bill.

The Decadal Survey study committee also encouraged NOAA to “innovate new government-commercial partnerships” to “establish itself among the leading government agencies that exploit potential value of commercial data sources….”   At today’s briefing, Gail called the role of the commercial sector “exciting.”  Determining how commercial systems and data can be integrated is still in its early stages and “we need to work aggressively to make that happen.”

The report is dedicated to the memory of Molly Macauley, a member of the steering committee who died in July 2016.  In its tribute to her, the committee noted that her “clarity of thought strongly influenced the early directions of this committee” and was “deeply missed during the remainder of our work.”

A free PDF version of the report can be downloaded from the National Academies Press.

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