Earth has a suite of complex, dynamic geosystems governing the past evolution, current state, and future conditions that the planet and all humans experience. As the Earth sciences have matured over the past two centuries, developing subdisciplinary specialties that can address specific aspects of Earth’s structure, processes, and history with steadily improving resolution, the interdisciplinary nature of the various dynamic geosystems has come into increasing focus. Continuing theoretical and technical improvements are advancing the capabilities of all subdisciplines of the Earth sciences to document the geological record of terrestrial change, to observe active processes in the present-day Earth from surface to inner core, and to make more realistic simulations of complex dynamic processes, and these efforts need to be sustained. However, the areas of greatest near-term research opportunity that are highlighted in this report all involve integrative interdisciplinary efforts focused on specific dynamic geosystems of the past and present.
The 2001 National Research Council (NRC) report Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science (BROES) described how basic research in the Earth sciences serves five national imperatives: (1) discovery, use, and conservation of natural resources; (2) characterization and mitigation of natural hazards; (3) geotechnical support of commercial and infrastructure development; (4) stewardship of the environment; and (5) terrestrial surveillance for global security and national defense. This perspective is even more pressing today, and will persist into the future, with ever-growing emphasis. Today’s world—with headlines dominated by issues involving fossil fuel and water resources, earthquake and tsunami disasters claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, profound environmental changes associated with the evolving climate system, and nuclear weapons proliferation and testing—has many urgent societal issues that need to be informed by sound understanding of the Earth sciences.
A national strategy to sustain basic research and training of expertise across the full spectrum of the Earth sciences is motivated by these national imperatives. This assessment of research opportunities for the next decade identifies many of the ways that the Earth sciences can sustain and enhance contributions to society. The National Science Foundation (NSF), through its Division of Earth Sciences (EAR), is the only federal agency that maintains significant funding of both curiosity-driven and strategic research in all core subdisciplines of the Earth sciences. The health and effectiveness of the EAR program are therefore central to a strong national effort in the Earth sciences, and increased investment in this arena is needed to fully capitalize on the potential contributions that the Earth sciences can make. A decade after the BROES report, NSF again requested that the NRC form an ad hoc committee to identify new research opportunities in the Earth sciences as they relate to the responsibilities of EAR. In particular, the committee was asked to undertake four tasks:
1. Identify high-priority new and emerging research opportunities in the Earth sciences
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Summary E arth has a suite of complex, dynamic geosystems involving fossil fuel and water resources, earthquake governing the past evolution, current state, and and tsunami disasters claiming hundreds of thousands future conditions that the planet and all humans of lives and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in experience. As the Earth sciences have matured over the damages, profound environmental changes associated past two centuries, developing subdisciplinary special- with the evolving climate system, and nuclear weapons ties that can address specific aspects of Earth’s structure, proliferation and testing—has many urgent societal processes, and history with steadily improving resolu- issues that need to be informed by sound understanding tion, the interdisciplinary nature of the various dynamic of the Earth sciences. geosystems has come into increasing focus. Continuing A national strategy to sustain basic research and theoretical and technical improvements are advancing training of expertise across the full spectrum of the the capabilities of all subdisciplines of the Earth sci- Earth sciences is motivated by these national impera- ences to document the geological record of terrestrial tives. This assessment of research opportunities for change, to observe active processes in the present-day the next decade identifies many of the ways that the Earth from surface to inner core, and to make more Earth sciences can sustain and enhance contributions realistic simulations of complex dynamic processes, to society. The National Science Foundation (NSF), and these efforts need to be sustained. However, the through its Division of Earth Sciences (EAR), is the areas of greatest near-term research opportunity that only federal agency that maintains significant funding are highlighted in this report all involve integrative of both curiosity-driven and strategic research in all interdisciplinary efforts focused on specific dynamic core subdisciplines of the Earth sciences. The health geosystems of the past and present. and effectiveness of the EAR program are therefore The 2001 National Research Council (NRC) report central to a strong national effort in the Earth sciences, Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science (BROES) and increased investment in this arena is needed to described how basic research in the Earth sciences fully capitalize on the potential contributions that the serves five national imperatives: (1) discovery, use, and Earth sciences can make. A decade after the BROES conservation of natural resources; (2) characterization report, NSF again requested that the NRC form an ad and mitigation of natural hazards; (3) geotechnical hoc committee to identify new research opportunities support of commercial and infrastructure development; in the Earth sciences as they relate to the responsibili- (4) stewardship of the environment; and (5) terrestrial ties of EAR. In particular, the committee was asked to surveillance for global security and national defense. undertake four tasks: This perspective is even more pressing today, and will persist into the future, with ever-growing emphasis. 1. Identify high-priority new and emerging Today’s world—with headlines dominated by issues research opportunities in the Earth sciences 1
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2 NEW RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EARTH SCIENCES over the next decade, including surface and deep (5) co-evolution of life, environment, and climate; Earth processes and interdisciplinary research (6) coupled hydrogeomorphic-ecosystem responses with fields such as ocean and atmospheric sci- to natural and anthropogenic change; and (7) biogeo- ences, biology, engineering, computer science, chemical and water cycles in terrestrial environments and social and behavioral sciences. and impacts of global change. These research areas 2. Identify key instrumentation and facilities span a range of fundamental grand challenge questions needed to support these new and emerging from how the planet’s interior works to the evolution research opportunities. of the surface environment. In addition, the expanding 3. Describe opportunities for increased coopera- demand for accurate geological dates to support many tion in these new and emerging areas between of the research opportunities motivates consideration EAR and other government agency programs, of restructuring how EAR supports the geochronol- industry, and international programs. ogy facilities that must innovate methodologies, train 4. Suggest new ways that EAR can help train next-generation geochemists, and service burgeoning the next generation of Earth scientists, support demands for what is seldom routine dating of samples. young investigators, and increase the participa- tion of underrepresented groups in the field. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS The committee was not asked to evaluate existing EAR programs or make budgetary recommendations. EAR has generally done an excellent job overall in developing and maintaining a balance among programs that support investigator-driven disciplinary research, NEW RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES problem-focused programs involving multidisciplinary IN THE EARTH SCIENCES research, and equipment-oriented programs for new Basic research in the Earth sciences encompasses instrumentation and facilities. The committee offers a wide range of physical, chemical, and biological recommendations that address the evolving science processes that interact and combine in complex ways requirements in all three of these programmatic areas. to produce a spectrum of terrestrial systems. EAR These recommendations pertain primarily to new is currently sponsoring investigations on geosystems mechanisms that will allow EAR to foster new research that range in geographic scale from global—climate, opportunities identified in this report. plate tectonics, and Earth’s core dynamo—to regional and local—mountain belts and sedimentary basins, Long-Term Investigator-Driven Science active fault networks, volcanoes, groundwater reser - voirs, watersheds, and soil systems—to micro-mineral In the next decade, and likely throughout the interactions, microbiology, and pore fluid interactions. entire century to come, the quest to quantify Earth’s Research at all of these scales has been accelerated dynamic geosystems by establishing their history, by a combination of conceptual advances and across- current behavior, and future evolution will involve the-board improvements in observational capabili- integrative interdisciplinary approaches that build on ties and information technologies. The committee basic research advances in subdisciplinary capabilities. has identified seven topics involving major dynamic The primary recommendations in this report highlight geosystems that can only be fully quantified by inter- opportunities to pursue integrative activities with disciplinary approaches, organized by scale and disci- high potential impact. However, as in many previous plinary participation related to the EAR Deep Earth NRC reports on scientific research opportunities, this Processes and Surface Earth Processes sections: (1) the report again emphasizes the importance of sustain- early Earth; (2) thermo-chemical internal dynamics ing subdisciplinary-based core Earth science research and volatile distribution; (3) faulting and deforma- and facilities. Individual investigator-driven science tion processes; (4) interactions among climate, sur- remains the most creative and effective way to enhance face processes, tectonics, and deeper Earth processes; the knowledge base upon which integrative efforts can
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3 SUMMARY build. This report gives numerous findings that reaffirm and atmosphere. Resolving the present-day configura- this essential need to sustain the basic Earth sciences by tion and processes of the mantle and core convective individual investigators, because this is the single most systems with high resolution is a key undertaking for important mechanism for maintaining and enhanc- developing models of the past and future evolution of ing disciplinary strength in the field. EAR is now the the system, the thermal evolution of Earth, and the almost exclusive basis for supporting the full spectrum volatile flux in Earth. Collective advances in imaging of basic Earth science research. capabilities, experimental and theoretical determina- tions of material properties under extreme pressures a nd temperatures, geochemistry, and increasingly New Research Opportunities realistic representations of the dynamic circulation in the mantle and core have placed the discipline on The Early Earth the threshold of breakthroughs in understanding the thermo-chemical dynamics and the distribution and Many uniquely critical events occurred early in cycling of volatiles. Enhancing resolution of the vari- Earth’s history: delivery of the material that built Earth; ous approaches is essential to resolving the outstanding formation of the Moon; and the differentiation events questions about how Earth’s interior works. that formed the core and earliest crust, the oceans, and the atmosphere. Earth’s early history set the stage for its Recommendation: EAR should pursue the development subsequent dynamic and geochemical evolution, from of facilities and capabilities that will improve spatial an environment dominated by impacts and magma resolution of deep structures in the mantle and core, such oceans to the habitable environment dominated by the as dense seismic arrays that can be deployed in various plate tectonics of today. There are multiple avenues for favorable locations around Earth, enhanced computational enhancing our understanding of this formative stage in software and hardware to enable increased resolution of our planet’s history, including expanding the inventory three-dimensional geodynamical models, and improved of early Earth samples, fostering new technologies for high-resolution experimental and theoretical mineral analysis of ancient materials, quantification of early physics investigations. This will provide definitive tests of chronology using novel isotope systems, and developing many hypotheses for deep Earth structure and evolution models that simulate the highly energetic conditions of advanced over the past decade. The large scope of such facili- the early Earth. ties will require a lengthy development and review process, and building the framework for such an initiative needs to Recommendation: EAR should take appropriate steps to commence soon. encourage work on the history and fundamental physical and chemical processes that governed the evolution of Earth f rom the time of its accretion through the end of late heavy Faulting and Deformation Processes bombardment and into the early Archaen, perhaps by estab- Exciting discoveries, driven by increased instrumen- lishing a specific initiative on early Earth. Specific program tation around fault zones, have been made regarding the objectives and scope may be developed through community spectrum of faulting processes and mechanisms. These workshops that prepare a science plan preceding a separate present an opportunity to make significant progress call for proposals. on understanding faulting, related deformation pro- cesses, and resulting earthquake hazards. Earthquake Thermo-Chemical Internal Dynamics and science involves a complex geosystem with multiscale Volatile Distribution processes from the microscale, such as the controls on surface friction, up to the regional-scale processes The huge dynamic circulation systems in Earth’s of sedimentary basin reverberation and excitation of mantle and core circulate heat and materials, drive tsunamis by ocean water displacements. There have the long-term evolution of continents, generate the been significant advances in this geosystem perspective, magnetic field, and cycle volatiles into and out of with interactions between researchers with expertise the interior, maintaining bulk chemistry of the oceans
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4 NEW RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EARTH SCIENCES spanning laboratory friction experiments, observational existing EAR Continental Dynamics program1 covers and theoretical seismology, geodesy, structural geology, many of these themes, but a stronger link to climate earthquake engineering, field geology, volcanology, and surface processes has the potential for significant magnetotellurics, and deep drilling. In the next decade advances. integrative efforts built around active fault zone and subduction zone laboratories hold promise of greatly Recommendation: EAR should take appropriate steps to advancing our understanding of faulting and deforma- encourage work on interactions among climate, surface pro- tion processes and associated roles of fluid, volatile, and cesses, tectonics, and deeper Earth processes either through material fluxes. a new interdisciplinary program or perhaps by expanding the focus of the EAR Continental Dynamics program to Recommendation: EAR should pursue integrated inter- accommodate the broader research agenda of these interdis- disciplinary quantification of the spectrum of fault slip ciplinary subthemes. behavior and its relation to fluxes of sediments, fluids, and volatiles in the fault zone. The successful approach of fault Co-evolution of Life, Environment, and Climate zone and subduction zone observatories should be sustained, because these provide an integrative geosystems framework The deep-time geological record has provided a for understanding faulting and associated deformation compelling narrative of changes in Earth’s climate, processes. The related EarthScope project is exploring the environment, and evolving life, many of which provide structure and evolution of the North American continent analogs, insight, and context for understanding human’s using thousands of coordinated geophysical instruments. place in the Earth system and current anthropogenic There is great scientific value to be gained in completing change. However, the complexity of this bio-geosystem this project, as envisioned, through 2018. is only now being fully realized, with new analytic tools from geochemistry, paleontology, and biology enabling unprecedented exploration of the coupled Interactions Among Climate, Surface Processes, Tectonics, time-evolution of past Earth surface conditions, includ- and Deeper Earth Processes ing temperature, atmospheric chemistry, hydroclimates, The broad interactions among climate, Earth the chemical composition of the ocean, and the inter- surface processes, and tectonics are areas of compel- relationship and physiologies of ancient life forms. Con- ling research opportunities that center on interactions certed application of the interdisciplinary capabilities to among topography, hydrology and hydrogeology, physi- the deep-time record will provide breakthrough under- cal and chemical denudation, sedimentary deposition, standing of this profound and nonlinear bio-geosystem. and deformation in tectonically active mountain belts. There is a strong need for geomorphic transport laws Recommendation: EAR should develop a mechanism to that account for climate and the role of biota to describe enable team-based interdisciplinary science-driven projects and quantify river and glacial incision, landslides, and involving stratigraphy, sedimentology, paleontology, proxy the production, transport, and deposition of sediment. development, calibration and application studies, geo- These transport laws will allow us to integrate the chronology, and climate modeling at appropriately resolved effects of event-based processes into long-term system scales of time and space, to understand the major linked behavior. New understanding of the dynamic interac- events of environmental, climate and biotic change at a tions among climate, Earth’s surface, and tectonics mechanistic level. Such projects could be expected to be cross over geomorphic to geological timescales will require program and cross directorate. increased access to, and new developments in, thermo- chronometry, methods for dating geomorphological surfaces, Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR), satellite imagery, modeling capabilities, experimental methods, and field instrumentation and studies. The 1 h t t p : / / w w w. n s f. go v / f u n d i n g / p g m _ s u m m . j s p ? p i m s _ id=6194&org=EAR&from=home.
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5 SUMMARY Coupled Hydrogeomorphic-Ecosystem Response to and biogeochemical dynamics in the fine-scale critical Natural and Anthropogenic Change zone requires new theory, coupled systems models, and new data. New advances in our ability to understand and Understanding the response of large-scale land- quantitatively simulate carbon, nutrient, water, and rock scapes and ecosystems to disturbance and climate cycling will depend on new measurement approaches change requires greater mechanistic understanding and instrumentation that capture spatial and temporal of the interactions and feedbacks among hydrological variability in atmospheric and land use inputs super- drivers, landscape morphology, and biotic processes. imposed on complex vegetation patterns and underlying Advancing the science requires better theory, observa- anisotropic subsurface geomedia. tions, and models relating spatial patterns and temporal variability of landscape drivers (topography, hydrol- Recommendation: EAR should continue to support pro- ogy, geology) to the dynamics of biotic communities, grams and initiatives focused on integrated studies of the including identification of hydrological and morpho- cycling of water, carbon, nutrients, and geological materials logical leading indicators of landscape and ecosystem in the terrestrial environment, including mechanisms state change. This will require integrated monitor- and reactions of soil formation; hydrological and nutrient ing of landscape processes and development of new cycling; perturbations related to human activities; and more instrumentation and data archives to support and test generally the cycling of carbon between surface environ- models—work that could take advantage of large-scale ments and the atmosphere and its feedbacks with climate, restoration efforts and documented historical change as biogeochemical processes, and ecosystems. controlled experiments. Instrumentation and Facilities to Support Recommendation: EAR should facilitate research on Research Opportunities coupled hydrogeomorphic–ecosystem response to climate change and disturbance. In particular, the committee recom- Each research oppor tunit y has specific mends that EAR target interdisciplinary research on coastal disciplinary-based data collection, instrumentation, environments. This initiative would lay the groundwork and facilities associated with it, but there are some for understanding and forecasting the response of coastal cross-cutting intersections of needs. The global span landscapes to sea-level rise, climate change, and human of the geosystems involved requires synoptic obser- and natural disturbance, which will fill an existing gap vations provided by global networks of geophysical, at NSF and should involve coordination with the Divi- geochemical, petrological, and environmental facilities sion of Ocean Sciences, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and data collection efforts. These include long-term and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observatories such as provided by seismic and geodetic (NOAA). networks currently supported by EAR and other agen- cies, as well as portable instrument facilities for hydrol- Biogeochemical and Water Cycles in Terrestrial ogy, rock and fossil sampling and drilling, seismology, Environments and Impacts of Global Change geodesy, and magnetotellurics, with specific findings given in Chapter 3. EAR has achieved a reasonable bal- Humans are altering the physical, chemical, and ance in funding of facilities, core disciplinary research biological states of and feedbacks among essential com- programs, and interdisciplinary initiatives. Maintaining ponents of Earth’s detailed surface system. At the same this balance as the budget grows is important; while time, atmospheric temperature and carbon dioxide levels new interdisciplinary or instrumentation initiatives have increased and are impacting carbon storage in the o ften provide compelling rationale for budgetary terrestrial environment, the water cycle, and a range of growth, balancing the portfolio of resources (particu- intertwined biogeochemical cycles and atmospheric larly with investment in the core single-investigator properties that feed back on climate and ecosystems. programs) over time is very desirable for sustaining the Advancing our understanding of integrated soil, water, overall health of the effort.
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6 NEW RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EARTH SCIENCES Recommendation: EAR should explore new mecha- these partnerships are key to maximizing the impact nisms for geochronology laboratories that will service the of EAR funding. geochronology requirements of the broad suite of research o pportunities while sustaining technical advances in Training the Next Generation and methodologies. The approaches may involve coordination of Diversifying the Researcher Community multiple facilities and investment in service facilities and may differ for distinct geochronology systems. Capitalizing on the research opportunities set out in this report will require researchers with the skills and knowledge to advance the science, but attracting new Partnerships and Coordination students and providing the appropriate training remain Agency partnerships led by EAR will continue to major challenges in the United States. Increasing the be essential for attaining many of the research objec- participation of historically underrepresented groups is tives identified in this report. Well-managed partner- an equally important and directly related challenge, and ships can foster broadly based research communities, there remains an uneven minority exposure to science leverage limited resources, and promote fruitful syner- and math as well as a significant science knowledge gies. Among the highlighted research opportunities, disparity between poor and affluent students. The EAR the Early Earth opportunities overlap with mission division is working to enhance diversity, education, and objectives of the National Aeronautics and Space knowledge transfer through several outreach efforts, Administration (NASA) and research activities sup- and these efforts can continue to be enhanced. There are ported by the U.S. Department of Energy; the study several important ways that EAR might do so, includ- of Earth tectonics is enabled by measurements from ing establishing Advanced Placement Earth science NASA and U.S. Department of Defense–supported courses in high schools, promoting early awareness of satellites, and studies of surficial processes and coastal the Earth sciences on college campuses, developing dynamics address problems that are at the core of place-based research and education programs that the missions of the USGS, NOAA, and U.S. Forest incorporate indigenous landscapes and ways of think- Service. Continued efforts to develop and maintain ing, and fostering the scientist communicator.