JAN. 5, 2018


Reducing Climate Uncertainty, Improving Weather Forecasts, and Understanding Sea-Level Rise Are Among Top Science Priorities for Space-Based Earth Observation Over Next Decade

WASHINGTON – NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) should implement a coordinated approach for their space-based environmental observations to further advance Earth science and applications for the next decade, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This approach should be based on key scientific questions in areas such as reducing climate uncertainty, improving weather and air quality forecasts, predicting geological hazards, and understanding sea-level rise. The report also recommends building a robust, resilient, and balanced U.S. program of Earth observations from space that will enable the agencies to strategically advance the science and applications with constrained resources. 

“The past 60 years of Earth observation from space show us that our planet is changing in multiple ways and for many reasons,” said Bill Gail, chief technology officer at the Global Weather Corporation and co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. “Changes in climate, air quality, water availability, and agricultural soil nutrients are largely being driven by humans. Embracing this new paradigm of understanding a changing Earth and building a robust program to address it is a major challenge for the coming decade.”

This is the second National Academies decadal survey for Earth science and applications from space. Building on the first decadal survey, which was published in 2007, it identifies top science priorities, observational needs, and opportunities for U.S. space-based Earth observations in the coming decade.

Over the last decade, the report says space-based Earth observations – which provide a global perspective of Earth – have 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. These observations also play a critical role in national security. For example, understanding sea-level rise and impacts of ocean warming associated with climate change is important for naval operations.

“Information about Earth science now plays a significant role in our daily lives, and we are coming to recognize the complex and continually changing ways by which Earth’s processes occur,” said Waleed Abdalati, director of Cooperative Institute of Research in Environmental Sciences at University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-chair of the committee. “In order to progress as a society, we must focus on understanding and reliably predicting the many ways in which Earth is changing.”

The committee developed a set of 35 key questions on Earth science and applications spanning the full range of Earth system science. The questions comprehensively address areas in which advances in Earth science and information capabilities are most needed to improve knowledge about the complex Earth system and allow the development of numerous applications that enable a sustainable and thriving society. Some of the top priority questions identified by the committee are:

To address these questions, the committee recommended implementing an innovative observing program that builds on the existing and planned instruments and satellites of the U.S. and the international community. The proposed program reflects new needs associated with eight priority observations, including aerosols, clouds and precipitation, Earth’s bulk mass movements, global land and vegetation characteristics, deformation and changes within the Earth’s surface, and three others to be selected competitively from among seven candidates. Each of these are to be measured through a space-based instrument or suite of instruments, and together are intended to ensure effective exploration of the highest priorities among the survey’s 35 key science and applications questions. 

Investments in Earth observation capabilities have failed to keep pace with the increasing information needs of businesses and individuals and the overall value of this information to the nation, the report says. Although budget constraints will remain a practical concern during the next decade in terms of progress with new space-based observational capabilities, the committee recommended innovative methods for achieving progress within those constraints. 

Research priorities and objectives in this report were developed by a primary steering committee based on input from five interdisciplinary study panels. The panels and committee also received over 300 written white papers from the research community in response to two separate requests for input. In addition, the survey had continual engagement with the community via town halls that were held during annual meetings of a number of professional societies, as well as via webinars, newsletters, and briefings.

The study was funded by the NASA, NOAA, and USGS. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org

Riya V. Anandwala, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

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Copies of Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space are available at www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313  or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Space Studies Board

Committee on the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space

Waleed Abdalati (co-chair)
Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
University of Colorado

William B. Gail (co-chair)
Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer
Global Weather Corp.
Boulder, Colorado

Steven J. Battel1
Battel Engineering Inc.
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Stacey W. Boland
Systems Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.

Robert D. Braun1
College of Engineering and Applied Science
University of Colorado

Antonio J. Busalacchi Jr.1, *
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colorado

Shuyi S. Chen
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Washington

William E. Dietrich2
Department of Earth and Planetary Science
University of California

Scott C. Doney
Joe D. and Helen J. Kington Professor in Environmental Change
Department of Environmental Sciences
University of Virginia

Christopher B. Field2
Founding Director
Department of Global Ecology
Carnegie Institution for Science, and
Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Helen A. Fricker
Professor of Geophysics
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California
San Diego

Sarah T. Gille
Professor, Climate, Atmospheric Science & Physical Oceanography 
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California
San Diego

Dennis L. Hartmann2
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Washington

Daniel J. Jacob
Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
Division of Engineering and Applied Science
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Anthony C. Janetos
Frederick S. Pardee Professor of Earth and Environment, and
Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future
Boston University

Everette Joseph
Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, and
Empire Innovations Professor in Atmospheric Sciences
State University of New York

Molly K. Macauley
Vice President for Research, and
Senior Fellow
Energy and Natural Resources Division
Resources for the Future
Washington, D.C.

Joyce E. Penner
Ralph J. Cicerone Distinguished University Professor of Atmospheric Science, and
Associate Chair
Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Soroosh Sorooshian1
Distinguished Professor, and
Center for Hydrometeorology and Remote Sensing
University of California

Graeme L. Stephens1
Director of Climate Sciences
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.

Byron D. Tapley1
Research Professor
Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
University of Texas

W. Stanley Wilson
Senior Scientist (retired)
National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Silver Spring, Md.


Arthur A. Charo
Study Director and Senior Program Officer
Space Studies Board

Lauren Everett
Program Officer
Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate

1Member, National Academy of Engineering
2Member, National Academy of Sciences
*Resigned from committee, May 5, 2016, upon appointment as President of UCAR