Twenty years ago NASA embarked on a revolutionary new mission for its Earth science program: to study our home planet from space as an inter-related whole, rather than as individual parts. NASA is now holding a symposium – June 22-24 – to examine the accomplishments of 20 years of Earth system science program and discuss what discoveries and opportunities lay ahead in the future.
By the mid-1980s, NASA was leading the world in developing the notion that observations from space would further the understanding of how Earth’s interacting systems function. In 1988, the Earth System Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council, led by Francis Bretherton, published its landmark report Earth System Science: A Closer View.
The report called upon NASA and other agencies to embark on an ambitious program of integrated Earth system science. It became one of the seminal documents for this new field, which integrated studies of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, ice, land, geosphere, and biosphere and the interactions over different temporal and spatial scales. These documents provided the scientific framework for many national and international research programs, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program (subsequently the U.S. Climate Change Science Program).
The Bretherton report spelled out specific plans for observations and models to improve understanding of the Earth system. Many of these observations were brand new to science. Their integration into applied science required development of innovative technology.
Satellite observations alone, though, would not be enough for the desired improved understanding of the integrated Earth system. As a further improvement of scientific research, the authors called for process-oriented research with complementary in-situ observations and parallel developments of (1) information systems to link and make available to researchers observations from multiple sensors on multiple platforms and (2) new models to express our growing understanding of the complex processes at play in the dynamic Earth system. Inherent in this plan was inspiring the next generation of Earth scientists.
The 1988 original ideas that led NASA to develop the ongoing Earth Observing System (EOS) emphasized the inter- and cross-disciplinary research now being conducted using observations and data products from multiple satellite sensors. Twenty years have gone by, and the interconnected observational, data management, and modeling systems are achieving many of the goals established earlier.
Popular recognition of the quick changes the Earth has experienced over the past decades, the potential for accelerated changes in the future, and the need to consider them in developing public policy have raised the visibility of and public interest in Earth System Science.
NASA’s capabilities and vision, together with the research community, have expanded to push the observational, modeling, and data management boundaries to usher in the next twenty years of Earth System Science. The time has come to look back and look ahead to the future of Earth system science in this era of global change, taking into account the National Research Council’s roadmap for the next decade of Earth system science, the 2007 Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond, and the 2008 Earth Observations from Space: The First 50 Years of Scientific Achievements. What have we learned? Where do the foremost research challenges for the future lie? How well are we prepared to meet them?
To accomplish the goals of looking back and looking ahead, NASA has set aside 22-24 June to host a scientific forum in Washington, DC, during which we will discuss findings and new approaches that will continue the revolution in Earth system science envisioned by Bretherton and his co-authors two decades ago.
The symposium will feature more than 20 invited talks on scientific breakthroughs, future directions in Earth system science, and the evolution of NASA’s Earth system science program.