NSF and Our Changing Planet

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent agency of the U.S. Federal Government. It was established by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 with the following mission: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense". It is governed by the National Science Board whose members (including the Director of NSF) are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate.

As part of its mission, the NSF initiates and supports research programs dedicated to understanding the Earth and its systems, and how humans are effected by and impact these systems. NSF supports individual scientists as well as larger coordinated programs. A good example of a large program is the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). NSF is a partner with other government agencies and departments in this program.

The USGCRP began as a Presidential Initiative in 1989 and was put into law by the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The Act required the establishment of a program "aimed at understanding and responding to global change, including the cumulative effects of human activities and natural processes on the environment, to promote discussions toward international protocols in global change research, and for other purposes".

The USGCRP addresses a number of fundamental science problems. The areas of focus are described below (modified from the USGCRP web site):

Composition and Chemistry of the Atmosphere. The aim of this research is to improve our understanding of the global-scale impacts of natural and human processes on the chemical composition of the atmosphere; and to determine the effect of such changes on air quality and human health.

The figure shows the aerosol "hotspots" for December 18, 2000 as recorded by the NASA Earth Probe TOMS instrument.

Biology and Biogeochemistry of Ecosystems. This effort focuses on improving understanding of the relationship between a changing biosphere and a changing climate; and the impacts of global change on managed and natural ecosystems.

Carbon Cycle Science. The aim of this effort is to provide scientific information on the fate of carbon dioxide in the environment, the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide on continental and regional scales, and how sinks might change naturally over time or be enhanced by agricultural or forestry practices.

Human Dimensions of Global Change. The aim of this research is to explain how humans intervene in the Earth system and are themselves affected by the interactions between natural and social processes.

Paleoenvironment and Paleoclimate. This effort focuses on providing a quantitative understanding of the variability of the natural environmental, on timescales from centuries to millennia, within which the effects of human activities on the planet’s biosphere, geosphere, and atmosphere can be assessed.

Understanding the Earth's Climate System. This effort concentrates on improving our understanding of the climate system as a whole, rather than focusing on its individual components, and thus improving our ability to predict climate change and variability.

The Global Water Cycle. The goal of this research is to improve our understanding of the movement of water through the land, atmosphere, and ocean, and on how global change may increase or decrease regional water availability.

In the decade since the program started scientists have gained a lot of understanding within the focus areas described above. The 2001 report from the USGCRP lists the following accomplishments:

USGCRP-supported science helped explain the origins and behavior of the Antarctic ozone hole and showed that it was caused by human activities. Ongoing research and observations have shown that emissions controls have begun to decrease the concentration of several ozone-depleting gases at the Earth’s surface.

Colors show the thickness of the ozone layer over the Earth. Purple areas show where the ozone layer is thinnest. In this picture, the purple patch covers the entire Antarctic continent. (From NASA).

USGCRP-supported observations and analyses played a prominent role in demonstrating that emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere; that such changes have likely contributed to the global average temperature increase of between 0.7° and 1.5o F observed since about 1860; and that much larger and more rapid increases in temperature are likely to occur in the next 100 years if emissions are not reduced.

The scientific community, working in the context of the USGCRP, successfully predicted the onset of the 1997–1998 El Niño and the subsequent La Niña, as well as some of the resulting climate anomalies around the world. Some societies were able to make limited but significant advance preparations; in some cases, economic consequences and loss of life and property were reduced.

Picture showing the temperature anomalies within the ocean during the El Niño event of 1997/1998. Reds are hotter than normal. Blues are colder than normal. (From NOAA).

What’s next?

Over the next decade, the USGCRP will support research to answer many questions including the following. Could global warming be influencing the timing and duration of El Niño events? Have human land-use practices—which are known to be a factor in carbon cycling—created large-scale carbon sinks, and can these sinks be maintained? How did the large, global-scale, very rapid climate changes observed in the paleoclimate record occur, and what might trigger similarly rapid changes in the future? By providing answers to these questions, scientists hope to be able to predict what the future will bring for humans living on our changing Earth.