Four seismic shifts are underway that will combine to make Earth information increasingly valuable – unimaginably more valuable – over the coming two decades.
Unless they don’t.
Today we look at the four drivers of this increased value. Two are challenges. Two are opportunities. They are inexorable.
Unless they aren’t.
(The caveat? It’ll have to wait until the next post.)
1.Resource scarcity and declining margins, especially in regions of the world where resources are already scarce and margins already small.
The resource challenge – most visible with respect to water, food, and energy – is global and long-term. However, the shortages don’t manifest themselves that way. Instead, they present in the form of acute local episodes – drought here, famine there, power outages or incidence of water pollution in this or that city for brief periods. Media have focused on these food, water, and energy crises for as long as we can remember. But here’s the point. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs described in the previous LOTRW post reminds us that our need for these elements is foundational and continual. We can’t tolerate even momentary or localized gaps or interruptions. What’s more, we all need them, whether rich or poor. Those who can afford it will pay any price to ensure continuity. The economic shocks that accompany these episodes are devastating to the world’s disadvantaged, from whatever nation.
2.The holistic nature of the resource problem. Speaking of food, water, and energy, it turns out that the three are intertwined. Just one of myriad examples: the U.S. policy shift of recent years flirting with the use of corn-based ethanol as a renewable fuel source reverberated in worldwide spikes in the price of maize. More generally, agricultural production is highly water-intensive, amounting to something like eighty percent of fresh water use here in the United States. Most fossil-fuel electricity generation makes additional water demands. Economists, scientists, and policymakers are increasingly absorbed in the task of understanding these and similar interconnections and their implications for nations and the world.
But the need for holistic scientific understanding and policy approaches doesn’t stop there. In turns out that resource and environmental policies are interwoven as well, not just with each other but also with community-level resilience to natural hazards. Solving this transcendental threefold problem is the essential core of so-called sustainable development. In the constrained, unified world of the future it will no longer suffice to treat any resource-, hazard-, or environmental problems in isolation.
Fortunately – indeed providentially – we’re not forced to meet these future challenges armed only with today’s tools. This is where our other two big trends come in.
3.The increasing diagnostic power of Earth observations and science. Thanks to continuing investment in Earth observations and science by Congress and the American public, sustained over decades, our ability to monitor and predict what the Earth system will do next is growing by leaps and bounds. Satellite platforms combined with ingenious remote-sensing instruments now provide unprecedented global coverage, temporal resolution of environmental conditions. Drone aircraft aren’t just being used for war or contemplated to make amazon.com deliveries; they’re being harnessed for detailed, problem-specific atmospheric and land-surface monitoring. Remotely-operated undersea probes are also coming online. Our hundreds of millions of automobiles and smartphones are being pressed into service for measuring everything from rainfall to atmospheric pressure. Numerical weather prediction is being extended to climate modeling and coupled land-surface-ocean-atmospheric modeling more generally. Understanding is flowering. We’re putting the entire planet in intensive care.
4.The growing reach and power of Big Data and data analytics. This emerging ability to combine high-volume, high-velocity, diverse data sets, even in its nascent stage of development – promises to be transformative. The new power to merge Earth-system data with data on the human system – populations, resource use, habitat, income level, trends and details in all these – makes it possible to contemplate modeling of coupled human-natural systems with the same skill that we once could bring to bear only on the weather alone. To imagine where these capabilities will take us? We’ve no more idea than cavemen and women who invented the wheel could visualize the link between that invention and space travel. The difference is that we’ll make this next leap in a century instead of ten thousand years.
These four trends our reshaping the world and human possibility. Along the way, and almost as a footnote, they’re ensuring that Valuation of Earth Information will never be a finished question but will rather remain a subject of continuing research for a century or more.