Earth observations, science, and services for the 21st century

Do you read this blog? Then chances are good that you’re part of the Great Endeavor.

In one way or another, you’re

- learning how the Earth works,

- predicting what it will do next,

- harnessing this knowledge for human benefit,

or some combination of all three.

The world ought to care how well we do! To a great extent, humanity’s future prospects hinge on our success or failure – how rapidly and effectively we progress towards these three goals. Will future generations enjoy sufficient resources – especially adequate food, water, and energy? In the attempt to secure these, must we necessarily degrade the environment and compromise the chances of future generations, or can we maintain the landscape, habitat, ecosystems, and ecosystem services on which we depend? Will we continue to live under the threat of natural hazards, or can we increase our resilience to these extremes so that they pose less of a danger over time?

Success in these three respects is a necessary though not sufficient condition for human well-being. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? They begin with freedom of thought, religion, speech, action, with public education to maintain these values as part of our culture, but they also hinge on Earth observation, science, and services. Together, all these things make up a single package.

In part, you and I, and the larger community we represent, hold this destiny in our own hands. Success or failure awaits, depending on how smart, how focused, how dedicated we are. Will we work on the problems that matter? Or will we instead tackle the ones that seem easiest? Will we have a sense of urgency? Or an air of entitlement?

But in equal measure, how well we do depends utterly on our host society. Do the public, political and business leaders, journalists and educators consider our work a priority? Support it? Are they committed to maintain the continuity of that support over time?

The answer is in the details.

To study the Earth and its workings is to be fascinated by the influence of details on the global picture. Ed Lorenz brought fame to our field by positing that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might produce effects whose influence doesn’t simply decay – but rather grows in consequences and spatial extent over time. Earthquake prediction remains elusive not simply because the processes are hidden by great masses of rock but also because the smallest of disturbances can serve as the proximate trigger. The search for connections between solar fluctuations and climate variability looks for small influences that can magnify. The history of weather modification is the quest for finding those moments and processes where storm development might be sensitive to otherwise insignificant perturbations.

In one sense, our entire community and the fullest scope of our work are but a detail. Tote up the funding – maybe, just maybe, it sums to 0.1% of global GDP. Add up the people, and perhaps a million of us – out of the world’s seven billion – are directly or peripherally so engaged.

Even within this detail, there’s a facet smaller still. At this juncture, in this place, our community suddenly finds the larger host society fiscally constrained and bitterly divided politically. And this seems to be true not just for America but for much of the world. The sources of funding that have fueled the progress in Earth observations, science and services in recent decades are not drying up – but they are looking to be intermittent, unreliable. And reductions – perhaps deep cuts – may well lie ahead. Historic bipartisan support for our work is fraying a bit; here and there we experience criticism, some of it harsh.

We face a twofold challenge. The work we do has never been more urgent…but the underpinnings for that work are in jeopardy. And – this is sobering – it seems this conjunction may not be accidental. Instead, these twin trials are related; they stem from the same cause. A population of seven billion people, on its way to nine, is straining both the Earth’s resources and its own intrinsic innovative capacity. And all of us are getting nervous and snippy with one another. If we’re not careful, worse lies ahead.

Against this backdrop, the American Meteorological Society will be holding a small workshop tomorrow – on Earth Observations, Science, and Services for the 21st Century. A handful of our community members will be stepping back for two and a half days and taking stock. The goal is not a prescription for a path forward, but something rather more modest…an initial set of ideas that can be used to start a new conversation, that can be socialized by our larger, fuller community and the society we serve over time. Our focus will be on the rationale for our work in a changing future world.

What emerges likely won’t be just fascinating; it’ll be important. Hard to predict just how things will go. But from my experience, three keys might unlock a brighter future for our community and our world. We need to:

-          Start with the public good.

-          Unleash private-sector productivity

-          Be Promethean.

The next three posts will elaborate on these points.

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3 Responses to Earth observations, science, and services for the 21st century

  1. Pingback: More…on Earth observations, science, and services for the 21st century | Living on the Real World

  2. Pingback: Be Promethean | Living on the Real World

  3. Pingback: Dealing With a Challenging Science Policy Environment

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