The Importance of Earth Observations, Science, and Services

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.” – John Maynard Keynes

The previous post suggested that to live well on the real world requires that all seven billion of us solve, simultaneously, three problems: our relationship with the Earth as (1) resource, (2) victim, and (3) threat. It went further, arguing:

When we develop resource policies, or environmental regulations, or community-level hazard resilience in isolation instead of attempting a rational framework for all three at once, we solve nothing.

Comprehending this inescapable truth about living on the real world is only the starting point. If we’re going to solve this threefold problem simultaneously, we need to something about how the real world works. Just how are these three challenges connected? That’s where Earth observations, science, and services come in.

And how much Earth observations, science, and services are enough? How well, and to what level of detail, do we need to understand just how the Earth works? How accurately, and how far into the future, do we need to know what the Earth will do next? There are many ways to approach this question, but for today, let’s return to our algebraic analog to this real-world challenge of “solving three challenges simultaneously” from the earlier post:

1)    x + y = 12

2)    y – z = 5

3)    3x + z = 17

Recall that the unique solution is x=5; y=7; z=2.

That post noted that in the real world, our observations of geophysical and ecological processes, our scientific understanding of those processes, and our services based on those observations and that knowledge are necessarily imperfect. We can only know the “coefficients” (that is, the relationships connecting resources, environmental protection, and hazard resilience) imprecisely. Errors creep in. We gave a hypothetical illustration… where we’d made the observations and done the research and we thought the equations were:

1a)    1.01x +.98y= 11.8

2a)    .98y – 1.1z = 5.04

3a)    3.05x + 1.1z =16.8

Then the “solution” is (approximately) x = 4.92; y = 6.97; z = 1.97. That’s different from the exact result… but by only a little bit.

But suppose our Earth observations, science, and services weren’t quite so good. Suppose, based on our observations and science we thought… and put out in our services to policymakers and decision makers:

1b) 1.1x + .9y = 11

2b) 0.9y – 1.2z = 5.5

3b) 3.3x + 1.2z = 19

Then we’d arrive at the (approximate) solution x = 6.14; y = 4.72; z = -1.04 (better to say, x=6; y=5; z= -1, given the uncertainties involved).

That approximation to x = 5; y = 7; z = 2 doesn’t look quite so good, does it? Perhaps the 10-20% errors in the coefficients of the equations, and corresponding errors in the unknowns x and y might individually seem acceptable; but z is in error by a factor of 2.

Oh… and did we all notice that the sign of z is wrong?

This homely (and admittedly flawed) analog suggests that when we skimp on our investments in Earth observations, science, and services, we leave ourselves unacceptably vulnerable to unknown and unanticipated environmental challenges. And that’s before we note that the coefficients – that is, the implications of our resources, environmental, and hazards policies for each other – vary from place to place over the globe and vary with time as well. What works here won’t necessarily work there. What’s true today won’t necessary hold tomorrow.

Even as we improve our understanding of the connections between Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat, we are falling behind the pace at which we need to accumulate this store of knowledge if we are to avoid flying blind into a problematic future. And the price of flying blind? Lost economic development. Poverty. Environmental degradation. Loss of life and property to hazards.

As we turn our gaze to the future, we can see we need to know more… and fairly urgently.

Let’s start by looking at resources:

Energy. As we move from a today’s energy economy relying first and foremost on fossil fuels and nuclear (and only supplemented by renewable energy sources) to one that is primarily reliant on photo-voltaics and wind, we move from a world where only energy demand is affected by weather and climate to one where both energy supply and demand are weather-sensitive. Nations such as Germany are struggling with this problem now.

Water. Unlike many other biogeochemical cycles, the hydrologic cycle is dominated by extreme events: cycles of flood and drought (when it rains, it pours). This reality challenges not only our resilience to hazards (as recent U.S. examples in Austin, TX, and along Colorado’s front range attest) but also our efforts to meet growing water demands, not just in the United States but worldwide (including China, for example). Water supplies relative to human needs are highly variable across the world. The presentation of water problems is not chronic and pervasive worldwide but rather acute, highly episodic, and localized.  And when it comes to characterizing the present and seeing where things are trending, the details matter.

Food. The green revolution of the past several decades has allowed increases in global food production to keep pace with the growing need of a rising world population. But we’re told that revolution has about run its course. And global food production is not dependent simply on weather conditions. It is also intertwined with competing water and energy demands.

Let’s turn now to hazards:

The acute, highly-localized nature of hazards demands that resiliency be developed at the local/community level (think Weather-Ready Nation). Communities worldwide will be looking to their national governments less for disaster recovery assistance and more for information on natural hazard risk and on technological and social options for coping with those risks: for ensuring the safety of schools and hospitals, the continuing function of critical infrastructure at local levels, and much more.

Which brings us to environmental protection:

Environmental protection may begin with controlling and reducing pollution of the air, water, soils, and solid earth, but it doesn’t end there. As we accumulate knowledge, we uncover new sensitivities of ecosystem structure and function to these conditions, as well as to weather and climate more broadly. It turns out our human health is related to ecosystem health, and our natural ecosystems are finely tuned not just to prevailing or average conditions worldwide, but to the statistics (and recent history) of the extremes of heat and cold, drought and flood that contribute to those average. The canary in the cage is methane’s first casualty in the mine; on the Earth’s surface and in the oceans, the ecologies are our most sensitive indicator of Earth system health.

And geo-engineering:

Seven billion people, consuming resources at per capita rates 10-100 times the consumption of our forebears, necessarily modify the Earth’s surface. In that sense, the question is not whether we’re engaging in geo-engineering… it’s only whether we’re already doing it well or ham-fistedly. We’re rapidly approaching the day when policymakers and the public will seriously consider a variety of geo-engineering options for keeping our planet livable. At that time, there’ll be a cry for information on which options are safe/benign, running relatively little risk of unacceptable unintended consequences, and which are riskier. This will require a level of understanding of the Earth’s functioning far-exceeding what we enjoy today.

These four challenges share a common message. We’re under-investing in the Earth observations, science, and services needed to navigate our future.

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