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Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century (3-10-03)

The NSF Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education recently released the report Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century to provide an "overall strategic guidance about environmental research and education areas specifically aligned with NSF's mission." In all subfields of environmental research and education considered, the report calls strongly for increased interdisciplinary collaborations between all sciences and engineering disciplines in order to successfully advance environmental research, and improve environmental education. The environmental research portion of the report focused on three themes: coupled human and natural systems, coupled biological and physical systems, and coupled people and technology.

The coupled human and natural systems theme considers questions related to the interaction between people and the environment and how they affect each other. The report defines multiple subthemes as avenues for future research, a couple of which present collaboration opportunities for hydrologists. The greatest opportunity lies within the area of freshwater resources, estuaries, and coastal environments. Hydrologists would also play an important role in linking human health and the environment, specifically on modeling aquatic environments through which contaminants and pathogens might travel. The subtheme of land, resources, and built environment seeks to understand "the complex past and present relationships between human and natural systems as they relate to land and resource use." Environmental services and valuation, while not specifically defining areas of research for geoscientists, does build upon geoscience data to determine the human dependence on natural systems (including precipitation, sea level, temperature, climate changes, and energy) and their economic and social value.

The coupled biological and physical systems theme refers to "measuring and understanding the processes and dynamics that shape the physical, chemical, and biological environment from molecular to planetary scale." This area holds research opportunities for the largest number of geoscience subdisciplines with the report directly mentioning geology, hydrology, soil sciences, and atmospheric, oceanic and Earth system sciences. Within the subtheme of climate variability and change, geoscientists will play a considerable role in understanding, quantifying, and predicting climate changes and their effect on natural systems. Also, the call for development of models to evaluate biogeochemical cycles -- including C, O, H, N, S, P and contributions of Ca, Fe, Si -- in soils, sediments, and other systems, including the consequences of human perturbations on these cycles, presents many research opportunities for geoscientists.

The report does not specifically include geoscientists as researchers within the theme of people and technology, but it does require the collection and analysis of geologic information to understand how human institutions interact with the environment. In turn, the research avenues highlighted in the report, such as those dealing with climate change and resource allocation, could involve geoscientists.


Sources: NSF Advisory Committee Report: Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century

Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 Spring Semester Intern.

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Posted on March 10, 2003

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