American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

The Role of the Earth Sciences in the National Institute for the Environment

March 1995

Prepared under the auspices of the AGI Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee


The earth sciences are essential to the understanding and solution of environmental challenges of the type to be addressed by the proposed National Institute for the Environment (NIE). Having addressed environmental issues for decades, the earth science community conceptually supports the mission and goals of the NIE. Certain constituencies within the earth science community (American Geological Institute [AGI] and the Association of American State Geologists [AASG]) have met with the Committee for the NIE (CNIE) to seek ways in which the NIE could be more reflective of the contributions that the earth sciences must make in addressing environmental issues. At the request of the CNIE, the Environmental Affairs Committee of the AGI has prepared this document. Review of the proposal for establishment of the NIE (1993) indicates the need for enhanced integration of earth science-based components and objectives into the NIE proposal.


The objective of this document is to demonstrate the fundamental role of the earth sciences in understanding and solving multidisciplinary, long term, large-scale environmental problems and to provide examples of earth science based environmental issues that can form a foundation for enhanced earth science visibility in the future planning for the NIE. The incorporation of the earth sciences does not diminish the importance of other disciplines that are essential in solving environmental issues. Rather, the inclusion of the earth sciences in NIE documents will help to more fully characterize the earth's natural physical and chemical systems that represent the foundation for all life, as well as providing a more integrated multidisciplinary approach in addressing environmental program objectives.

The Earth Sciences

The term, "earth sciences," is used herein to include a spectrum of subdisciplines that address somewhat specific earth processes, earth systems, or portions of the earth. Included are, for instance, geology, hydrology, soil science, geophysics, geochemistry, oceanography, climatology, and meteorology. While this listing is not all inclusive, it provides a sense of the diversity of topical areas that constitute a study of the earth and its processes.

Individuals trained in any of the earth science disciplines acquire, by the very nature of the science, an interdisciplinary background. The earth sciences draw upon the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, and these disciplines are essential components of any earth science curriculum. Thus, earth scientists are versed to various degrees in the other sciences and can effectively operate in an interdisciplinary manner. Indeed, it is often difficult to clearly delineate between the earth sciences and other disciplines in many investigations.

In addition, understanding environmental systems is rooted in basic knowledge of how the earth itself operates. Earth scientists are trained to think in terms of geologic time, and to observe and interpret changes that occur naturally and at very slow (or rapid) rates. Thus, the earth sciences are a foundation for understanding environmental issues of the type proposed for the NIE.

The Earth Sciences and Environmental Issues

Earth science studies are an essential and fundamental part of environmental studies. The earth sciences address dynamic processes below and on the earth's surface, as well as those within the atmosphere. They examine present processes as well as those that have occurred throughout geologic time and provide information on frequency, rates, and magnitudes of earth system changes. This allows the earth sciences to provide a historical perspective against which anthropogenic impacts can be evaluated. For example, data indicating a global climate change can be assessed against historical climate data to determine if prehistorical changes have been driven by natural fluctuations of temperature equal to or greater than those seen today. Also, once the issue of acid rain was placed in a geological context, it was found that a large portion of the "problem" was natural and not associated with combustion of fossil fuel. Similarly, geologic rates of evolution and extinction should be integrated into studies that lead to decisions regarding biodiversity and species maintenance.

The earth has a certain resiliency, which often allows it to recover from anthropogenic impacts. The earth sciences provide vital information and serve as a foundation for evaluation of human impact on the environment and prediction of future outcome.

Concepts of earth resources underlie most environmental investigations. Resources include soil, water, minerals, and energy, all of which are essential to development and maintenance of ecosystems. The relative availability of certain soils and minerals, for instance, will contribute to the evolutionary nature of certain ecosystems. The understanding of the natural processes that determine the interactions of physical and chemical systems with biological systems is deeply rooted in the earth sciences and the spatial depiction of earth materials is an integral part of fundamental mapping which is essential to resource studies.

Finally, understanding, predicting, preventing, and dealing with certain natural hazards which affect our environment is based in the earth sciences. Included here, for example, are earthquakes, volcanic activity, and severe storms. The impact of such events on the social and economic vitality of populations is immense.

Earth Science Based Environmental Studies and Federal Support

Although the earth sciences are an integral component in most environmental studies and earth scientists have long been involved with "environmental" investigations, limited funding support has been directed at basic studies of earth science based environmental issues. Some individuals perceive that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) represents such a source of support. The USGS is heavily involved in fundamental integrated geoscience studies, many of which are directed at assessment of hazards and evaluation of surface water and groundwater quality. It provides basic data and information required for the interdisciplinary environmental research of the kind proposed by the CNIE.

Other federal organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Energy, conduct and fund earth science based environmental research that is germane to their missions. This research may involve, for example, global climate change, studies of ground-water and soil contamination, or atmospheric and oceanic modeling. However, generally their research is not of the interdisciplinary nature proposed by the CNIE. The National Science Foundation supports fundamental studies of earth processes, but sponsors few environmental studies.

Integration of the Earth Sciences into the NIE "Case Examples"

The following statements briefly address ways in which the earth sciences are important for the 19 environmental research needs (case examples) representative of the type of research programs NIE might support (Appendix A, NIE Proposal, 1993). The ideas presented are not complete, but they do represent the role of the earth sciences in these research areas.

Environmental Resources

1. Knowledge of Past Human Impacts on the Environment: Identification of natural, as opposed to human induced, changes in climate and environmental conditions is the purview of the earth sciences.

2. Biological Diversity Inventory: The presence and distribution of many species of plants and animals is controlled by bedrock, soils, geomorphology, climate, and hydrologic marine systems. Paleontology provides an historical basis for studies of species diversity.

3. Plant, Animal, and Microbial Products: There are few ties with the earth sciences here.

4. Measures of Sustainable Income and Resources: The earth sciences provide basic data for earth resource (mineral, soil, energy, wetlands, etc.) depletion estimates and help provide quantitative data that characterize these resources.

5. Economic Effects of Loss of Species: Assessment of physical resources (watersheds, wetlands, etc.) reflects the earth science contributions to characterization of species habitats and evaluation of their stability.

Environmental Systems

6. Natural vs Human induced Environmental Change: The earth sciences provide the historical geologic perspective for natural changes against which current trends can be compared and future projections made.

7. Environmentally Sustainable Energy Systems: Data describing and quantifying energy sources as to their quality, availability, and distribution are acquired only through the earth sciences.

8. Urbanization and the Environment: The earth sciences provide a basis for planned urban development, including construction in harmony with the land and waste disposal (see new case example 7, The Earth Science Base for Urban Development, p. 10).

9. Impact of Regulations on Quality of Environment and Economy: Because many environmental regulations do not reflect the reality of earth processes or natural levels of contaminants, unrealistic requirements for compliance are created.

10. Climate and Social Change Effects on Rio Grande Watershed: The importance of hydrology, surface water management, geomorphology, and climate modeling is self evident in this example.

11. The Pacific Salmon Fishery: Restoration of salmon stocks requires a geomorphic perspective on the structure and dynamics of mountain river systems because of the influence of sediment, water quality, organic matter, and stream channel morphology on spawning potential.

Environmental Sustainability

12. Effects of Development on Societies and their Environments: The earth sciences can contribute in issues related to land use, river systems and watersheds, and resources needed for, and affected by, large scale development.

13. Sustainable Use of Renewable and Nonrenewable Resources: Any understanding of resource (soil, minerals, water, energy, etc.) availability and maintenance must involve earth scientists trained in specific fields such as economic geology, petroleum geology, hydrology, soil science, or geochemistry.

14. Improved Methods for Environmental Conservation and Restoration: Knowledge of earth systems (hydrologic, soil, atmospheric, etc.) is an essential component in any attempt to restore ecological systems.

15. Ecological Risk Assessment: The earth sciences provide baseline data on levels of contaminants, their speciation and availability to enter ecological systems, and their pathways for transport.

16. Sustainable Development Life Cycle Analysis: Identification and extraction of resources (water, minerals, energy), environmentally acceptable disposal of wastes, and remediation of previously contaminated soils and ground-water are all rooted in the earth sciences.

17. Technologies to Minimize Environmental Damage: There are limited applications for the earth sciences in this particular case example.

18. Mercury Pollution and Energy Production: Research on the biogeochemical cycling of mercury, its atmospheric transportation, its re emission from soils as a "source," and its natural background levels, especially in fossil fuels and geothermal areas, are all earth science based.

19. Restoration Ecology: the Anacostia River: Any activity involving restoration of a river and its watershed must incorporate geologic and hydrologic input in support of the ecological sciences.

Earth Science-Based Case Examples

Following are several new case examples that are presented to demonstrate the fundamental importance of various earth science disciplines in large scale multidisciplinary environmental issues. Intentionally, these examples are brief statements; elaboration can be provided at the proper time.

1. Natural Background Levels of Contaminants: Little is known about natural occurrences of hazardous constituents in earth materials, ranging from such elements as arsenic, selenium, lead, and uranium to such mineral groups as asbestos and crystalline silica. These naturally occurring earth materials have had profound consequences for environmental policies and regulations aimed at cleaning up sites impacted by human activity.

Our knowledge has gaps in many areas. Inventories of geographical areas with high concentrations of naturally occurring hazardous constituents as well as areas with low concentrations of naturally occurring elements are essential to productive agriculture. Acquisition of this type of information is a significant step beyond—but a logical extension of—geologic mapping, as outlined in the National Geologic Mapping Act of 1992. We lack thorough understanding of the complex processes that produce natural contamination of soils and water as well as uptake of contaminants by the biota. There is scant knowledge of the chemical speciation of contaminants—information essential to predicting uptake. Studies of these processes can lead to innovative cleanup of human caused pollution. For example, much can be learned from areas of naturally occurring arsenic contamination—how arsenic in rocks is converted into materials in soils and dissolved in ground water, how plants and animals metabolize arsenic, and how plants and animals have evolved to survive in areas of high concentrations of arsenic in soils and water.

Areas of natural pollution provide fertile ground for epidemiological and environmental studies of the effects of pollutants on both humans and the biota in general. Little research has been conducted, for example, on the health effects of lead, radon, or uranium in ground water using natural variations that can differ by factors of 10,000 or more.

Finally, studies of natural pollutants and of natural retardants to pollutants, such as minerals that absorb toxic metals, can greatly enhance decision making in such aspects as science based target levels for environmental remediation, pre development design of industrial sites, and land use planning.

NIE Role

Although both the USGS and NSF have recently initiated programs that bear on these issues, the efforts are at this time modest and not likely to take full advantage of the multidisciplinary nature of needed research.

2. Urban Impact on Estuarine Systems: As urban centers continue to grow around the margins of major water bodies, for example, Baltimore on Chesapeake Bay, Boston Harbor, Seattle on Puget Sound, and San Francisco Bay, serious environmental problems multiply. The environmental consequences are a disruption of habitats and a negative impact on organisms, including humans. A complete understanding of estuaries requires an integration of studies of the geological processes with those of the ecology of the system. Pollutants, both organic and inorganic, have cycles tied to the physical sedimentology of a bay. For example, clay minerals are a very important sink for certain pollutants: thus, the fate of clay minerals in the estuarine system is also the fate of the pollutants. Also, a close relationship exists between physical and chemical conditions in the water column and clay-mineral flocculation processes important in the cycling of organic compounds.

One of the major questions that must be asked about water bodies impacted by urban centers is what were the conditions prior to urbanization? That is, what fauna and flora existed in the preindustrial estuary and how were they distributed in relation to sediments? What was the importance of natural catastrophes, such as storms? How often have major storms occurred and what did they do to the system? These questions can only be addressed by earth-science based studies (e.g., the study of cores which penetrate the modern sediment layer to the pre-human impact layers). Understanding the past few hundred years provides a basis for understanding the extent of urban impact and for predicting the magnitude of future impacts.

Human activities contribute to continual change in estuaries. Sedimentary processes throughout the estuaries, especially the shallow bays along the East Coast and West Coast harbors, are strongly affected by dredge and fill activities which alter water and sediment circulation and often cause release of pollutants or changes their distribution patterns.

Finally, understanding shoreline erosion processes and particularly the evolution of the marsh and mangrove shoreline in a rising sea level condition is important in maintaining the critically important wetland environments. Although in recent years development has been largely prohibited in the salt marsh environment, natural expansion of salt marshes continues to be greatly threatened by upland shoreline stabilization armoring.

NIE Role

The NIE would provide a stable base upon which the research needs for addressing this problem could be based. Considerable fundamental research of a highly interdisciplinary nature is needed, ranging from the earth science aspects noted, to ecological facets, and to transportation and other socioeconomic approaches.

3. Evaluate Coastal Land Loss and Restoration Strategies: Many coastlines of the United States are eroding, and wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate due to both natural and human-induced processes. This loss of natural ecosystems threatens commercial and recreational fisheries, wildlife resources, endangered species habitats, and traditional patterns of human habitation. With 75 percent of the population of the United States living within 50 miles of our oceans, estuaries, and the Great Lakes, the pressures on coastal systems and resources are intense. Society's response to coastal land loss has been varied and controversial with scientific information playing a small role in many policy decisions.

Some individuals maintain that coastal land loss is something that we can do little about, especially in ways that are economically justifiable; therefore, while we should attempt to control those activities that contribute to the loss, we should base our land-use practices on the present and emerging patterns of loss. Others maintain planning and management strategies should also include application of restoration techniques, including nourishing beaches with sand, managing water levels and flow in wetlands, restoring wetland habitats, and applying structural approaches to sand retention and protection from erosion.

In Louisiana, where normal deltaic processes that result in land loss have been compounded by major alterations to water and sediment delivery systems by flood control, navigation, and energy resource development, coastal land loss has reached a rate of 35 square miles per year. Here, where 40 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands occur, fisheries, trapping, and recreation industries are dependent on the wetlands. State and federal agencies have embarked on a program of coastal restoration for the wetlands and the barrier islands that protect the wetlands. Areas of highest loss are related to subsiding lobes of the Mississippi Delta, and much of the shoreline erosion is a result of the loss of sediments entering the coastal area as a result of leveeing the river. While the situation in Louisiana represents a worst-case scenario, it does provide a focused picture of the complex array of natural, human, social, economic, and political factors that contribute to the coastal land loss problem in the United States.

NIE Role

NIE would undertake an objective and comprehensive review of our ability to reduce the rates of coastal land loss based on an analysis of the causes and on society's ability to control them, and of the effectiveness and economic viability of methods to restore coastal habitats. NIE would then support additional work needed to develop sound recommendations regarding strategies for dealing with coastal land loss.

4. Soil Diversity and Management for Sustainable Agricultural Ecosystems: Soil and plants, interactively with air and water and the biological resources they support, control environmental quality, human health, and global ecosystem sustainability. Soil resources serve as the foundation for agricultural development and are the long-term "capital" on which any nation builds and grows. Soils undergird the biosphere and its complex biophysical interconnectivity. Soils, along with plants, serve as receptors for waste, function as biological filters that govern water quality, and determine the fate and transport of chemicals. Public awareness of soil quality is important because: (1) protection of the soil resource is essential to ensure the safety and security of our food supply, the quality of our air and water resources, and the biodiversity of life; (2) the soil resource is finite in extent and varies in productivity, quality and resilience over the landscape, and the soil resource requires site-specific and landscape-scale planning for its use and management; and (3) poor management of vulnerable soils through inappropriate cultural practices and misapplication of irrigation water, municipal and industrial by-products, or animal manures can impair soil quality by depleting soil organic matter, compaction, acidification, salinization, or chemical over-loading. Information about soils is therefore critical and should be used for ecosystem-based, land-use decision making, site-specific planning, and preservation of biodiversity.

Soil scientists, agronomists, and agricultural specialists have been leaders in addressing environmental concerns. However, the public mandates a new focus on issues of environmental research; earth scientists should play a pivotal role. These environmental challenges include (1) enhancing and conserving renewable natural resources including plants and soil, air, and water quality; (2) quantifying soil quality characteristics and their resiliency to degradation; (3) quantifying climatic change and its impact on complex natural and agricultural ecosystems; (4) calibrating biodiversity with soil physical, chemical and biological attributes; (5) protecting wildlife habitats and ecosystem restoration including wetlands preservation and use; (6) managing waste products as a useful resource; (7) fostering pollution abatement; (8) establishing land carrying capacity; (9) developing alternative energy sources; (10) discovering environmental technologies; and (11) employing best soil management strategies to sustain food, feed, and fiber production systems for an ever expanding global population in an economically viable and environmentally defensible manner.

NIE Role

The NIE could serve as a resource, research, and education agency to foster the coordination, collaboration, and networking of other agencies and institutions engaged in environmental research programs. In this capacity, the NIE could nurture and enhance strong programs already in place among government agencies and strengthen developing programs that are germane to earth science environmental issues. Success in meeting future soil, plant, and land resource challenges will be to develop programs that are more holistic; encompass ecological paradigms with multiple use strategies; quantify soil diversity and quality so soil behavior and risk assessment may be predicted before soil degradation takes place; couple soil science with genetic engineering to overcome physical and chemical soil constraints using biological interventions; view agriculture production systems as a feedback loop of soil ecological processes; establish land use strategies that retain lands best suited for such purposes; and enhance public literacy of soil science, agricultural production systems, and the environment. Management strategies should consider waste recycling, soil and water quality, global climatic change, soil stability, economic viability, and food security and safety.

The NIE could be instrumental in making sure that soil diversity, soil quality, and agriculture are recognized as integral components of the proposed NIE program initiatives. In developing more holistic ecosystem models of biosphere sustainability, greater commitment to environmental research and information transfer is needed by our nation and throughout the world. A well-organized and well-funded commitment to environmental earth science research, with a mandate to solve scientific and societal programs, should be high priority of NIE. This would keep the public informed on a sound, scientific basis and educate tomorrow's citizens to be even better stewards of our natural resources and the environment.

5. Western Water Resources: Managing the South Platte River: In November 1990, the EPA vetoed (under Sect. 404, Clean Water Act) the proposed Two Forks Dam and reservoir near Denver. EPA concluded that less environmentally damaging alternatives existed to provide future water supplies for the metropolitan area. The project would have captured and stored water from river basins on both sides of the Rockies. Project opponents raised concerns about the potential impact of the project on endangered species (such as whooping cranes), fish, wetlands, wildlife habitat, and water quality. Hydrologic and biological sciences were essential to assessing alternatives and impacts. Development of alternatives relied upon integrating the biological and physical sciences with economic and behavioral sciences to evaluate, for example, the likely efficacy of water conservation scenarios. While negotiations and decision-making affecting the project were necessarily political, the scientific analyses sharpened the debate and expanded the array of possible alternatives.

The Two Forks controversy in Colorado was another chapter in the efforts of western states to manage their waters. Along the South Platte, downstream from Denver, the State of Colorado has struggled to integrate surface and ground-water management in an attempt to achieve conjunctive water management. Ground-water pumping was historically unregulated while surface water was allocated by the appropriation doctrine with competing claims resolved via the principle of first in time, first in right. The South Platte was fully appropriated a century ago. The conflict between rights to appropriate and rights to pump was inconsequential until the advent of new pumping technologies. By the late 1950s, pumping from the alluvium along the river had reduced ground-water contributions to the river's base flow. The institutional changes to resolve this dilemma were complex. Most importantly, new legislation allowed for the development of ground water-surface water models to assess interrelationships in subject areas, which in turn allowed for the creation of state-approved augmentation plans. The plans, allowed for pumping and ground-water replenishment such that no negative impacts would occur upon surface water availability during peak water use season. Institutional changes were crafted which allowed for new knowledge based on experience to be incorporated in management decisions.

NIE Role

The truly interdisciplinary nature of this water-resource issue appears well suited for NIE. Earth science, ecological, economic, social, and political considerations must be integrated. 6. Western Water Resources: Owens Valley, California: Owens Valley has a long history of conflict among competing interests for a limited supply of water. The Owens Valley is a classic fault-block valley, bounded by mountain ranges. The Owens River, which meanders south through the valley, receives most of its water from the numerous tributaries that drain the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Almost all of the surface flow is diverted into the Los Angeles aqueduct system. The valley fill stores large amounts of ground water, with a shallow water table. Ground water is an important local source of water for fisheries, domestic uses, irrigation, stock water, recreation, and wildlife. A principal concern regarding ground-water pumping is the effect on the high desert rangeland vegetation. Los Angeles, which owns much of the valley land, expanded its export capacity in 1970 by 50 percent, relying upon substantially increased high-quality ground-water pumpage.

Los Angeles has many reasons to maximize exports of Owens Valley waters, although studies confirmed that increased ground-water pumping destroyed natural vegetation, dried up springs and artesian wells, accelerated erosion, and transformed much of the valley into a barren desert. Owens Valley residents decided to fight the city over these increased ground-water extractions, leading to litigation and other forms of conflict. The first steps toward a cooperative solution began with a series of comprehensive studies on ground water and valley vegetation, including an assessment of the valley's hydrogeologic system. Subsequent interdisciplinary research on hydrology and soil-water-plant relations proved critical to the development of management alternatives for ground-water pumping, and microclimatological techniques were developed with transfer value elsewhere in the arid west.

In short, these hydrologic and other scientific studies were the starting point for negotiating a ground water agreement and provisions for sounder environmental management in the Owens Valley and Mono Basin to the north.

NIE Role

The truly interdisciplinary nature of this water-resource issue appears well suited for NIE. Earth science, ecological, economic, social, and political considerations must be integrated.

7. The Earth Science Base for Urban Development: As urban areas expand, the geologic base upon which cities are built becomes ever more critical to human safety and well-being. Cities will bear the brunt of global environmental change. Many are located in coastal areas, on deltas, and in floodplains. Today's large cities put concentrated populations at special risk from natural hazards, including earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, landslides, ground subsidence, and soil instability. Other geological factors of major importance in the urban environment are surface water quality and discharge; the availability of construction materials (aggregate, stone, etc.); land suitability for disposal sites, soil contamination from previous waste disposal, ground-water recharge change; and site geology for tunnels, foundations, and utility corridors.

The geological factors of the urban environment have been intensively studied in the disciplines of environmental geology, engineering geology, and urban geography. These factors are featured in countless case studies of geology, geomorphology and topography; soil fertility and stability; geologic hazards; hydrology (ground and surface water) and sediment transport; land suitability for waste disposal and construction: availability of construction materials; and the influence of geology on vegetation, air quality, and settlement patterns.

To achieve sustainable urban development, we will need new ways of integrating geological information with knowledge of economic and social systems to minimize ecosystem disruptions. It will be necessary to disseminate information about geological factors in new and unprecedented ways. Already, many local governments and some large cities are engaged in preliminary efforts to develop local handbooks about their geologic environments and natural resources and hazards. With advances in information technology, it will be possible in the coming years to make information about the geological environment of a city much more accessible and appealing to students and local residents, in addition to the traditional audiences of city planners and professionals. With Geographic Information Systems capability distributed to desktop computers and workstations, users in government, universities, and the private sector will be able to design applications for urban needs.

NIE Role

Integration of the earth sciences with socioeconomic facets of urban development and long-range perspectives of planning for maximum and harmonious use of land is an area where the NIE could provide leadership.

8. Distinguishing Between Natural Variation and Human-Induced Causes of Environmental Change: Recent research has revealed evidence for astonishingly abrupt climate changes during the past 250,000 years. The results are based on analyses of ice cores extracted from the Greenland ice sheet, which contains a unique record of past climate variations. Findings from the ice cores, in conjunction with results from neighboring European ice cores, suggest that the period of relatively stable climate during which human civilization has flourished might be unusual, and the current climate may become either warmer or colder much more quickly than had been believed. One research team reported climate flickers lasting as few as ten years or less throughout much of the past 40,000 years. Another team showed that warming at the end of the last ice age was characterized by a series of abrupt returns to glacial conditions. If future climate changes occur as quickly as past climate changes, then it may be difficult for agricultural interests to adjust to altered growing conditions and for coastal cities to deal with changing sea levels.

The Greenland ice cores provide the longest and most detailed continuous history of climate available in the Northern Hemisphere. The ice archive was created as snow fell over Greenland year after year, trapping the gasses, chemicals, and dust of the atmosphere, which are valuable clues to volcanic activity, biological productivity, desertification, and atmospheric circulation at the time the snow fell. The layers of snow eventually compressed together into the massive ice cap. The climate history housed in such fine detail by the Greenland cores may ultimately permit researchers to unravel the mechanisms of climate change — and help to assess whether human activity might once again set off such changes.

NIE Role

Research to distinguish between natural variation and human-induced causes of environmental change involves natural and social scientists. The historical and social circumstances surrounding the anthropogenic component provide important guidance to the types of management measures that will be successful in mitigating such problems as global changes in temperature and sea level. The NIE could complement existing scientific research programs by funding interdisciplinary research related to human and institutional behavior patterns that cause environmental change and to identify culturally appropriate mitigation measures.

9. Social Impacts of Geologic Hazards: The disastrous earthquake that struck Northridge, California, in 1994, and the devastating floods that inundated the Midwest in 1993, provide powerful reminders of the vital role the geosciences play in an ever growing range of national goals. The societal benefits of geoscience research and development on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and other geologic hazards extend to such areas as housing, transportation, commerce, agriculture, and human health and safety.

The magnitude 6.7 earthquake that struck California caused 51 deaths. A similar earthquake in Iran in 1993 resulted in 55,000 deaths. The relatively low death toll in the California earthquake is partially attributable to geoscientific and engineering research and development supported by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey, and other agencies that participate in the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.

The Southern California Earthquake Center represents a major commitment by the National Science Foundation to improve the methodology to forecast future earthquake occurrences and to predict the ground motions resulting from such events throughout southern California. The goal of the Center is to develop plans to mitigate injury and loss of life and reduce property and other damage from earthquakes in southern California. The center has a mandate to transfer its knowledge to a user community consisting of earthquake engineers, emergency preparedness officials, regional planners, and the general public. Consensus building on seismic issues with public policy implications is an important function of the Center. Input from the user community is a major ingredient in the process of moving from scientific knowledge to user information. Formal interactions have been developed between the Center and earthquake engineers, state emergency response and hazard mapping agencies, and the media.

Recent seismic studies are providing useful information leading to understanding of the frequency of earthquakes in California. It may be that there has been a deficit of events over the last 150 years and that the recent increased activity since 1987 is the long-term norm. Other explanations are also possible.

NIE Role

The reduction of the impact of natural hazards provides a clear example of linking science and technology to societal goals. The federal government currently supports research and development, mitigation, and awareness programs regarding geologic hazards. The NIE could complement existing efforts by sponsoring social science research on the societal impacts of geological hazards and on the societal benefits of R&D, mitigation, and awareness programs. Societal benefits include reduced losses, reduced expenditures for federal emergency and disaster relief, and reduced losses of tax revenues. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey reports that the successful prediction of the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines saved thousands of lives and billions of dollars in U.S. military equipment. The NIE could sponsor research that compares the costs and benefits of programs that mitigate losses from geologic hazards.

10. The Connection Between Earth Sciences and Public Health: An indelible link exists between humankind and the thin skin of the earth on which we live and derive our nourishment. Our health and well-being are totally intertwined with the portion of the surface we call "home." This is a truism, not only when we consider where we site our houses, farms, industry, and dams, to maximize accessibility to food, water, transportation, and energy, but personally. The health of each individual is derived and maintained by ingesting locally available produce and potable water. We do not lack for anything nutritionally, but this optimum situation neither exists worldwide, nor should we count on it continuing in our nation without maintaining an integrated multidisciplinary research effort that involves geomorphology, mineralogy and petrology, agriculture, plant physiology, biochemistry, and related disciplines.

A habitat with a diversity of plant and animal species is only possible if the ground underneath supplies the nutrients and moisture required for growth and sustenance, and does not harbor deleterious factors. These factors may be omissions—as can be the case with iodine, or soils may lack the required nutrients because their bulk mineral composition is impoverished or water logged. The (geological) environment may contain a known hazard; radon and the element, arsenic, are two examples. Fluoridation of water supplies has been an effective mechanism in preventing tooth decay, and the necessary amounts are parts per million. However, at sites in Oklahoma and in India, high fluorine causes mottling of teeth and the disease osteopetrosis. In these cases, the human condition indicated the superabundance of fluorine in a soluble mineral in local rocks. Understanding health risks such as these is rooted in the earth sciences that characterize the speciation of elements and the factors that control their distribution.

The composition and distribution of mineral matter as the source and sink of organic and bio-organic (microbial) constituents, together with knowledge of the water table, frames the conditions required for prediction of future agricultural productivity. The geological sciences "owns" these databases and trains those who contribute to them and those able to interpret and apply them. Geological maps that integrate the Earth's surface topography, rock and soil composition or types, and hydrological data are basic to public health. Only a small portion of the earth's crust has been fully explored for its mineral or elemental contributions to our well-being, and that impetus has been mostly to provide for our infrastructure (e.g., roads) and industrial (e.g., steel) requirements through mining. It is time to actively search for the contributions that the earth brings to the individual.

How do we define a livable, sustainable environment (habitat) for our expanding population? What will be the effect (projections) as increases occur in special geographic areas? Can we define the essential requirements for adequate public health relative to the environment? Where are our future resources to come from? How will we decide where to build and what to save of our precious agricultural land, our waterways, lakes and ocean front?

NIE Role

NIE can foster integration of the basic research produced by geological sciences, geochemistry, and geophysics, with epidemiology and public health and develop strategies for the communication between the biological and medical scientists and geoscientists. NIE can educate the general populace and the government decision makers on the earth science contributions to environmental issues.

Specific studies that integrate environment and disease could include the nutritional deficiencies that are manifest in the third world related to soil composition in addition to studies that allow a better understanding of water sources where the vectors of disease, such as mosquitoes or snails, dwell so that natural methods of eradication can become permanent.

The Role of the Earth Sciences in the National Institute for the Environment

This document on the role of the earth sciences in addressing national environmental issues was prepared in response to a request from the Committee for the National Institute for the Environment. the preparation was sponsored by the American Geological Institute's Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee, chaired by Dr. Philip E. Lamoreaux. Contributors to this paper were:

Dr. Stephen H. Stow, Subcommittee Chair, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Dr. Lee C. Gerhard, Kansas Geological Survey
Dr. James M. Robertson, Wisconsin Geological Survey
Dr. Craig M. Schiffries, American Geological Institute
Dr. Fred A. Donath, Geological Society of America
Dr. Stephen Born, University of Wisconsin
Dr. Priscilla C. Grew, University of Nebraska
Dr. Charles G. Groat, Louisiana State University
Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey, Duke University
Dr. Jonathan G. Price, National Research Council
Dr. Catherine H. Skinner, Yale University
Dr. Larry P. Wilding, Texas A&M University

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Last updated March 27, 1996

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