The Earth's environment is constantly changing. Scientific evidence indicates that these changes are the result of a complex interplay among a number of natural and human-related systems.
While the complexity of the Earth system and the interconnections among its components make understanding and prediction a very difficult challenge, the development of scientific knowledge and research capabilities are greatly advancing the understanding of global environmental change and the role of human activities in contributing to and responding to change.
Humans have come to play a powerful and expanding role as agents of environmental change and human activities are also substantially impacted by global-scale environmental changes. The current and future state of the Earth system is inexorably linked to human activities.
The United States, through the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), along with other nations, supports the research needed to characterize and understand global environmental change and to provide answers to important questions about the Earth system (including human activities), how it is changing, and the implications of global change for society and the natural ecosystems and managed resource systems on which society depends.
To assess the state of scientific information and identify research needs, the United States participates actively in national and international evaluations of the scientific understanding of global change issues. These assessments bring together large numbers of scientists representing a broad spectrum of research specialties and viewpoints to prepare carefully and widely reviewed reports that encompass the range of qualified scientific findings and perspectives.
In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) approved its Second Assessment Report, which, among other conclusions, stated that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate."
This follows on a 1994 scientific assessment of ozone depletion organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which found that the "conclusion that anthropogenic chlorine and bromine compounds, coupled with surface chemistry on natural polar stratospheric particles, are the cause of polar ozone depletion has been further strengthened."
Since its establishment as a Presidential Initiative in the FY90 budget, the USGCRP has been responsible for directing Federal support for scientific research to address key uncertainties about global environmental change and the Earth system.
The goals of the U.S. Global Change Research Program are:
The USGCRP budget request for FY97 is $1.73 billion, with 10 agencies participating in the program. A few of the agencies support research on the broad range of scientific areas relating to the global environment, while others support research that has a more mission- oriented focus. The programmatic contributions of the USGCRP agencies are coordinated and closely matched to agency missions and areas of expertise.
In response to requests from the Subcommittee on Global Change Research and from Congressional committee chairs in both the House and Senate, the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has been conducting a major program review of the USGCRP.
In a September 1995 interim report, the NRC concluded, "The scientific and societal motivations of the program remain compelling, and the USGCRP should be aggressively pursued." The report stated that, "A great deal of extremely high-quality science that is recognized worldwide for its excellence and leadership has resulted from the USGCRP."
The NRC also made a number of recommendations. The Subcommittee on Global Change Research and the USGCRP participating agencies have been moving aggressively to respond to the NRC recommendations on program integration and strategic research directions.
In response to the development of scientific understanding and research capabilities that has occurred over the life of the program, the USGCRP is moving to focus research efforts on what the NRC has termed "...priority issues in four mature areas of Earth system science that are of great scientific and practical importance." These priority environmental science issues follow:
Progress toward this goal will provide improved predictions that can, among other direct benefits, help farmers maintain their agricultural productivity in spite of extreme climatic events such as droughts and floods, help water resource managers to ensure reliable water deliveries and optimal reservoir levels, help in planning fishery harvests, and help foresters allocate resources effectively to safeguard forests (and the public) from fire during droughts.
Scientists can now predict with reasonable certainty, up to 1 year in advance, the onset of episodes of the phenomenon known as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the tropical Pacific Ocean. This interaction between the ocean and atmosphere is linked to fluctuations in precipitation and temperature throughout the tropics and into higher latitudes, including the United States. These fluctuations can result in severe flooding and harsh droughts. As evidenced by the 1996 drought in the southwestern United States, extreme climatic events have serious implications for economic and social systems. The USGCRP plays a leading role in an on-going global endeavor to develop and enhance prediction capabilities, and to apply experimental forecasts to real problems of economic planning and development in climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture, water, and public health.
2) Climate Change over Decades to Centuries, with the goal of understanding, predicting, assessing, and preparing for changes in the climate and the global environment that will result from the influences of projected changes in population, energy use, land cover, and other natural and human-induced factors.
Progress toward this goal will provide information needed by decision makers considering adaptive or mitigative responses to the projected changes in climate and the associated environmental and societal impacts. The information will also assist planners and managers with responsibilities for the design of infrastructure and other major facilities, sustained management of natural resource- based systems, and long-term planning in the financial sector.
The scientific community, through the IPCC Second Assessment Report, projects that during the next century and beyond human influences will alter the climate to an extent almost as great as the changes associated with going from past glacial to interglacial periods. This unprecedented rate of change will likely have significant impacts on forests, agriculture, water supplies, and human health. While much scientific progress has been made over the past few decades in developing a broad-scale understanding of the causes of global climate change, significant gaps remain, particularly with regard to estimating regional changes and understanding potential consequences and how society can mitigate or adapt to these changes. The USGCRP will continue to play a leading role in reducing scientific uncertainties in the understanding of the physical climate system while broadening research to improve the understanding of the impacts of climate change on natural resources and socioeconomic sectors.
3) Changes in Ozone, UV Radiation, and Atmospheric Chemistry, with the goal of understanding and characterizing the chemical changes in the global atmosphere and their consequences for human health and well-being.
Progress toward this goal will provide information to assist policy makers in protecting human health, preserving the cleansing and protective qualities of the atmosphere, and ensuring that new compounds do not lead to inadvertent environmental consequences.
The USGCRP provides a framework for a comprehensive and integrated research effort that provides information of great value to policy makers. For example, through USGCRP-supported research, emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from human activities have been unambiguously identified as the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole. Projections that large increases in CFC emissions would lead to large losses of stratospheric ozone underlie the agreement to phase out CFC use, and observations of declining CFC concentrations demonstrate the efficacy of policies adopted to protect the ozone layer.
4) Changes in Land Cover and in Terrestrial and Marine Ecosystems, with the goal of providing a stronger scientific basis for understanding, predicting, assessing, and responding to the causes and consequences of changes in terrestrial and marine ecosystems resulting from human-induced and natural influences.
Progress toward this goal will provide a stronger scientific basis for developing environmental and natural resource practices that are environmentally sound and practical, and that will ensure ecosystems yield sustainable benefits to humankind.
The USGCRP supports research projects to inventory the current land cover of the Earth and to document changes; to improve understanding of the dynamics of land-cover and land-use change and how terrestrial ecosystems react to change; and to document and understand chemical, physical, and biological processes in the oceans and their relationship with the carbon cycle and marine life.
To provide the basis for continuing advancement in scientific understanding and to fulfill the U.S. commitment to international leadership in global change research, the USGCRP supports a number of essential ongoing integrative and cooperative efforts:
These observations of the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface, and their interactions, will provide the basis for understanding and monitoring changes in the Earth system.
The United States supports a diverse set of surface, in situ, and satellite systems, including the Earth Observing System (EOS) series of satellites and surface and satellite measurement capabilities that contribute to multiple goals, including weather and climate prediction, hazard warning, and documentation of changes in the global environment. These capabilities already provide a substantial base of information. Planning is underway to move toward an even more comprehensive system for observing and monitoring the changing state of the Earth system.
2) Global Change Data, Products, and Information Services, with the goal of providing all users ready and affordable access in useful forms to the full spectrum of global change data, products, and information.
Achieving this goal will accelerate scientific progress while also greatly enhancing public and private sector access to data that can make the economy more resilient to changes and fluctuations, help education at all levels, allow adaptation to changes, and aid resource managers in management and planning.
This user service activity includes the identification, assembly, documentation, archiving, and dissemination of data and information gathered from many types of observational platforms and research programs. It primarily focuses on providing user access to Federal agency sources of data and information, but has links to international and other sources.
3) Earth System Science, with the goal of supporting the long- term, integrated and exploratory research needed to gain a predictive understanding of the interactions among the physical, chemical, geological, ecological, and solar processes that determine the functioning of the Earth system and its trends and fluctuations on global and regional scales.
Pursuing this goal provides the basis for continuing advances in fundamental understanding of the world around us and helps to identify emerging issues and potential changes of low probability but high impact (often referred to as surprises).
The USGCRP supports the advance of understanding of the Earth system through experiments that explore the working of physical, chemical, geological, solar, and biological processes, and through Earth system modeling to interrelate and tie together the many processes into a unified representation of the atmosphere-ocean- land-ecological system.
4) Human Contributions and Responses to Global Change, with the goal of identifying, understanding, and analyzing how human activities contribute to changes in natural systems, how the consequences of natural and human-induced change affect the health and well-being of humans and their institutions, and how humans could potentially respond to problems associated with environmental change.
Progress toward this goal will provide an improved scientific basis for decision makers considering how society should respond to global-scale environmental change.
Research on human contributions and responses is a small, but critical and growing, component of the USGCRP. The USGCRP supports a diverse range of studies by leading researchers in universities, research institutions, and Government laboratories across the United States, in both basic and applied settings.
5) International Research Cooperation, with the goal of supporting and assisting the program and its participating scientists and agencies in their interactions with related international research, observing, and assessment activities and in the full and open international sharing of data and research findings.
Progress toward this goal will enhance the cooperative effort to improve understanding of global change, which can best be achieved by aggregating and coordinating the capabilities and resources of various nations.
In support of this cooperative effort, the USGCRP participates in and supports the three major international non-governmental global change research programs that are initiated within the scientific community. The USGCRP has also developed a range of global, regional, and bilateral mechanisms to provide a framework within which U.S. scientists and colleagues in other countries can cooperate to address specific research issues and to study specific regions of mutual interest.
6) Global Change Education and Communication, with the goal of increasing public awareness of the Earth system and how it is changing and to promote global change education.
Progress toward this goal will help ensure that societal decision making is based on an informed understanding of global change, and will serve society's vital interest in the education of young scientists.
The USGCRP has a multi-pronged approach to promote the dissemination and use of global change research and information; to promote the development of the next generation of scientists; to integrate global change information into the existing formal and informal educational systems; and to support professional development programs for educators on Earth system science.
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