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Solid-Earth Sciences and Society (1993)

Chapter: Executive Summary

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Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

Executive Summary

The study of the whole earth system provides a research framework essential to the solution of global problems.

The solid-earth sciences* address the planet we live on, the continents and ocean basins from which we derive our mineral and energy reserves, the rocks from which soils to raise crops are derived, and the rock formations where we dispose of most of our waste products. Earth scientists analyze the physical and chemical processes that link all of these domains and those of the Earth's interior. They characterize the internal and external energy systems that drive and have driven these fundamental processes. They unravel the record of life on the planet and interpret the changing environments in which biological evolution has proceeded to its present state. Understanding our Earth has now become essential to humankind's existence.

Currently, the expanding world population requires more resources; faces increasing losses from natural hazards; and contributes to growing pollution of the air, water, and land. The activities of humans and their consequences are now comparable in magnitudes and rates as perturbations of the Earth's environment to many natural processes. Many of these human perturbations are not beneficial to life on the planet.

Human societies face momentous decisions concerning their control of many future activities that require understanding the Earth. The issues include atmospheric changes, environmental degradation, vulnerability of populated sites to natural disasters, soil erosion, contamination of water supplies, provision of adequate supplies of energy and mineral resources, weighing the potential of nuclear power, and the destruction of species. The rates of changes have become so rapid that these issues cannot be ignored any longer if the Earth is to be managed as a sustainable habitat. To accomplish sustainability will require all of our scientific understanding of the natural materials and processes, particularly the material and energy transfers linking the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Life prospers or fails at the surface of the Earth where these environments intersect. The slower geological processes, which have created the life-productive, quality environments, are complex and sensitive. Human decisions that must be made, including analysis and prediction of change, will require reliable knowledge based on profound understanding of the Earth's interconnected systems.

Attaining that fundamental understanding is the primary objective of the solid-earth sciences. There


Note on terminology: We use the term solid-earth sciences to specifically apply to terra firma—the solid surface and the planet's interior; the term includes geology (and all of its subdisciplines) along with significant portions of geophysics and geochemistry. Earth science (also geoscience) refers to all of the disciplines that study the planet and includes oceanography; atmospheric science; hydrology; and parts of ecology, biology, and solar-terrestrial physics. Earth system is used in reference to all of these disciplines and emphasizes their interactive processes.

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

are many major challenges facing solid-earth scientists as they serve societal needs. Prominent among these are:

  • to provide sufficient resources—for example, water, minerals, and fuels

  • to cope with hazards—for example, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, tsunamis, and floods

  • to avoid perturbing geological environments—for example, soil erosion, water contamination, improper mining practices, and waste disposal; and

  • to learn how to anticipate and adjust to environmental and global changes.

An important force driving earth science research is human curiosity regarding our origins, evolution, and the processes that shape our environments.

Programs designed to improve the human condition, whether related to resources, hazards, or environmental change, depend on the results of basic research aimed at expanding our understanding of the Earth's processes. Therefore, the GOAL OF THE SOLID-EARTH SCIENCES is:

to understand the past, present, and future behavior of the whole earth system. From the environments where life evolves on the surface to the interaction between the crust and its fluid envelopes (atmosphere and hydrosphere), this interest extends through the mantle and the outer core to the inner core. A major challenge is to use this understanding to maintain an environment in which the biosphere and humankind will continue to flourish.

New concepts and methodologies are emerging that permit the synthesis of solid-earth science data on a global scale. The new capabilities allow construction of testable models of interaction among the many subsystems that form the whole earth system. This global view was heralded by the plate tectonics revolution, which recognized that material making up the rigid outer plates comes from the interior at suboceanic spreading centers, is modified at the surface, and either returns to the interior at subduction zones or is added to the continents. Current research into the interconnected systems aims at developing an understanding of convection in the solid interior, the specific plate-driving mechanism, and the connection between convection and the hydrosphere and biosphere, including long-term atmospheric and oceanic changes.

Pure and applied earth sciences are intimately interwoven.


Twenty-five years ago our understanding of the global system was revolutionized by plate tectonics and the recognition of a highly mobile outer shell of the Earth. This breakthrough, as well as the continued demand for water, mineral, and energy resources, led to a surge in the number of qualified researchers. These researchers have access to advanced instrumentation in laboratories, in the field at the Earth's surface on land and sea, and in aircraft and in space. Computational capabilities have revolutionized the handling of the vast amounts of data generated in earth science research and facilitated the rapid construction and testing of sophisticated models.

Although recent years have, in some sense, been the best of times with the introduction of new concepts and sophisticated observing systems, the increasing calls for guidance or predictions or solutions for major societal problems require an even more dedicated cadre of earth scientists and facilities to meet the challenges of the next century. The expectation continues that the earth science community in the United States will play a leadership role in global scientific cooperative research. This report addresses the research areas, their applications, and the personnel and facility requirements for the U.S. earth sciences to fulfill national and international expectations.

During most of the twentieth century, the mineral and energy extractive industries employed most of the geologists and geophysicists and commanded a large fraction of the basic and applied research conducted. Because they are fundamentally cyclical industries, their support of research has waxed and waned with economic fluctuations. The resource industries are now restructuring, and there is a growth of employment and research opportunities related to environmental matters and engineering geology, including hydrology and waste isolation. These areas may become the

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

dominant opportunities for future geoscientists. Indeed, the environment between the solid and fluid geospheres is recognized as a major challenge in the solid-earth sciences. The recommendations and priorities presented in this report focus strongly on the problems of the solid-earth sciences and the opportunities for understanding that they provide.


Priority Themes: Objectives and Research Areas

The range and scale of research opportunities far exceed the financial and personnel requirements that could reasonably be available. Therefore, priorities are given to guide the allocation of available resources. The only reliable prediction about where scientific breakthroughs can be expected is that such predictions will fail to anticipate discoveries that emerge unexpectedly from investigations. It is therefore important to maintain some level of research activity across the entire field and to ensure that the system is creative and responsive to new ideas and techniques. The committee structured its priorities on the basis of four broad objectives and the major research areas that support them. This framework of objectives and research areas was the basis for the committee's consideration of priorities in the solid-earth sciences.

The following four objectives are derived from the challenges facing society in which fundamental understanding of the solid-earth sciences plays a primary role:

  1. Understand the processes involved in the global earth system, with particular attention to the linkages and interactions between its parts (the geospheres)

  2. Sustain sufficient supplies of natural resources

  3. Mitigate geological hazards

  4. Minimize and adjust to the effects of global and environmental change

The committee selected the following five research areas that will provide the understanding needed to address the above objectives:

  1. Global paleoenvironments and biological evolution

  2. Global geochemical and biogeochemical cycles

  3. Fluids in and on the Earth

  4. Dynamics of the crust (oceanic and continental)

  5. Dynamics of the core and mantle

These research areas all relate to the dynamic behavior of the earth system, but they emphasize different time scales, processes, and environments, and they progress from the surface downward into the core. These research areas also provide much of the scientific basis for the objectives.

The objectives and research areas identified in this report are used in two different ways. First, they can be used as the axes of a 4 x 5 matrix to provide detail about solid-earth science research. The entries in the matrix could be current research projects, recommended research topics, or federal funding of research, among others. Indeed, we use the matrix in all these ways. Second, understanding the processes (Objective A) in each of the five research areas, plus the other three objectives, can form an eight-item list, which we designate as priority themes. These priority themes (Table 1) are all important areas for research in the solid-earth sciences that provide the promise of achieving the scientific goals, and we use these themes as a first step toward defining research priorities.

Selection of High-Priority Research Opportunities

In selecting the highest-priority research opportunities for each of the priority themes, the committee concentrated on processes rather than disciplines. A rather comprehensive list of research opportunities was identified; this list is given in Table 2. From the great variety of worthy research topics, a limited set of research opportunities was selected for each priority theme. This set represents a second stage in the selection of research priorities. Detailed discussion by the committee developed a remarkable degree of consensus concerning the high-priority research opportunities.

The selected top-priority research opportunity for each priority theme is given in the research recommendations below. There are supporting and supplementary research programs associated with each top-priority research selection as well as other high-priority research programs. For each top-priority selection, two additional high-priority research subjects are listed (with three for resources), most of which could compete strongly for the top position. The importance of maintaining research on a broad front cannot be overemphasized.

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

TABLE 1 The Objectives and Research Areas Used Throughout the Report a



To Understand the Processes in All Research Areas


To understand the origin and evolution of the Earth's crust, mantle, and core and to comprehend the linkages between the solid-earth and its fluid envelopes and the solid-earth and the biosphere. We need to maintain an environment in which the biosphere and humankind can flourish without risk of mutual or shared destruction.


To Sustain Sufficient Supplies of Natural Resources


To develop dynamic, physical, and chemical methods of determining the locations and extent of nonrenewable resources and of exploiting those resources using environmentally responsible techniques. The question of sustainability, the carrying capacity of the Earth, becomes more significant as the resource requirements grow.


To Mitigate Geological Hazards


To determine the nature of geological hazards, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, soil erosion, floods, and materials (e.g., asbestos, radon) and to reduce, control, and mitigate the effects of these hazardous phenomena. It is important to consider risk assessment and levels of acceptable risk.


To Minimize and Adjust to the Effects of Global and Environmental Change


To mitigate and remediate the adverse effects produced by global changes of environment and changes resulting from modification of the environment by human beings. These latter changes may necessitate changes in human behavior. In order to predict continued environmental changes and their effects on the Earth's biosphere, we need the historical perspective given by reconstructed past changes.

Research Areas


Global Paleoenvironments and Biological Evolution


To develop a record of how the Earth, its atmosphere, its hydrosphere, and its biosphere have evolved on all time scales from the shortest to the longest. Such a record would provide perspective for understanding continuing environmental change and for facilitating resource exploration.


Global Geochemical and Biogeochemical Cycles


To determine how and when materials have moved among the geospheres crossing the interfaces between mantle and crust, continent and ocean floor, solid-earth and hydrosphere, solid-earth and atmosphere, and hydrosphere and atmosphere. Interactions between the whole solid-earth system and its fluid envelopes represents a further challenge. Cycling through the biosphere and understanding how that process has changed in time is of special interest.


Fluids in and on the Earth


To understand how fluids move within the Earth and on its surface. The fluids include water, hydrocarbons, magmas rising from great depths to volcanic eruptions, and solutions and gases distributed mainly through the crust but also in the mantle.


Crustal Dynamics: Ocean and Continent


To understand the origin and evolution of the Earth's crust and uppermost mantle. The ocean basins, island arcs, continents, and mountain belts are built and modified by physical deformations and mass transfer processes. These tectonic locales commonly host resources introduced by chemical and physical transport.


Core and Mantle Dynamics


To provide the basic geophysical, geochemical, and geological understanding as to how the internal engine of our planet operates on the grandest scale and to use such data to improve conditions on Earth by predicting and developing theories for global earth systems

a Sequence implies no ranking. All of the research areas and Objectives B, C, and D are treated as priority themes; Objective A involves understanding the processes in each of the research areas, and so was not itself designated as a separate priority theme.


Personnel Requirements

Geologists and other solid-earth scientists have played a pivotal role in sustaining societal growth for the past century. Through their efforts great deposits of underground water, minerals, and energy resources have been found and made available. The composition and dynamics of the solid-earth have been explored, leading to insights of scientific, aesthetic, and economic value. Interactions with the defense community have been organized around a common interest in the physical nature of the Earth, a concern over ensuring adequate supplies of strategic materials, and activities ranging from development of navigation systems for submarines by mapping the magnetic field to detection of underground nuclear explosions.

If advances in the solid-earth sciences are to meet evolving societal needs, there must be a sufficient number of well-qualified professionals. Employment projections indicate that opportunities in the earth sciences are growing, with particular emphasis on issues of engineering geology, groundwater, the siting of waste repositories, and environmental cleanups.

Education Requirements

During the latter half of the 1980s, there was a nationwide decline in enrollment in university earth

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

science courses and in the number of undergraduate earth science majors. This is a major concern at a time when the need for earth science expertise is increasingly recognized. The content of earth science curricula has lagged behind the rapidly changing societal concerns and employment opportunities, and major revisions in how the earth sciences are defined and taught are now being made.

General introductory courses at universities should be among the best that an earth science department offers. For many students, such courses may be their only planned exposure to the earth sciences. These courses must both educate future citizens and attract potential earth science majors. Earth science departments also need to collaborate with education departments in designing programs for future precollege teachers of the earth sciences.

Two significant changes in curricula are likely to develop in the 1990s. First, there will be a greater need for courses preparing students for growth in such areas as hydrology, land-use planning and engineering geology, environmental and urban geology, and waste disposal, which will result from society's need to devise environmentally sound ways of exploiting mineral and energy resources. Second, the conventional disciplinary courses will be supplemented by more comprehensive courses in earth system science that emphasize the interrelationships and feedback processes and the involvement of the biosphere in geochemical cycles. For both undergraduate and graduate earth science students, flexibility, versatility, and a firm foundation in basic sciences are crucial. Fundamental principles must be emphasized, because the narrow focus of initial job training will eventually become obsolete as national needs change.

Facilities and Equipment

In recent years technological progress has transformed the analytical tools available to earth scientists. Although the course of science is largely unpredictable, the needs of a discipline for instruments and facilities must be planned in advance. New instruments and facilities are needed to advance the highly promising research areas identified in this report.

The approach taken by the committee was to determine the most important earth processes and then to consider what methods and facilities would be most effective in providing answers to the process-oriented problems. No attempt was made to prioritize facilities and equipment; this will be highly dependent on the priority themes being addressed. The needed facilities and instruments are discussed under the Research Opportunities sections in Chapters 2 through 5 and are summarized in Chapter 6. Actual equipment ranges from large platforms (such as space satellites and drilling vessels) through supercomputers and laboratory experimental equipment (such as large-volume, high-pressure apparatus) to sensitive analytical instruments (such as ion microprobes), a host of smaller laboratory instruments, and field equipment (such as digital seismometers). Many of the priority themes share the need for certain instrumentation and facilities. This multiple use is one of the criteria that might be used in decisions about prioritization of equipment purchase, given a budget allocation. Another is the novelty of the research and exploration made possible by the equipment.

Data Gathering and Handling

The earth sciences, along with many other fields, are experiencing revolutions in data handling and computing. There are enormous amounts of information available to solid-earth scientists in the form of maps, text, physical samples, aerial and space-based imagery, well logs, potential field data, and seismic data, for example. The acquisition, retention, dissemination, and use of data have changed because of the rapid development of the computer. The growth and use of digital data have overwhelmed more traditional methods of data management. Within the profession, coordination of the retention and distribution of data is currently limited. Incompatible data formats, lack of knowledge about the existence of data, proprietary and national security concerns, and the lack of available archives all limit the potential use of data in solving important problems.

The traditional focus has been on the scientific effort, not data management. This emphasis is appropriate and should continue; however, ways of managing and resources for handling data acquired through scientific studies should be considered in the early stages of planning experimental programs and investigations.

Greatly improving the availability and utility of solid-earth science data requires a national solid-earth science data policy or set of guidelines to address a wide range of issues. Such a policy should deal with issues of data conversion (from analog to digital form), data rescue, incentives for data retention and dissemination, data-base standardization, exchange formats, data directories or catalogs, in-

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

TABLE 2 Research Opportunities




Research Areas

A. Understand Processes

B. Sustain Sufficient Resources Water, Minerals, Fuels

I. Global Paleoenvironments and Biological Evolution

■ Soil development and contamination

■ Glacier ice and its inclusions

■ Quaternary record

■ Recent global changes 

■ Paleogeography and paleoclimatology 

■ Paleoceanography 

■ Forcing factors in environmental change 

■ History of life 

■ Discovery and curation of fossils 

■ Abrupt and catastrophic changes 

■ Organic geochemistry

■ Mineral deposits through time

II. Global Geochemical and Biogeochemical Cycles

■ Geochemical cycles: atmospheres and oceans

■ Evolution of crust from mantle

■ Fluxes along ocean spreading centers and continental rift systems

■ Fluxes at convergent plate margins

■ Mathematical modeling in geochemistry

■ Organic geochemistry and the origin of petroleum

■ Microbiology and soils

III. Fluids in and on the Earth

■ Analysis of drainage basins

■ Mineral-water interface geochemistry

■ Pore fluids and active tectonics

■ Magma generation and migration

■ Kinetics of water-rock interaction

■ Analysis of drainage basins

■ Water quality and contamination

■ Modeling water flow

■ Source-transport-accumulation models

■ Numerical modeling of the depositional environment

■ In situ mineral resource extraction

■ Crustal fluids

IV. Crustal Dynamics: Ocean and Continent

■ Landform response to change

■ Quantification of feedback mechanisms for landforms

■ Mathematical modeling of landform changes

■ Sequence stratigraphy

■ Oceanic lithosphere generation and accretion

■ Continental rift valleys

■ Sedimentary basins and continental margins

■ Continental-scale modeling

■ Metasomatism and metamorphism of lithosphere

■ State of the crust: thermal, strain, stress

■ Convergent plate boundary lithosphere

■ History of mountain ranges: depth-temperature-time

■ Quantitative understanding of earthquake rupture

■ Rates of recent geological processes

■ Real-time plate movements and near-surface deformations

■ Geological prediction

■ Modern geological maps

■ Sedimentary basin analysis

■ Surface and soil isotopic ages

■ Prediction of mineral resource occurrences

■ Concealed ore bodies

■ Intermediate-scale search for ore bodies

■ Exploration for new petroleum reserves

■ Advanced production and recovery methods

■ Coal availability and accessibility

■ Coal petrology and quality

■ Concealed geothermal fields

V. Core and Mantle Dynamics

■ Origin of the magnetic field

■ Core-mantle boundary 

■ Imaging the Earth's interior 

■ Experiments at high pressures and temperatures

■ Chemical geodynamics 

■ Geodynamic modeling


Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.



Research Areas

C. Mitigate Geological Hazards Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Landslides

D. Minimize Global and Environmental Change Assess, Mitigate, Remediate

I. Global Paleoenvironments and Biological Evolution


■ Environmental impact of mining coal

■ Past global change

■ Catastrophic changes in the past

■ Solid-earth processes in global change

■ Global data base of present-day measurements

■ Volcanic emissions and climate modification

II. Global Geochemical and Biogeochemical Cycles

■ Seismic safety of reservoirs

■ Precursory phenomena and volcanic eruptions

■ Volume-changing soils

■ Earth-science/materials/medical research

■ Biological control of organic chemical reactions

■ Geochemistry of waste management

III. Fluids in and on the Earth


■ Isolation of radioactive waste

■ Groundwater protection

■ Waste disposal

■ In situ cleanup of hazardous waste

■ New mining technologies

■ Waste disposal from mining operations

■ Disposal of spent reactor material

IV. Crustal Dynamics: Ocean and Continent

■ Earthquake prediction

■ Paleoseismology

■ Geological mapping of volcanoes 

■ Remote sensing of volcanoes 

■ Quaternary tectonics 

■ Densifying soil materials 

■ Landslide susceptibility maps 

■ Preventing landslides 

■ Dating techniques 

■ Real-time geology 

■ Systems approach to geomorphology 

■ Extreme events modifying the landscape

■ Geographic information systems 

■ Land use and reuse 

■ Hazard-interaction problems 

■ Detection of neotectonic features 

■ Bearing capacity of weathered rocks 

■ Urban planning: underground space 

■ Geophysical subsurface exploration 

■ Detection of underground voids


V. Core and Mantle Dynamics



Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

FIGURE 1 Estimated percentages of total federal agency expenditures (fiscal year 1990) in the solid-earth sciences; details are given in Appendix A.

formation systems research, and training of students and professionals in data management.

Funding for Priority Themes

Total federal funding for solid-earth science activities in fiscal year 1990 was on the order of $1,368 million (see Appendix A). Figure 1 shows the relative percentages of support by the different departments and agencies. Details (in relation to the priority themes) of the types of activities that were supported are given in Appendix A.

Considering the overall distribution of federal support in Appendix A across the priority themes, there do not appear to be significant gaps, which indicates that the existing national research structure is working reasonably well. Many of the priority themes are already well established. New funding for modern equipment, technical support staff, and adequate ongoing operating support is required to sustain important progress on most of the themes.

Future science planners might benefit by keeping in view the overall distribution of funds among overlapping and interlocking priority themes. The selections and funding base are considered to be the starting points for priority considerations for the next decade of research. Each federal agency should do what it can to increase support in those high-priority areas within its domain, developing a schedule to bring the appropriate equipment and facilities into operation as funding permits. For several programs, closer coordination among agencies would surely be fiscally sound as well as beneficial to scientific inquiry.

State geological surveys had a combined budget of $133 million in 1991, a base equal to about 10 percent of the federal support; these expenditures tend to focus on site-specific issues. The petroleum and mining industries have typically spent an amount equivalent to about a quarter of the federal total on solid-earth science research (usually resource focused but with an increasing amount of effort devoted to environmental issues).

International scientific cooperation is needed to understand global earth systems.

Global Collaboration

In 1982 the National Science Board pointed out that ''maintaining the vigor of the U.S. research effort requires a broad, worldwide program of cooperation with outstanding scientists in many nations." The solid-earth sciences, by their very nature, have always had a global orientation, but a special opportunity is at hand for international activities. It is now irrefutable that humans are altering the environment of the Earth at a rapid rate. A growing concern of all nations is the influence of increasing populations on the environment. Understanding and addressing global changes demand

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

international cooperation and planning. The earth sciences, through their emphasis on international research and communication, can help show the way toward a new era of global cooperation in science and societal relations. Solid-earth scientists will play increasingly important roles in assembling crucial data required to make provident decisions on an ever increasing range of issues. The United States, as a member of the global community, has a responsibility to aid in resolving such problems in the interest of all humanity.

In addition, many geological processes that are known but imperfectly displayed in the United States must be studied in other countries in order to be understood. For example, the principles of metallogenesis, tectonism, and crustal evolution that are applied to geological studies in the United States are derived from observations made throughout the world. This leads to refinements in our understanding of earth processes.


Recommendations for action in the areas affecting the solid-earth sciences—education, research support, and the national approach to both—are presented below. The committee's overarching recommendation, which is basic to all its other suggestions, is that there should be a commitment within the United States to earth system science. Knowledge of the interrelationships among the solid-earth, its fluid envelopes, and the biosphere is crucial to humankind's continued well-being.

Education Recommendations

The continued vitality of the solid-earth sciences is critically dependent on a continuous supply of well-prepared geoscientists. Chapter 6 presents a number of specific actions for the graduate, undergraduate, and secondary-school levels. Three recommendations for college curricula merit special attention:

  1. Conventional disciplinary courses should be supplemented with more comprehensive courses in earth system science. Such courses should emphasize the whole Earth, interrelationships and feedback processes, and the involvement of the biosphere in geochemical cycles.

  2. New courses need to be developed to prepare students for increased employment and research opportunities in such areas as hydrology, land use, engineering geology, environmental and urban geology, and waste disposal. Such courses will be necessary to prepare students for changing careers in both the extractive industries and environmental areas of the earth sciences. No longer are these two areas separate, as mineral and energy resources need to be exploited in environmentally sound ways.

  3. Colleges and universities should explore new educational opportunities (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) that bridge the needs of earth science and engineering departments. This need arises from the growth of problems related to land use, urban geology, environmental geology and engineering, and waste disposal. The convergence of interests and research is striking, and the classical subject of "engineering geology" could become a significant redefined area of critical importance for society.

Research Recommendations

The committee discovered a remarkable degree of consensus when it selected the top-priority research opportunities for each of the priority themes; the eight themes are listed below and are summarized in Table 3. Each has two high-priority research opportunities associated with it under the same priority theme (with a third for resources). In many cases they were strong contenders for the top-priority position. These high-priority selections follow the top-priority selections.

Priority Theme A-I

Top-priority: There should be a coordinated effort to understand how the Earth's environment and biology have changed in the past 2.5-million-years. The current research activities of many federal agencies bear on this issue, and international involvement would be appropriate as well.

High-priority topics are:

  • characterization of the environmental and biological changes that have taken place over the past 150-million-years, since the oldest preserved oceans began to evolve, and

  • exploration of environmental and biological changes prior to 150-million-years ago.

Priority Theme A-II

Top-priority: The earth sciences need to establish how global geochemical cycles have oper-

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

TABLE 3 Summary of the Top-Priority and High-Priority Research Opportunities for Each Theme



A-I Global Paleoenvironments and Biological Evolution

The Past 2.5-Million-Years

■ The past 150-million-years

■ Prior to 150-million-years ago

A-II. Global Geochemical and Biogeochemical Cycles

Biogeochemistry and Rock Cycles Through Time

■ Construct models of the interaction between cycles

■ Establish how geochemical cycles operate in the modern world

A-III. Fluids in and on the Earth

Fluid Pressure and Fluid Composition in the Crust

■ Fluid flow in sedimentary basins

■ Microbial influences on fluid chemistry

A-IV. Crustal Dynamics: Ocean and Continent

Active Crustal Deformation

■ Landform responses to climatic, tectonic, and hydrologic events

■ Understanding crustal evolution

A-V. Core and Mantle Dynamics

Mantle Convection

■ Origin and variation of the magnetic field

■ Nature of the core-mantle boundary

B. To Sustain Sufficient Natural Resources

Improve the Monitoring and Assessment of the Nation's Water Quantity and Quality

■ Sedimentary basin research

■ Thermodynamic and kinetic understanding of water-rock interaction and mineral-water interface geochemistry

■ Energy and mineral exploration, production, and assessment strategies

C. To Mitigate Geological Hazards

Define and Characterize Regions of Seismic Hazard

■ Define and characterize areas of landslide hazard

■ Define and characterize potential volcanic hazards

D. To Minimize and Adjust to the Effects of Global and Environmental Change

Develop the Ability to Remediate Polluted Groundwaters, Emphasizing Microbial Methods

■ Isolation of toxic and radioactive waste

■ Geochemistry and human health

ated through time. This information, which is essential to working out how the earth system operates, is now a realistic target that could be achieved by coordinating a number of federal programs and current national and international activities.

High-priority topics are:

  • construction of models of the interaction between biogeochemical cycles and the solid-earth and climatic cycles and

  • establishment of how geochemical cycles operate in the modern world.

Priority Theme A-III

Top-priority: The earth sciences need to take up the challenge of investigating the three-dimensional distribution of fluid pressure and fluid composition in the Earth's crust. The instrumental, observational, and modeling capabilities that exist within various federal programs can be effectively focused on this problem. International coordination is important.

High-priority topics are:

  • modeling fluid flow in sedimentary basins and

  • improved understanding of microbial influences on fluid chemistry, particularly groundwater.

Priority Theme A-IV

Top-priority: There should be coordinated and intensified efforts to understand active crustal deformation. The opportunity exists to revolutionize current knowledge of this area, which is vital not only to the solid-earth sciences but also to the missions of several federal agencies and various state and international bodies.

High-priority topics are:

  • exploration of landform response to climatic, tectonic, and hydrologic events and

  • increased comprehension of crustal evolution.

Priority Theme A-V

Top-priority: An integrated attack needs to be mounted to solve the problems of understand-

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

ing mantle convection. Seismic networks, satellite data, high-pressure experiments, magnetic observatories, geochemistry, drilling, and computational modeling can all be brought to bear. Again, federal, national, and international organizations will be involved.

High-priority topics are:

  • establishment of the origin and temporal variation of the Earth's internally generated magnetic field and

  • determination of the nature of the core-mantle boundary.

Priority Theme B

Top-priority: A dense network of water quality and quantity measurements, including resampling at appropriate intervals, should be established as a basis for scientific advances. Coordination of federal and state agencies that have programs in the field will be needed.

High-priority topics are:

  • sedimentary basin research, particularly for improved resource recovery;

  • improvement of thermodynamic and kinetic understanding of water-rock interaction and mineral-water interface geochemistry; and

  • development of energy and mineral exploration, production, and assessment strategies.

Priority Theme C

Top-priority: There should be an effort to define and characterize regions of seismic hazard. Because many people (and much property) in the United States are endangered by earthquakes, improved understanding of seismic occurrences is a pressing need. This issue is important to the missions of several federal agencies and to organizations ranging from local to international.

High-priority topics are:

  • definition and characterization of areas of landslide hazard and

  • definition and characterization of potential volcanic hazards.

Priority Theme D

Top-priority: The earth sciences need to develop the ability to remediate polluted groundwaters on local and regional scales, emphasizing microbial methods. Coordination of local, industry, state, and federal activities will enhance the potential for success, and international involvement would be desirable.

High-priority topics are:

  • secure the isolation of toxic and radioactive waste from household, industrial, nuclear-plant, mining, milling, and in situ leaching sources and

  • investigation of the relationship between geochemistry and human health.

General Recommendations

Recommended priorities for research will need to be developed within the existing complex structure in which federal agencies, most with highly specific missions, interact with universities, industry, and each other. These groups should also be interacting with professional societies, state and local agencies, other nations, and international organizations. The recommendations that follow are intended to provide guidance for the diverse communities involved in research and practice in the solid-earth sciences in the coming decade.

RECOMMENDATION 1. There should be a major commitment to the study of the whole earth system, emphasizing interrelationships among all parts of the Earth. The recommended commitment should be akin to the space missions that have revolutionized our understanding of other planets in the past two decades. We are able for the first time to recognize features associated with the internal evolution of our planet, the actual heterogeneities that drive the geological processes of the Earth. Thus, we are at the threshold of a new and fundamental understanding of global geological phenomena. To be effective, a "Mission to Planet Earth" must be a visionary and broad-ranging study of our entire planet, from core to crust. At least four elements are widely recognized as being crucial to this program: (1) the need for global observations, including those based on space technologies and international collaborations; (2) the development and application of novel instrumentation; (3) the utilization of new computer technologies; and (4) a commitment to support advanced training.

RECOMMENDATION 2. High-priority should continue to be given to the best proposals from individual investigators. The intellectual resources represented by members of the earth

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.

science community are our most valuable asset. The U.S. scientific and industrial population may receive less support in some areas than its international competitors, but it does not suffer from lack of imagination. Core support for individual investigators is the best way to ensure that the diversity of ideas and approaches that are at the root of American inventiveness remains a strong feature of the U.S. effort.

RECOMMENDATION 3. The newest tools for data acquisition need to be made available for use in earth science research. Advanced instrumentation is urgently needed for experiment and analysis in the laboratory and for deployment in space (on satellites), at sea (on research vessels and on the sea bottom), in aircraft, and on land (in networks and in boreholes and movable arrays).

RECOMMENDATION 4. Opportunities for the integration and use of observations and measurements from advanced space-borne instruments in solid-earth geophysics and geology should continue to be made available. The opportunity for increased understanding of the continents using an integrated approach with remote sensing, field, laboratory, and other data (e.g., seismic) is extraordinary. Remote sensing data should be incorporated and used as a standard field geology tool, throughout the undergraduate curriculum and especially in field geology courses. At the graduate level, research should address geological problems aided by remote sensing methods rather than consider remote sensing as a separate discipline.

RECOMMENDATION 5. There is an essential need for the production and availability of interactive data banks on a national level within the earth sciences. With new methods of digital acquisition, handling, and archiving, and with the growth in the use of geographic information systems along with the Global Positioning System, there are major opportunities to apply the computer revolution to the solid-earth sciences. It is time to integrate the vast amounts of solid-earth science data in nondigital form, like maps, with the exponentially growing digital data sets. National coordination of data-handling services, retrieval procedures, networking, and dissemination practices is required to improve access to the wealth of data held by government, industrial, and academic organizations. This will ensure its best use in understanding the Earth, in sustaining resources, in mitigating impacts of hazards, and in adjusting to environmental change.

RECOMMENDATION 6. Efforts need to be made to expand earth science education to all. Citizens need to understand the earth system to make responsible decisions about use of its resources, avoidance of natural hazards, and maintenance of the Earth as a habitat. School systems must respond to this need. At the university level, curricula should be adjusted to meet the needs of contemporary society while maintaining excellence at the professional level.

RECOMMENDATION 7. Research partnerships involving industry-academia-government are encouraged to maximize our understanding of the Earth. Cooperative multidisciplinary investigations that pool intellectual resources residing in government, academic, and industrial sectors can produce more comprehensive research efforts. The primary objectives of governmental, industrial, and academic groups are diverse. The breadth of disciplines that collectively exist within groups spans our science, but each has its own primary research objectives. Each sector has much expertise to offer that would make it possible to capitalize on the complementary nature of collaboration. The solid-earth sciences stand to gain immeasurably if these three major research communities establish forward-looking cooperative programs.

RECOMMENDATION 8. Increased U.S. involvement in international cooperative projects in the solid-earth sciences and data exchange are essential. Increased understanding of the Earth as a system requires that regional problems be looked at from an international perspective. Cooperative programs involving both nongovernmental international science programs and individuals should be strengthened. Groups involved in U.S. foreign policy decisions should be aware of the importance of the earth sciences in global agreements about issues such as waste management, acid rain, hazard reduction, energy and mineral resources, and desertification. New linkages between the West, the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe present a timely opportunity for U.S. scientists to join with scientists from those countries in data collection and data sharing to increase knowledge of earth systems. Such cooperation with other countries also can be an important tool in U.S. foreign policy.

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1993. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1990.
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As environmental problems move upward on the public agenda, our knowledge of the earth's systems and how to sustain the habitability of our world becomes more critical. This volume reports on the state of earth science and outlines a research agenda, with priorities keyed to the real-world challenges facing human society.

The product of four years of development with input from more than 200 earth-science specialists, the volume offers a wealth of historical background and current information on:

  • Plate tectonics, volcanism, and other heat-generated earth processes.
  • Evolution of our global environment and of life itself, as revealed in the fossil record.
  • Human exploitation of water, fossil fuels, and minerals.
  • Interaction between human populations and the earth's surface, discussing the role we play in earth's systems and the dangers we face from natural hazards such as earthquakes and landslides.

This volume offers a comprehensive look at how earth science is currently practiced and what should be done to train professionals and adequately equip them to find the answers necessary to manage more effectively the earth's systems.

This well-organized and practical book will be of immediate interest to solid-earth scientists, researchers, and college and high school faculty, as well as policymakers in the environmental arena.

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