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Strategic Planning Document -
Environment and Natural Resources

Chapter 4. Crosscutting Needs for Integrated
Environmental Research and Development

An effective, efficient, integrated research program must support informed policies for managing the environment and natural resources. Achieving this support requires a long-term commitment to a balanced research program of monitoring; data and information management; studies of fundamental chemical, physical, or biological processes; assessments and characterizations of potential environmental threats; and the development of new technologies for preventing or managing hazards.

Crosscutting needs of environmental R&D

  • Ecological systems research
  • Observations and data management
  • Research on socioeconomic dimensions of environmental change
  • Environmental technology
  • Science policy tools: integrated assessments and characterization of risks

The Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) relies on the findings and recommendations of the seven issue subcommittees to prioritize policy-relevant research to fill critical gaps in our understanding of the natural environment, the impacts of human activities on the environment, and the influences of environmental change on human (both biological and social) and ecological systems. In contrast, the three crosscutting subcommittees and two working groups span all the environmental areas addressed by the seven issue subcommittees. The crosscutting needs for environmental research were developed as an outcome of the CENR National Forum; they are:

  • Ecological systems research to understand the natural and human forces driving interactions among biodiversity, ecosystem dynamics, and management. A solid scientific base is essential to better anticipate change and sustainably manage the ecosystems we depend on (e.g., forests and agriculture).

  • Observations and data management to formulate and test predictive models that help us anticipate environmental problems. Effective management is increasingly important as the quantity of data grows and its forms diversify. Priorities are being set regarding what data should be collected. Interagency cooperation in both data collection and management is critical to avoid costly overlap.

  • Research on socioeconomic dimensions of environmental change to concentrate on the interaction between societal drivers, such as economic growth and international trade, and environmental change. Policies must be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in preventing, managing, and ameliorating environmental problems.

  • Environmental technology to remediate existing environmental contamination and move toward avoidance of environmental harm in all sectors of our economy.

  • Science policy tools to strengthen links between scientific assessments and formation of environmental policy. Of particular importance to enhance open dialogues about environmental issues are integrated assessments and effective characterization of environmental risks and uncertainties in scientific knowledge.

Ecosystem Research

National and international policymakers and managers are moving more toward including ecosystem perspectives in their decisions, and federal agencies are committed to advancing the scientific basis for these actions. Ecosystem research requires a multidisciplinary approach that examines the physical and biotic interactions between human activities and land, water, and air at various geographic scales. This approach involves developing a better understanding of the structure, function, and dynamics of ecological processes to predict ecosystem vulnerability to change, and the consequences of societal action or inaction at scales ranging from local to global, and for time frames from days to centuries.

Monitoring, research, modeling, and assessment tools are needed to address these issues. To promote coordination between federal programs with similar ecosystem-related objectives, the CENR has formed a working group to integrate ecosystem R&D needs across all relevant issue areas. (The Ecosystem Research Working Group is composed of members from all the CENR subcommittees.) Representatives from the White House Ecosystem Management Initiative provide an important link to policy and decision makers.

Ecosystem research needs

  • Documenting change in ecosystems.
  • Understanding processes and the effect of scale.
  • Synthesizing and assessing ecological data and information.
  • Predicting ecological change.
  • Interactions of human and ecological systems.
  • Restoration and management of ecological systems.

Environmental Goal

The goal is to develop a coordinated approach for providing the fundamental understanding of ecological systems necessary for assessing the ecological consequences of environmental change. This goal will promote the efficient use of natural resources to achieve desired social benefits (uses, products, or values) while sustaining ecosystem integrity (health, biological diversity, and function) for future generations by developing science-based principles for ecosystem management, and a predictive understanding of ecological impacts of environmental change.

Key Policy Objectives

An important challenge is to provide a mechanism for reconciling conflicting management objectives within a single ecological unit. An ecosystem approach requires that resource managers deal explicitly with the broader goals of multiple resources, constituents, jurisdictions, and ownerships. Through this new effort, resource managers will have a better scientific basis for integrating ecological, biophysical, and socioeconomic information into decisions. Other key issues relate to understanding ecosystems in order to detect and evaluate consequences associated with changing stresses.

Exotic Species Threatening Economy is Example
of Need for Ecosystem Research

The zebra mussel, accidentally introduced into North America, causes severe fouling of municipal and private drinking water systems, electric power generators, and industrial water intakes. Once inside an intake conduit, zebra mussels attach to surfaces, grow, and form colonies many inches thick. These colonies restrict water flow, obstruct valves, and clog heat exchangers and condensers. The mussels also impact aquatic food webs, ecosystems, commercial and sport fishing, boating and navigation, agricultural irrigation, aquaculture, and the recreational use of beaches. It has been estimated that the economic impact of this organism in the United States could total billion of dollars annually by the end of the 1990s.

The zebra mussel is a small, bivalved mollusk native to Europe and western Asia that was imported to the United States in ballast water from ships traveling internationally. Since its discovery in the Great Lakes in 1988, the zebra mussel has spread into North American fresh water resources, particularly throughout the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin and their navigable tributaries. Its introduction is one example of hundreds of nonindigenous species that have the potential to detrimentally affect ecological and economic systems. Biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics research provides the necessary baseline understanding of ecosystem processes to anticipate the impact of exotic species on indigenous species and ecosystems. Timely research on the biology, life history, and physiology of nonindigenous species, their effects on the environment and human activities, and their potential for becoming an economic factor are required to identify effective techniques for prevention, detection, monitoring, and control.

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

A common set of ecological science elements have emerged from the discussions of this working group, in conjunction with the planning activities of their respective issue subcommittees. These common elements define the areas of enhanced emphasis for CENR ecosystem research.

There is a need to provide a strong scientific basis for managing ecological systems in a sustainable manner. This need reflects concern both for the unintended consequences of human activities on ecological systems, such as effects of pollutants, climate change, and increases in carbon dioxide, and for the continued utility of ecological systems as providers of goods and services to society.

It is imperative that we understand and quantify the drivers of change in ecological systems. These drivers include both natural processes, such as weather and interannual climatic variability, and anthropogenic stresses such as extractive and non-extractive resource uses, impacts of pollutants, and physical alterations of the landscape. Understanding the importance of the influence and magnitude of different drivers of change, the collective influence of multiple stresses, the ecological consequences of the changes, and the feedbacks between ecosystems and their physical environments (e.g., composition of the atmosphere or ocean, land use, water quality, sediment flux) are all critical to developing strategies for sustainable development. The identification and understanding of these drivers is an inherent part of the following areas of enhanced emphasis for ecosystem research:

  • Documenting change in ecological systems. The CENR recognizes the importance of maintaining long-term monitoring and measurement activities guided by both scientific and managerial concerns, in order to enable the quantitative determination of whether effects of changing management, natural stresses and their dynamics, or unintended anthropogenic stresses are large or small.

  • Understanding processes in ecological systems. There is a need to better understand the processes that govern the character of ecosystems, control their natural dynamics, and regulate the ways in which they respond to natural or anthropogenic stresses. Understanding the relationship of ecosystem structure to function is key to understanding the role of biological diversity in ecosystem sustainability. Process level information is critical to assessment, and to prediction of response to future change.

  • Synthesizing and assessing ecological data and information. Determining the vulnerability of ecosystems to environmental change, or documenting the consequences of environmental change on ecological systems creates a critical demand for synthesis of available knowledge and modeling capabilities through an assessment process. Assessments play important roles in considering the significance of such issues as the effects of biodiversity loss on ecosystem integrity, or of climate change on ecosystem function.

  • Predicting ecological change. Research targeted at developing enhanced capability to predict ecosystem response to change is of high priority. Uncertainty associated with prediction is reduced through increased understanding of critical processes related to system function, while verification of predictions requires effective utilization of existing monitoring and measurement programs along with strategically targeted new data collection efforts.

  • Interactions of human and ecological systems. Societal demands for such ecosystem attributes as clean water, food, fiber, and recreation depend on biological processes and ecological systems. The many demands placed on these systems require an improved understanding of the social and economic value of the ecosystems. Efforts are being expanded to understand how social and economic forces interact with ecosystem attributes such as biodiversity, or food and fiber production. This information will facilitate the sustainable use of essential ecosystem components and functions.

  • Restoration, rehabilitation, and management of ecological systems. A serious issue of high priority is the restoration and rehabilitation of ecosystems that have already been damaged. The methods by which this may be done are underdeveloped. Enhanced efforts will include research directed toward better understanding of how natural and restored ecosystems operate; development of cost-effective restoration capabilities; and identification of realistic standards against which ecosystem restoration can be evaluated.

Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998

  • Define common objectives and principles for the organization and the conduct of ecosystem monitoring, research, prediction, analysis, and assessment. These objectives and principles could include, for example, criteria for selecting sites for ecosystem monitoring networks as geographically targeted laboratories to improve science-based ecosystem management and/or as U.S. contributions to international programs.

  • Identify key products that should result from ecosystem R&D such as the documentation and prediction of status and trends in ecosystems, assessments of vulnerabilities, assessments of driving forces and consequences of change, adaptive management strategies, and criteria for coordination, and ensure the compatibility of ecosystem research with long-term objectives related to resource use, land management, or global and international agreements.

  • Test models that include comprehensive treatment of ecological processes and influences in predictive climate models, and use these models to develop preliminary regional scenarios of climate change and to assess the environmental consequences of climate change on ecosystems and societal support systems such as agriculture, water resources, transport, and commerce.

Research Successes - Ecosystem Research

Observations and Data Management

Extensive earth observation and monitoring are a critical component of environmental and natural resource research that is aimed at advancing scientific understanding and developing predictive assessment capabilities, products, and services. Such observations, collected by ground-based, airborne, and satellite systems, result in enormous quantities of global, regional, and local data that must be adequately managed to be of use. Because researchers must be able to access, combine, and interrelate many different types of data from various sources, and because of the relatively high cost of the observation and data management systems, the CENR has adopted a strategic approach to these two fundamental activities that cut across all areas of environmental R&D. The coordination of observation and data management efforts also ensures that the data necessary to answer the questions of highest priority to both scientists and policymakers are being gathered and distributed and that U.S. efforts are taking full advantage of, and being sufficiently coordinated with, international efforts.

Environmental Goals

The CENR is working to inventory and integrate the nation's observation and data system requirements and capabilities. This work includes assessing the overlaps and gaps in existing capabilities and prioritizing new initiatives. This effort will lead to the development of a more comprehensive system of global and national observation and monitoring systems and a complementary data management system to ensure that environmental and natural resource information is widely and easily available to all stakeholders, consistent with our policy of full, open access to data.

Key Policy Objectives

The CENR serves as the U.S. focal point for international global observing system programs such as the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS), and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). These programs are sponsored by intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations including the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). These programs link existing and planned national systems and serve as the basis for a comprehensive global observing system.

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

Links are in place to make environmental and natural resource data of broader value to society. These include:

  • linking local-scale data collection efforts with regional- and global-scale efforts to enable the respective causes, effects, and interactions to be determined;

  • linking remote sensing data from satellites with in situ measurements ( ground truth data );

  • linking socioeconomic data with data on the natural environment, the importance of which is demonstrated by the growing use of geographic information systems that allow businesses and researchers to overlay Landsat data, weather data, and population and income data; and

  • making the agency environmental data and information available in forms useful to the public, educators, policymakers at all levels, business activities, and researchers.

Although the United States and many other nations are collecting critical environmental and natural resource data, successfully understanding many aspects of environmental science will require the implementation of an international policy of open and stable exchange of data and information. The United States promotes the continuance and extension of the full and open exchange of all environmental data and related information at no more than the marginal cost of fulfilling specific user requests.

Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998

Near-term objectives in the area of observations and data management include the following:

  • Identify priority observation and information requirements for environmental research and the development of a strategy to close information gaps, identify redundancies, and ensure efficient allocations of resources.

  • Complete an electronic index of key environmental and natural resource data sets, allowing easy access by all users through the information superhighway to data available in various U.S. data and information systems such as including the Global Change Data and Information System, the Federal Geographic Data System, and the National Environmental Data Index.

  • Develop implementation strategies for the U.S. components of an international global observing system, including the associated data and information system, to ensure that U.S. activities are being appropriately coordinated with other relevant international efforts in order to leverage U.S. resources. The effort associated with making global-scale observations is greater than any one nation can undertake; therefore, international cooperation allows for the application of resources to common problems while minimizing unnecessary duplication of effort.

  • Implement the Global Change Data and Information System based on its recently approved interagency plan to make data widely and readily available while ensuring the quality, compatibility, accessibility, and archiving of valuable global change information.

  • Complete mapping and change detection of coastal land cover for all major coastal areas of the United States.

  • Computerize and make accessible the data records for existing species specimen collections.

  • Develop an integrated information base on the ecological, technological, socioeconomic, and political factors associated with natural resource systems, and link these data to predictive models that evaluate tradeoffs between resources, resource mixes, and alternative uses.

Earth Observing System (EOS)

To advance scientific understanding of the entire earth system, it is essential that global observations are collected and made available to a broad range of users. The best way to accomplish this is through a program of long-term observations from space. To achieve this goal, U.S. agencies are cooperating with other countries in developing an international Earth Observing System (EOS). EOS is a series of polar-orbiting and lower-inclination satellites that will provide global observations of the land surface, oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere over a minimum of 15 years. This timeframe of continuous observation is critical to the study of climate change processes, which are annual to decadal in length, and to enable researchers to distinguish natural variation from human-induced changes.

EOS will greatly enhance our ability to understand and predict the effects of many parts of the complex earth system, including:

  • Water and energy cycles. Cloud formation, dissipation, and radiative properties influence the response of the atmosphere to greenhouse forcing and are key to understanding precipitation and evaporation that moderate the earth's temperature.

  • Oceans. Understanding the exchange of energy, water, and chemicals between the ocean and atmosphere and between upper and lower layers of the ocean is critical to the eventual prediction of El Nino events and other phenomena of great consequence to agriculture and fishing.

  • Chemistry of troposphere and lower stratosphere. The troposphere is where we live, and changes in the concentration of trace gases can affect ecosystems in the process of influencing climate change.

  • Land-surface hydrology and ecosystem processes. Land cover change, sources and sinks of greenhouse gases, exchange of moisture and energy between land and atmosphere, and water runoff from land surface to oceans are all interwoven and play an important role in regional and global water resources required by agriculture and industry.

  • Glaciers and polar ice sheets. Changes in size and movement must be tracked as a key measure of global climate change. These changes are important determinants of sea-level change and of the global fresh water balance.

  • Chemistry of the stratosphere. This is the arena of ozone loss, which has demonstrated the need for studying chemical reactions, solar-atmosphere effects, and sources and sinks of greenhouse gases to assess adverse impacts of reduced ozone and increased ultraviolet radiation on the earth's ecosystems.

  • Solid earth. Volcanoes have a major influence on atmospheric chemistry and temperature, and their role must be understood to complete the climate change picture.

EOS data on these components of the earth system will be analyzed by more than 700 scientists and 200 graduate students funded by the EOS program and by the broader national and international scientific community. In addition to 19 instrument science teams, 29 interdisciplinary science investigations are under way to increase the use and utility of existing satellite data and to prepare for use of the new types of data expected from new EOS instruments.

EOS data will be made available to these and other researches worldwide by the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS). The principal component of a larger Global Change Data and Information System, EOSDIS provides one-stop shopping for users of data and data products from EOS and related satellites through a set of discipline-oriented Distributed Active Archive Centers. EOSDIS is evolutionary in its development, growing in capability as new computer technologies and new observational capabilities become available. Currently, a version 0 of EOSDIS is making data available from operating and past satellites that are important precursors to EOS, such as the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, TOPEX/Poseidon, Landsat 4/5, the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment, and the operational meteorological satellites.

EOS supports interdisciplinary science investigations, training of the next generation of earth system scientists, new observational capabilities during an extended period of 15 years, and a comprehensive data and information system. These capabilities will enable scientists to move from qualitative to quantitative, and from descriptive to predictive, study of the earth system. The knowledge gained will be used to assess the impact of natural and human-induced changes in the global climate system and to make the difficult policy decisions that lie ahead.

Research Successes - Observations and Data Management

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Environment and Natural Resources - Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Executive Summary

Research Successes - Ecosystem Research

Research Successes - Observation & Data Management

Research Successes - Biodiversity

Research Successes - Environmental Technology

Research Successes - Global Change


Research Successes - Natural Disaster Reduction

Research Successes - Environmental Change

Research Successes - Forest Research

Research Successes - Air Quality

Research Successes - Lead Levels

Research Successes - Science Policy Tools

Research Successes - Water Resources