It’s Earth Science Week again, stimulated and coordinated by the AGI:
Since October 1998, the American Geological Institute has organized this national and international event to help the public gain a better understanding and appreciation for the Earth Sciences and to encourage stewardship of the Earth. This year's Earth Science Week will be held from October 10-16 and will celebrate the theme "Exploring Energy."
This time last year I connected this with the Earth Science Literacy Initiative, again an American program funded by the National Science Foundation, and I put together, inevitably, a discussion of how sand illustrates the “Big Ideas” documented by that initiative. I would like to think that, today, one year on, it would be possible to document progress in awareness and literacy, but I fear that it’s not. If anything, on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s got worse. The events surrounding “climategate” and its repercussions have profoundly damaged trust in science, in the UK research funding is about to be dismembered, anti-intellectualism is a vote-catcher in the bizarre corners of the US midterm elections, and news headlines continue to rely on fear and over-simplification. Yet the means by which the voices of science and scientists can create a meaningful riposte to all this remain elusive. And yet who could dispute the statement from the Earth Science Literacy initiative that:
An Earth-science-literate public, informed by current and accurate scientific understanding of Earth, is critical to the promotion of good stewardship, sound policy, and international cooperation. Earth science education is important for individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities.
While both of these projects are inspired by institutions in the US and directed in the first instance to an American audience, they are both of international importance: simply replace “American” with “global” in their content. And that content is excellent. Here are the “Big Ideas” (again, in the interests of generating a little momentum here and there):
Big Idea 1. Earth scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet.
Big Idea 2. Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
Big Idea 3. Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life.
Big Idea 4. Earth is continuously changing.
Big Idea 5. Earth is the water planet.
Big Idea 6. Life evolves on a dynamic Earth and continuously modifies Earth.
Big Idea 7. Humans depend on Earth for resources.
Big Idea 8. Natural hazards pose risks to humans.
And, since I certainly couldn’t put it any better, here’s an extract from the “Background and Motivation” section of the Earth Science Literacy document:
Defining a set of essential ideas that a literate American should know about the geosciences is a critical national need in an information-rich age characterized by a rapidly changing planet and numerous resource challenges. Critical decisions involving Earth science are continuously made within the political and educational realms, with significant impacts on all American citizens. In today’s world, it is no longer sufficient for scientific communities to assume that simply doing a good job of carrying out cutting edge research is sufficient. The research community simply must do a better job of making sure that its scientific discoveries do not get buried in libraries or on the Internet, but make it into mainstream circles. The research community must do a better job of helping the public understand the most important concepts emerging from geoscience research. However, understanding scientific discoveries requires a science-literate population. The Earth sciences literacy document that has been produced here will help accomplish that goal, and can help inform those who will make future decisions involving governmental legislation and educational science standards.
With the development of the Internet, our society has very rapidly gone from being information-poor to information-overwhelmed in the area of science (and many other areas as well). As a result, the need for a set of BIaSCs (“Big Ideas” and Supporting Concepts) has become paramount. There is an overwhelming amount of information available, but not necessarily any sense of how to navigate through it or determine what is most important. Someone trying to find out about an Earth science topic (a lawyer, engineer, museum director, textbook writer, legislator, etc.) could easily be overwhelmed by the amount of information available. A prioritization of essential ideas, carried out by the scientific communities, would provide the basis and framework that would help people navigate through the rapidly expanding amount of scientific information…
It is quite possible that, from the perspective of future civilizations, the 21st century will be defined by three things: climate change, water availability, and energy resources. These three are not independent, of course, and the fate of humanity will rest upon how they are addressed over the next 100 years. Importantly, in the context of the current proposal, all three are deeply rooted in the areas of Earth science. Many important political, legal and ethical decisions are being made related to these issues that already severely affect the lives of all Americans. The lack of clear, concise and comprehensive community-driven guidelines puts all Americans at risk of bad decisions made either through either ignorance or self-interest. For example, the resistance within certain spheres to accept the relevance and validity of global climate change for as long as it did caused our country significant embarrassment at an international level, and severely delayed international attempts to address the matter.
This is especially important in areas of Earth science, which are becoming increasingly relevant as human populations increase and natural resources dwindle. More than a third of all land not covered by ice is now used for producing food for humans (agriculture or the grazing of livestock). This land use must be planned with maximum understanding of Earth science, and the BIaSCs we have created here will become part of a process that help guide the education and policy-making needed to allow it to happen.
For the header for this post, I used the stunning image of our planet recently released by NASA. Rather than the traditional view with its emphasis on the continents, this image reveals the truth of the matter – the “Blue Marble” really is dominantly a water planet. The wording that goes along with the image is:
Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells.
This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. It is one of many images of our watery world featured in a new story examining water in all of its forms and functions. Here is an excerpt:
“In all, the Earth’s water content is about 1.39 billion cubic kilometers (331 million cubic miles), with the bulk of it, about 96.5%, being in the global oceans. As for the rest, approximately 1.7% is stored in the polar icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow, and another 1.7% is stored in groundwater, lakes, rivers, streams, and soil.
Only a thousandth of 1% of the water on Earth exists as water vapor in the atmosphere. Despite its small amount, this water vapor has a huge influence on the planet. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, and it is a major driver of the Earth’s weather and climate as it travels around the globe, transporting heat with it.
For human needs, the amount of freshwater for drinking and agriculture is particularly important. Freshwater exists in lakes, rivers, groundwater, and frozen as snow and ice. Estimates of groundwater are particularly difficult to make, and they vary widely. Groundwater may constitute anywhere from approximately 22 to 30% of fresh water, with ice accounting for most of the remaining 78 to 70%.”
And, on that note, I read two recent headlines: “Water cycle goes bust as the world gets warmer,” and “Expect More Floods as Global Water Cycle Speeds Up.” One predicts droughts and the other floods (all as a result of global warming). They are undoubtedly both right, in different ways and for different reasons; changes in the “global” water cycle (if there is such a thing and if we were genuinely able to measure it) result from profoundly complex interactions and feedbacks amongst a host of variables, and manifest themselves in very different ways at different places on the earth’s surface. Can we please look at these two pieces of research in this context – and learn from them through the spectacles of Earth Science Literacy?
[On the topic of science reporting in the media, Martin Robbins, on the UK Guardian newspaper site, recently wrote a great piece “This is a news website article about a scientific paper.” It’s very funny – but it’s also depressing in its accuracy: enjoy it and see if you can read a science report in the media in the same way ever again. And yesterday he described two completely conflicting interpretations of recent research on the sun's behaviour....]