clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


In 1966, freelance photographer Stewart Brand, wearing a pink and blue sandwich board, kicked off a campaign at the University of California at Berkeley to demand to know why the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had not yet produced a photograph of the whole Earth.

The space agency had published photos of a part of the curvature of the Earth, and views of California from hundreds of thousands of feet out, but no picture of the Earth as a spinning blue marble in space.Brand was thrown off campus for his efforts, but not until he sold several lapel buttons and captured the imagination of crowds of onlookers with his astoundingly logical question.

Of course, the results of his nagging are history. NASA published a photo of the whole Earth; Brand founded the popular Whole Earth Catalog. People no longer had to imagine a whole Earth; the view from space of a relatively tiny unit on which all life is intertwined precipitated a global perspective that today, 20 years later, is well on its way to drastically changing science.

Today, members of the U.S. scientific community are embarking on ambitious multi-year national and international programs that focus on the whole Earth as an integrated system. The programs signal a momentous shift in Earth science research, from a specific to a holistic approach.

"The programs are breaking down existing barriers among different sciences," says UC-Berkeley forestry professor Paul Zinke, a member of the NASA Earth System Sciences Committee that proposed satellite laboratories to study the Earth. "They are forcing a change in the way people are educated about science, from strictly differentiated studies toward an integration of the type that was taught several hundred years ago when all sciences were combined into a course of study called natural philosophy."

"It is imperative to understand the processes contributing to such environmental changes as increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, stratospheric ozone depletion, deforestation, and desertification," says a 1987 National Science Foundation report.

The programs go by such fanciful acronyms as CEDAR, TOGA, GOFS and WOCE. They link the National Science Foundation's Global Geosciences Program, NASA's Earth System Science Program, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ocean-atmosphere monitoring and data management programs. They include research at the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.

The scientists who wanted to study the whole Earth 20 years ago couldn't. Three significant technological advances have allowed the holistic approach to be applied to research:

- Sophisticated satellites that monitor biological, chemical, geological and physical changes over enormous areas.

- Supercomputers that allow fast processing and organization of huge amounts of data.

- Communications networks that link scientists on different parts of the planet to work on experiments and modeling simultaneously.

Having the technology in place to monitor the changes over 20 years will help scientists differentiate between natural and human-induced effects. "Twenty years cover two sunspot cycles," says a 1985 research briefing by the National Academy of Sciences. "It is the period over which we can expect the temperature change due to radiatively active gases to be larger than the natural system noise; it encompasses the eruptions of five to 10 volcanoes and the occurrence of two to five El Ninos (massive ocean warmings); and it is the period over which we can expect to see the major effects of deforestation."

Of the 10 proposed programs, seven have received funding, and one, TOGA, has been in place since 1985.

TOGA: The Tropical Ocean-Global Atmospheric experiment evolved from National Academy of Science research of El Nino in 1982 and 1983. It will measure for 10 years how the tropical oceans interact with the global atmosphere.

CEDAR: The objective of the Coupling, Energetics and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions program is to understand what happens among vertical atmospheric regions (mesosphere, thermosphere, ionosphere, exosphere, magnetosphere), and globally - from high to low latitude and dayside to nightside. For example, nitric oxide produced at high latitudes during magnetic storms moves to lower altitudes and latitudes and affects ozone concentrations.

Global Tropospheric Chemistry Program: Scientists are beginning studies of the biological sources of atmospheric gases and particles, as well the chemical processes involved in creating and destroying chemical compounds in the atmosphere.

GOFS: The Global Ocean Flux Study was set up to figure out the processes that control biogeochemical cycling in the ocean, and how those processes interact with the atmosphere.

WOCE: The World Ocean Circulation Experiment was set up to understand the general circulation of the global ocean. Its genesis was based on recognizing the importance of the ocean in regulating the Earth's climate. "It is the principal reservoir of heat and appears to equal the atmosphere in the world-wide transport and redistribution of heat," says an NSF report. Ocean circulation may have more effect on global climate than imagined, according to Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory researcher Wallace Broecker. He has found records in Greenland ice indicating that a sudden change in ocean current in the North Atlantic produced changes in air temperature of six degrees Centigrade, a five-fold increase in atmospheric dust, and a 20 percent change in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the northern Atlantic region.

Global Ecosystem Dynamics: This program focuses on how tropical rainforests, deserts, polar regions, and freshwater lakes affect the Earth system. Scientists are doing research on how living organisms in these areas affect the atmosphere and climate, and how they, in turn, affect living organisms.

Paleoclimates from Ice Sheets: Still unfunded, this program would retrieve a 10,000-foot ice core from central Greenland. The ice core would reflect a 200,000-year record of climatic and atmospheric change.

Ocean Ridge Crest Processes: The goals of this program are to determine the components of volcanic activity at the areas where the sea floor is spreading, to record chemical changes in seawater, and to study the plants and animals that live around hydrothermal vents.

Solid Earth Studies: Scientists are setting up a global network of digital seismographs that will provide clear pictures of the Earth's interior and show the forces that drive plate tectonics. They want to understand the geophysical and geochemical processes that led to the present position of the Earth's oceans and continents.

Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics: Set to begin in 1990, this program studies why ocean fish populations increase and decrease by many orders of magnitude over five to 10-year periods. Although overfishing causes some of the fluctuations, most of the fluctuations are driven by unknown biological and chemical events in the oceans.