What We Study

Our planet is changing on all spatial and temporal scales and studying the Earth as a complex system is essential to understanding the causes and consequences of climate change and other global environmental concerns. The purpose of NASA’s Earth science program is to advance our scientific understanding of Earth as a system and its response to natural and human-induced changes and to improve our ability to predict climate, weather, and natural hazards.

NASA’s ability to observe global change on regional scales and conduct research on the causes and consequences of change position it to address the Agency’s strategic objective for Earth science, which is to advance knowledge of Earth as a system to meet the challenges of environmental change, and to improve life on our planet.

NASA addresses the issues and opportunities of climate change and environmental sensitivity by answering the following key science questions through our Earth science program:

• How is the global Earth system changing?

• What causes these changes in the Earth system?

• How will the Earth system change in the future?

• How can Earth system science provide societal benefit?

These science questions translate into seven overarching science goals to guide the Earth Science Division’s selection of investigations and other programmatic decisions:

• Advance the understanding of changes in the Earth’s radiation balance, air quality, and the ozone layer that result from changes in atmospheric composition

• Improve the capability to predict weather and extreme weather events

• Detect and predict changes in Earth’s ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles, including land cover, biodiversity, and the global carbon cycle

• Enable better assessment and management of water quality and quantity to accurately predict how the global water cycle evolves in response to climate change

• Improve the ability to predict climate changes by better understanding the roles and interactions of the ocean, atmosphere, land and ice in the climate system

• Characterize the dynamics of Earth’s surface and interior, improving the capability to assess and respond to natural hazards and extreme events

• Further the use of Earth system science research to inform decisions and provide benefits to society

Two foundational documents guide the overall approach to the Earth science program: the NRC’s 2007 Earth science decadal survey and NASA’s 2010 climate-centric architecture plan.

The NRC decadal survey articulates the following vision for Earth science research and applications in support of society:

Understanding the complex, changing planet on which we live, how it supports life and how human activities affect its ability to do so in the future is one of the greatest intellectual challenges facing humanity. It is also one of the most important challenges for society as it seeks to achieve prosperity, health, and sustainability.

The 2007 decadal survey recommended a broad portfolio of missions to support the research that is needed to provide answers to the key science questions and accomplish the related science goals. Recognizing the pressing challenge of climate change, NASA addressed the need to the continuity of key climate monitoring measurements in its 2010 climate-centric architecture plan. The plan reflects the need to collect additional key climate monitoring measurements, which are critical to informing policy and action, and which other agencies and international partners had not planned to continue. The plan also accelerated key decadal survey recommendations to address the nation’s climate priorities.

NASA’s ability to view the Earth from a global perspective enables it to provide a broad, integrated set of uniformly high-quality data covering all parts of the planet. NASA shares this unique knowledge with the global community, including members of the science, government, industry, education, and policy-maker communities. For example, NASA plays a leadership role in a range of fed   eral interagency activities, such as the USGCRP, by providing global observations, research results, and modeling capabilities. It also maintains an expansive network of partnerships with foreign space agencies and international research organizations to conduct activities ranging from data sharing agreements to joint development of satellite missions. These interagency activities and international partnerships substantially leverage NASA’s investments and provide knowledge essential for understanding the causes and consequences of climate change and other global environmental concerns.