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Focus Areas

The complexity of the Earth system, in which spatial and temporal variability exists on a range of scales, requires that an organized scientific approach be developed for addressing the complex, interdisciplinary problems that exist, taking good care that in doing so there is a recognition of the objective to integrate science across the programmatic elements towards a comprehensive understanding of the Earth system. In the Earth system, these elements may be built around aspects of the Earth that emphasize the particular attributes that make it stand out among known planetary bodies. These include the presence of carbon-based life; water in multiple, interacting phases; a fluid atmosphere and ocean that redistribute heat over the planetary surface; an oxidizing and protective atmosphere, albeit one subject to a wide range of fluctuations in its physical properties (especially temperature, moisture, and winds); a solid but dynamically active surface that makes up a significant fraction of the planet’s surface; and an external environment driven by a large and varying star whose magnetic field also serves to shield the Earth from the broader astronomical environment.

These six focus areas include research that not only addresses challenging science questions, but drives the development of an Earth observing capability and associated Earth system models. In concert with the research community, NASA developed a hierarchy of science questions. The fundamental question: “How is the Earth changing and what are the consequences for life on Earth?” leads to five associated core questions, representing a paradigm of variability, forcing, response, consequences and prediction, leading in turn to the 24 detailed Earth science questions in Table 4.1. NASA strategy for linking the six interdisciplinary science focus areas is to solicit and fund research addressing combinations of these science questions.

The following sections describe each Science Focus Area. Each section describes the scientific field, NASA’s current contribution, and next major steps in the period 2007-2016.

  • Atmospheric Composition

    The Atmospheric Composition focus area consists of research on the composition of Earth's atmosphere, particularly of the troposphere and stratosphere, in relation to climate forcing, atmospheric ozone and aerosols, solar effects, air quality, and surface emissions of radiatively and chemically active source gases and particulates.

  • Weather

    Our weather system includes the dynamics of the atmosphere and its interaction with the oceans and land. The improvement of our understanding of weather processes and phenomena is crucial in gaining an understanding of the Earth system.

  • Climate Variability & Change

    NASA's role in climate variability study is centered around providing the global scale observational data sets on oceans and ice, their forcings, and the interactions with the entire Earth system.

  • Water & Energy Cycle

    Through water and energy cycle research we can improve hurricane prediction, quantify tropical rainfall and eventually begin to balance the water budget at global and regional scales.

  • Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems

    This Focus Area deals with the cycling of carbon in reservoirs and ecosystems as it changes naturally, is changed by humans, and is affected by climate change.

  • Earth Surface & Interior

    The goal of the Earth Surface and Interior focus area is to assess, mitigate and forecast the natural hazards that affect society, including earthquakes, landslides, coastal and interior erosion, floods and volcanic eruptions.