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The goal of global change research is to observe and document global environmental changes and identify their causes, predict the responses of the
earth system, determine the ecological and socioeconomic consequences of these changes, and identify strategies for adaptation and mitigation that will most benefit society and
Research is being conducted to understand major global environmental issues such as: (1) climate change resulting from human-induced enhancement of the greenhouse effect; (2) depletion of the
stratospheric ozone layer; (3) disruptive seasonal and interannual variations in temperature and precipitation, such as the El Nino-southern oscillation; and (4) large-scale changes in land use and
Relevant Policies, Issues, and Legislation
Framework Convention on Climate Change and the U.S. Climate Change Action Plan
Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer
U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments
Conventions related to global environmental issues such as forestry, desertification, protection of oceans, and biodiversity
Current State of Understanding
The earth's climatic, ecological, and biogeochemical record provides the context for understanding anthropogenic effects on the earth
system. Over its few billion year history, the earth's geography, climate, and ecosystems have all gone through dramatic changes and
fluctuations on time scales that vary from less than a decade to millions of years. Superimposed on these longer-term changes are natural fluctuations that lead to individual seasons,
years, and decades with climate conditions that may differ sharply from multidecadal or centennial averages. Although global average conditions change relatively slowly, significant intra-annual and
interannual to decadal variations can occur at regional (subcontinental) scales, driven to varying extent by changes in sea surface temperature and ocean circulation patterns, volcanic eruptions, soil moisture
anomalies, sea ice extensions and retreats, and variations in the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth.
Since the beginning of the industrial era, atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases have increased as a result of human activity
(e.g., carbon dioxide has increased 30%), causing an increase in the radiative forcing of the earth's atmosphere. A significant fraction of this increase
may have been offset by cooling associated with simultaneous increases in atmospheric sulfate and carbonaceous aerosols or
by the effects of stratospheric ozone depletion. The quantitative regional and global impact of these changes on the earth's climate
are strongly regionally dependent, and large uncertainties remain. Global mean surface temperatures have increased by about 0.5 C over the
past century, although precipitation averaged over the world's land masses shows little or no change. However, in
the contiguous United States, mean precipitation has increased by about 5%, confined to autumn. The frequency of extreme
rainfall events has increased throughout much of the country. The limited set of measurements around the world, however, does
not yet allow the cause (i.e., human activities or natural variability) of the small, but potentially important, changes in climate to
The most important and well-defined human effects on stratospheric ozone concentrations to date have occurred through chemical changes in the stratosphere caused by increases in emissions of
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other halons. The resulting stratospheric ozone depletion increases the clear-sky flux of ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching the surface, which has been shown in field and
laboratory studies to have significant harmful effects on human health and ecosystems.
Changes in land use and land cover and the resulting losses of productivity of terrestrial ecosystems are occurring on a global scale. Land-use change may lead to the depletion of localized resources of
common value to social systems and have consequences that extend to the entire international community. Transformation of land from native forest cover to agriculture, grasslands, and urban
development can alter the albedo and natural water cycle and result in the degradation of formerly productive land and the loss of biodiversity.
Current global change research is focused on understanding how the earth system functions, how
human activities can perturb the global environment, and the consequences of such perturbations on
human health, societal support systems, natural ecosystems, and the capacity of the earth system to
both sustain the natural environment and meet societal needs. Recent emphasis includes both
ecological and socioeconomic impacts. Important ongoing activities that continue to be priorities
Climate change and greenhouse effect research to (1) observe and document the extent to which
human activities influence long-term climate change; (2) improve the input to and the capability of
climate system models to represent relevant processes and better predict global and regional changes in
climate; (3) predict the consequences of climate change on natural and socioeconomic systems; and (4)
support integrated assessments of climate change, including research on the feasibility, effectiveness,
and costs (market and nonmarket) of implementing response options.
Stratospheric ozone and UV effects research to (1) support international space- and surface-based
observation programs to document the response of stratospheric ozone to changes in atmospheric
composition; (2) develop a network to monitor surface UV radiation; (3) observe, predict, and
understand the consequences to ecosystems, agriculture, and human health of long-term changes in UV
radiation; (4) evaluate new and substitute compounds for their effects on the ozone layer, the
environment, and human health; and (5) evaluate the role of subsonic and supersonic aircraft for their
effects on stratospheric ozone.
Seasonal to interannual climate fluctuations research to (1) expand and maintain global ocean
observing systems; (2) develop modeling capabilities for forecasting seasonal to interannual climate
fluctuations and the expectation of unusual and extreme events; and (3) encourage multilateral
collaboration in the establishment of regional application centers for using forecasts to reduce
disruptive consequences of extreme climate events.
Large-scale ecosystem productivity research to (1) map global productivity of terrestrial, freshwater,
and marine ecosystems using remotely sensed data (such as that from past and continuing Landsat
observations); (2) determine the results of changes in land cover, desertification, and deforestation on
ecosystem vitality, carbon storage and release, and the cycling of soil nutrients; and (3) conduct studies
to understand the socioeconomic causes and implications of land-use change.
Areas of Enhanced Emphasis
Evaluating the socioeconomic driving forces of global change. While human activities, such as agricultural practices,
energy production, and land use, are recognized as important factors driving global environmental change, there is currently very
limited understanding of the quantitative links between the two. Social sciences and economics research is needed for understanding
issues such as: (1) the demographic and social factors relevant for assessing the interactions between population growth and migration
and environmental change; (2) the effects of trade and global economic activity on the value of environmental resources such as fertile
farmlands, wetlands, coastal zones, and forests; (3) the relationship between institutional behavior and decision making and global
environmental changes; and (4) how the rate of development and diffusion of technology affects the rate of environmental change.
Understanding the consequences of global environmental change. Most of the anticipated consequences of climate
change, including effects on human health, agriculture, and natural resources, have not been quantified. Because of the large uncertainties
involved, much improved estimates of the costs of potential consequences and the scale of global water- and land-use changes are
needed to provide a basis for informed decisions to implement potentially costly and comprehensive response options.
New research is needed for developing methods for valuing both market and nonmarket impacts and benefits associated with the
consequences of global environmental changes, including health care costs, estimates of the value of loss of global productivity,
costs to and opportunities for regional economies, and damages to vulnerable ecosystems.
Developing adaptation and mitigation options. Options for mitigating climate change include reducing emissions of
greenhouse gases and increasing the storage potential for carbon in the biosphere. Technology prediction and assessment methods
are needed for evaluating new technologies for improving energy efficiency, developing renewable energy resources, and
reducing fossil fuel usage. The feasibility for reforestation, afforestation, stock enhancement of marine species, and the development
of climate-change resistant species needs to be studied further.
As forecasts of seasonal to interannual climate events (floods, droughts, etc.) improve, new research will be needed to assist
communities in becoming prepared for such events. Research to improve land management practices will benefit efforts to mitigate
both climate change and the adverse effects of rapid changes in land use. Further research is also needed to understand the
health and environmental effects of variations in UV radiation in order to evaluate response options to increased UV radiation caused
by ozone depletion.
Conducting integrated assessments. Because policy decisions on complex issues such as those related to the global
environment often have substantial social, economic, and political implications, the development of science policy tools to assist
in decision making is needed. An example of this type of tool is one that links reduced and simplified versions of complex physical,
chemical, and biological models that predict the consequences of global changes on the environment to models that assess the
social and economic consequences of these changes under various policy option scenarios. Although selection of policy options still
remains with the decision maker, the tools to better evaluate the consequences of implementing various options are vital to informed
Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998
Contribute to the international effort to develop a long-term comprehensive global earth observation system by launching the first
in a series of earth observing system satellites, and establish a global change data and information system to make high-quality global change
data accessible to researchers worldwide.
Incorporate new understanding of atmospheric radiation processes (including the role of clouds and aerosols), ecosystem processes, and social
and economic driving forces into improved coupled ocean-atmosphere-land surface models to predict future long-term changes in climate.
Observe and document changes in the earth's stratospheric ozone layer through both space- and surface- based observation systems, and observe and document corresponding changes in UV radiation at the earth's
surface through development of an intercalibrated network for monitoring UV radiation. Observe changes in human and ecosystem health related to changes in surface UV radiation and evaluate processes leading to
health and environmental changes from increases in UV radiation. Evaluate the effects on the ozone layer and the health and environmental risks of alternatives to CFCs and other halons.
Provide regular forecasts of the timing and distribution of extreme climatic events (flooding, droughts, etc.)
related to seasonal to interannual climate variability (from such phenomena as the El Nino-southern
Oscillation) to communities to assist them in developing plans for preventing damage from climate-related
Develop regional assessments of vulnerability to climate change and evaluate the potential social, economic,
and human health effects on communities and the effects on local natural ecosystems, agricultural, forest,
fishery, and water supply resources, which would occur if climate changes consistent within the range
predicted by IPCC were to occur.
Fulfill the U.S. commitment to establish strong international cooperation on global change research by
supporting credible, internationally developed research programs (e.g., the International Geosphere-Biosphere
Program, World Climate Research Program, and Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change
Program), the development of regional research institutes (such as the Inter-American Institute and the
SysTem for Analysis, Research, and Training) and international assessments (such as that of the IPCC).
Contribute to the international effort to develop a long-term comprehensive global earth observation system
by launching the first in a series of earth observing system satellites, and establish a global change data and
information system to make high-quality global change data accessible to researchers worldwide.
The goal of federal research in natural disaster reduction is to provide the scientific information necessary to make our society resilient to natural
disasters by reducing the loss of life, property damage, and economic disruption caused by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, fires, and volcanoes. This goal can only be achieved through
integrated efforts in the areas of assessment, mitigation, and warning. Federal research in natural disaster reduction focuses on the development of the predictive understanding, technological
capabilities, and societal frameworks necessary for a sustainable society that is resilient to natural hazards.
Relevant Policies, Issues, and Legislation
Reducing the impact of natural hazards on safety and environmental quality as directed by the Comprehensive Environmental
Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, the nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, et seq., and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990
Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, as amended
Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act, as amended, and the Weather Service Modernization Act, Supporting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
1993 Reauthorization Act
The National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, as amended, and The Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973, as amended
Current State of Understanding
Although the understanding of the physical characteristics of many natural hazards has increased dramatically over the past decade,
much more can be achieved to allow for timely prediction of many hazards. Important progress has been made in predicting the effects of
earthquakes and in delineating zones of potential damage, but many potentially active fault zones remain unidentified. Furthermore, prediction of
earthquakes themselves remains elusive. Volcano monitoring has reached an advanced stage, and the importance of certain precursors for many
eruptions is now recognized. The use of Doppler radar systems, together with high-speed computers that allow forecasters to diagnose and
comprehend the state of the atmosphere in a more detailed way, has dramatically advanced our understanding of severe weather. However, we
still cannot predict, or interpret, many events. For example, there is currently no fully accepted explanation of the entire causal series of processes
responsible for the 1993 Midwest floods.
Although the physical forces responsible for natural disasters are at least partially understood, a clear understanding of the socioeconomic forces needed to reduce
natural disasters, versus those that exacerbate the problem, is only now coming into focus. A knowledge of the role of massive
urbanization, technological advance, globalization of society, and cultural diversity in changing societal vulnerability to natural hazards
is particularly rudimentary, as is our understanding of the options and opportunities for reducing the impact of natural hazards and adapting to their occurrence.
Especially worrisome is the prospect of more complex, massive disasters in the world of the future. The major policy tool of the past
has been insurance, and as the scale and costs of natural disasters have grown, casualty insurers are threatened with massive future losses. What is needed is
the application of new technologies that will allow structures and lifelines to withstand hazards so that societal, and personal, losses
are decreased. Information on technological solutions and other forms of natural disaster reduction have been made available to the
pubic sector, but much of the information remains fragmented and difficult to access.
Important ongoing research and development in natural disaster reductions focuses on improved understanding of the nature and
impact of hazards and the means to mitigate risks. Important ongoing research activities receiving strong emphasis include:
Observations and analysis to determine the fundamental controls on natural hazards and the links between climate, weather, and physical and biological hazards,
such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and pestilence.
Characterization of how structures and lifelines respond to natural hazards and how new engineering and earth science
technologies can be used to mitigate the effects of natural disasters.
Developing faster, more reliable warning systems through integration of observational and analysis research with new
Assessing the socioeconomic forces needed to reduce natural disaster impacts by improved understanding of individual and
group response and vulnerability to natural disasters and opportunities for safer behavior.
Developing integrated natural hazards risk assessments that include scientific, technological, and socioeconomic
Areas of Enhanced Emphasis
The agencies conducting research in natural disaster reduction recognize the need for coordinated
federal research and close collaboration among federal agencies, state and local governments, the
private sector, and the general public in three important areas:
Research addressing specific hazards. Building societal resilience to specific hazards is an effective approach
toward natural disaster reduction. Such programs are especially effective when they begin with risk assessment, including a
mitigation emphasis, pay special attention to socioeconomic impacts and aspects of the problem, and address warning and
dissemination needs. Several programs of this type are either under way or in the planning and preparation stages;
they include the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, the U.S. Weather Research Program, and the National Space
A comprehensive national risk assessment. The United States must improve characterization and assessment of natural
hazards risk. The physical and biological risk of specific natural hazards, the interactions between natural hazards and natural and
human-made environments, the functional viability of communities, and the cost-benefit implications of various policy options
must be quantified. These analyses will be integrated to develop a national risk assessment that will contain the following elements:
a summary of recent disasters, a comparison of past losses with the predictions of previous risk assessments, assessment of risk in
future years, identification of special risks by type and/or by geographical area, and highlights of advances in methodology and
Development of an information network to support the National Mitigation Strategy. The National Mitigation Strategy
has defined its goals as: By the year 2020, to engender a fundamental change in public attitude which demands safer communities in
which to live and work, and thereby to reduce by at least half, the loss of life, injuries, economic costs . . . and destruction of
natural and cultural resources which result from the occurrence of natural disasters. To speed the transfer of research and technology
advances into operational practice so that this goal can be accomplished, the federal agencies will develop an information network built
on the National Information Infrastructure.
Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998
Make publicly available through Internet an information system to support the National Mitigation Strategy. This will increase the tools
available to local communities for natural disaster reduction.
Identify weather-sensitive industries, and work collaboratively with them to assess the economic impacts of severe weather;
implement a framework under the U.S. Weather Research Program for increasing the benefit of severe weather forecasts
to these industries.
Complete a plan for national risk assessment, which will guide U.S. planning for natural disaster avoidance and response.
Develop and distribute improved hazard warnings, and increase the effectiveness of hazard warnings in ensuring human safety
through mechanisms for stakeholder feedback (including policymakers, community planners, emergency response personnel, the
general populace, and special populations).
Develop new technologies and engineering techniques for the seismic safety of new and existing buildings and lifelines, and
implement new guidelines to enhance public safety and building resilience.
Develop an interagency system to provide real-time, accurate, and reliable observations of geomagnetic storms and solar wind,
which can seriously compromise satellite operations and electric power delivery, and develop the capability to make 10-year
geomagnetic storm forecasts.