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Spaceship Earth: Mission to a small planet

By Robert C. CowenStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1987

TO hardened Washington observers, it seems a minor miracle when three turf-conscious federal agencies unite behind an effort that makes significant claims on their budgets. But the ``Mission to Planet Earth,'' as NASA calls their common cause, transcends parochial concerns. Indeed, the cause that unites NASA with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States also inspires nations around the world. They feel impelled to join a common effort to understand our planet and what human activity is doing to it.

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It is an immense challenge.

The aim, says geophysicist John A. Eddy of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), is to build a data base so that, 20 years from now, we can detect significant global change. He explains: ``When somebody looks back and tries to answer questions about how is [Earth] responding to the increased CO2 or is the ozone really being depleted, ... these baselines of measurements will be in place. So I think out of it will come a new monitoring of the Earth, a new taking the pulse of the Earth.''

This can't be done, Dr. Eddy says, unless the world's scientists, and the nations which support them, breach traditional barriers and cooperate in ways they never have before.

A National Academy of Sciences report explains that it requires ``a global view and a new effort to study the Earth and its living inhabitants as a tightly connected system of interacting parts.... An effort so defined has no real precedent, for it would require not only the cooperation of nations but an intercourse and sharing between fields of study that are often isolated and territorial.''

THE International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) - the premier world science organization - is organizing this effort as the International Geosphere/Biosphere Program (IGPB).

Eddy, who chairs the IGBP committee in the US, notes that in the past ICSU scientists have stuck to their specialties. Meteorologists studied the atmosphere. Biologists dealt with life forms. Oceanographers looked to the sea. Now specialists must learn each other's disciplines well enough, and work together closely enough, to find the underlying unity. In the past, nations supporting ICSU programs contributed specific projects for relatively limited periods. Now they're being asked to commit themselves to a world effort that will probably continue into the next century. That means shaping national research programs in ways that make a contribution to this common purpose.

IGBP proponents don't think that it will be easy to transcend the old limitations. Yet, when the project was presented to ICSU members last September, Eddy says, ``It was almost like pushing on a door that you think is stuck and it just swings right open. ... ``All I can say is that the spirit right now is so strong for it, I think there'll be ways of getting around the [barriers]. Also, there's the feeling that you just have to do it for the Earth.''

Monitoring the health of Planet Earth requires extensive study of the oceans. That includes research within territorial waters and within the exclusive economic zones that extend 200 miles beyond national shores, as well as on the open seas. It involves extensive surveys and data-gathering on land. And, what is most important, it requires an international network of Earth-observing satellites whose data are freely shared among all nations.

The impetus to share internationally also helps meet national needs to build strong earth-science programs. In the US, this motivation has forged the NASA-NOAA-NSF alliance. NOAA administrator Anthony J. Calio has pointed out that, because of the pressure on agency budgets due to the federal deficit, ``there's a natural climate for us to coexist these days.'' He added, ``This forces us to work closer and closer together.''

The three agencies are cooperating to carry out the strategy outlined last year in the report of the Earth System Sciences Committee (ESSC) of the NASA Advisory Council. This, essentially, will be the US contribution to the IGBP. It would start by coordinating existing and planned research programs as part of a master research plan now increasingly called ``Mission to Planet Earth.''

THIS will require some extra funding. ESSC chairman Francis P. Bretherton of NCAR has estimated that the three agencies now spend about $1 billion a year on research relevant to this ``mission.'' He foresees the need to raise that by 20 to 50 percent over the next decade. As a major effort of the three agencies, NCAR's Eddy says there's so much momentum behind the ``mission'' that ``we could probably not turn it off now if we wanted to.''

Sharing also serves the self-interest of other countries in the IGBP. Global change affects all nations. None of them can understand, or prepare for, this change on their own. Eddy says this realization has encouraged an ecumenical spirit. Beyond that, many countries find the IGBP a fruitful way to join in advanced scientific activities.