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This Section surveys one general but vital idea and then addresses how the Earth Sciences community is responding to implementing the outgrowths of this idea. A new field seems to have emerged in the last 20 years. It goes by the imposing name: Earth System Science. But, its ingredients have been around for a long time (some of the components make up the contents of Physical Geography textbooks). The basic notion is this: instead of treating such fields as meteorology, oceanography, botany, ecology, living creatures, aspects of geology, etc. as discrete, self-contained knowledge bases, recognize that they are all part of the same system that controls the Earth, and hence all pointed towards a central common theme, and then cross-link (integrate) the natural shared aspects into a single holistic approach to understanding the Earth. The practioners of this new emphasis on the "Earth System" are now united by participating in joint study efforts such as the International Geosphere and Biosphere Program and by having laid out specifications for highly efficient data gathering, both in/on/above the Earth from the field and through a new family of satellites (the EOS program). This first page explores some of the background to the fundamentals of a coordinated Earth Observation effort and cites several of the important information links to the programs.



Guest Writer: Dr. Mitchell K. Hobish *, Consultant

Overview of ESE (MPTE) and EOS; Global Changes

It was probably when Apollo astronauts, on the way to the Moon, first saw our home planet in its entirety from their unique vantage point in space that humans began to view Earth as a single entity, rather than a conglomeration of diverse political entities . To this day, astronauts on their first flights all note the absence of "painted" national boundaries, as they look down upon Earth from orbit. Instead, land, oceans, and clouds dominate the view.

Color photograph of the Earth, taken by a lunar astronaut.

16-1: Look closely at this rather dark view of some part of Earth. What continent(s) are visible? ANSWER

As far back as the Apollo program, even before Landsat, scientists and others connected with the space program realized that earth-looking satellites, as their sensors improved, could provide a wealth of data and derived information about the Earth as a whole and about selected regions by operating in a coordinated way. Different spectral intervals, look angles, resolutions, etc. would provide complementary data sets useful in many applications. Thus, early on, the value of acquiring data from fleets of satellites was so compelling that planners began to devise programs that would supply such inputs. One variant would be to have different sensors on the same spacecraft. This next image was made as a composite using data supplied by land, meteorological, and oceanographic satellites that show clouds, land surfaces, and ocean water temperatures. It serves to introduce you to one of the main ideas in this Section: the Terra space platforms that bears five sensor systems which can gather data integrated spatially and in time which are invaluable in monitoring the Earth's natural systems and the impact of humans on such systems.

A global hemisphere in which major cloud patterns, land surface cover, and ocean temperatures have been combined from data sets obtained by different satellites.

'Humans' is the keyword in the above paragraph. To the best of our knowledge, Earth is the only planet in the Solar System that supports life (although organic molecules may exist on one or more satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, and perhaps once on Mars [page 19-13]). Life, in all its myriad forms, virtually covers Earth. No matter where we look for it, we find it. Much of our planet's geophysical and biological phenomena take place in a relatively thin shell of fluid (the atmosphere and oceans) that is about as thin in proportion to the Earth as a sheet of paper wrapped around a basketball. Most other relevant life activities stay on the land surface,within an even thinner zone of the uppermost layers of soil and rock. And yet, the complex interactions between the biosphere and the geosphere all take place within that thin shell. Just about everything that concerns us as living beings depends upon the integrity of these shells of land, sea, and air.

16-2: Can you think of any place (or condition) at the Earth's surface where life is not to be found? ANSWER

The shells result from eons of dynamic processes that began as the Earth formed. These processes, taken together, constitute global change. Without global change, we humans and much of the rest of the biosphere would not exist, because global change generated an oxygen-containing atmosphere, our protective stratospheric ozone layer, and global temperatures that support life (due to the greenhouse effect) as we know it. Until the last few thousand years, global change has been dominantly a "natural" process.

Recent observations have led scientists to conclude that human activities contribute to global change, that our industrial and land-management practices increase the rate of change of several geophysical phenomena, and that some changes may be deleterious to the biosphere. Nations around the world have banded together in a wide range of scientific and policy-based activities to determine the nature of human contributions to global change and to determine the effect such changes can have on our lives. These are gathered under the umbrella known as the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), which is, in essence, a massive effort to understand and learn to manage the world's environments.

16-3: Think of at least three such vital phenomena whose change can be directly traced to Man's activities. ANSWER

As one of several U.S. government agencies involved in the U.S. Global Change Research Program, NASA instituted the Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE) initiative which it later renamed Earth Science Enterprise (on the Net at ESE), based on the space-based constellation of satellites and sensors known as the Earth Observing System (EOS). This section deals with some of the observations obtained in recent years that have led to the formation of MTPE/EOS, why NASA established it, what NASA designed it to accomplish, how NASA approaches those goals, and what anyone can do with the data.  .  For some general information about this and related programs, click on NASA's Earth Observatory Home Page. Also, the EOS Program Office publishes a bi-monthly News booklet which can be accessed on the Internet at The Earth Observer or can be obtained through postal mail by emailing to the address found on that page.

The ESE Education program has prepared a CD-ROM and Educator's Guide entitled Welcome to NASA's Earth Science Enterprise. As of this writing, a copy can be obtained from this email address: The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) has a Web site dedicated to Earth System Science Education.


* Mitchell K. Hobish, Consulting Synthesist, prepared this unit , with some later additions by N.M. Short

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Primary Contact: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Section 16 Author: Dr. Mitchell K. Hobish, Consultant (