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With cyclones growing in frequency and ferocity, communities increasingly being threatened by landslides and extreme flood events, and melting permafrost endangering habitats and belching large amounts of trapped carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, the need for research into the interconnected natural systems which combine to produce and influence climate is becoming more and more critical. Warming oceans, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels indicate Earth could be approaching a tipping point, with vast potential economic and humanitarian implications—including destruction of property and infrastructure, disruptions in trade, relocation of communities, pressures on food production, and threats to human health. Fundamental climate research provides the quantitative evidence needed to accelerate the development of practical solutions, new technologies, and policy initiatives to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Every major event in the history of life has been accompanied by environmental change. Photosynthesizing cyanobacteria led to the Great Oxygenation Event and the formation of animal life. Greenhouse gases and toxic metals from massive supervolcanoes triggered the Great Dying with a rapid global warming of 10oC, but also paved the way for the rise of the dinosaurs and mammals. Sea level changes as the last ice sheets began to melt altered ocean currents, speeding glacial retreat and allowing humans to spread into North America. Studying past patterns of the Earth’s biosphere expands our understanding of the interconnected systems of the natural world that we experience today. The context gained from this fundamental research is vital to our appreciation of the extent and impact of modern environmental change—providing valuable information to help guide our future.
Earth has evolved to provide everything that allows modern human life to flourish, from the vital water we require to drink and grow our food; to the minerals like iron, aluminum, copper, and silicon that build everything from giant skyscrapers to tiny computer chips; to the energy that powers both industry and the everyday. But our dynamic planet also unleashes natural disasters which reshape the landscape and threaten communities. Research into these fundamental processes and forces reveals quantitative evidence and shapes our understanding of Earth’s present, its past, and its potential future. It is this type of discovery-driven research which helps advise scientific and industrial colleagues and policymakers in their endeavors to find practical solutions to key societal issues—like innovations in the safe extraction of water and energy resources, the prevention of landslides, or the engineering of structures to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.
Exploring the workings of our solar system provides a window into Earth’s past, with implications for our future. The study of magnetic fields of meteorites has helped establish a timeline for how quickly our solar system emerged from its protoplanetary nebula, and offers insights into the early composition of planetary bodies as they formed. The atmospheric extremes of other planets can tell us about our own climate and its potential changes, whether it be the cooling effects of dust, the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide, or even interactions with the solar wind. And as we continue to discover the existence of water and organic molecules elsewhere in the solar system, we are given more clues to the origins of life on Earth—and the tantalizing prospect of detecting life beyond our own planet.