Exploring the planet's resilience from all angles
Just as we depended on scientists to identify the problem of climate change, we look to them for solutions. As the Nature Index 2018 Earth and Environmental Sciences supplement makes clear, there are no grounds for complacency.
Earth and environmental scientists are working to model and predict the course of climate change — how fast it will happen, how extreme it will be — and to come up with solutions that will sustain existing or better ways of living in changed climate conditions. "In the Line of Fire" by Katherine Bourzac, the lead article in this Nature Index supplement, details some of that work around the world. It’s urgent work because stronger storm systems and persistent drought are already putting people’s lives and livelihoods at risk, says Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There’s no question we’ll be better positioned the sooner we figure things out,” he says.
"Gravitational Pull" by Sarah DeWeerdt explores the growing links between oceanography and planetary science, just one manifestation of a strengthening gravitational pull between disciplines that is being felt throughout the geosciences, and indeed throughout Earth and environmental sciences. For an increasing number of researchers, the most exciting questions are the ones that transcend old academic boundaries.
"Casting a net for knowledge" by Smriti Mallapaty chronicles how the devastating 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan threatened to destroy the massive and lucrative market for Bluefin tuna, until researchers starting tracking the overfished and endangered species. Their work has not only profound implications for the survival of this important food source but reveals some of the ways that environmental science engages with the real world, under tough public scrutiny.
In "Core values", Hepeng Jia shows how urgent environmental problems central to national well-being jostle for the attention of China’s scientists as they strive to produce research with global prestige. China's strategy of expanding its research capacity in the Earth and environmental sciences, especially climate science, atmospheric science and ocean science, has reaped rewards in terms of the country’s production of high-quality research but critics say China needs to direct more resources towards pressing environmental problems at home.
Karen Seto, an urban and land change scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, says in a Q+A that rapid urbanisation presents a massive challenge to the planet and to science. “The bottom line is we are not equipped to meet the challenges, not just of rapid urbanisation but the sheer magnitude of urbanisation...When I think about the scale of that change it is almost unfathomable. Almost every aspect of life is going to be transformed... We absolutely need to do science differently...We don’t need interdisciplinarity for interdisciplinarity’s sake; we need it to solve some of the most pressing questions and problems facing civilisation," she says.
In "Big data goes green", Neil Savage documents how big data is making Earth science more universal. The ability to combine types from different sources could enable scientists not only to contribute to a better understanding of climate change and other Earth and environmental sciences, but to bring new insights to economics, demography, and policy making.
For decades, ‘think globally and act locally’ has been the mantra for supporting the Earth’s environmental health. But for environmental scientists and their colleagues in ecology, applying the mantra is a career risk, writes Richard T Kingsford, director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science, at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. "Globally oriented career reward structures in academia overlook the reality that effective environmental science is a predominantly parochial pursuit. The discipline will not deliver for humanity and other organisms unless we address this issue,” he says.
Nature Index also provides an interactive graphic showing collaboration networks and the most highly collaborative networks in the Earth and environmental sciences here: https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/scientists-build-green-connections, as well as a list of the Top 500 Cities in the production of high-quality research output in the Earth and Environmental sciences here: https://www.natureindex.com/supplements/nature-index-2018-earth-and-environmental-sciences/global-city-map