Toward Integrated Observations and Earth System Analysis

An integrated climate observing system and improved data analysis and data management systems will be needed to support all of the other themes described in this chapter. Regular observations of the Earth system, for example, are needed to improve climate models, monitor climate and climate-related changes, assess the vulnerability of different human and environmental systems to these change, monitor the effectiveness of actions taken to limit the magnitude of climate change, warn about impending tipping points, and inform decision making. However, creating such systems and making the information available in usable formats to a broad range of researchers and decision makers involves a number of formidable challenges, such as improving linkages between human and environmental data, ensuring adequate support for data archiving and management activities, and creating improved tools for data access and dissemination.

An integrated Earth system analysis capability, or the ability to create an accurate, internally consistent, synthesized description of the evolving Earth system, is a key research need identified both in this report and in many previous reports (NRC, 2009k). Perhaps the single greatest roadblock to achieving this capability is the lack of comprehensive, robust, and unbiased long-term global observations of the climate system and other related human and environmental systems. Other scientific and technical challenges include identifying the criteria for optimizing assimilation techniques for different purposes, estimating uncertainties, and meeting user demands for higher spatial resolution.

The NRC report Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate (NRC, 2009g) recommends that the federal government "expand and maintain national observation systems to provide information needed for climate decision support. These systems should link existing data on physical, ecological, social, economic, and health variables to each other and develop new data and key indicators as needed" for estimating climate change vulnerabilities and informing responses intended to limit and adapt to climate change. It also notes the need for geocoding existing social and environmental databases; developing methods for aggregating, disaggregating, and integrating such data sets with each other and with climate and other Earth system data; creating new databases to fill critical gaps; supporting modeling and process studies to improve methods for making the data useful; and engaging decision makers in the identification of critical data needs. That study's recommendations set appropriate strategic directions for an integrated data system. Ultimately, the collection and archiving of data for such a system would need to be evaluated on the basis of potential and actual use in research and decision making.

The recommendations in Chapter 5 provide advice on some steps that can be taken to address these challenges.

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