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Sustainability Science Requires the Freedom to Observe and Understand the Planet

Earth system science provides the fundamental evidence base for humanity's decisions, but the fact is that we know far more about the functioning of our economy than about the planet.
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Co-authored by Arthur Lerner-Lam, Alison Miller and Sean Solomon

The scientific heart of Columbia University's Earth Institute is the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which has been engaged in observing and analyzing earth systems for over 65 years. If we are to develop a sustainable and renewable economy, it is essential that human activities have as little negative impact on the planet as possible. Without a sophisticated understanding of how earth systems work, it is impossible to manage and minimize the impacts of our activities on our home planet. When our scientists make their observations and collect data, whether on land, at sea, or in the atmosphere, they do it with enormous care, working very hard to ensure that their research does not damage the planet they are working to protect. Unfortunately, some members of the environmental community, along with misinformed state agencies and elected representatives, often make erroneous assumptions about the impact of our observational methods on the living earth. They seek to stop research projects that have passed the most rigorous forms of peer review and have gone through a lengthy and thorough assessment of environmental impact, without stopping to understand how critical observations are actually made. A recent example in New Jersey provides a case in point.

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) gave final approval for a plan to conduct a marine geophysical survey off the New Jersey coast. The survey, proposed by scientists from Rutgers University and the University of Texas, is designed to produce highly detailed three-dimensional images of the sediments beneath coastal waters. The structure of the sediments on the continental shelf constitutes a record of changes in sea level over the past 60 million years. As the research vessel and its scientific crew were preparing to depart for the study area, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) filed papers in federal district court seeking a halt to the survey. The DEP, along with local environmental groups and elected officials (including several members of the U.S. House of Representatives), claims that the survey could harm marine life, disrupt commercial and recreational fishing, and impact tourism along the New Jersey coast.

The research vessel, R/V Marcus G. Langseth, a national facility operated by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and owned by NSF, has a long history of providing unique capabilities with which U.S. university scientists and their many collaborators have engaged in ocean exploration and fundamental research in every ocean on Earth. The many voyages of the Langseth have mapped Earth's structure miles below the seafloor, collected sediment cores for understanding climate variations through Earth's history, sampled seawater for determining physical and chemical properties of the oceans, and deployed remotely-operated vehicles to study underwater volcanoes. Each of the Langseth's expeditions is conducted according to the strictest standards of environmental responsibility. The Marcus Langseth Science Oversight Committee (MLSOC), chartered by NSF and comprised of distinguished marine scientists from leading institutions across the country, provides programmatic and operational accountability and is a liaison among the nation's scientists, Lamont-Doherty's Office of Marine Operations, and the NSF.

This last-minute disruption is unnecessary and harmful, not only to this particular study, but to the advancement of science generally. The plaintiffs' rhetorical claims that the project will be destructive to ocean life are not supported by prior experience. The scientists, technicians, and crew of the Langseth are obligated by law -- and consider it a scientific, operational and, frankly, moral imperative -- to conduct their survey responsibly and with minimal impact to the environment. Indeed, the precautions taken to avoid incidental harm to marine life and the marine environment are by far the most stringent used by any survey vessel worldwide. Prior to sailing, the proponents of each research cruise must prove that their survey protocols will meet these standards. Furthermore, the survey protocols give independent protected species observers -- who are not paid by the institutions conducting the research -- the power to shut down science operations if any protected species are observed within critical safety zones. Finally, our scientists, like everyone else who works at the Earth Institute, are environmental professionals. We work for the institute out of our love for the planet. Many of us are active members of environmental groups, and we are trying to understand the planet in order to protect it, not to exploit it.

Most importantly, a fundamental issue for the nation's uniquely capable institutions -- our research universities -- is the ability to freely investigate the most important issues we face as a society. It is vital that scientists conduct basic research to learn about our planet. Earth system processes are complex and cannot be understood without detailed observations and sophisticated analyses. Basic research advances society's knowledge, so that it can be applied to improve our resiliency in the face of environmental change and stress. In particular, we must advance and invest in the science of earth observation if we are to sustainably manage an economy capable of supporting the planet's population. Earth system science provides the fundamental evidence base for humanity's decisions, but the fact is that we know far more about the functioning of our economy than about the planet. It is imperative that we expand our collective understanding of natural resources, Earth and environmental processes, and biological systems. We must continue to learn about the resources we have at our disposal, the processes that create and sustain them, and, perhaps most importantly, the short-term and long-term impacts we are inflicting on these resources and systems. The discovery of fundamental knowledge over time has allowed us to improve our standard of living and holds the promise of a sustainable planet.

Unsupported claims such as those proposed by the State of New Jersey and the unsubstantiated rhetoric flowing from willfully-uninformed "advocates" undermine the efforts of the scientific community to conduct basic research. Surveys like the one proposed have helped us to map the ocean floor, understand the dynamics of tsunamis, and better predict earthquakes. This project will use advanced acoustic technologies to map the changes in the offshore sediment record caused by past changes in sea level. It will help us understand ancient climate, and will ultimately help the state, the nation, and the global community better adapt to future climate change. Ensuring that this important scientific research takes place should be a priority for those interested in advancing our collective understanding of the planet we inhabit. The information we collect can help us save not just marine life but all life on Earth. We cannot hope to transition to a sustainable planet without the kind of basic research and fundamental observation being interrupted by this unwarranted legal action.

We are concerned about the need to increase the level of science literacy in this nation. The world's economy is based on technology that is growing more complex, and the impact of that technology on our fragile planet cannot be understood without the type of research we undertake at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. As one of us wrote last week:

We need to invest in more advanced science and technology, and in understanding and managing the technology we use. Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous and, in the case of our nation's public and private leaders, more than a little pathetic. The definition of competent leadership must begin to include the ability to understand and manage complexity: complex organizational networks, multi-dimensional communications processes, complex production technologies, and the complex science that makes all of these complex systems possible.

We also need to consider the anti-science sentiment that is attempting to block our research alongside the disdain for science that is at the heart of the movement to deny the validity of climate science. In both cases, advocates come to the discussion with a bias that no information can dislodge. There is no substitute for careful research by committed scientists. The freedom to observe the planet is not absolute. We must take care and be mindful of the imperative to protect the living planet as we learn about it. And we do. And we always will.

Arthur Lerner-Lam is a Lamont Research Professor in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Deputy Director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Alison Miller is the Deputy Executive Director of the Earth Institute and Associate Director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at Columbia University.

Sean Solomon is the Director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and William B. Ransford Professor of Earth and Planetary Science at Columbia University.

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