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The Future of Planet Earth: Scientific Challenges in the Coming Century
Released: 2/14/2000

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Donna Runkle 1-click interview
Phone: 703-648-4469 | FAX: 703-648-4466

Trudy Harlow
Phone: 703-648-4483

From urban growth to infectious diseases and newly identified contaminants in water, greater demands are being placed on our planet’s natural resources. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey are tackling these new scientific challenges as they emerge.

"The United States and the world face significant challenges in the years to come," said Charles Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey. "Over the past century, humans have become agents of significant change to our planet. We have reshaped rivers and coastlines. We have brought new species of plants and animals to places they could never have reached on their own. And, we have increased our vulnerability to the extreme events that are part of Earth’s natural processes-earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, landslides, droughts, and hurricanes."

As the global population continues to grow, he added, people will place greater and greater demands on the resources of our planet, including mineral and energy resources, open space, water, and plant and animal resources. As a result of these changing demands and needs, said Groat, USGS scientists see 10 top scientific challenges for the next century.

Safe, Clean Water
     Protecting drinking water sources:
Safe drinking water is vital to the health of citizens in every community. Reliance on water treatment plants and chlorination is important to safe drinking water but it is clear that strategies must go beyond treatment to protection of water sources. Increasing urbanization of land used as sources of drinking water, microbial pathogens resistant to chlorination, and proliferation of new synthetic chemical compounds that may have adverse health effects, are challenging the effectiveness of treatment technology. The 21st century will see increased awareness that drinking water supplies are whole systems that include source-water areas, ground-water wells and surface-water intakes, treatment plants and distribution systems. USGS scientists are helping communities protect their drinking water sources by designing computer models and other tools and conducting research to help communities identify, manage, and protect source water areas. For more information contact USGS scientists Mike Focazio at 703-648-6808 or Glenn Patterson at 703-648-6876.

     Newly identified contaminants in water: Continual development and production of new chemical compounds has dramatically improved food quality, human health and our daily lives. Increasing knowledge of the close relationship between human activities and the environment has made it clear that the chemical compounds we use can find their way into the nation’s water resources. Preliminary results from a USGS study indicate that many compounds commonly used in everyday life are turning up at very low concentrations in streams across the country. Examples of some of the compounds found to date include acetaminophen, caffeine, codeine, cotinine (a nicotine metabolite), 17b-estradiol (a hormone), and sulfamethoxazole (an antibiotic). For many of these compounds, the USGS study will provide the earliest data on their environmental occurrence in the nation. The impacts of these chemicals on humans or aquatic life, at the low concentrations they are found in the environment, are generally unknown, but the USGS is working in partnership with health and environmental science agencies as the study proceeds. Analytical methods for measuring these newly identified contaminants were developed in the USGS National Water Quality Lab located in Denver, Colorado. More information about newly identified contaminants in water is available at or by contacting USGS scientists Herb Buxton at 609-771-3944, Ed Furlong at 303-236-3941, or Dana Kolpin at 319-358-3614.

     Nutrients: A major scientific issue in the early part of the 21st century will be the eutrophication of water-the presence of excess amounts of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus that cause increased growth of aquatic plants, which consume the dissolved oxygen in water needed by other aquatic life. Growth of the human population will increase the demand for food. This will in turn lead to further increases in the use of fertilizers, which could put even more stress on coastal areas, as well as freshwater bodies. USGS scientists are measuring the transport of nitrogen and phosphorus to coastal areas by major rivers and determining how much of the nutrients that enter the streams actually move downstream and how much is lost or transformed to harmless forms. More information on the nutrients is available in the report, "The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters-Nutrients and Pesticides," at or contact USGS scientist Pixie Hamilton at 804-261-2602. More information is available about nutrients in the Mississippi basin and Gulf of Mexico at or from USGS scientists Don Goolsby at 303-236-5950x209 or Richard Alexander at 703-648-6869.

Natural Hazards
The year 1999 brought killer landslides to Venezuela and Mexico, devastating earthquakes to Turkey and Taiwan, and massive floods and coastal storm erosion along the East Coast of the United States that took lives, displaced families, disrupted communities and impacted economies. The cost of natural disasters, both in human and financial terms, has risen dramatically and may continue to skyrocket in the 21st century, as the world’s population grows and moves into areas that are more vulnerable to earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, landslides, floods and other natural hazards. The work by USGS scientists helps understand how and where these natural events occur, so people can build and live safely on the Earth. The real-time information about floods, earthquakes and other hazards provided by the USGS helps people respond quickly and effectively when disaster strikes and provides important scientific data used by decision makers for planning and developing new policies. More information is available about USGS work in natural hazards at or from USGS scientist Tim Cohn at 703-648-5711.

Urban Growth
With the population of the United States projected to increase nearly 60 percent in the next 50 years and an increasing percentage of the nation’s population moving to urban areas, society is just beginning to experience the challenges associated with the sustainable growth and development of urban regions. In this new century USGS scientists will participate in greater efforts to:

  • understand land use change in large metropolitan regions;
  • assess the impacts of these changes on regional ecosystems and resources;
  • enhance and apply technology for monitoring, analyzing and predicting rates, patterns and impacts of landscape changes resulting from natural and human causes; and
  • provide decision makers with accurate data and better understanding for improved decision making, policy and planning.

More information is available about USGS urban growth studies at or from USGS scientist Dave Kirtland at 703-648-4712.

Emerging Infectious Disease
Vulnerability to disease-for humans and wildlife-increases as the human population expands and habitat for wildlife shrinks. Diseases become more easily transmissible in and between the two populations. Some diseases, such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus, plague, hantavirus and rabies are transmitted directly or indirectly to humans by wildlife. USGS scientists are measuring, monitoring and recording changes in wildlife populations to identify disease threats and diagnose them promptly and accurately; they also are mapping the spread and distribution of global diseases based on the ecological conditions necessary for the survival of specific pathogens in nature. This information helps health professionals identify which geographic areas are potentially threatened, to determine which populations are at risk now and in the future, and to more accurately predict when an outbreak might occur and understand how it can be controlled. More information about wildlife research or epidemiological investigations is available at or from USGS scientist Paul Slota at 608-270-2420. For more information on environmental influences and mapping the spread and distribution of these global diseases, contact USGS scientist Steve C. Guptill at 703-648-4520.

Biological Invaders
Invasive species, such as zebra mussels, fire ants and cheatgrass, are those plants and animals that have been introduced into habitats where they are not native. Considered "biological pollutants," they are a major cause of economic havoc and biological diversity loss throughout the world. USGS scientists help to reduce economic and biological losses caused by these invaders by discovering the best pest-control methods, identifying and monitoring potentially threatening new invasive species and developing strategies for re-establishment and protection of native communities. For more information on how invasive species change the face of America’s landscapes and waters, contact William Gregg at 703-648-4067. More specific information on these invaders and color photos are available at

Global Change
The planet is changing. Records show sea levels are rising at accelerated rates and levels of carbon dioxide have increased worldwide. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains enough water locked up as ice to raise global sea-level substantially, is vulnerable to the effects of global change. The flyways of migratory birds, butterflies and shorebirds, as well as stopovers of migrating sea turtles, have been altered. Some of the preliminary indicators of change-coral reefs, seagrass and mangrove communities-are among the most biologically complex ecosystems on earth. USGS scientists are monitoring these processes and changes by measuring glaciers, mapping coral reefs, assessing sea-level rise and its effects on coastal areas, monitoring volcanic emissions, assessing carbon storage and movement and looking at potential future changes in hydrology, climate and vegetation patterns, and storm effects on coastal systems. More information about global change is available at or contact USGS scientist Elliot Spiker at 703-648-5330. For more information about glaciers, contact USGS scientist Bruce Molnia at 703-648-4120.

Lifecycle of Earth’s Natural Materials
Materials extracted from the Earth are necessary for humankind’s most fundamental needs-food, clothing and shelter. Understanding the whole system of materials flow, from source to ultimate disposition, can help people better manage the use of natural resources and protect the environment. Materials flow is a systems approach to understanding what happens to the materials we use-from geologic formation, extraction, use and reuse, to ultimate disposal. Accurate models of materials flow will provide communities and planners, economists and governments, the information they need to ensure continued economic growth and development in the United States. Future energy requirements, building supplies and the potential for pollution and waste are all issues that require sound scientific data and modeling. For more information about materials flow, contact USGS scientist Kate Johnson at 703-648-6110.

The Nation’s Water Infrastructure
The objectives for the nation’s infrastructure of dams, levees, navigation systems and diversions for water were developed between 1930 and 1970, with an emphasis on water for agriculture, electric power, navigation, flood prevention, water for cities and industry and dilution of wastes. These objectives are still valid, but the values and laws under which these systems operate today have a number of added objectives: enhancement of aquatic and streamside or riparian habitat, recreational opportunities and a general desire for preservation of natural environments for future generations. These challenges will require that scientists work collaboratively with water managers to predict how changes in the management of our water infrastructure will affect its traditional goals and serve the newer environmental goals. USGS scientists are looking at the physical and biological results of modifying or removing these systems. For more information about the nation’s water infrastructure, contact USGS Chief Hydrologist Robert Hirsch at 703-648-5215.

Coastal Waters-Pristine or Polluted?
The earth’s seemingly boundless oceans and scenic coastlines have limits. The oceans cannot provide unlimited fish to feed growing populations, nor can they absorb unlimited wastes from human activity. As population growth near and adjacent to the coasts increases water quality and ecosystems are impacted and vulnerable shorelines are eroded. Algal blooms, oxygen deficient zones and Pfiesteria are some of the negative impacts resulting from excess nutrients that end up in coastal waters. Even after discharge waters are cleaned up, previously deposited contaminated sediments on the sea floor can be "churned up" by storm waves and continue to negatively impact the offshore ecosystems. USGS scientists are locating, characterizing and quantifying how these sediments and associated contaminants are distributed. More information about coastal water conditions is available at or contact USGS scientist Jeff Williams at 703-648-6511.

Putting Information in Its Place
During the 21st century the nation will continue to face challenges such as overpopulation and urban growth, pollution, deforestation and natural disasters-all of which have a critical geographic dimension. As a result, there will be an increase in the demand for geospatial data and information. This potential demand has raised the concern for how these data will be integrated, managed and made accessible to a multitude of users. As the nation’s largest civilian mapping agency, the USGS will be a leader in developing ways to bring together multiple layers of geospatial data (such as elevation, hydrographic, transportation, etc.) from a variety of sources and integrate them into a widely accessible, national dataset. Standardization of these datasets will play an important role in allowing users to widely share the data. In addition, technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing what exists and what happens on earth, will play a key role in allowing users to create maps, integrate information, visualize scenarios, solve complicated problems, present powerful ideas and develop effective solutions. In the next century there will be greater efforts to:

  • collect, integrate, manage, and archive geospatial data to ensure availability to the nation,
  • capitalize on technological advancements, and
  • educate users on the application and analysis of data to enhance better decision making.

For more information about the integration, management and accessibility of geospatial data, contact USGS Chief Geographer Richard Witmer at 703-648-5748.

The USGS serves the nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.

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