EROS Scientists Bring Their Knowledge, Work to National Climate Assessments

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Whether fully or in part, the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center’s fingerprints are all over the National Climate Assessment (NCA) and associated reports that have been released since passage of the U.S. Global Change Research Act of 1990.

Cover of Fourth National Climate Assessment

Whether fully or in part, staff at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center have contributed to the work done on the National Climate Assessment (NCA) and associated reports that have been released since passage of the U.S. Global Change Research Act of 1990. (Public domain.)

Retired EROS Chief Scientist Tom Loveland was the federal coordinating lead author on the Land Cover and Land-Use Change chapter for the Fourth NCA—the latest Congressionally-mandated national assessment that was released the day after Thanksgiving to much media fanfare. It was the third of four such NCA reports with which Loveland has played a role.

EROS Science and Applications Branch Chief John Dwyer and Land Use-Land Cover Change Principal Investigator George Xian have both contributed to the Indicators Interagency Working Group. That panel looks at work being done within the 13 federal agencies that put together the NCA reports, identifying activities within those agencies that are or could be used as indicators of climate change.

In between the first and second NCA reports, EROS Research Physical Scientist Dean Gesch authored a chapter in a Synthesis and Assessment Product (SAP) called “Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region.” There were 21 SAPs produced in lieu of a unified assessment report during the 2002 to 2009 timeframe that looked at research on key climate science issues and helped to inform discussions among decision makers, stakeholders, and the general public.

None of this involvement by EROS scientists surprises Loveland. It only makes sense, he said, that Center researchers­—and to a larger extent the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)—would offer input to a climate science report that is required to come out every four years and analyzes the effects of global change on everything from the natural environment to agriculture, land use and cover to water resources.

"We Are a Provider of Definitive Scientific Information"

“In a basic sense, we (at EROS) are a provider of definitive scientific information ... work that is of known quality and assessed to understand its objectivity,” Loveland said. “So, we should play a role (in National Climate Assessments). And if you’re going to play a leadership role in these kinds of things, you also need to have a strong understanding of the science of land cover and land change, which we do.”

Indeed, with its decades of scientific inquiry surrounding land use and land cover change, EROS and its published works are clearly evident in the latest NCA, especially in the chapter for which Loveland was the coordinating lead author. Current and past studies involving EROS scientists and geographers like Jess Brown, Jeff Eidenshink, Collin Homer, Terry Sohl, Bruce Wylie, Roger Auch, Kristi Sayler, and more are peppered throughout the reference section.

The Landsat satellite system’s influence is present in that work as well. Landsat is the measurement source for two significant EROS-derived datasets—the National Land Cover Database (NLCD), and Land Cover Trends. The National Land Use Map was produced from NLCD, which was a key dataset in the Land Cover and Land-Use Change chapter of the Fourth NCA. Trends brought to that report a detailed record of the rates, causes, and consequences of changes from the 1970s forward.

Though he is no longer part of the Indicators Interagency Working Group, Dwyer said he could see other EROS-based datasets becoming important in the formulation of the Fifth NCA and beyond. The work of EROS’ Gabriel Senay on evapotranspiration modeling and water use consumption comes to mind, Dwyer said. “And I’d like to think our burned area and dynamic surface water extent products would be able to factor into (NCA V),” he said. “These are at least 30-year records, which is important to this work.”

LCMAP Could Play Role in Future National Climate Assessments

Both Dwyer and Xian also see a potential future role in the National Climate Assessment from USGS EROS’ burgeoning Land Cover Monitoring, Assessment, and Projection (LCMAP) initiative that will produce maps and statistics that help to explain how U.S. land cover is changing over time. Because LCMAP’s geospatial land cover and land change record will be reliable and independently validated as scientifically accurate, it will be an important tool for assisting in understanding why changes are occurring, and what their consequences are going forward, Dwyer and Xian said.

“In the future, LCMAP can roll out annual land cover change that is very close to the climate variations temporal scale,” Xian said. “At the same time, LCMAP can go back to the 1980s. That is exactly the data (the NCA) wants to look at, because when you talk about climate variations or change, you need to have a long-time temporal scale to explore that.”

The fact that EROS scientists are asked to participate on National Climate Assessments says as much about their expertise and scientific reputations as anything. Loveland is considered one of the world’s leading experts on how land is being used in the United States, and how that use is changing over time. Xian brings a similar land use-land cover background to his selection to the Indicators Interagency Working Group. Dwyer was tapped for the indicators working group in part because of his work with Landsat-based Essential Climate Variables (ECVs), including burned area, 30-meter global land cover, snow-covered area, and dynamic surface water extent.

In the case of Gesch, scientists at the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center in Massachusetts were working with him on a small project when they were enlisted to assist on a Synthesis and Assessment Product involving coastal sensitivity to sea-level rise. With no background in coastal elevation modeling, those Woods Hole colleagues tapped into Gesch’s expertise to help with that part of the assignment.

It turned out that quantifying vertical uncertainty or errors in coastal elevation models had never really been done until he started on the project, Gesch said. Though happy to contribute, he admitted he didn’t necessarily grasp the importance of that contribution when he first started.

That’s not true now.

As part of the process, there were peer reviews, which he was used to, but also public review comments that had to be addressed and are now part of the public record on the report. Gesch said the scientific rigor that went into writing, editing, reviewing and finalizing his contribution was significant.

“In retrospect,” he said, “I came to understand through the process that it was very important, very high-profile work. So yeah, it was a real honor and a great experience.”

Climate Assessment Work Speaks to EROS' Expertise

While being tabbed to participate in a National Climate Assessment obviously speaks to the reputation and skillsets of individual participants, Gesch, Loveland, and the others also believe it speaks to EROS’ standing in the Earth-observing community as well.

“The individual’s expertise and experience doesn’t come in a vacuum,” Gesch said. “Some of that comes collectively from the work we do as a Center ... our scientific heritage here, and just the support structure we have to accomplish anything scientifically publication wise.”

Though the greater scientific community is already aware of EROS’ contributions, Xian believes the work that staff at the Center gets to do on climate assessments—especially as it relates to climate variation’s impact on land use and land cover change—really is an opportunity to bolster EROS’ reputation as well.

“In my view, as long as we are continually involved in activities like this with the national assessment and the working group, EROS’ reputation will widely increase in the area of climate-related research,” Xian said. “That definitely is a positive for EROS.”

While Loveland is confident that EROS should and will have a role in future National Climate Assessments, the question really becomes one of whether the Center is leading or contributing to that effort, he said. To ensure its place at the table, EROS scientists need to continue getting their work peer-reviewed and published in a timely fashion, Loveland said. Researchers here at the Center also need to stay focused on ensuring that the science community and the world at large are even more aware of the work done at EROS, he added.

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