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To appreciate the key role of the atmospheric sciences in understanding our world, imagine a planet without atmosphere. The surface is rough and torn, battered by meteor impacts. Ultraviolet radiation and streans from solar flares impinge freely on the surface, making life there impossible. The temperature contrasts between day and night, between equator and pole, are astonishingly large. The differences between this stark planet and our own blue and green Earth arise from the presence of a substantial atmosphere.

The atmosphere shelters life on Earth from the hazards of space and provides the global transport system that maintains the resources necessary for life. In addition to addressing their own scientific challenges, the atmospheric sciences illuminate important issues in a range of disciplines, while in turn drawing on these disciplines to create more realistic portraits of the forces and contraints that shape atmospheric behavior.

Oceanography is perhaps the closest scientific partner of the atmospheric sciences. The ocean surface is a critical boundary for the atmosphere, which in turn provides a critical boundary for the oceans. Across their common interfact, the atmosphere and ocean exchange energy, momentum, and some important constituents, most notably water in various forms. Because the ocean and atmosphere interact so intimately in shaping and controlling the planetary environment, many major initiatives today concerned with climate and cilmate change are collaborative efforts between the two sciences.

Improved understanding of atmospheric and oceanic circulations has opened new areas of research for the geological sciences by providing independent, physically based climate estimates that stimulate new ideas and validate conclusions. Research in atmospheric chemistry provides new understanding of the chemical evolution of the planet. Climate conditions shape the distribution of life and must be taken into account by scientists defining optimum conditions and limits of flora and fauna, as species or as ecosystems.

Today, human health responses to weather and climate are becoming apparent. Direct connections related to heat stress and respiratory problems are augmented by climate variations that modify disease vectors and effect carriers of infectious diseases. Moreover, both the occurrence of skin cancer and the vigor of immune systems appear to be related to the intensity of ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth's surface and hence are subject to variations in atmospheric chemical constituents.

The responsibilities of the atmospheric sciences include the advance of fundamental understanding, the prediction of weather and climate change, and the identification of environmental threats.

Excerpted From Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Commission on Geosciences, The Atmospheric Sciences Entering the Twenty-First Century, National Research Council: Washington, D.C., 1998, pp.14-17 (NSF Grant # ATM 95-26208).

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