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National Science Foundation - Celebrating 50 Years

Anniversary News

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A Better Understanding of Our Environment

Fifty Years
Of Supporting

Established in 1950, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the federal government's only agency dedicated to the support of education and fundamental research in all scientific and engineering disciplines. Our mission is to ensure that the United States maintains leadership in scientific and engineering disciplines, in scientific discovery and in the development of new technologies. NSF has achieved this mission repeatedly over the past 50 years.

In a series of articles during the next ten months, we will examine some major achievements by the agency during its half-century of existence. We will highlight key scientific advances enabled by NSF support that have had a beneficial impact on humankind. Here, in the first article, we look at the agency's role in a broad issue that took on increasing significance as one decade followed another: the environment.

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Improving environmental quality demands a critical first step: understanding the nature of our environment. During the past 40 years, fundamental research supported by the National Science Foundation has provided a basic understanding of ecological systems. That understanding, in turn, has helped scientists both to identify potential environmental dangers and to find solutions that reduce or eliminate the problems.

Mountain scene

NSF-supported research was crucial to identifying acid rain. When power plants burn high-sulfur coal and oil, they spew emissions into the atmosphere. There, the emissions combine with water vapor to create an ugly mixture of acidic gases and particles that eventually returns to the earth in form of rain, snow, sleet, hail, and solid deposits. This "acid rain" harms waterways, forests, as well as the life forms in them. It also corrodes automobiles and other metallic items. Because winds carry the pollutants through the atmosphere, their ill-effects often occur hundreds of miles from the sources of emission.

NSF-funded research in New Hampshire's Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest first identified damage caused by acid rain that originated in the Midwest. In 1972, the research team alerted scientists and the public to the phenomenon and its dangers. Eighteen years later, long-term NSF-backed ecological research in the same forest led to changes in proposed amendments to the Clean Air Act that have helped to reduce acid rain and its impact on our environment.

In 1985, British scientists reported another serious environmental threat: a sharp fall in the springtime level of ozone in the atmosphere above the Antarctic continent. A gas closely related to oxygen, ozone helps to protect Earth's inhabitants from the Sun's ultraviolet light, which can cause skin cancers. The British find supported predictions by NSF-funded scientists that man-made chemicals, notably the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that powered aerosol systems and refrigerators, would destroy atmospheric ozone. Scientists viewed the measurement as a warning of what could happen elsewhere in the atmosphere without reductions in the use of CFCs. At that point, NSF delivered sensors that American scientists at two Antarctic stations used to measure the loss of ozone at different altitudes and to study the chemical causes of the ozone loss. Those observations helped to produce the Montreal Protocol of 1986, that eventually phased out production of CFCs in industrialized countries. Continuing research seeks a more detailed understanding of the cause of the ozone hole, which can suggest ways to remedy the threat.

An NSF project at the other end of the Earth aims to learn more about another environmental concern: global warming. Scientists know that our atmosphere is heating up. But does the warming stem from natural causes or from "greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide, sent into the atmosphere when fossil fuels burn? NSF-backed researchers in the SHEBA (Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic) project hope to answer that question.

About 160 scientists are studying the Arctic ice pack, a frozen, floating island the size of the United States that influences shipping routes across the top of the globe and the climate worldwide. The region feels the impact of global warming earlier and more severely than elsewhere. As the atmosphere warms up, it melts some of the ice pack. Direct observations by SHEBA scientists in 1997 showed that the ice was six feet thick, four feet thinner than expected. A year later, warming had reduced the ice thickness further, to four feet. Other measurements from satellites, aircraft, weather balloons, a meteorological tower, drifting buoys, nuclear submersibles, radars, and instruments on and in the ice pack will reveal how much greenhouse gases contribute to the melting, and hence to global warming. The observations will also help scientists to predict worldwide climate changes that will result from any continued melting of the ice pack.

Not all environmental change stems directly from human intervention. Alarming alterations in weather patterns, including vast floods, relentless heat, and devastating drought in different parts of the world, stem from the sudden warming or cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean. Those effects, called El Niño and La Niña, arrive apparently randomly. The Tropical Oceans-Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program, which ran from 1985 to 1994 with strong support from NSF and other sources, provided a way to predict the events. Measurements from orbiting satellites and floating buoys convinced TOGA scientists that they could forecast both the so-called El Niño-Southern Oscillation and its effect on climate worldwide. Their accurate prediction of the arrival of El Ni¤o in the winter of 1997-1998 helped cities, states, and countries to save millions of dollars by preparing for the extreme weather conditions it caused. Other NSF-supported research teams have found evidence of similar weather-influencing cycles in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Meteorologists and climatologists hope to use this research to make accurate forecasts of many types of extreme weather.

Doppler radar screen
Doppler Radar

Monitoring methods play a powerful role in understanding the atmosphere over the long and short term. Conventional radar reveals the location and intensity of precipitation associated with storms. Doppler radar does more. Developed as a meteorological tool by NSF-supported research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and several universities, it reveals the movements of air inside storms. The technology has become familiar to viewers of television weather reports; most television stations in the U.S. have their own Doppler radars. They permit accurate, and potentially life-saving, forecasts of severe weather such as tornadoes and wind shears.

Environment Nanotechnology Astronomy Info.Tech. Education Biocomplexity
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Last Modified: Mar 28, '03