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Geologic Column
10 Earth Issues to Watch
Lisa A. Rossbacher

As we begin the new year, topics driving the geosciences are literally "ripped from the headlines" of the daily news. Following from last month’s Highlights of 2005, here are 10 earth science issues that will likely continue to be relevant to current events in the coming year and that emphasize the importance of knowing something about science, to better understand modern life.

1. Projections of petroleum supplies
In 1969, geologist M.K. Hubbert estimated that world oil production would peak in 2000. Ken Deffeyes of Princeton University recalculated "World Oil Peak Day" for last Thanksgiving. More optimistic estimates extend the peak to 2036, but in general, estimates vary widely. I don’t know any geologists who believe the supply is infinite, but I recently heard a vice president of Exxon-Mobil announce that the supply of petroleum is virtually unlimited because engineers can develop new technologies to extract petroleum faster than the resources can be depleted. It’s a simple and cheering concept, especially when gas prices are soaring. The public wants to believe this. Beam me up, Scotty.

2. Alternate fuel sources
Approximately 80 percent of the world’s energy supply comes from fossil fuels, and the percentage is even higher in the United States — 87 percent of U.S. energy comes from "dinosaur juice," according to the same ExxonMobil vice president. Alternative fuels are a small piece of the energy picture, but they are certain to become more important as energy prices stay high.

3. The distribution of energy resources
Significant energy resources exist in parts of the world with unstable political and economic situations, including the Middle East. Disruptions of supplies will continue to impact countries around the globe. Indeed, nearly every economic forecast for 2006 started with "Assuming peace in the Middle East…." The small taste of oil shortages caused by minor supply disruptions attributed to Hurricane Katrina was sufficient to panic those ignorant of the broader issues. The real oil famine that would result from widespread political disruption in the Middle East would fundamentally alter America’s economic and social future.

4. Environment vs. lifestyle
As the world’s population grows, so do the pressures on resources, including habitable space. A continuing challenge will be finding a balance between preserving open space, parks and wilderness areas on the one hand, and having homes, schools, jobs and critical services on the other. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the world population is currently 6.5 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion in the next 40 years. The quality of life for those 9 billion people is being determined by decisions being made today.

5. Climate change
Media coverage of the scientific debate about climate change issues has given the general public enough justification to dismiss it as a problem; many people believe climate change is nothing more than a way to make a joke about the weather on a hot day. Earth scientists have a key role to play both in studying the subject and in helping the public understand the issues and their significance.

6. Acceptable risk
Getting out of bed in the morning is inherently risky: It’s a dangerous world out there, full of physics (crashes), chemistry (poisons) and biology (germs and viruses). But staying in bed is problematic as well, as anyone who has been bedridden, even briefly, will tell you. People are more likely to accept risks that they can control than ones they can’t. The juxtaposition of geologic hazards with interesting scenery (coastlines, mountains, rivers, volcanoes) presented challenges before 2005, a year in which the hurricane season seemed to last forever and "tsunami" became a household word.

7. Forecasting and prediction
The ability to forecast and predict natural events — seismic, meteorological and climatic — brings an expectation that warnings will be sufficiently accurate and timely to give people a chance to protect themselves and their property. Dependence on such warnings is outpacing scientists’ ability to provide them, resulting in a number of problems ranging from over-reliance on forecasts to a resulting distrust of science in general.

8. Science and math education
The best predictor of whether someone will pursue a career in mathematics, science or engineering is (drumroll, please) … what math classes they take in 8th grade. Students make decisions in secondary school that determine their future — and their future ability to contribute to an increasingly technological society. The U.S. education system is producing a disproportionate number of teachers who are math- and science-phobic, and high schools aren’t graduating enough students who are prepared for higher education in science and engineering. These trends are on a collision course for disaster.

9. Creationism and "intelligent design"
News from the battlefront between science and religion is coming in near-daily dispatches. The debate about evolution versus nonscientific stories about life is a lightening rod for concepts, such as religion and politics, that have nothing to do with science, and which confuse the public about the nature of science in general.

10. Funding for science
In the national consciousness, healthcare, homeland security, national defense, social services and even education are higher priorities for funding than basic research. Government funding sources have not kept pace with the need for this support. The increasingly constrained funding for scientific research could have multiple effects, ranging from reduction in the number and scope of "big science" projects to a shift toward corporate (and potentially special-interest) funding sources. Keeping science objective is a critical concern.

Other issues confront us today, but these are some key ones to watch in 2006. Stay tuned.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

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