Quietly, but ever more forcefully, momentum is building for the largest cooperative endeavor in the history of science: a study of the earth and its environs as an integrated whole.
The International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), as it is known, would encompass the global climate, the biosphere, and the biogeochemical cycles of all the major nutrients. It might well include the pulsations of the sun and the tectonic processes in the core of tfhe earth. It would take data from satellites in orbit and instruments on the ground. It would involve a sharing of effort among scientists from eveery part of the world. And it would somehow have to be sustained for decades.
The obstacles, both economic and political, are clearly horrendous. But the enthusiasm within the scientific community is growing nonetheless. The International Council of Scientific Unions, meeting in Ottawa, has just endorsed a 2-year study to draw up a detailed plan for the IGBP. And in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences is also formulating a detailed plan in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a host of other agencies. By 1986, the IGBP could be ready to move.
There is nothing new about big, international programs, of course. The IGBP is very much in the tradition of the Internatinal Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957--58, as well as such modern heirs of the IGY as the World Climate Program or the International Biological Program.
During the last decade, however, issues such as ozone depletion, carbon dioxide buildup, and now acid rain have dramatized the need for a truly global program. Humans are beginning to perturb the climate and tfhe biosphere on a planetary scale, and yet there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of the system: governments have been faced with making expensive and controversial policy decisions on the basis of scientific guesswork.
"The picture now is full of programs that are competitive with each other and ad hoc," says Herbert Friedman, chairman of the National Academy's Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Natural Resources, and one of the originators of tfhe IGBP idea. The existing programs also tend to be of limited duration, even though many global processes take place on a time scale of decades or centuries. "You cannot address these questions without 10 to 20 years of rigorous research," he says.
So the IGBP would both complement the existing international programs and go beyond them, says Friedman. Instead of following the traditional division of the earth into atmosphere, lithosphere, and oceans, the IGBP will try to look at processes in a more holistic framework. In particular, it will lay a much greater stress on biology and chemistry, especially the biogeochemical cycles of such key nutrients as carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus.
As an example, consider the problem of methane, CH.sub.4, a natural product of baceterial fermentation and the digestive processes of certain ruminants. Methane is a trace gas...