Closing the Environmental Data Gap: Information Limitations Are Severely Constraining Our Ability to Identify and Understand Emerging Environmental Problems, Devise Interventions to Address Them, and Evaluate Whether Our Responses Work

Article excerpt

The compelling evidence that the global climate is changing significantly and will continue to change for the foreseeable future means that we can expect to see similarly significant changes in a wide variety of other environmental conditions such as air and water quality; regional water supply; the health and distribution of plant and animal species; and land-use patterns for food, fiber, and energy production. Unfortunately, we are not adequately monitoring trends in many of these areas and therefore do not have the data necessary to identify emerging problems or to evaluate our efforts to respond. As threats to human health, food production, environmental quality, and ecological well-being emerge, the nation's leaders will be handicapped by major blind spots in their efforts to design effective policies.

In a world in which global environmental stressors are increasingly interactive and human actions are having a more powerful effect, the need for detailed, reliable, and timely information is essential. Yet environmental monitoring continues to be undervalued as an investment in environmental protection. We tolerated inadequate data in the past, when problems were relatively simple and geographically limited, such as air or water pollution from a single plant. But it is unacceptable today, as we try to grapple with far more extensive changes caused by a changing climate.

The effects of climate change will be felt across the globe, and at the regional level they are likely to present unique and hard-to-predict outcomes. For example, a small change in temperature in the Pacific Northwest has allowed bark beetles to survive the winter, breed prolifically, and devastate millions of acres of forest Although scientists are working to improve forecasts of the future and anticipate such tipping points, observation of what is actually happening remains the cornerstone of an adequate response. Society needs consistent and reliable information to establish baselines, make projections and validate them against observed changes, and identify potential surprises as early as possible.

Fortunately, two developments are helping to facilitate the collection of more and better data. First, new technologies and techniques allow us to capture data more efficiently and effectively. Second, society is demanding greater accountability and the demonstration of true value for environmental investments. The ability to easily share large amounts of information, to combine observations from different programs by linking them to specific geographic locations, to monitor many environmental features from space or by using new microscale devices, and other innovations can greatly extend the reach and richness of our environmental baselines. At the same time, many corporations, foundations, and government entities are working to track the effects of their actions in ways that will demonstrate which approaches work and which do not. In much the same way as the medical community is embracing evidence-based medicine, managers are moving toward evidence-based environmental decisionmaking.

Recognition of the scale of environmental problems is also spurring increased collaboration among federal, state, local, and private entities. Wildlife managers recognize that species do not respect state or federal agency boundaries and that adequate response demands range-wide information. Likewise, addressing the expanding "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico demands collaboration and data from across the Mississippi River basin in order to understand how farmers' actions in Missouri affect shrimpers' livelihood in Louisiana. Evidence of this recognition and the collaboration it demands is growing. For example, state water monitoring agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have developed a new multistate data-sharing mechanism that greatly expands access to each others' data. And, public and private entities are increasingly working together in efforts such as the Heinz Center's State of the Nations Ecosystems report, as well as in more local efforts such as the integrated monitoring of red cockaded woodpeckers by private timber companies, the U. …