by Whit Gibbons

May 12, 2003

Immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all commercial aircraft were grounded for three days. This unprecedented decision, a direct response to the horrific events of 9/11, provided an unusual research opportunity. David J. Travis of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and colleagues used the reduction in jet travel to test the hypothesis that the cumulative effect of jet vapor trails (contrails) influences temperatures on the earth's surface.

Contrails do affect temperatures down here where we live, and the study further concluded that in high air traffic regions of the country, for the three days of no air traffic after the attacks, skies were clearer. In fact, the differences between the high temperatures during the day and the low temperatures at night were greater than "during any comparable period in the past 30 years."

The contrail study, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), was one of many sidebars mentioned in a recent report on "broad-based guidance and challenges in environmental research and education." A point is made that these challenges "are aligned with the NSF mission," which is "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense." Most scientists view NSF as the premiere government funding agency supporting basic research in ecology and many other scientific areas.

The report, prepared and written by an advisory committee led by Stephanie Pfirman of Barnard College in New York, is titled "Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century. A 10-year Outlook for the National Science Foundation." Among this year's government reports, this ranks among the more informative, interesting, and farsighted.

The overall message is one that should be noted not only by today's professional ecologists but also by students considering a career in environmental science. NSF's goals and guidance will ultimately influence the direction of ecological research for years to come. One of the most telling messages is that the future of environmental studies in the United States and the world will involve teamwork among many scientists in many different fields of science. Because of modern technological advances, it will be necessary to form "collaborative teams of engineers and natural and social scientists that go beyond current disciplinary research and education frameworks." According to the report, significant challenges in science and engineering are ahead of us in this century. Ecological research and environmental education are the keys to meeting these challenges in order to assume "global security, health, and prosperity."

The five major challenges are (1) rapid climate and ecological change; (2) the degradation of freshwater resources: (3) the globalization of disease; (4) the threat of biological and chemical warfare and terrorism; and (5) the more complicated question of long-term environmental security.

Each of these categories has touched our society at local, regional, or global levels. We all have experienced the local weather effect of El Nino and La Nina years and now have an appreciation for how climates in one region can have global influences that affect other regions. Everyone is also aware of the steady decline that is so apparent in the quality of freshwater for drinking in many parts of the world, not to mention the threats to our nation's wetlands due to ineffective environmental regulations. International concerns about SARS and other potential disease outbreaks are also familiar on a global scale, and potential terrorist threats from biological and chemical agents will always be a concern.

Finally, our "long-term environmental security" should be at the top of everyone's list of concerns. Involvement in international conflicts, concern for the U.S. economy, and awareness of other pressing issues that affect our daily lives do not justify disregarding our longer term environmental health and welfare. We must continue to keep an environmental vigil, because other problems do not mitigate the importance or the impact of human-caused habitat destruction, losses in biodiversity, and species extinctions.

Understanding all aspects of complex environmental systems, such as the subtleties of contrail effects on local weather conditions, will require teamwork among diverse scientific disciplines. NSF's recognition of this imperative will be a critical factor in ecological research for the next decade and beyond.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)