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EarthCube: Transforming Earth Science Research for the 21st Century

Article Author(s): 

Genevieve Pearthree


In 2008, MIT’s Earth Systems Initiative team of 25 researchers generated 200 terabytes of data exploring marine microbial communities as part of the Darwin Project. They estimate that by 2013, their annual output could reach 20 petabytes, 2 *1016 bytes. And that’s one research group. The Earth science communities are generating oceans of data requiring a new paradigm for efficacious staging, sharing and communicating information. The National Science Foundation’s EarthCube – a community-driven model for managing, sharing, and exploring data - might just be the solution.

EarthCube is an exciting new cyberinfrastructure initiative spearheaded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to facilitate collaborative and interdisciplinary scientific research while addressing information management and geoscience challenges of the 21st century. NSF goals for EarthCube are to transform the conduct of geoscientific research by developing community-guided cyberinfrastructure for knowledge management across the Geosciences (NSF 2012). The result: a system that integrates geosciences data and information in an open, transparent and inclusive manner (NSF 2011). 

The Arizona Geological Survey (AZGS) has contributed in the development of EarthCube since the initiative was first launched in July 2011, and has played a strong leadership role since early 2012.EarthCube logo AZGS hopes to continue to contribute to EarthCube as it grows and develops into a fully functioning cyberinfrastructure over the next decade.

What Is EarthCube?

EarthCube was launched as a collaborative partnership between NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) and the Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI), with the goal of creating a more sustainable future through improvements in our understanding of Earth as a complex and changing planet (NSF 2011). EarthCube is a cornerstone of NSF’s Cyberinfrastructure for the 21st Century (CIF21) initiative, whose chief objective is to develop a nationwide, sustainable, and community-based cyberinfrastructure for researchers and educators (NSF 2011). Specific objectives of EarthCube are to: 

  1. Transform research and data management practices within the geosciences community over the next decade.
  2. Provide unprecedented new capabilities, including access to data and visualization tools, to researchers and educators.
  3. Vastly improve the productivity of the geosciences community.
  4. Accelerate research on the Earth system.
  5. Provide a knowledge management framework for the geosciences (Jacobs and Zanzerkia, 2012).      

EarthCube will connect Earth Scientists, educators, policymakers, K-12 students, undergraduate and graduate students, industry, and government agencies to a distributed network of new data management paradigms and visualization tools. EarthCube will create new modes of learning and training, thereby fostering a more informed public and policy-makers, and broadening participation in the creation of a sustainable Earth system (NSF 2011).

Time line graphic. Source: Jacobs and Zanzerkia 2012

EarthCube is both an outcome and a process requiring a decade of development, community engagement, and investment by NSF and interested Earth, information, social and computer scientists, as well as stakeholders from government, industry, academia, and international communities. To date, more than 1,000 individuals have contributed to building EarthCube, which is currently based at the EarthCube Ning site (

Initial EarthCube development involved four Working Groups - Data, Governance, Semantics and Ontologies, and Workflows - and five Concept Teams - Brokering, Cross-Domain Interoperability, Earth System Models, Layered Architecture, and Web Services. The Working Groups gathered EarthCube user requirements through broad engagement of the geosciences community, while the Concept Teams evaluated and prototyped innovative key technologies.Groups

Each group was tasked with drafting a roadmap directing their area of EarthCube forward, while collectively providing NSF and other interested parties with a cross spectrum of ideas and concepts from the  Earth science and stakeholder communities regarding key elements needed to build EarthCube. These roadmaps were presented to NSF and interested parties at an EarthCube charrette (community event) on June 12-14, 2012 in Arlington, VA.

Since then, several new groups have cropped up, focusing on Education and Workforce, Physical Samples as Part of Cyberinfrastructure, and Website and Collaboration Environment, among others. The EarthCube community is now in the process of identifying gaps and overlaps among these groups, and new groups will likely be created as necessary to move EarthCube forward.

Arizona Geological Survey’s Involvement in EarthCube

AZGS has played an important leadership role in the EarthCube development process with AZGS Director Lee Allison as principle investigator (PI) of the Governance Working Group. AZGS staff members Kim Patten, Genevieve Pearthree and Debra Winstead worked closely with Allison in engaging the geosciences community and conducting the background research that provided the scaffolding for the Governance Roadmap. Steve Richard, Chief of AZGS Geoinformation section, was directly involved in writing the Cross-Domain Interoperability Roadmap.

Profile graphic

Lee Allison and Genevieve Pearthree, in addition to the Governance Working Group Steering Committee (composed of Earth, atmosphere, ocean, and computer scientists from across the United States), presented the Governance Roadmap to NSF and the larger EarthCube community at the June 2012 NSF charrette. The Roadmap outlines a series of action items to determine how EarthCube will initially be governed.                                                

The Governance Working Group is currently carrying out an aggressive community engagement program to solicit ideas for EarthCube governance among Earth, atmosphere, ocean, computer, information and social scientists, and other interested parties. Dr. Allison, AZGS staff and the Governance Steering Committee held two EarthCube governance sessions at the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) Federation Summer Meeting in Madison, WI, July 17-20, and plan to hold EarthCube governance sessions at several upcoming conferences, including the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and an NSF workshop focused on gathering EarthCube requirements from early career scientists. 

Lee Allison talking

Getting Involved

Now is the time to influence what EarthCube can do and what it will be.  EarthCube is open to participation to interested individuals and organizations. To get involved, join one or more of the EarthCube Groups ( Draft roadmaps of all the EarthCube groups, background reading, photos and other EarthCube information are at  



EarthCube Governance Working Group, 2012, EarthCube Governance Roadmap: Documentation, Research, and Recommendations. Arizona Geological Survey Open-File Report -12-09, 235 p.

Jacobs, C.A., and Zanzerkia, E.E., 2012, “Update on EarthCube.” Presentation to the Advisory Committee for Geosciences (AC/GEO), Arlington, VA, April 18-19.

National Science Foundation, 2011, “Earth Cube Guidance for the Community,”

National Science Foundation, 2012, “Welcome to EarthCube,”, "Earth Cube,"



Genevieve Pearthree

Researcher & GIS Specialist
Arizona Geological Survey

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