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Earth : In Search of Answers


© CNRS Photothèque/INSU

Dominique Le Quéau, Director of INSU (Institut national des sciences de l'Univers)

The International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE) was proclaimed by the United Nations on December 22nd, 2005. Starting in 2007 and lasting three years with a highpoint in 2008, it was set up at the instigation of the International Union of Geological Sciences and Unesco. Its aim is to inform the general public about the knowledge amassed by the world’s 400,000 Earth scientists.
In France, the IYPE has two main objectives: to inform the public about the role and importance of the geosciences in improving the management of tomorrow’s world; and to draw the attention of young candidates to professions in geosciences such as geology, geophysics, and geochemistry as well as a host of other specialities.
In these various fields, CNRS’ flagship is INSU (the French National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy), a management and coordination agency that depends on both CNRS and the Ministry of Research. Endowed with a budget of €60 million excluding salaries, its mission is to develop and coordinate research at the national and international level, especially in the Earth Sciences.
For INSU and CNRS, the IYPE should mainly be focused on the many poorly understood aspects of our planet: its formation some 4.6 billion years ago, the birth of its atmosphere, the origin of its water, and its internal composition and structure.
To start with, there is the mysterious solid inner core, almost totally hidden from observation and so inaccessible that we will probably never be entirely sure of its composition, even though this is precisely what governs the core’s unusual properties. The core generates a magnetic field that shields us from space, and yet is endowed with a fickle temperament that perplexes scientists. Then there is the mantle, solid and yet in perpetual movement, acting as both the Earth’s radiator and as the engine that drives continental drift, the opening of oceans and the formation of mountain ranges. The host of unresolved problems concerning the Earth’s surface are no less important. The mechanisms that shape, or have shaped, our landscapes, such as variation in sea level or erosion of landforms, are still poorly understood.
The most crucial issues are without doubt natural resources, their exploitation and their sustainable use. Declining hydrocarbon reserves, the growing need for uranium and other metals, the challenge of trapping greenhouse gases deep underground and the uneven distribution of water, all make it essential to gain a more accurate knowledge of the geology of the underlying bedrock.
The future belongs to renewable energy resources like solar and wind power, or like hydrogen produced from mid-ocean hydrothermal vents using the same sort of primitive processes that may well have first given rise to life on Earth.
Using its national facilities, its observatories, and its project-based actions, INSU will be an essential actor in further advances in these areas, and will encourage and coordinate research with its partners in universities, other institutions, and industry.


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