1.1 Earth System Science

Carolina Londono Michel

The impact of human activities on the environment has never been more clear than now. Your generation may be the first one to be fully aware of the part we played in creating the many challenges facing humanity; to name a few: dwindling water reserves, widespread pollution, environmental degradation, changing climates, severe weather, and water shortages. And as our population grows, our demand for resources grows. The world needs knowledgeable people (i.e., YOU) making contentious decisions and conscientious choices. The world needs people that believe in a sustainable future and that act accordingly.

Human history records the creativity and ingenuity of people in solving hard problems. The solutions to the current Earth-science-related challenges will also come from human creativity. However, as our modern society and its needs have become increasingly complex, so have the solutions. It will take a deep and subtle understanding of Earth’s systems for future generations to feed, clothe, house, and provide high standards of living for all humans. We need policymakers, politicians, citizens, and businesses that are Earth science literate.

Earth Science Literacy Principles

Humans are part of the biosphere and significantly alter the Earth. Earth science literacy is an understanding of Earth’s influence on you and of your influence on Earth. Science literacy is not something you achieve once and for all. Like science, scientific literacy is an ongoing process, continually reshaped and rewritten by new discoveries. An Earth-science-literate public, informed by current and accurate scientific understanding of Earth, is critical to the promotion of good stewardship, sound policy, and international cooperation. Earth science education is important for individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities (Wysession, 2009).

An Earth science-literate person

  • recognizes important connections between Earth’s many systems
  • knows how to find and assess scientifically credible information about Earth
  • communicates about Earth science meaningfully
  • can make informed and responsible decisions regarding Earth and its resources

Video 1.1.1  What is scientific literacy and why should you care (2:52)


Earth System Science

Science is the systematic examination of the natural world’s structure and functioning. Science is also a rapidly expanding body of knowledge, whose goal is to discover the most straightforward general principles that explain the enormous complexity of nature. These principles help scientists gain insights into the natural world and make predictions about future change. But science is more than just a body of knowledge; science provides a means to evaluate and create new knowledge as unbiasedly as possible (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)

The scientific study of our planet and environment are fields of inquiry of the Earth and environmental sciences. Earth science is not a single science but an umbrella for academic fields studying different aspects of our Earth. For example geology, meteorology, oceanography, and geography are Earth sciences (also geosciences). Environmental science is a multidisciplinary field that studies environmental issues, most of the time caused by humans. The disciplines that contribute to environmental science are ecology, geology, meteorology, biology, chemistry, engineering and physics.



A picture of the Earth on a black background
Figure 1.1.1 The Blue Marble. A “selfie’ taken by the Apollo mission crew in 1972.

Earth and environmental scientists think of the Earth as a system. Instead of a collection of objects, our planet is a network of phenomena. Earth scientists seek to establish the connections, interactions, and interdependency between the planetary sub-systems or spheres: the lithosphere, the biosphere, the hydrosphere, and the atmosphere. Each sphere has individual parts or elements that do not exist in isolation. Instead, they exist in relationship with one another. When the parts work together, a new “whole” emerges, which is more than the sum of its parts.

Changes in part of one system can lead to new changes to that system or to other systems, often in surprising and complex ways. These new changes may take the form of “feedback” that can increase (reinforce) or decrease (attenuate) the original changes. Sometimes the cascading results can be unpredictable in other systems and/or irreversible. Deep knowledge of how most feedbacks work within and between Earth’s systems is still developing.

Watch this brief introduction to complex systems in this video. It will help you appreciate the intricate nature of studying Earth’s systems, such as the climate system.

Video 1.1.2  Complex Theory 1 (10:23). What is a complex system?


The Earth system has numerous elements that interact over many different temporal and spatial scales. When the elements work together, a new level of organization emerges. For example, when rocks of the crust and upper mantle work together as the rigid Earth, we have the geosphere. Similarly, we can group the groundwater, surface water, ocean water, rain water, frozen water, etc. into the hydrosphere. The local interactions between water and rock gives rise to a new level of organization, which in turn interacts with other systems, such as air and life, resulting in new, more complex, levels of organization. Thus, elements organize into subsystems which then organize into systems, which then can be nested into larger systems that operate over various temporal and spatial scales.

When studying the Earth we look at processes that occur at different spatial scales, from the nano and microscopic, to global and even cosmic scales. We also studied processes that vary in the temporal scale, the time, some are fast and operate over fractions of a second, while others can take billions of years. All these levels affect each other. The interactions among Earth’s systems have shaped Earth’s history and will determine Earth’s future. Earth system science helps us understand how the Earth system worked in the past and how it might behave in the future.

Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life.


Earth and environmental scientists produce practical knowledge with implications critical for our survival. Earth and environmental scientists hold the keys to challenging problems that face humanity on topics such as climate change, dwindling water resources, widespread pollution, and intensifying geologic hazards. Earth and environmental scientists contribute to the flourishing and sustenance of humans on Earth and they do so through the scientific method.


Key Takeaways
  • The four major systems of Earth are the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere.
  • Earth’s systems interact over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales.
  • Earth’s systems are dynamic; they continually react to changing influences.
  • Changes in part of one system can cause new changes to that system or to other systems, often in surprising and complex ways.
  • Earth’s climate is an example of how complex interactions among systems can cause relatively sudden and significant changes.

Source: Earth Science Literacy Principles (2009).




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