Earth System Science

Definition - Earth System Science

Several outstanding definitions exist that encompass the main ideas addressed in Earth system science.  Here are some examples we have selected that provide a solid basis to form your own working definition.

Earth system science focuses on the processes taking place in the atmosphere, oceans, fresh water bodies, ice, soils, and vegetation growing on the land surface. It involves making connections between the soil and atmosphere, plus energy from the sun, and the gases and particles entering the atmosphere and oceans from space or from the layers of molten and solid rock beneath Earth’s surface. Many of these processes involve life, so Earth system science makes connections between these physical processes and the places on Earth where organisms live. (see Earth Science by Design, ESBD)

The objective of Earth System Science is to understand how the Earth is changing and the consequences for life on Earth with a focus on enabling prediction and mitigation of undesirable consequences. This requires an identification and description of how the Earth system is changing, the ability to identify and measure the primary forcings on the Earth system from both natural and human activities, knowledge of how the Earth system responds to changes in these forcings, identification of the consequences of these changes for human civilization, and finally, the ability to accurately predict future changes with sufficient advanced notice to mitigate the predicted effects. 

To achieve this level of knowledge and understanding a multidisciplinary approach to studying Earth as a system is needed. Such an approach involves studying the processes and interactions (cycles) among the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and geosphere from a global to local point-of-view, and across the time scales (minutes to eons) in which these spheres interact. It requires the use of physical and chemical laws with mathematics to describe the physical, chemical and biological processes within each sphere and the interactions between the spheres. These descriptions are used along with observations from ground, airborne, waterborne, and spaceborne instruments to construct models through which complex interactions of the spheres are studied. It is through the understanding of these complex interactions that accurate, predictive models are developed. (see NASA)

Earth system science embraces chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and applied sciences in transcending disciplinary boundaries to treat the Earth as an integrated system and seeks a deeper understanding of the physical, chemical, biological and human interactions that determine the past, current and future states of the Earth. Earth system science provides a physical basis for understanding the world in which we live and upon which humankind seeks to achieve sustainability. Earth system science builds upon the fundamental disciplines, which form the scientific integrating basis for any discussion of the system as a whole. This representation shows the critical relationship of ESS concepts as a bridge between the disciplines and the increasingly interpretive and integrative endeavors of human social processes. The future of our planet and the destiny of humankind are dependent upon this interdisciplinary pyramid of Earth system processes and phenomena. (see Science Education Resource Center, SERC)

The Earth system serves as a natural laboratory that is intrinsically interesting and readily accessible to all students; it effectively demonstrates applications of fundamental principles of the physical and life sciences, mathematics, and technology; and it is integrally connected to the personal and communal lives of students and society in general. Most importantly, the Earth and space sciences directly address the interrelationships between humanity and the Earth system. A basic understanding of these relationships is a critical aspect of scientific literacy and fundamental to good government at all levels. In teaching about the Earth system, scientists from all subdisciplines in the Earth and space sciences have something to offer, and as a community, we all have much to gain through the development of an integrated and coherent educational mission. (see American Geophysical Union, AGU).