Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2015

Beyond Earth System Science

An Approach for the 21st Century

Go back to the beginning of this presentation by Kip Hodges from Arizona State University.

Sustainability and Stewardship

When we say we want to save the planet, we really want to keep it hospitable to ourselves. That's what we mean by sustainability.

Sustainability programs on college campuses generally start out as interdisciplinary projects and tend to move toward policy think tanks. They lose the scientific perspective -- a critically important component. Policy created without a deep understanding of science runs the risk of being fundamentally flawed.

To understand a dynamic system, we need to understand the process interactions of its components. In the case of the Earth, those components are the solid Earth, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere.

Ecosystems evolve over time scales from 0.1 to 10 million years. Spatial scales have the same kinds of ranges. To deal with temporal and spatial scales like these, we need to think like earth and space scientists. Thus, to solve sustainability problems, we need earth and space scientists.

So, to become successful stewards of our planet, we will need a theoretical framework for the Earth based on systems dynamics.

We will need to know the history of the Earth system through time, from the extremely distant past to the present.

Toward these ends, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was initiated in 2001. Their findings provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world's ecosystems and the services they provide (such as clean water, food, forest products, flood control, and natural resources) and the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlights increasing rates of degradation of ecosystems. The bottom line of the MA findings is that human actions are depleting Earth's natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. At the same time, the assessment shows that with appropriate actions it is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently underway.

Reversing environmental degradation will require new technologies. Waiting for other people to develop the technology we need to implement change is vastly inefficient. It will be far more efficient for geoscientists to work with engineers, or even to incorporate engineering skills into the educational process for scientists.

According to the Principle of Uniformitarianism, the present is the key to the past. In addition, the past and present are the key to the future. Geoscience is beginning to move from descriptive and observational science to predictive science.

But what if all of our efforts are for naught?

In 1908, a meteorite struck Siberia, creating an impact structure roughly the size of London.

We're lucky it hit in Siberia. Impacts of objects the size of the Tunguska Impact happen, on average, once every 300 years (NEO= near Earth objects). Larger, more destructive impacts, happen less frequently.

Want to preserve the species? Earth may not be the answer.