A revolution is underway in Earth system science


Photo: USGS.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the earth sciences were primarily used as a tool for exploiting natural resources. Towards the end of this period, industrial production increased 13-fold and energy consumption 16-fold, with a concomitant increase in water consumption by a factor of 7. The resulting industrial heavyweight created the conditions for raising the living conditions of at least 25% of humans on Earth – paid at the expense of the Earth’s environment.

A big question today is therefore whether we can improve the living conditions of humans in a sustainable way, without further degrading the environment.

The 21st century poses many challenges for global sustainability. We expect to face a shortage of raw materials and conventional energy resources in the near future. With climate change also bringing clouds together in the background, it has become imperative to make our technologies greener and to optimize the way we manage and use our resources.

The emerging field of Earth System Science (ESS) is a transdisciplinary branch of the knowledge system. It arose out of our understanding of the interdependence of physical, chemical, biological, and human processes. Each of these systems is now at increased risk of undergoing destabilizing changes. SSE is expected to have a dominant role among scientific branches involved in orienting humans towards the sustainable use of our natural capital.

A recent US Geological Survey (USGS) circular, titled “Science Strategy for the 21st Century: 2020-2030”, emphasizes the transformational aspect of SSE as we are in the midst of a technological revolution that will eventually change the way we “monitor, let us analyze and predict the evolutionary dynamics of complex man. and the interactions of the natural system ”. The benefits of monitoring earth system processes are also expected to extend to the management and conservation of energy, water and soil and key inputs to mitigate natural disasters.

ESS representatives will need to use an interdisciplinary approach to address these issues. ESS includes geologists, geophysicists, ecologists, oceanographers, physicists, chemists, geographers, engineers and social scientists. Earth systems are complex and chaotic, which means that they are inherently nonlinear, fractal, and can also exhibit self-organized criticality. They are also sensitive to feedback loops. Thus, the main objective of such an approach to systems science would be to generate high-end quantitative models of the interactions between the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere and the biosphere.

State-of-the-art technologies in data collection and interpretation provide information about the Earth and its systems at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolutions. Improvements in computer hardware and software will facilitate faster calculation and analysis of data. Ultimately, our better understanding of the complex interactions between natural systems will likely help us better anticipate their consequences and better predict them in the future.

The USGS circular also identified the most important challenges to the stability of earth systems, particularly due to climate change, biodiversity, and the earth system. These changes directly influence our management of natural resources and the mitigation of natural hazards. Rapid advances in digital technologies and the concomitant production of data also require more efforts to maintain the accessibility and integrity of data by indexing it in accessible formats.

Indeed, what will change the way we work is the availability of huge amounts of observational and quantitative data, due to the increased use of networked devices and better sensors, satellites and drones. At the same time, advancements in cloud computing and artificial intelligence could allow more powerful models to understand data and use it to understand the future. Modes of data availability have made Earth system models more robust. They are now able to incorporate a range of physical, chemical and biological processes and feedback mechanisms at various temporal and spatial scales.

Several new technological opportunities for the management, modeling and prediction of ESS data are also being developed, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Such advances also make research a transdisciplinary exercise – in that a machine learning technique used in engineering could also be used in the science of climate or earthquake prediction.

Taken together, these developments indicate that Earth system science is currently going through an exciting phase of its evolution, and the last thing could prove transformational.

CP Rajendran is Assistant Professor at the National Institute for Advanced Studies. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.


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