Earth as a System

If you have not already done so, please first read the introduction and preparations.

  • The Context for Climate:
    Our Earth’s Systems

    This module prepared for
    Earth to Sky Interagency Partnership Courses
    September 2015

  • Part 1: What is Earth System Science?

    globe da-vinci

    “Realize that everything is connected to everything else.”

    – Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519

  • Earth System Science takes the main components of planet Earth—the atmosphere, oceans, freshwater, ice, rocks, soils, and life—and seeks to understand these as well as the interactions between these components.

    Earth System Diagram

    “It is the need to study and understand these between-component interactions that defines Earth System Science as a discipline in its own right.”
    (Lawton, John. Earth System Science. Science, 15 Jun 2001, v. 292 Issue 5524, p. 1965)

  • What is a System?

    • A system is an interconnected set of components that are linked through interconnections that function to create an outcome.
    • The interaction of components and their interactions create system behavior.
    • We are familiar with human systems: nervous system, circulatory system, digestive system.

    Football-team-c1916A football team is a system with

    Components: players, coach, field, and ball.

    Interconnections: rules of the game, the coach's strategy, the players' communications, and the laws of physics that govern the motions of ball and players.

    The purpose of the team is to win games, or have fun, or get exercise, or make millions of dollars, or all of the above.

  • A bicycle is a system composed of a set of components that interact to provide transportation.

    Guyon Bike lo



    The interaction of all these components
    is what allows the system to function.

    Each component of the system also has elements. For example, the elements of the wheels include the metal rim, the rubber tire, the spokes, the hub, and a wheel bearing; pedals include metal struts, rubber foot rests, bolts, bearings, etc.

  • Just Like a Bicycle, Earth is a System of Systems

    Earth east medium

    As you consider the topic of Climate Change it is important to understand that climate scientists’ investigations hinge on the notion that Earth is a system, which is comprised of sub systems (aka components or spheres) that are linked to each other through a variety of processes. A basic understanding of Earth Systems Science provides a foundation and a context for climate science, for your own and potentially visitors/students understanding.

  • lab-scientist-cclicensedHow Do Scientists Study Earth?
    The Scientific Method and Earth Systems Science

    Note: Earth Systems scientists are also known as Geoscientists or simply, Earth scientists. Climate Science is one discipline within Earth or Earth Systems Science.

    Assignment (should take 15 min maximum)

    1. State the scientific method as you understand it.
    2. Read Multiple Modes of Inquiry in Earth Science (If you have not already downloaded this article, please do so now).

    This article was written for classroom educators, but the information about Earth scientists is applicable for our work. Below are some suggested guiding questions to consider as you read.

    1. In the article, the authors contrast (a) the methods geoscientists use with (b) the classic "scientific method" as it is taught in schools. What is the difference between those two things?
    2. What are the geoscience methods that the authors describe?
    3. How might you use this explanation of scientific method when communicating about climate change?
  • In your reading did you note these main ideas?

    13057600crosssection20150820USGS scientist measuring streamflow to document 2015 droughtSix modes of inquiry widely used by practicing geoscientists include:

    1. The classic laboratory experiment
    2. Observation of change over time
    3. Comparison of ancient artifacts with products of active processes
    4. Observation of variations across space
    5. Use of physical models
    6. Application of computer models
  • Part 2: Looking at Earth as a System

    and Applying that to Your Site

    Snow Geese arrive at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

    Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
    - Albert Einstein

  • Using Your Site Photo to Explore a Systems View of Your Site

    1. Find the photo you took of your site, and the tracing paper or plastic overlay.
    2. Lay the tracing paper or plastic on top of your photo.
    3. Be sure to have an implement handy that will write on your paper or plastic overlay.
    4. Use your image to follow along and take notes, as we explore Earth’s system as it applies to your location.

    Here is an example photo and tracing paper/plastic overlay. Image from
  • system-of-systemsLooking at Earth as a System of Systems

    Earth approximates a closed system made of interconnected components called “spheres.”

    Each of Earth’s Spheres function as open systems, which are interconnected through various processes and cycles. Scientists describe four major spheres for Earth: geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere. (In this module the cryosphere – ice – is considered a part of the hydrosphere.)

    Assignment: Watch the 6 minute movie, "Big Idea 3"

    In a closed system, energy enters and leaves but material does not. In an open system, both energy and material enter and leave. In an isolated system, neither energy nor material enter or leave.

    Image credits: Jennifer Loomis, TERC/Biosphere image provided by ORBIMAGE © Orbital Imaging Corporation. Processing by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Image source: Exploring Earth

  • system-of-systemsThe Earth System is Comprised of Spheres
    That Contain Elements

    Each sphere is made up of elements. For example, a bird is an element of the biosphere; a pond is an element of the hydrosphere.

    Let’s take a brief look at each of Earth’s Spheres and elements of each, at your site.

    Image credits: Jennifer Loomis, TERC/Biosphere image provided by ORBIMAGE © Orbital Imaging Corporation. Processing by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Image source: Exploring Earth

  • geosphere Elements of the geosphere include the surface rocks and soils as well as Earth’s interior.

    quillTake a look at your photo of your site. Can you identify a few elements of the geosphere at your location? Label them on your overlay or sketch.

    covered-bridge mouse
    Hover above to get the hint.

  • HydrosphereElements of the hydrosphere include all bodies of surface water as well as ground water.

    quillTake a look at your photo of your site. Can you identify a few elements of the hydrosphere at your location? Label them on your overlay or sketch.

    covered-bridge mouse
    Hover above to get the hint.

  • BiosphereElements of the biosphere include all living plants and animals, from the smallest single celled organisms to the largest trees and animals on the planet.

    quillTake a look at your photo of your site. Can you identify a few elements of the biosphere at your location? Label them on your overlay or sketch.

    covered-bridge mouse
    Hover above to get the hint.

  • AtmosphereElements of the atmosphere include several different gases (nitrogen and oxygen in the greatest abundance) as well as clouds, water vapor, and solid particles such as dust and pollen.

    quillTake a look at your photo of your site. Can you identify a few elements of the atmosphere at your location? Label them on your overlay or sketch.

    covered-bridge mouse
    Hover above to get the hint.

  • Note that Each Sphere Holds Matter and Energy

    atom-29539 1280

    Although it is obvious that the hydrosphere holds water, there is also water in the biosphere, water in the atmosphere, and water in the soil (pedosphere). Each of the spheres also holds oxygen, various forms of carbon, and other chemical elements or materials. All of the matter on Earth can be placed in one or more spheres.

    alzate sdo rgb 0

    Energy in the spheres is mostly in the form of heat energy or chemical energy. For example, there is a vast amount of heat energy in the atmosphere or in the hydrosphere.

    The greatest source of this heat energy is the Sun.

  • Earth’s Systems are Connected by the Flow and Exchange of Energy and Matter

    EnergyFlowsFINAL ESSInterconnections

    Energy and matter are always circulating among the spheres, connecting them in many ways. Sometimes this circulation can happen very quickly, such as when a volcano erupts, moving tons of tiny particles from the geosphere into the atmosphere. Other examples of circulation happen much more slowly, such as when a fallen tree decays and nutrients move from the biosphere to the pedosphere.

    Image courtesy of

  • covered-bridgeThink About How Energy Flows

    Energy is transferred within and between spheres

    For example:

    • The sun warms the ground (geosphere), which transfers its heat to the atmosphere by radiation.
    • Warm air transfers heat to cooler land surfaces by conduction.
    • Rivers and ocean currents move heat energy from one place to another by convection.


    quillTake another look at your site photo. Can you identify one or two ways in which energy is flowing, and being transferred within and between spheres? Diagram this on your overlay or sketch.

  • Think About Matter Cycling...

    Matter Cycling
  • Processes Move Matter

    Whenever matter moves from one sphere into another, some process, driven by energy, causes it to happen. Here are some examples:

    Water moves from a lake (hydrosphere) into the air (atmosphere) by a process called evaporation.

    Minerals move from rock (geosphere) into the soil (pedosphere) by the process of weathering.

    boy-breath-cold-213x300Carbon dioxide moves from your body (biosphere) into the air (atmosphere) by a process called respiration.

    Sage thrasher Processes move matter not only from one sphere to another, but also from one element of a sphere to another element of a sphere.

    For example:

    Nutrients move from a plant (biosphere) into a bird’s body (biosphere) by the processes of consumption and digestion.

  • Carbon Cycling and Processes at Your Site

    Assignment:  Take another look at your site photo. Can you identify a few ways in which carbon is cycling, and the processes that are moving it within and between spheres? Diagram this on your overlay or sketch.


  • Your overlay or sketch should now look something like this example.


    You’ve been thinking about your site in terms of Earth’s systems. Might you use this approach to help explain the connections between your site and where your visitors live?

    Image from

  • Pinatubo-usgs-06-12-91Mt. Pinatubo eruption. USGS imageRecall that Earth System Processes Take Place on Both Local and Global Scales

    You’ve just explored some processes occurring at the local scale of your own site, and may be thinking about how they are linked to global processes.

    Pictured to the right is a global-scale example.

    Q: In one-two sentences state the process and the spheres involved.

    Hover above to get the hint.

    Are there processes occurring at your site or in your region that have global consequences?

  • Summary of Part Two

    The Earth system behaves as a single, self-regulating closed system with physical, chemical, and biological components.

    The interactions and feedbacks between these components are complex and take place on multiple scales of time and space.

    The focus of Earth system science is understanding the interactions between the oceans and ice, atmosphere, life, geological processes and the land surface, and how those interactions impact each other and lead to changes on our planet.

  • Part 3: Earth’s Climate System
    Operates at Global, Regional
    and Local Scales that are Linked

    Monarch butterflies


  • Earth’s Climate System is a Part of the Overall Earth System

    Modeling the Climate SystemThe Climate System is both affected by and in turn affects the overall system in direct and complex ways and it operates at local, regional and global scales.

    A quick glance at this diagram shows the complexity of the Climate System – and the many interactions and processes at work. This is why supercomputers are needed to run climate models!

  • What Drives Earth’s Climate on a Global Scale?

    Earth’s Orbit around the Sun and the tilt of Earth’s axis with respect to the Sun affect climate on very long time scales.

    Assignment: Please read this short article about the Milankovitch cycles


    Our Sun’s Cycles have an effect over the time-scale of millions of years, but do not account for the recent warming of our planet.


    Optional: for a basic explanation of how solar variation influences our climate see:

  • What Drives Earth’s Climate on a Global Scale?

    Presence of Life

    We have seen that living things help circulate matter and energy. Life also contributes to the greenhouse gases that help make Earth’s temperature habitable for people.

    The Cycling of Matter that Links the Earth Systems  

    For example, the water cycle or carbon cycle. Alterations in these cycles can cause climate to shift (e.g., adding excess CO2 to the atmosphere traps more heat on Earth, in turn changing the climate.)

    Cumulative Effects of Regional and Local Processes and Events

    El Niño - La Niña for example. An El Niño event can shift trade winds which can impact atmospheric circulation globally.

    Human Influence on Greenhouse effect
    El Niño and La Niña Patterns
  • What Drives Earth’s Climate on a Global Scale?

    The laws of physics influence how air and water move and affect atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns, among other things.

    Just for fun, here are some fictitious laws of physics, from the cartoon world of the Wile E. Coyote and his friend the Roadrunner

    • Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation.
    • Everything falls faster than an anvil.
    • All principles of gravity are negated by fear.
    • As speed increases, objects can be in several places at once.
    • Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter.

    Source :

  • isaac-newtonWhat Drives Earth’s Climate on a Global Scale?

    Real Laws of Physics:

    • Newton’s Laws of Motion

    • Conservation of Energy

    • Conservation of Momentum

    • Conservation of Angular Momentum

    • Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity

  • What Drives Earth’s Climate on a Global Scale?

    Katrina2 TMO 2005240Two hours after the National Hurricane Center issued their warning about Hurricane Katrina, the Moderate Resolution Spectroradiometer (MODIS) captured this image from NASA’s Terra satellite.Coupled Global Ocean and Atmospheric Circulation Determine Earth’s Climate Patterns

    A major part of the global climate system is comprised of the coupled ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns. These patterns dictate the major climatic zones on our planet, and are intimately intertwined with all of Earth’s spheres.

    A basic understanding of these circulation patterns can help us grasp the global, regional and local ramifications of the changes humans are making to our atmosphere and ocean.

    Let’s begin with the atmosphere. Watch these two short videos for an explanation of the major air circulation patterns on our planet.



  • Atmospheric and Ocean Circulation Currents are Interconnected

    Assignment: watch 3 movies:

    Watch this 2 minute movie to see how differences in ocean surface temperatures create wind, and how wind patterns can in turn affect ocean surface temperatures. (note: this movie is low resolution): Ocean Temperatures and Climate Patterns

    Watch this (slightly dated)  4 minute movie to see the effects of surface ocean currents on climate patterns: The Role of Ocean Currents in Climate

    In sum, the ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns are closely linked. Driven by the energy from our Sun and the spinning of the globe, winds and ocean currents distribute heat around our planet: The Ocean - a driving force for Weather and Climate

  • What Drives the Earth’s Climate Patterns?


    On a Local Scale

    Local climate involves small scale events and processes, that are linked to regional and global scale (example: effects on surface temperature of vegetation vs. pavement )

    On a Regional Scale

    gpcp nino peak

    Regional climate involves smaller scale events and processes and/or repeating cyclical events but linked to global scale (example: El Nino - La Nina effects are added to the predominating climate of the American Southwest)

  • Why is Earth’s Climate Changing Now?

    By altering the chemical makeup or our atmosphere, through adding additional carbon, we are trapping more of the Sun’s energy, changing both the atmosphere and ocean components of Earth’s climate system, which in turn affect the biosphere, cryosphere and geopshere in ways that have global, regional and local consequences.

    NCA3 Fig.app4-4green-house-effectsandy goesSandy
  • How is Your Site Linked to the Global Climate System?


    Think how the ocean and air currents affect the climate where you live. Do you think the system is changing? Have weather patterns shifted? How might this affect the natural and cultural resources there? How about the global and local processes, the energy flow and the exchange of matter? How will all of these changes affect you, and your visitors? If you are attending an Earth to Sky course, bring your ideas and notes to class. We will use this Earth systems approach to continue to build the conceptual links between global, regional and local climate change. 

  • Moving Forward

    As you learn more about Earth’s Climate and global change, or even as you simply think about what is happening in the natural world around you, keep in mind the concept of the Earth system, with its spheres, reservoirs of matter and energy, and processes that drive matter and energy from one sphere to another. These concepts can help you better understand the very dynamic nature of our planet, even when processes happen at rates that are much more gradual than the eruption of a volcano or flooding that results from a wild storm.

    “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
    – Albert Einstein

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
  • 26
  • 27
  • 28
  • 29
  • 30
  • 31
  • 32
  • 33
  • 34
  • 35
  • 36
  • 37