16.1 What Is the Earth System?

Earth can be characterized in terms of its “spheres.” The atmosphere is the envelope of gas surrounding the planet. The hydrosphere is the water on the planet, whether in oceans, rivers, glaciers, or the ground. The biosphere comprises living organisms. The lithosphere is the rocky outer shell of the planet.

Components of these spheres interact constantly, with processes occurring in one sphere having an impact in other spheres. Cycles such as the water cycle or the carbon cycle constantly move matter and energy between spheres. Taking an Earth-system approach—looking at how the spheres are connected—is a way to account for the web of interactions responsible for the “big picture” of the Earth that we know.

The climate change related to the opening of the Drake Passage (Figure 16.2) is a good example of why a system of interactions is needed to understand how Earth works. The Drake Passage (bottom left map) is the gap between the southern-most tip of South America, and Antarctica.

Prior to 40 million years ago, the Drake Passage did not exist (top left map), and neither did the Antarctic ice cap. The arm of land connecting South America and Antarctica allowed warm ocean currents (red arrows) to carry heat from the equator to Antarctica. When the gap opened up, a new cold-water current formed (blue arrows) that blocked warm water from reaching Antarctica. Without the warm current, Antarctica froze over.

Figure 16.2 An example of Earth-system interactions. The opening of the Drake Passage changed how ocean currents moved heat around the planet, and cooled Antarctica until it froze over. Source: Karla Panchuk (2018) CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Map: Modified after Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (view source). Click the image for more attributions and terms of use.

There were many interconnecting processes within the Earth-system (Figure 16.2, right) that drove glaciation in Antarctica. First, heat energy within Earth drove plate tectonics (lithosphere), making it possible for South America to separate from Antarctica. This impacted ocean currents (hydrosphere), and ultimately how water was stored on Antarctica (hydrosphere) by changing the climate of Antarctica.

In the Earth system, nothing happens in isolation. The change in the climate of Antarctica had a global impact. The ice cap on Antarctica increased Earth’s albedo, the reflectiveness of Earth’s surface. The more reflective Earth’s surface, the more of the sun’s light is reflected back into space without heating Earth. This caused even more ice to form, and cooled the planet as a whole.

When Earth cools, the change in temperature has a cascade of effects including changing precipitation patterns (hydrosphere), and changing the characteristics of habitats (biosphere). When habitats cool, organisms needing more warmth will migrate closer to the equator. This is true of plants as well as other forms of life.

Ice is not the only type of land cover that affects albedo—forests do as well. Forests also increase local atmospheric moisture levels through transpiration, when they release water vapour into the atmosphere. Local temperature and moisture differences also affect rainfall patterns on top of larger-scale changes resulting from cooling.

The chain of events in summarized in Figure 16.2 is only a broad overview of all of the consequences of opening a gap between South America and Antarctica. For example, it does not include the effects of what a change in the types of plants in a location does to local weathering and erosion. Trees can accelerate weathering, releasing more nutrients from rocks into runoff, which can affect algae blooms in water bodies, which in turn reduces oxygen levels in the water, which affects organisms living in the water that rely on oxygen.

Trees growing along a river can also slow the rate of erosion, reducing the amount of sediment in the river, and ultimately the rate of development of a delta at the river’s mouth. Deltas undergo subsidence as accumulated sediments are compressed, so if the sediment supply is reduced, parts of the delta may become flooded, changing the extent of wetlands. Wetlands with waters depleted in oxygen can prevent plant material from decaying and releasing their carbon back into the carbon cycle as carbon dioxide. Changing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels alters the way energy moves through Earth’s atmosphere, and affects Earth’s surface temperatures.

The short version of why it’s important to look at Earth as a system is that everything is connected, so that a change in one part of the system can ripple through the rest of the system and have effects well beyond any one location or time.

Feedbacks Amplify or Diminish Earth-System Change

The web of interactions in the Earth system is complex, but there is yet another level of complication. Sometimes a change in the Earth system can trigger other changes that have the effect of amplifying the original change, or diminishing it. The series of interactions that amplify or diminish a change are called feedbacks. A feedback that amplifies change is called a positive feedback. A feedback that diminishes the size of a change is called a negative feedback.

In the events related to the glaciation of Antarctica, the formation of ice is an example of a positive feedback. Ice formation was caused by cooling, but it triggered even more cooling by reflecting sunlight away from Earth’s surface. This is called ice albedo feedback.  An example of a negative feedback is plant growth. Plants need CO2 to make food, so as long as the plants have enough nutrients and water, and temperatures are still suitable, increasing CO2 in the atmosphere could increase plant growth. Plant growth would draw down atmospheric CO2, so that there would be less warming than would otherwise be expected from the initial rise in atmospheric CO2 levels.

Misconceptions About Feedbacks

There are two common misconceptions about feedbacks. One misconception is that positive feedbacks result in changes that are good, and negative feedbacks result in changes that are bad. In fact, whether a feedback is positive or negative is unrelated to whether or not the change would be considered a good thing. For example, if a feedback accelerates warming and makes an ecosystems uninhabitable for animals that used to live there, it would still be a positive feedback even though it had a negative impact on the animals in that ecosystem. A feedback that slowed the rate of warming and gave the animals time to adapt would still be considered a negative feedback even though it helped the animals to survive.

Another misconception is that a positive feedback always results in some value increasing (e.g., a rise in temperature), and a negative feedback results in a decrease in that value. Positive feedbacks can cause a value to decrease (e.g., as ice forms more sunlight is reflected, leading to decreased temperatures), and negative feedbacks can cause a value to increase. What matters is whether the initial change is amplified or reduced, not which way the numbers are changing.

Feedbacks and Instability in the Earth System

The potential for sudden extreme changes in the Earth system depends on what feedbacks are available. At times when Earth’s climate was much warmer than today, no glaciers were present. When the climate is much cooler, a relatively small decrease in temperature could be enough to start the formation of ice and trigger the ice albedo feedback. However, if the climate is much warmer, the same decrease in temperature would not cool Earth enough to trigger the ice albedo feedback, and further climate cooling would be avoided. The reverse is also true- if warming occurs in a climate that is cold enough for glaciers to form, some of that ice might melt, reducing the albedo of Earth’s surface, and permitting even more warming. On the other hand, if the climate is already too warm for ice to exist, a small amount of warming won’t be amplified in the same way.

The albedo effect is not the only feedback that can make cooler climates less stable. Melting of permafrost (sediment that remains frozen year round) can also have an impact. Frozen soil contains trapped organic matter that is converted by micro-organisms to CO2 and methane (CH4) when the soil thaws. Both these gases contribute to warming when they accumulate in the atmosphere. Additional warming can cause even more permafrost to melt, permitting even more activity by micro-organisms, and releasing more CO2 and CH4.

Either of these feedbacks is enough on their own to accelerate climate change, but when they are both present together, the effect is even stronger. What this means is that the conditions in the Earth system before a change happens—called the initial conditions—play an important role in determining the impact of any changes that occur. A change that would have little impact under one set of initial conditions could have far reaching effects under another. Thinking of Earth as a system is a way to factor in the initial conditions. Otherwise we would be very puzzled why a small rise in global temperatures at one time in Earth history could have almost no discernible effect, but the same rise in temperatures at another time could lead to profound change.