Earth System Science and sustainability:
towards an Earth Science agenda
A synopsis of my notes and reflections
Take home messages
- Earth System Science requires engagement across disciplines (ie, it is
not just Earth
Science + System)
- Sustainability is essentially a societal issue - as such it requires an
engagement outside the science community cognizant of the 'participatory
management' process responsible for landscape management issues at the local
- Baseline data relevant to to biophysical processes in the Australian
environment is extremely deficient, and frequently non-existent. Existing
data sets are fragmented, expensive and/or inaccessible. Model based
approaches necessarily resort to Northern hemisphere baseline data - even
though it can be shown (eg flood-frequency
statistics) that profound differences exist between Australia
and Northern Hemisphere continents.
- A need for clear demonstrations of the predictive capability of Earth System
Science in a language that can be understood by the potential beneficiaries.
- Structural impediments within the teaching and research environment are
of great concern. The ongoing difficulty in engaging high quality students
Earth System Science agenda hampers Geo and Atmospheric Science departments
(less so in Environmental schools). Collaboration at a national level leaves
much to be desired (at the individual through to discipline level).
- Notwithstanding the above - there is no clear consensus on the big-ticket
issues that might focus the research effort. Indeed there is the perception
is far ahead
of the management process. However, there areclear indications in the
palaeo-record (at the millennial timescale - John Chappell ??) that there
are fundamental causes of change in our Earth Systems that we have very little
- There is a need to develop a practical "landscape evoution model" - Ozscape!
Some emerging issues
- there is a need to understand just what is Earth System Science and how
Earth Science fits in (the Andy Pitmans perspective). We need a much
stronger national approach that connects between the various subdisciplines
if we are to make research "headway".
- the level of understanding of the "sustainability" agenda
within Earth Sciences and, more so, the Geosciences, is poor
(the Bob Wasson perspective).
Fischer "Discussions of sustainability must engage three questions:
How should we allocate resources of time, energy, and material between
human needs and those of the natural ecosystem? Between current human
needs and those of future generations? And between the
needs of us in the west and those in the still-developing world?"
- Both Earth System Science and sustainability issues necessarily lead to
a focus on the linkages and system dynamics at a range of temporal scales
(eg the Wassongram -still in the ether). We need clear demonstrators of
the impact of these linkages (ie impact of forestation on flow in the
Murray - what are the real exemplars?). How
ability to find those linkages that are not yet recognized/understood?
Defining an agenda for the Earth Sciences
The main game : understanding
Beyond this, we need a focus that achieves meaningful outcomes
community that Earth Science offers unique and special perspectives crucial
to our future well being. Some of the issues that need to be addressed in defining
this agenda might
- The notion of the Earth as a complex system
is well entrenched "rife with feedback, nonlinear synergies,
thresholds, and irreversibility that confound our intuition" ( Harte).
What methodologies will be most appropriate for the study
Do we have a deep understanding of the methodologies?
The methodology must involve a fusion of data
and modeling (Mac Kirby).
necessitating resourcing of both monitoring technologies (eg remote sensing)
and model building (eg CSIRO BIOS).
Beyond this, the questions depend to great extent on the relevant timescale
(wherein lies a profound tension). At the "sustainability level" a
perspective of <1000 years may be appropriate (
Nevertheless, Earth systems response
times span many orders of magnitude. As a research community, our efforts
must span these different scales seamlessly.
Geoscientists "temporal perspective" is typically at the millennial
scale or greater, while the sustainability imperative is at the centennial
and shorter, realizing a mismatch that may be fundamental. Can we conceive
that allow geoscientists to resolve palaerecords at timescale's relevant
to sustainability issues? If so, we need to know!
- Figures like the Wasson-gram emphasize the knowledge of the known linkages
but what of the unknown.
Palaeorecords have historically provided powerful tools
for realizing the nature and significance of these linkages, especially
those operating on time scales
of of 10's -100's of thousand years. The realization of dramatic variability
in the record at the millennial scale (John Chappell- what is the exemplar)
will undoubtedly drive technological advances
that will increase the resolution.
Can we afford not
to be a player in this technological development?
- Dynamics of process interaction is always characterized by different spatio-temporal
responses, with non-linearities demanding modeling approaches that challenge
our current methodologies. Where to next? (see John
- What is the catch-cry for the cause! Ozscope ? Personally I prefer "the
nature of change" but this probably reflects my interests in the primary
to the pratical utility of the science.
What are the Demonstrators
The CSIRO BIOS model etc (please help me)
Committing the agenda
Fischer, Earth science: fertile ground for an ethic of sustainability
John Harte, Toward a Synthesis of the Newtonian and Darwinian Worldviews
Towards a strategic
plan for earth sciences in Australia; a background issues paper