The emergence and evolution of Earth System Science

For tens of thousands of years, indigenous cultures around the world have recognized cycles and systems in the environment, and that humans are an integral part of these. However, it was only in the early 20th century that contemporary systems thinking was applied to the Earth, initiating the emergence of Earth System Science (ESS). Building on the recognition that life exerts a strong influence on the Earth’s chemical and physical environment, ESS originated in a Cold War context with the rise of environmental and complex system sciences.

The ESS framework has since become a powerful tool for understanding how Earth operates as a single, complex, adaptive system, driven by the diverse interactions between energy, matter and organisms. In particular, it connects traditional disciplines — which typically examine components in isolation — to build a unified understanding of the Earth. With human activities increasingly destabilizing the system over the last two centuries, this perspective is necessary for studying global changes and their planetary-level impacts and risks, including phenomena such as climate change, biodiversity loss and nutrient loading. Indeed, one of the most pressing challenges of ESS is to determine whether past warm periods in Earth history are a possible outcome of current human pressures and, if so, how they can best be avoided.

ESS has produced new concepts and frameworks central to the global-change discourse, including the Anthropocene, tipping elements and planetary boundaries. Moving forward, the grand challenge for ESS is to achieve a deep integration of biophysical processes and human dynamics to build a truly unified understanding of the Earth System.

This review article is authored by Will Steffen et al., and was published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment volume 1, pages:54–63(2020).

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