Earth System Science

I decided not to rate this book. Some parts are great, some parts I didn’t think were very good.

I’ve added some quotes and links below. First a few links (I’ve tried not to add links here which I’ve also included in the quotes below):

Carbon cycle.
Origin of water on Earth.
Gaia hypothesis.
Albedo (climate and weather).
Snowball Earth.
Carbonate–silicate cycle.
Carbonate compensation depth.
Isotope fractionation.
CLAW hypothesis.
Mass-independent fractionation.
Great Oxygenation Event.
Sturtian glaciation.
Marinoan glaciation.
Ediacaran biota.
Cambrian explosion.
Medieval Warm Period.
Little Ice Age.
Methane emissions.
Keeling curve.
CO2 fertilization effect.
Acid rain.
Ocean acidification.
Earth systems models.
Clausius–Clapeyron relation.
Thermohaline circulation.
The limits to growth.
Exoplanet Biosignature Gases.
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
James Webb Space Telescope.
Habitable zone.

A few quotes from the book:

“The scope of Earth system science is broad. It spans 4.5 billion years of Earth history, how the system functions now, projections of its future state, and ultimate fate. […] Earth system science is […] a deeply interdisciplinary field, which synthesizes elements of geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. It is a young, integrative science that is part of a wider 21st-century intellectual trend towards trying to understand complex systems, and predict their behaviour. […] A key part of Earth system science is identifying the feedback loops in the Earth system and understanding the behaviour they can create. […] In systems thinking, the first step is usually to identify your system and its boundaries. […] what is part of the Earth system depends on the timescale being considered. […] The longer the timescale we look over, the more we need to include in the Earth system. […] for many Earth system scientists, the planet Earth is really comprised of two systems — the surface Earth system that supports life, and the great bulk of the inner Earth underneath. It is the thin layer of a system at the surface of the Earth […] that is the subject of this book.”

“Energy is in plentiful supply from the Sun, which drives the water cycle and also fuels the biosphere, via photosynthesis. However, the surface Earth system is nearly closed to materials, with only small inputs to the surface from the inner Earth. Thus, to support a flourishing biosphere, all the elements needed by life must be efficiently recycled within the Earth system. This in turn requires energy, to transform materials chemically and to move them physically around the planet. The resulting cycles of matter between the biosphere, atmosphere, ocean, land, and crust are called global biogeochemical cycles — because they involve biological, geological, and chemical processes. […] The global biogeochemical cycling of materials, fuelled by solar energy, has transformed the Earth system. […] It has made the Earth fundamentally different from its state before life and from its planetary neighbours, Mars and Venus. Through cycling the materials it needs, the Earth’s biosphere has bootstrapped itself into a much more productive state.”

“Each major element important for life has its own global biogeochemical cycle. However, every biogeochemical cycle can be conceptualized as a series of reservoirs (or ‘boxes’) of material connected by fluxes (or flows) of material between them. […] When a biogeochemical cycle is in steady state, the fluxes in and out of each reservoir must be in balance. This allows us to define additional useful quantities. Notably, the amount of material in a reservoir divided by the exchange flux with another reservoir gives the average ‘residence time’ of material in that reservoir with respect to the chosen process of exchange. For example, there are around 7 × 1016 moles of carbon dioxide (CO2) in today’s atmosphere, and photosynthesis removes around 9 × 1015 moles of CO2 per year, giving each molecule of CO2 a residence time of roughly eight years in the atmosphere before it is taken up, somewhere in the world, by photosynthesis. […] There are 3.8 × 1019 moles of molecular oxygen (O2) in today’s atmosphere, and oxidative weathering removes around 1 × 1013 moles of O2 per year, giving oxygen a residence time of around four million years with respect to removal by oxidative weathering. This makes the oxygen cycle […] a geological timescale cycle.”

“The water cycle is the physical circulation of water around the planet, between the ocean (where 97 per cent is stored), atmosphere, ice sheets, glaciers, sea-ice, freshwaters, and groundwater. […] To change the phase of water from solid to liquid or liquid to gas requires energy, which in the climate system comes from the Sun. Equally, when water condenses from gas to liquid or freezes from liquid to solid, energy is released. Solar heating drives evaporation from the ocean. This is responsible for supplying about 90 per cent of the water vapour to the atmosphere, with the other 10 per cent coming from evaporation on the land and freshwater surfaces (and sublimation of ice and snow directly to vapour). […] The water cycle is intimately connected to other biogeochemical cycles […]. Many compounds are soluble in water, and some react with water. This makes the ocean a key reservoir for several essential elements. It also means that rainwater can scavenge soluble gases and aerosols out of the atmosphere. When rainwater hits the land, the resulting solution can chemically weather rocks. Silicate weathering in turn helps keep the climate in a state where water is liquid.”

“In modern terms, plants acquire their carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, add electrons derived from water molecules to the carbon, and emit oxygen to the atmosphere as a waste product. […] In energy terms, global photosynthesis today captures about 130 terrawatts (1 TW = 1012 W) of solar energy in chemical form — about half of it in the ocean and about half on land. […] All the breakdown pathways for organic carbon together produce a flux of carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere that nearly balances photosynthetic uptake […] The surface recycling system is almost perfect, but a tiny fraction (about 0.1 per cent) of the organic carbon manufactured in photosynthesis escapes recycling and is buried in new sedimentary rocks. This organic carbon burial flux leaves an equivalent amount of oxygen gas behind in the atmosphere. Hence the burial of organic carbon represents the long-term source of oxygen to the atmosphere. […] the Earth’s crust has much more oxygen trapped in rocks in the form of oxidized iron and sulphur, than it has organic carbon. This tells us that there has been a net source of oxygen to the crust over Earth history, which must have come from the loss of hydrogen to space.”

“The oxygen cycle is relatively simple, because the reservoir of oxygen in the atmosphere is so massive that it dwarfs the reservoirs of organic carbon in vegetation, soils, and the ocean. Hence oxygen cannot get used up by the respiration or combustion of organic matter. Even the combustion of all known fossil fuel reserves can only put a small dent in the much larger reservoir of atmospheric oxygen (there are roughly 4 × 1017 moles of fossil fuel carbon, which is only about 1 per cent of the O2 reservoir). […] Unlike oxygen, the atmosphere is not the major surface reservoir of carbon. The amount of carbon in global vegetation is comparable to that in the atmosphere and the amount of carbon in soils (including permafrost) is roughly four times that in the atmosphere. Even these reservoirs are dwarfed by the ocean, which stores forty-five times as much carbon as the atmosphere, thanks to the fact that CO2 reacts with seawater. […] The exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the land is largely biological, involving photosynthetic uptake and release by aerobic respiration (and, to a lesser extent, fires). […] Remarkably, when we look over Earth history there are fluctuations in the isotopic composition of carbonates, but no net drift up or down. This suggests that there has always been roughly one-fifth of carbon being buried in organic form and the other four-fifths as carbonate rocks. Thus, even on the early Earth, the biosphere was productive enough to support a healthy organic carbon burial flux.”

“The two most important nutrients for life are phosphorus and nitrogen, and they have very different biogeochemical cycles […] The largest reservoir of nitrogen is in the atmosphere, whereas the heavier phosphorus has no significant gaseous form. Phosphorus thus presents a greater recycling challenge for the biosphere. All phosphorus enters the surface Earth system from the chemical weathering of rocks on land […]. Phosphorus is concentrated in rocks in grains or veins of the mineral apatite. Natural selection has made plants on land and their fungal partners […] very effective at acquiring phosphorus from rocks, by manufacturing and secreting a range of organic acids that dissolve apatite. […] The average terrestrial ecosystem recycles phosphorus roughly fifty times before it is lost into freshwaters. […] The loss of phosphorus from the land is the ocean’s gain, providing the key input of this essential nutrient. Phosphorus is stored in the ocean as phosphate dissolved in the water. […] removal of phosphorus into the rock cycle balances the weathering of phosphorus from rocks on land. […] Although there is a large reservoir of nitrogen in the atmosphere, the molecules of nitrogen gas (N2) are extremely strongly bonded together, making nitrogen unavailable to most organisms. To split N2 and make nitrogen biologically available requires a remarkable biochemical feat — nitrogen fixation — which uses a lot of energy. In the ocean the dominant nitrogen fixers are cyanobacteria with a direct source of energy from sunlight. On land, various plants form a symbiotic partnership with nitrogen fixing bacteria, making a home for them in root nodules and supplying them with food in return for nitrogen. […] Nitrogen fixation and denitrification form the major input and output fluxes of nitrogen to both the land and the ocean, but there is also recycling of nitrogen within ecosystems. […] There is an intimate link between nutrient regulation and atmospheric oxygen regulation, because nutrient levels and marine productivity determine the source of oxygen via organic carbon burial. However, ocean nutrients are regulated on a much shorter timescale than atmospheric oxygen because their residence times are much shorter—about 2,000 years for nitrogen and 20,000 years for phosphorus.”

“[F]orests […] are vulnerable to increases in oxygen that increase the frequency and ferocity of fires. […] Combustion experiments show that fires only become self-sustaining in natural fuels when oxygen reaches around 17 per cent of the atmosphere. Yet for the last 370 million years there is a nearly continuous record of fossil charcoal, indicating that oxygen has never dropped below this level. At the same time, oxygen has never risen too high for fires to have prevented the slow regeneration of forests. The ease of combustion increases non-linearly with oxygen concentration, such that above 25–30 per cent oxygen (depending on the wetness of fuel) it is hard to see how forests could have survived. Thus oxygen has remained within 17–30 per cent of the atmosphere for at least the last 370 million years.”

“[T]he rate of silicate weathering increases with increasing CO2 and temperature. Thus, if something tends to increase CO2 or temperature it is counteracted by increased CO2 removal by silicate weathering. […] Plants are sensitive to variations in CO2 and temperature, and together with their fungal partners they greatly amplify weathering rates […] the most pronounced change in atmospheric CO2 over Phanerozoic time was due to plants colonizing the land. This started around 470 million years ago and escalated with the first forests 370 million years ago. The resulting acceleration of silicate weathering is estimated to have lowered the concentration of atmospheric CO2 by an order of magnitude […], and cooled the planet into a series of ice ages in the Carboniferous and Permian Periods.”

“The first photosynthesis was not the kind we are familiar with, which splits water and spits out oxygen as a waste product. Instead, early photosynthesis was ‘anoxygenic’ — meaning it didn’t produce oxygen. […] It could have used a range of compounds, in place of water, as a source of electrons with which to fix carbon from carbon dioxide and reduce it to sugars. Potential electron donors include hydrogen (H2) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S) in the atmosphere, or ferrous iron (Fe2+) dissolved in the ancient oceans. All of these are easier to extract electrons from than water. Hence they require fewer photons of sunlight and simpler photosynthetic machinery. The phylogenetic tree of life confirms that several forms of anoxygenic photosynthesis evolved very early on, long before oxygenic photosynthesis. […] If the early biosphere was fuelled by anoxygenic photosynthesis, plausibly based on hydrogen gas, then a key recycling process would have been the biological regeneration of this gas. Calculations suggest that once such recycling had evolved, the early biosphere might have achieved a global productivity up to 1 per cent of the modern marine biosphere. If early anoxygenic photosynthesis used the supply of reduced iron upwelling in the ocean, then its productivity would have been controlled by ocean circulation and might have reached 10 per cent of the modern marine biosphere. […] The innovation that supercharged the early biosphere was the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis using abundant water as an electron donor. This was not an easy process to evolve. To split water requires more energy — i.e. more high-energy photons of sunlight — than any of the earlier anoxygenic forms of photosynthesis. Evolution’s solution was to wire together two existing ‘photosystems’ in one cell and bolt on the front of them a remarkable piece of biochemical machinery that can rip apart water molecules. The result was the first cyanobacterial cell — the ancestor of all organisms performing oxygenic photosynthesis on the planet today. […] Once oxygenic photosynthesis had evolved, the productivity of the biosphere would no longer have been restricted by the supply of substrates for photosynthesis, as water and carbon dioxide were abundant. Instead, the availability of nutrients, notably nitrogen and phosphorus, would have become the major limiting factors on the productivity of the biosphere — as they still are today.” [If you’re curious to know more about how that fascinating ‘biochemical machinery’ works, this is a great book on these and related topics – US].

“On Earth, anoxygenic photosynthesis requires one photon per electron, whereas oxygenic photosynthesis requires two photons per electron. On Earth it took up to a billion years to evolve oxygenic photosynthesis, based on two photosystems that had already evolved independently in different types of anoxygenic photosynthesis. Around a fainter K- or M-type star […] oxygenic photosynthesis is estimated to require three or more photons per electron — and a corresponding number of photosystems — making it harder to evolve. […] However, fainter stars spend longer on the main sequence, giving more time for evolution to occur.”

“There was a lot more energy to go around in the post-oxidation world, because respiration of organic matter with oxygen yields an order of magnitude more energy than breaking food down anaerobically. […] The revolution in biological complexity culminated in the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ of animal diversity 540 to 515 million years ago, in which modern food webs were established in the ocean. […] Since then the most fundamental change in the Earth system has been the rise of plants on land […], beginning around 470 million years ago and culminating in the first global forests by 370 million years ago. This doubled global photosynthesis, increasing flows of materials. Accelerated chemical weathering of the land surface lowered atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and increased atmospheric oxygen levels, fully oxygenating the deep ocean. […] Although grasslands now cover about a third of the Earth’s productive land surface they are a geologically recent arrival. Grasses evolved amidst a trend of declining atmospheric carbon dioxide, and climate cooling and drying, over the past forty million years, and they only became widespread in two phases during the Miocene Epoch around seventeen and six million years ago. […] Since the rise of complex life, there have been several mass extinction events. […] whilst these rolls of the extinction dice marked profound changes in evolutionary winners and losers, they did not fundamentally alter the operation of the Earth system.” [If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, the evolution of food webs and so on, Herrera et al.’s wonderful book is a great place to start – US]

“The Industrial Revolution marks the transition from societies fuelled largely by recent solar energy (via biomass, water, and wind) to ones fuelled by concentrated ‘ancient sunlight’. Although coal had been used in small amounts for millennia, for example for iron making in ancient China, fossil fuel use only took off with the invention and refinement of the steam engine. […] With the Industrial Revolution, food and biomass have ceased to be the main source of energy for human societies. Instead the energy contained in annual food production, which supports today’s population, is at fifty exajoules (1 EJ = 1018 joules), only about a tenth of the total energy input to human societies of 500 EJ/yr. This in turn is equivalent to about a tenth of the energy captured globally by photosynthesis. […] solar energy is not very efficiently converted by photosynthesis, which is 1–2 per cent efficient at best. […] The amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s land surface (2.5 × 1016 W) dwarfs current total human power consumption (1.5 × 1013 W) by more than a factor of a thousand.”

“The Earth system’s primary energy source is sunlight, which the biosphere converts and stores as chemical energy. The energy-capture devices — photosynthesizing organisms — construct themselves out of carbon dioxide, nutrients, and a host of trace elements taken up from their surroundings. Inputs of these elements and compounds from the solid Earth system to the surface Earth system are modest. Some photosynthesizers have evolved to increase the inputs of the materials they need — for example, by fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and selectively weathering phosphorus out of rocks. Even more importantly, other heterotrophic organisms have evolved that recycle the materials that the photosynthesizers need (often as a by-product of consuming some of the chemical energy originally captured in photosynthesis). This extraordinary recycling system is the primary mechanism by which the biosphere maintains a high level of energy capture (productivity).”

“[L]ike all stars on the ‘main sequence’ (which generate energy through the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium), the Sun is burning inexorably brighter with time — roughly 1 per cent brighter every 100 million years — and eventually this will overheat the planet. […] Over Earth history, the silicate weathering negative feedback mechanism has counteracted the steady brightening of the Sun by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, this cooling mechanism is near the limits of its operation, because CO2 has fallen to limiting levels for the majority of plants, which are key amplifiers of silicate weathering. Although a subset of plants have evolved which can photosynthesize down to lower CO2 levels [the author does not go further into this topic, but here’s a relevant link – US], they cannot draw CO2 down lower than about 10 ppm. This means there is a second possible fate for life — running out of CO2. Early models projected either CO2 starvation or overheating […] occurring about a billion years in the future. […] Whilst this sounds comfortingly distant, it represents a much shorter future lifespan for the Earth’s biosphere than its past history. Earth’s biosphere is entering its old age.”


September 28, 2017 - Posted by | Astronomy, Biology, Books, Botany, Chemistry, Geology, Paleontology, Physics

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