2006 About ESSP

ABOUT ESSPAbout the Earth System Science Partnership

Increasingly, scientists recognize the Earth as a complex and sensitive system regulated by physical, chemical and biological processes—and influenced, as never before, by human factors.

The Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) brings together researchers from diverse fields, and from across the globe, to undertake an integrated study of the Earth System: its structure and functioning; the changes occurring to the System; and, the implications of those changes for global sustainability.

The interactions and feedbacks between the component parts of the Earth System exhibit multi-scale temporal and spatial variability. Understanding of the System’s natural dynamics has advanced greatly in recent years, and now provides a sound basis for evaluating the effects and consequences of human-driven change. ESSP contributes to this endeavour in four ways:


Global change is not restricted to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, nor can it be understood in terms of a simple cause-effect paradigm. Recent studies of the Earth’s land surface, oceans, coasts and atmosphere, of the biological diversity, the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles make it clear that human activity is generating change that extends well beyond natural variability—in some cases, alarmingly so—and at rates that continue to accelerate. Earth System dynamics are characterized by critical thresholds and abrupt changes. Global change research over the last decade shows that the Earth System is currently operating well outside the normal state exhibited over the past 500,000 years.

ESSP is particularly interested in human-driven changes, which are multi-dimensional and have a cascading effect on the Earth System. These properties make them difficult to understand or predict. But integrated science approaches and the application of advanced modelling technologies are helping to develop a clearer picture of the past and project various scenarios for the future. We now have evidence to suggest that human activities could inadvertently trigger severe consequences for Earth’s environment and habitat, potentially switching the Earth System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and inhospitable to humans and other life.

ESSP’s activities recognize the need to build bridges across disciplines in order to truly understand our life support system and the impact humans are having on it. More to the point, they seek to advance beyond description of natural phenomena to a deeper understanding of processes and system-level behaviour. ESSP’s intention is to contribute to the knowledge base required to develop science-based solutions that support sustainable use of our resources.

Joint Projects

ESSP Joint Projects focus on aspects of global change that are critical to human well-being. At present, these initiatives cover four areas: carbon/energy systems, food, water, and human health. In each instance, the goal is to identify the challenges caused by global change, understand the implications of human-driven change, and build a research agenda of direct relevance for societies. In short, ESSP Joint Projects are designed to span the interface between global change and global sustainability issues, while also gathering new knowledge about how specific processes function within the larger Earth System.

  • The Global Carbon Project (GCP) investigates carbon cycles and energy systems with the aim of developing policy-relevant knowledge that encompasses natural and human dimensions, as well as their interactions.
  • Global Environmental Change and Food Systems (GECAFS) develops strategies to cope with the impacts of global environmental change on food systems and to assess the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of adaptive responses aimed at improving food security.
  • The Global Water System Project (GWSP) examines how humans are changing the global water cycle, the associated biogeochemical cycles, and the biological components of the global water system. It also seeks to understand the human responses to these changes and the implications of these responses for societies and for the Earth System.
  • A fourth project on Global Change and Human Health is in the early development phase. The objective of this project is to better understand the multi-faceted and complex linkages between changes in the Earth System (e.g. changes in climate, use of land and sea, loss of biodiversity, and socio-economic fluctuations) and human health.

Earth System Analysis and Modelling

The core of ESSP activities lies in in-depth analysis and advanced modelling of the Earth System as a whole, incorporating data and information from the diverse fields represented by the four global change programmes. The first such effort on Earth System modelling is already underway, built on collaboration between IGBP’s Analysis, Integration and Modeling of the Earth System (AIMES) Task Force and WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM).

The next step is to integrate human dimensions into Earth System analysis and modelling, as is being done by two initiatives. The Oslo Group (TOG) is an IGBP-IHDP network exploring theoretical and methodological aspects of natural-social science integration. Another initiative being carried out by the Global Carbon Project (GCP) aims to develop fully integrated carbon cycle models that couple biophysical processes with the dynamics of energy systems, land-use change, and institutional/political change.

The implications of changes in biodiversity for Earth System functioning will be integrated into such efforts in due course.

Regional Activities

Regional activities are important to ESSP’s mandate on several levels. Current knowledge demonstrates that, at the regional level, aspects of global change manifest significantly different—yet surprisingly coherent and teleconnected—Earth System dynamics. These are often broadly associated with socio-economic and geopolitical characteristics.

ESSP Regional Activities also seek to directly address the differences in scientific capabilities in various regions of the world. Each of the four global change programmes organizes research activities and capacity-building initiatives, and helps establish scientific networks. ESSP Partners also collaborate closely with theInter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) and the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN).

At present, ESSP sponsors two types of regional activities:

  • The global change SysTem for Analysis, Research and Training (START) carries out regional research projects and promotes networking, often in collaboration with its sponsoring programmes (DIVERSITAS, IGBP, IHDP and WCRP), as well as with IAI and APN. START also undertakes specific capacity-building activities, including training workshops and institutes, a fellowship scheme, and guest lectureships.
  • The ESSP is currently developing a small set of Integrated Regional Studies (IRS), designed to contribute sound scientific understanding in support of sustainable development at the local level. These studies will also improve overall knowledge of regional-global linkages in the context of Earth System dynamics. The first such study undertaken was the Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA) which seeks to generate new knowledge about the region’s climatological, ecological, biogeochemical and hydrological functioning, the impact of land use change on these functions, and the interaction between Amazonia and the Earth System. A companion study,Monsoon Asia Integrated Regional Study (MAIRS), is now well underway with the establishment of an International Project Office in Beijing and the MAIRS Science Plan will be launched at the ESSP Open Science Conference, Beijing, 9-12 November 2006.

Global Change Open Science Conferences.

ESSP recognises the importance of broad interaction amongst the many scientists that contribute to its activities. As such, the Partnership is committed to hosting major international science meetings every five years. The first ESSP Open Science Conference – Challenges of a Changing Earth – was held in Amsterdam in July 2001. The second Open Science Conference – Global Environmental Change: Regional Challenges – will be held 9-12 November 2006 in Beijing, China. For more information, please access the OSC website (http://www.essp.org/ESSP2006).

A Commitment to Science Communication

ESSP’s scientific activities are supported by active science communication efforts, which are an essential aspect of the Partnership’s overarching goals of generating, disseminating, and applying new knowledge. Current activities include publication of a report series and development of tools to raise awareness of ESSP amongst the science community (website, brochure, poster, and PowerPoint presentation).

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