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:
- Joint Projects
- Earth System Analysis and Modelling
- Regional Activities
- Global Change Open Science Conferences
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.
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 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 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:
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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