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Earth Systems

Editor(s):  Figen Mekik | 

Can you imagine a green Sahara? How about primordial life forms in the Great Lakes? What was our planet's surface like about three billion years ago? These are some of the questions addressed in this series.

We live on a dynamic planet, both at its surface and deep within. Interactions among Earth's tectonic plates create the major features of our planet's surface, such as deep-sea trenches, volcanic chains, and majestic mountains. Interactions between rock, water, and the atmosphere modify these features, and create the diverse and beautiful surficial environments and processes of our planet. Tectonic processes are mainly driven by Earth's internal heat, while surficial processes are fueled by the energy we receive from our sun.

We will focus on various surface environments and their relationship with climate — from pristine glaciers to dusty deserts, coastal dunes, rivers, and even the seascapes far below the oceans' surface. We will also explore how we — humans — are impacting our climate and natural environments, and some potential consequences of those impacts, such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, and groundwater contamination.

Some view climate change as one of the biggest societal and global challenges of our time. The Earth sciences bring a unique perspective to this issue because of the vast length and environmental diversity of Earth's history. That historical perspective — what geologists call the "paleo"-perspective — provides us with invaluable information about the amplitude and geographic extent of climatic and environmental change over geological time. We can thus compare natural changes with anthropogenic (human caused) ones. The articles in this series will go as far deep in time as the Archean (spanning between about 3.9 to 2.5 billion years ago). We will explore consequences of climate change on glacial-interglacial timescales (over tens of thousands of years), and even what paleo-climatologists call "abrupt climate change," which involves changes over centuries to millennia, with specific focus on ocean circulation and El Niño-La Niña events. We will also investigate both natural and human influences on ocean coral reef communities, vast methane ice deposits, and ocean life and productivity.

To develop a rich understanding of Earth's climate and surficial processes, begin with this introductory overview, and then explore the many other summaries you'll find below.

Image: NASA.

Explore This Subject
Earth's Climate: Past, Present, and Future

Our planet's climate has changed throughout its long history among various extremes and on different time scales, ranging from millions of years, to just a few millennia, to just a few centuries.

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Terrestrial Geosystems

Our planet's surface is created by tectonic processes, but later molded into shape by water, wind, and ice. Discover the many terrestrial landscapes Earth contains and the processes that create them.

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Marine Geosystems

Over 70% of our planet's surface is covered by ocean. Discover oceanic processes, productivity of life in the ocean, and how ocean organisms and circulation respond to climate change.

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