This photograph of Earth, taken from space, shows the continents of Africa and Antarctica.
Courtesy of NASA

The Earth System Is Changing

Earth is a dynamic place. Matter cycles around the Earth system in various ways.  Rocks form, erode, melt, and form again through the rock cycle. Water flows through the water cycle. Elements move through living and nonliving parts of the Earth system via biogeochemical cycles like the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle.  And motions of the ocean and the atmosphere have an impact on the Earth system too.

But recently scientists have been noticing other changes in the Earth system that are due to global warming, changes in the way land is used, and pollution. These changes are altering the regular patterns of the system.

Researchers are currently trying to figure out specifically how parts of the Earth system will be affected by warming.  According to recent research, as temperature continues to warm the cryosphere will continue to lose ice, the atmosphere and its weather patterns will change, and the biosphere will loose some plants and animal species while others migrate into new areas.

Scientists are also studying how the parts of the Earth system affect each other and how they impact climate. The Earth reacts when aspects of the system are changed. Some reactions minimize the impact of the change while other reactions exaggerate the impact of the change. These reactions are called feedbacks.

  • Reactions of the Earth system that minimize the impacts of a change are called negative feedbacks. For example, as warming causes more evaporation, this creates more clouds in the atmosphere, potentially blocking more solar energy from entering the Earth system and reducing the amount of warming.
  • Reactions that exaggerate the impacts are called positive feedbacks. For example, as global warming melts sea ice in the Arctic, less solar energy is reflected back out to space by the light colored ice and so more is absorbed, causing more warming. 

Understanding the negative and positive feedbacks on the Earth’s climate system is an area of active research in climate science. Bringing new information about feedbacks into climate models will allow scientists to even better predict how climate will continue to change in the future.

Last modified November 26, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

The Winter 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, which includes articles on meteor cratering, classroom glaciers, podcasts in the classroom, and pyro-cumulonimbus clouds, is available in our online store.

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Earth as a System

The first time people got a glimpse of the whole Earth was December 1968. Apollo 8 astronauts, en route to and from the Moon, took pictures of the Earth from space.  In their photographs, the Earth looks...more

The Periodic Table of the Elements

Everything you see around you is made of tiny particles called atoms, but not all atoms are the same. Different combinations of protons , neutrons and electrons make different types of atoms and these...more

Global Warming: Scientists Say Earth Is Heating Up

Earth’s climate is warming. During the 20th Century Earth’s average temperature rose 0.6° Celsius (1.1°F). Scientists are finding that the change in temperature has been causing other aspects of our planet...more

Effects of Climate Change Today

The world's surface air temperature increased an average of 0.6° Celsius (1.1°F) during the last century according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This may not sound like very...more

The Cryosphere and Global Climate Change

Changes in the cryosphere have a considerable impact on global climate. This is because the cryosphere is an important part of the Earth system and because it is so interconnected with other parts of the...more

Sea Ice in the Arctic and Antarctic

Sea ice is frozen seawater. It can be several meters thick and it moves over time. Although the salts in the seawater do not freeze, pockets of concentrated salty water become trapped in the sea ice when...more

The Arctic: Earth's North Polar Region

North of the Arctic Circle (at 66.5°N latitude) you will find the Arctic Ocean surrounded by the northernmost parts of the continents of Europe, Asia, and North America. You will find the geographic North...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF