Tag Archives: Earth System Science

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber wins 2011 Volvo prize

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber has won this year’s Volvo environmental prize for his contributions to earth system science and policy.  Resilience science has mentioned his work previously, especially his work on tipping points in the earth system.

The prize committee writes:

One of the most exciting, relevant and rapidly growing areas of environmental research is Earth System science. Over the past decade or two, the realisations that the Earth behaves as a single, integrative system and that human activities are now influencing the functioning of this system have revolutionised the framing of environmental problems at the global scale. No longer can human development proceed without consideration of impacts on our own global life support system.

…His outstanding contributions to “Earth System science for sustainability” at the national and international level have solidified Schellnhuber’s position as a world leader in the field. He is a member of the board of the prestigious Dahlem Conferences, which have made major contributions to the Earth System science – sustainability link. Beyond this higher level role, he has also been on the organising committee himself for key Dahlem Conferences. A good example is the 2003 conference on “Earth System Analysis in the Anthropocene”, which contributed important insights into the concept of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in Earth history, and its connection to the growing sustainability agenda.

…Finally, Schellnhuber has forged exceptionally powerful and effective links between science and policy at the highest levels around the world. The best example of this is his initiation of a series of Nobel Laureate Symposia, which gather Laureates from physics, chemistry, medicine, economics and literature to explore the environmental challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century. The third in this series, held in Stockholm in 2011, produced a set of recommendations for action that was delivered directly to the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

The Anthropocene: spread of an idea

The Anthropocene, the idea that the entire planet has become a social-ecological system, is now being discussed in the mass media.  Three recent sightings…

1) The Economist has a feature story A man-made world: Science is recognising humans as a geological force to be reckoned with.  The author writes:

To think of deliberately interfering in the Earth system will undoubtedly be alarming to some. But so will an Anthropocene deprived of such deliberation. A way to try and split the difference has been propounded by a group of Earth-system scientists inspired by (and including) Dr Crutzen under the banner of “planetary boundaries”. The planetary-boundaries group, which published a sort of manifesto in 2009, argues for increased restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system, from the alkalinity of the oceans to the rate of phosphate run-off from the land, close to the conditions pertaining in the Holocene. Carbon-dioxide levels, the researchers recommend, should be brought back from whatever they peak at to a level a little higher than the Holocene’s and a little lower than today’s.

The Earth’s history shows that the planet can indeed tip from one state to another, amplifying the sometimes modest changes which trigger the transition. The nightmare would be a flip to some permanently altered state much further from the Holocene than things are today: a hotter world with much less productive oceans, for example. Such things cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, the invocation of poorly defined tipping points is a well worn rhetorical trick for stirring the fears of people unperturbed by current, relatively modest, changes.

In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system’s behaviour are lastingly changed. For example, the Holocene would, without human intervention, have eventually come to an end in a new ice age. Keeping the Anthropocene free of ice ages will probably strike most people as a good idea.

2) The New York Times has a discussion between a number of thinkers on the Anthropocene – The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? The discussants include Jon Foley, Erle Ellis, Ruth DeFreis, and Brad Allenby.

3) There are also shorter articles in the BBC and Discovery News.

Feedback Analysis Job at PIK

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) is looking to fill a research position within the Marie Curie Network GREENCYCLES-II, based in Potsdam, Germany:

T5.3 Feedback analysis and evaluation using the CLIMBER model

The Early-Stage Researcher (PhD candidate) will investigate feedbacks between climate and vegetation using the CLIMBER family of intermediate-complexity Earth-system models developed at PIK. Specifically, the established CLIMBER-2 model will be used to evaluate biosphere-climate interactions at global and continental scales. This will be complemented by more detailed investigations of feedbacks resulting from large-scale modifications of the land surface such as due to expanded biofuel production with the CLIMBER-3 model currently under development.

The successful candidate will actively participate in network-wide workshops and training events.

The position is expected to start on 1 January 2011 and run until 31 December 2013. Applications should arrive before 1.10.2010, but will be also accepted until the position is filled.

Interested candidates should send a CV, a half-page statement of interest, copies of your high-school and academic certificates, the names of two referees and a completed Eligibility Form (http://www.greencycles.org/vacancies/) to Dr. Andrey Ganopolski, preferably by e-mail (Andrey.Ganopolski@pik-potsdam.de) or by post (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, PF 60 12 03, 14412 Potsdam, Germany).

Payment will be according to Marie Curie rules (http://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/), including an allowance for transnational travel and mobility.

At the start of their fellowship, researchers may not have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc) in Germany for more than 12 months in the preceding 3 years. German nationals are eligible only if they have been active in research in a non-Associated Third Country for at least three of the last four years

Early-stage researchers (ESRs) must be in the first 4 years (full-time equivalent) of their research careers, including the period of research training, starting at the qualification date.
PIK seeks to increase the number of female scientists and encourages them to apply. Disabled persons with comparable qualifications receive preferential status.

The “Ctrl+Alt+Del” of Global Change Sciences

Twitter|@vgalaz
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This is one of those important things that seldom make the headlines. While climate change science has received considerable public attention, especially since the controversies around the IPCC scientific assessments, another fact is seldom, if ever, acknowledged – that  a number of international global change programmes are reorganizing to better match the increasing need for policy-relevant, integrated sustainability science.

The Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) as an example, has been reorganizing its work the last years, to better integrate the natural and social sciences and acknowledge the non-linear features of global change. This integration is to be developed by a range of ESSP associated research programmes and projects, including (prepare for an alphabet soup….) DIVERSITAS, IGBP, IHDP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, GWSP , GECHH, START and MAIRS. This paper lays out the thinking behind the ongoing reorganization.

One important change under the ESSP, and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, is the reorganization of the previous programme Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC, lead by the international institutions legend Oran Young), into a new initiative: the Earth System Governance Project (ESG). The ESG, lead by Frank Biermann in Amsterdam, aims to study the role of multilevel governance, institutions and actor-networks in dealing with global environmental change, and includes several international research centres.

In addition, the International Council for Science (ICSU), in partnership with UNESCO and the United Nations University, is launching a new international initiative based on the insights and framework provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS). PECS ambition is to address the following question: ‘how do policies and practices affect resilience of the portfolio of ecosystem services that support human well-being and allow for adaptation to a changing environment?’. PECS will provide scientific knowledge to the newly launched “IPCC-like” Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). An article published in PNAS in 2009, lays out the thinking behind the PECS programme.

So, if you ever get the question “where are the scientists that will help save the world”, the answer is easy: it’s ESSP, PECS, DIVERSITAS, ICSU, IPBES, ESG, IHDP, IGBP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, ….

Lovelock, climatic regime shifts, and soft sociology

In Nature, biogeochemist Andrew Watson reviews The Vanishing Face Of Gaia by James Lovelock in Final warning from a sceptical prophet:

In The Vanishing Face Of Gaia, Lovelock argues that model projections of the climate a century ahead are of little use. The models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) extrapolate from a smooth trend of warming, yet the real climate system, complex and fully coupled to the biology of land and ocean, is unlikely to change in this simple way. It is more likely to flip from one state to another, with non-linear tipping points that the IPCC models are too simplistic to capture. Lovelock fears that the climate will shift to a new and considerably hotter regime, and that once underway, this shift will be irreversible.

This view is not officially sanctioned ‘IPCC-speak’, but he is fully within the envelope of scientific consensus when he warns of the possibility of rapid and irreversible change. Other climate scientists — notably Wally Broecker (see Nature 328, 123–126; 1987) — have said much the same for a long time, although Lovelock uses more graphic language and his popular voice will carry further. Palaeoclimate records show that rapid flips have happened before, so this must be a strong possibility for the future if we continue to force up the levels of greenhouse gases at the current rate.

What is controversial is Lovelock’s vision for humanity: rapid climate change will lead to the deaths of most people on the planet, and to mass migrations to those places that are still habitable. He does not spell out exactly how this might happen, but is convinced a hotter Earth will be able to sustain only a few per cent of the current human population. The implication is that Gaia and human society are close to a cliff-edge, and could unravel rapidly and catastrophically.

The controversy lies less in the climatology and more in the sociology. How will societies behave in the face of such change? Will we pull together with a wartime spirit, or will we fragment, fight and kill one another over Gaia’s carcass? Lovelock is on softer ground here. His only special qualification for discussing human behaviour is his longevity — having lived through the Second World War, he knows what people sometimes do to one another during evil times.

Lovelock’s vision of sudden and imminent collapse is apocalyptic, but for our long-term future and that of the planet it might be preferable to some of the alternatives. Suppose, for instance, that our profligate ways and expanding population are sustained for the rest of this century, but at a huge cost — the complete loss of all the natural ecosystems of the world. Most of us, living in cities and insulated from the natural environment, would barely notice until it was too late to do anything about it. This is what many politicians, economists and industrialists seem to want — their mantra of unceasing economic growth implies that we should take for ourselves all Gaia’s resources and squeeze from them the maximum short-term gain, leaving nothing for the future.

Following this vision, we will need to transform the entire planet into a factory farm to feed our 10 billion or 15 billion mouths. There will be no room on this giant spherical feedlot for anything but ourselves and our half-dozen species of domestic plants and animals. Gaia, the natural Earth system, will have disappeared. As for the underpinning biogeochemical cycles, the best we can hope is that we can manage them ourselves, taking over the heavy responsibility for keeping Earth habitable, which Gaia once did for us automatically.

The more likely outcome is that we would barely manage them at all. In that case, we would face a sequence of global environmental crises and a steady degradation of the planetary environment that would eventually kill just as many of us as a sudden collapse. Given that, perhaps we had better hope that Lovelock is right, and Gaia does for us — or most of us — before we do for her.