This photograph of Earth was taken from space. It shows the continent of Africa.
Courtesy of NASA

The Earth System Is Changing

Earth is a dynamic place. Materials move around the Earth system in many different ways.  Rocks form and reform through the rock cycle. Water flows through the water cycle. Elements move between living and nonliving parts of the Earth system through biogeochemical cycles like the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycleMotions 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 as well as changes in the way land is used and pollution. These changes are changing the regular patterns of the system.

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 move 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 because of warming. Some reactions shrink the amount of warming while other reactions lead to even more warming. These reactions are called feedbacks.

  • Reactions of the Earth system that shrink 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 makes sea ice melt in the Arctic, less sunlight is reflected back out to space and more is absorbed, causing more warming. 

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

Last modified November 26, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

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 took pictures of the Earth as they traveled to and from the Moon.  In their photographs, the Earth looks like...more

The Periodic Table of the Elements

Everything you see around you is made of tiny particles called atoms. There are many different types of atoms, each with a special combination of protons , neutrons and electrons . These different types...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

The Cryosphere and Global Climate Change

Most of us do not live in polar regions. We do not come in contact with icebergs or ice sheets very often. Most of us have only seen these things in photographs. However, no matter where you live, 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 continents of Europe, Asia, and North America. You will find the geographic North Pole and the magnetic...more

What Controls the Climate?

Some of the factors that have an affect on climate, like volcanic eruptions and changes in the amount of solar energy, are natural. Others, like the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, are...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA