Earth from Space


ENV 4123, Fall 2019

Mon, Wed, Thurs, 8:30-9:50 Dickinson 117

Readings,   Assignments

'Systems science' is sometimes defined as a distinct discipline.  It might be best to think of it as a set of perspectives and approaches for looking at questions within a number of more traditional disciplines where the objects of study have the properties of 'complex systems' (to be defined!).  Systems approaches emerged several decades ago as a core component of ecological science, but they're also important in other fields (many 'connected' to ecology) like economics, atmospheric science, geochemistry, etc.

Our core purpose will be to gain insight into the complex interactions of the biosphere with geological/geochemical, atmospheric, and hydrological planetary systems.  The perspective will be explicitly through an ecological lens -- the thing we're trying to understand is ecosystem function at a 'big' (up to global) scale -- but we'll seek input from several other sciences.  We will focus, but not exclusively, on humans as part of the biosphere, asking both how biospheric processes have shaped human society and how human activities have, at the same time, altered the biosphere (i.e., the sort of feedbacks integral to a systems perspective).  The 'Anthropocene' in the title invokes a current buzzword to bring this interaction into focus.  But understanding the Anthropocene (even determining if it's really a thing) will require some time spent looking at pre-human and non-human system dynamics.

We'll spend the first part of the term doing some intensive introduction to relevant scientific disciplines and understanding (earth history, biogeochemical processes and cycle, global energetics and climatology, tectonics, some history of human society and agriculture, etc.).  Beyond that, the trajectory of the course will be flexible and responsive to interests of participants.  

The only initially required book is the aptly named "Earth System Science: A Very Short Introduction" by Tim Lenton.  It's cheap as well as short, but quite pithy.  However, there will be plenty of additional reading, mostly papers from the primary literature, but maybe some bits from other books.  Required readings will be compiled in the 'READINGS' link provided at the top of this page. 

MEETING TIMES: Note that we are using the new 3-times-a-week 8:30-9:50 time slot...

OFFICE HOURS: Normal office hours are 10-12 am on Tues, Wed, Friday. I'm often around those afternoons as well.  If I'm not at my desk, look around adjacent labs and first-floor Dickinson.  My office phone is 4465, and email is

EXPECTATIONS and EVALUATION: (The usual stuff)

    I expect regular, on-time attendance; if you miss classes frequently and without prior excuse or arrangement you cannot complete the course. Lateness is disruptive, and frequent lateness can also have an impact on your success in the class.
    - It is particularly important that you be an active participant in the class.  That means doing assigned readings BEFORE class discussions, coming to class prepared to discuss topics and readings, and generally taking the work of the class seriously
    - I expect assignments -- several essays, maybe some question/problem sets -- to be completed on time; it is your responsibility to examine assignments sufficiently in advance so that you can bring questions to me before it is too late.  All written assignments will be posted via the 'ASSIGNMENTS' link at the top of this page.

    Evaluation will be based on all aspects of your participation in the class, including attendance and contribution to classroom discussion.  However, successful completion of written assignments is essential for successful completion of the course.  For those requesting letter grade, written assignments will account for approximately 60% of your grade.



This is more of a topical outline than a schedule tied to particular calendar dates; i.e., dates are approximate.  It will be flexible and evolving!

WEEK 1: Systems thinking. Feedback and complexity. (is earth living? what makes a system ‘alive’?). Planetary physiology.  What does it take to make a ‘liveable’ planet?  What are properties, measurables if interest in a planetary system?   READ: Lenton Chs. 1-2

WEEK 2: Energy flow: Climate as energetics, trophic structures and global NPP/ecosystem function  (Anthropocene 1: climate change)

WEEK 3: Material cycles: biogeochemistry of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water (Anthropocene 2: humans and mineral cycles and food)

WEEK 4: Biosphere at the center: Life as regulator

WEEK 5: History -- long-view: earth system evolution over planetary history

WEEK 6: History -- shortish view: zoom from Quaternary to Holocene to Anthropocene


* Pursuing any of above in more depth as interested

* Human activities as drivers: agriculture and fossil fuels

* Systems management and human economy as part of the earth system:


Global biodiversity as a systems property


Nitrogen Saturation

Diseases/epidemics as eco/system phenomena

Water cycle topics

Weather events: severity/frequency

Global food system sustainability

Cost-benefit analysis and decision-making at global scale

Human population in systems context.

August 2019, KW