February 17, 2010

Earth System Proxies

For a large project that I am working on, I have been thinking about examples of things that hold a lot of information about the state of the Earth System.  And of course I have been doing that in the context of the the diagram presented here (and whose original files are no longer available to me due to the evolution of computer software and related technologies).  The bit of the diagram that is important is the middle bit with the 3 lobes.  I gave an introduction to this diagram many years ago, and some changes have occurred, not the least is that it now shows the natural / artificial system boundary that separates bits of the Earth system that are related to human intentionality from all of the other bits (and whose continued usefulness I now wonder about).

Examples of things that might represent the state of the Earth system include things like the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the state of the ENSO system.  ENSO is a great example, because it has teleconnections that influence climate variability across vast swaths of the entire planet AND we can predict it to a certain extent.  This means that in a rational / logical world we should be able to use our understanding of the physics of the ocean and atmosphere to make decisions that improve the quality of human life on Earth.  Unfortunately it is not that simple, as we discovered in the mid-1990s at Columbia.

Each member of a set of such proxies would have the following qualities:
  1. It would be easy to measure.
  2. It would contain a great deal of information about the current state of some portion of the Earth System; and perhaps tell us something about what is likely to happen in the near future.
  3. It would be more or less independent of the other members of the set (in geek speak, the members of the set would be more or less orthogonal).
  4. Changes in this measure would tell us something about whether life on Earth was getting better or worse.
In the next few posts I am going to play around with some ideas for proxies in the "Life" lobe.