In 2000 Brad Allenby wrote a seminal article that recognised in a rapidly changing world it is: “necessary to expand the definition of engineering, design, and management to the scale of the technological and cultural systems that are, in fact, now beginning to dominate the dynamics of many natural systems. This is a principal rationale for earth systems engineering - a new paradigm that sought to analyse, design, engineer and manage coupled human, environmental and engineered systems.”
Thus, Earth Systems Engineering (ESE) seeks to analyse, design, engineer and manage coupled human, environmental and engineered systems. The notion that engineers are involved in changing the world is not at all new – but the conscious attempt to rationally and ethically use technology to manage, or ‘engineer’ Earth systems at all scales is new.
In the following decade a number of initiatives have sought to advance these concepts. For example, the National Academy of Engineering programme on Earth Systems Engineering and Management, or the National Science Foundation funded programme on the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems develop interdisciplinary modelling approaches for analysing the complex interactions between these systems at a range of scales.
ESE provides a counterpart to the already fast-developing field of Earth Systems Science that has provided an inter-disciplinary framework to help understand the Earth’s major chemical, physical and biological interactions.
ESE has been associated with proposals for planetary scale engineering of the climate, but an ESE approach explicitly recognises that focusing on a single system variable (e.g. atmospheric CO2, or global mean temperature) is a naïve optimisation that will ultimately lead to much wider disturbance of other systems. An ESE approach takes a much broader view than focusing on the climate and seeks to understand how the effects of engineering, social and economic interventions accumulate and propagate across scales and subsystems including cities, river basins and coasts, as well as at a global scale.
As a subject Earth Systems Engineering and Management has taken root as a subject at several universities in the U.S.A., whilst centres such as those Newcastle University in the UK and at Arizona State University have started to target specific research programmes to tackle some of the challenges of ESE.
The programme at the Centre for Earth Systems Engineering Research (CESER) at Newcastle has focused on the impacts of climate change, national infrastructure systems, sustainable development of cities and catchment management. However, there are many other groups and centres around the world that are addressing ESE challenges from engineering, economic, social, physical and natural science backgrounds. Because of the great breadth of methodological and sectoral challenges that ESE poses, different groups have focused their attention in different ways.
Most recently Earth Systems Engineering 2012 (ESE2012), hosted by CESER, brought together international researchers and practitioners who are at the forefront of addressing the challenge of sustainable adaptation to global change.
Links and publications for further information
- Wikipedia page for Earth Systems Engineering and Management
- Allenby, B., Earth systems engineering and management. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 2000. 19(4): p. 10-24.
- Allenby, B., Earth Systems Engineering and Management: A Manifesto. Environmental Science and Technology, 2007. 41(23): p. 7960-7965.
- Allenby, B. Reconstructing Earth: Technology and Environment in the Age of Humans, 2005. Island Press, Washington DC.
- de Weck, O.L., D. Roos and C.L. Magee (2011) Engineering Systems: Meeting Human Needs in a Complex Technological World, MIT Press, MA.
- Hall, J.W. and P.E. O’Connell, Earth Systems Engineering: turning vision into action. Civil Engineering, 2007. 160(3): p. 114-122.
- Hall, J.W., Dawson, R.J. et al. (2009) Engineering Cities: How can cities grow whilst reducing emissions and vulnerability? Newcastle University (ISBN 9780701702250).
- National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting, October 24, 2000 “Technical Symposium on Earth Systems Engineering”. National Academy Press, Washington DC.
- National Academy of Engineering: Grand Challenges of Engineering.
- National Academy of Engineering: Special Issue on Earth Systems Engineering: The Bridge, 2001. 31(1).
- Schneider, S.H., Earth Systems Engineering and Management. Nature, 2001. 409(6818): p. 417-421.
- Zugspitze Declaration on the Responsibility of Humanity for the Functioning of the Earth System.