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Earth Systems


Title: The Whole Earth

Description: This activity provides a pre-reading “anticipation guide” for students to help
them activate their background knowledge of Earth systems. The reading selection provided
describes Earth systems in terms of: matter cycles, energy flows and life webs. Follow up
questions allow students to summarize their reading.

Materials: student pages and reading selection

Time Needed: 50 minutes

1. Have students fill in the anticipation guide for “before reading”.
2. Ask students to read the questions and then the “Whole Earth” reading selection.
3. Have students to work in groups and answer the questions.
4. Ask students to go back to the anticipation guide and fill in the “after reading” column.
5. Discuss with students which of their answers on the anticipation guide changed after
reading the article.

Scoring Guide:
1. Students fill in anticipation guide……………………………4
2. Students read “Whole Earth” reading………………………4
3. Students answer questions thoughtfully……………………4
Name:________________________ Period: _____ Date: __________

The Whole Earth

Anticipation Guide

Do you agree or disagree with these statements about Earth?

Before Reading After Reading

Agree Disagree Agree Disagree

______ ______ 1. “Earth is whole” means Earth is not _____ _____

missing any major chunks of land.

_____ _____ 2. It is possible for humans to change _____ _____

Earth’s climate.

_____ _____ 3. Someday Earth will no longer have _____ _____

oceans, since all the water will eventually

_____ _____ 4. Someday Earth will no longer have _____ _____

mountains, since they will all eventually
break down into sediments (dirt).

_____ _____ 5. If humans ever create too much _____ _____

garbage, they can just blast it into outer

_____ _____ 6. Earth’s average temperature is getting _____ _____

hotter and hotter over time.

_____ _____ 7. If a forest disappears, organisms _____ _____

depending on the trees can no longer

_____ _____ 8. Plants rely just as much on animals _____ _____

as animals rely on plants.

_____ _____ 9. If it weren’t for the greenhouse effect, _____ _____

Earth’s oceans would freeze.

_____ _____ 10. Humans are contributing to the green- _____ _____
house effect.
Answer the following questions together in your group after reading the
article “The Whole Earth:”

1. What does the author mean when he states that the earth is “whole?” _____________________

2. Why should we care about Earth’s Operating System?_________________________________


3. What are the three principles that help us understand how Earth works?

4. What does the “Matter Cycles” principle mean?______________________________________


5. Name three cycles of matter from the article that are really important to us:

6. Where does almost all of Earth’s energy ultimately come from? _________________________
7. Why is an energy balance important to us? __________________________________________

8. Why are “Life Webs” important to us?_____________________________________________


9. To which principle(s) does global warming connect? _________________________________


10. How does global warming connect to the principle(s) listed above?______________________

11. Earth is made of four basic substances (solids, liquids, gases, and living things) which correspond
to four different “spheres” on Earth. See if your group can come up with the name of each. This
was not in the reading, but each “sphere” makes up a part of “the whole earth.” (We will review
this answer as a class.)
The Whole Earth
by Dr. Art Sussman ©1997
WestEd. (415) 241-2728;

Earth’s Operating System

Back in grade school all of us learned about one of the great discoveries by our civilization: Earth is round. We look
down on people who believe that Earth is flat. Yet, we ourselves are in the midst of an even greater change in the way
we should understand our planet. And most of us don’t even know about it.

When we realized that Earth is round, we learned how the places on our planet are physically connected to each other.
We discovered that if we kept traveling in one direction, we would not fall off the edge. Instead we could go in a circle
and return to our starting place. Five hundred years ago that was an important discovery.

Now, however, we are learning something much more important than how the places on our planet are physically
connected. We are discovering how Earth works as a whole system. We know Earth is not flat, but it is much more than
round. Earth is whole.

Earth is whole means that all the planet’s physical features and living organisms are interconnected. They work together
in important and meaningful ways. The clouds, oceans, mountains, plants, bacteria and animals are all functioning parts
of Earth’s Operating System.

As animals, humans have always been a part of Earth’s Operating System. More importantly, we now have a very
challenging new role to play. For the first time in our history, we can dramatically change the way our planet works as a
whole. There are so many of us and we have such powerful technologies that we can change Earth’s climate, destroy its
ozone shield and dramatically alter the number and kinds of other organisms that share the planet with us.

Can all of us live well on our planet without damaging Earth’s Operating System? As a first step, it would help if we
understood how our planet works. That sounds much more complicated than simply realizing that Earth is round.

Fortunately, there are three relatively simple principles that can help us understand how our planet works. These
principles are Matter Cycles, Energy Flows, and Life Webs. As we shall discuss, we can use these three major concepts
to understand complicated issues such as Global Warming. While all three of these principles operate together as a
whole, it is helpful to discuss them one at a time.

Matter Cycles
Our planet has been circling the sun for more than four billion years. During those billions of years, the matter on our
planet keeps changing its form. Water evaporates from the ocean, goes into the clouds and falls as snow and rain. Rocks
get broken down into dirt that is washed as sediment into rivers. Plants take carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere and
convert it into solid sugars and starches.

How can water continue to evaporate from the ocean? Why doesn’t all of it turn into mountain snow? Why don’t all the
mountains break down into sediment? Why isn’t all the gaseous carbon dioxide converted into sugar by plants?

Earth still has oceans, mountains, and atmospheric carbon dioxide because they are all part of cycles—the water cycle,
the rock cycle, and the carbon cycle. Snow melts and flows in rivers back to the oceans; buried sediments are molded in
the Earth’s interior back into rocks that reach the surface again through volcanoes and other “uplift” processes; and
animals eat plants and chemically burn the sugar into carbon dioxide that goes back into the atmosphere. All these forms
of matter change in cyclical patterns.

Earth is a recycling planet. Essentially all the matter on Earth has been here since the planet was formed. We don’t get
new matter. Old matter does not go away into outer space. The same matter keeps getting used over and over again.
Energy Flows
Imagine what would happen if the sun stopped shining! This disastrous scenario emphasizes the role of solar energy in
Earth’s Operating System. Our planet relies on a constant input of energy from the sun. Earth receives an inflow of solar
energy that is more than 15,000 times the amount of energy consumed by all human societies. This constant flow of
solar energy into the planet provides virtually all the energy to keep our planet warm, drive the cycles of matter, and
sustain life.

If Earth retained all the incoming energy from the sun, it would become so hot that it would just boil away. But Earth’s
average temperature remains constant. The amount of energy flowing in from the sun exactly counterbalances the
amount of energy Earth radiates into outer space as heat. Sunlight energy flows into Earth, and heat energy escapes from

Life Webs
Earth’s organisms form an intricate web of interconnections, with every organism depending on and affecting many
others. As one very important example, virtually all communities of organisms ultimately depend on plants that capture
energy from the sun and store it as chemical energy in plant sugar and starches. Plants are Earth’s producers. With
respect to food energy, the rest of the organisms are consumers. Some of us eat plants, others eat animals that eat plants,
and some of us eat both plants and animals. The plants, in turn, rely on animals for pollination or spreading seeds or
creating rich soils from dead waste.

Because organisms depend on one another in complex ways, changes in any part of the system can have profound
consequences. For example, if a forest disappears, the organisms that depend on the trees can no longer survive. These
would include birds, insects, fungi, and any other organisms that depend on them. If the forest topsoil erodes, it can clog
rivers and prevent fish eggs from hatching, leading to a large decrease in fish populations and the animals that eat fish.

With respect to life, Earth is a networked system. Not only do living organisms form an interconnected web, they also
participate actively in Earth’s Matter Cycles and Energy Flows. Plants, animals, and decomposers play central roles in
forming and breaking apart compounds of carbon, oxygen, sulfur and many others. Life also participates in Earth’s
Energy Flows as plants capture solar energy to store it in chemical bonds.

Global Warming and Earth’s Operating System

The three principles can help us understand essentially all environmental issues. Global Warming provides a particularly
rich illustrative example. Some gases in the atmosphere, like carbon dioxide, are called greenhouse gases because they
trap some of the heat flowing away from the planet. The resulting greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon and is
responsible for our planet having a warm enough climate for life as we know it. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s
average temperature would be 35 degrees Celsius or lower, cold enough to freeze the oceans.

Incoming energy from sun

Greenhouse gases act as a blanket

trapping heat as it tries to escape

The central issue involved in global warming is that human actions increase the amount of greenhouse gases and
therefore could cause an increase in Earth’s current temperature. By interfering with Earth’s Matter Cycles by
eliminating forests and burning fossil fuels, humans are also interfering with Earth’s Energy Flows and Earth’s Life
Webs. Human activities have caused an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25% since 1900. This action
threatens to cause significant changes on a planetary scale.
What will be the consequences of global warming? The changes in world climate could involve alterations in
temperature, seasons, ocean level, and weather patterns. These changes would affect habitats, species, and human
populations. However, since the web of life is so interconnected, we cannot yet predict the long-term effects of global
warming. Humanity has embarked on a course of action whose consequences are beyond our calculations.

As we enter the 21st century, we find ourselves in a new world. Without meaning to, we can change the way that our
planet works. At the same time we are developing a much deeper understanding of Earth’s Operating System.

The ways that our planet’s matter, energy and life influence each other are incredibly complicated. Most of us will never
understand or want to know the details. Yet our actions as individuals and nations can have very dramatic consequences
such as floods in coastal cities, famine and drought from climate change, or cancer from loss of atmospheric ozone.

Three principles can help us focus on major concepts rather than getting lost in confusing details. In general, we should:

• Maintain the current balance in Matter Cycles

• Avoid interfering with Earth’s Energy Flows
• Preserve the web of life

The more we align our economic and social systems with Earth’s Operating System, the more likely are our chances of
preserving a hospitable planet for ourselves, our descendants and all Earth’s creatures.