Motivations 3: Earth system services

Opinion Dec 14, 2020

Rising demand for resources, declining discovery rates, concerns about resource security, carbon pollution and global equity issues, challenge us to deliver a new level of understanding of these crucial earth-system services both now and into the future. In particular, the provision of cheap and secure, reliable and sustainable energy without compromising the climate system will be predicated on our success in meeting this grand, new challenge.

The concept of ecosystem services is well established in environmental science. By explicitly branding services provided by natural ecosystems for which there is human demand we attribute value to them, focus on threats and limitations, and evaluate trade-offs between immediate and long-term human needs. To help inform decision-makers, economic value is increasingly associated with many ecosystem services. The service metaphor is readily extended beyond ecosystems to the entire natural world. Ecosystem services are but one component of the services provided by our earth-system. The climate provides many crucial services. The crust provides the platform for all human activity, the soils, energy and mineral resources for present and future activity, and the systems that route and store groundwater. Increasingly it is seen as a secure container for our hazardous energy wastes. Viewing the earth-system in terms of the services it provides human societies demands we address ‘how much?’ and ‘for how long?’ so that we make informed infrastructure choices for provisioning secure, affordable and sustainable energy and food supply into the future.

With increasing numbers of people aspiring to the standard of living that we enjoy, we risk many of the earth system services that we have take for granted. The key earth system service we are compromising is the ability of the climate to maintain the balance of water in the oceans and ice on the land that keeps sea-levels at their current levels. Issues relating to soils and groundwater are well known, but declining rates of discovery for most minerals and energy resources suggest we are rapidly moving into a new regime of finite earth-resource. Simultaneously, demands for new crustal services are being driven by the urgent necessity to secure hazardous energy wastes and find new sources of baseload energy such as geothermal.

Several examples highlight how the earth system service metaphor changes the current problem conception of our relation to the earth.

Metal services. Massive copper deposits suggest there is little concern for future reserves. However, asking what service we demand of copper poses a different problem set. In Western societies like Australia, each individual is serviced by ~200 kg of copper (in inner city Sydney it is closer to 600 kg). To service the world's population at these levels would require we extract all the copper in the crust and put it to use. In the future, much greater levels of recycling will be needed to secure copper services at present Western levels. At its’ current service level, the uranium reserve (in ground and stock pile) is about 80 years. However should we require uranium to replace the power generation service that coal and natural gas currently provide, the present in ground reserve amounts to only ~10 years. Significant new discovery would be needed to secure reserves over the lifetime of the infrastructure needed to put it to service. Viewing the resource in terms of the service we want it to provide informs the value option for the associated infrastructure choices we must now contemplate.

The new energy services. The energy future debate is sparking exciting development in materials science. Photovoltaic cells using indium and gallium offer great potential. Lithium is a key prospect in battery technology. Platinum is a superb catalyst for fuel cells. In all cases, there are serious doubts as to whether we can find sufficient reserves of these new energy commodities to fulfill the promise of such technologies. Some emerging technologies will prove stillborn because they cannot be adequately serviced by crustal reserves. We have long understood that the Earth’s natural porosity is precious where it holds natural gas and oil, but we now demand that these tiny ‘holes in the crust’ deliver new services. We need them to secure our waste and to deliver new energy sources such as geothermal. There is a desperate urgency in evaluating how much and how securely such precious holes can serve these crucial new ‘energy’ services. The first to untap these new energy reserves will unlock riches of unimaginable wealth.

A stable platform. The crust provides the platform for all human activities. We understand the platform is not without risk. Earthquakes, volcanoes and floods all impact on how we understand this most basic of services. Large geo-engineering projects impact on that risk. As sea-levels rise with climate change, or new large-scale geo-engineering projects change the loads on our crust, we change the nature of the risk, by inducing earthquakes and coastal erosion, changing flood vulnerability etc.

To better understand the capacity of, and threats to, existing and emerging services we need a new level of understanding of our earth-system, and our capacity to impact on it. We need this understanding as we rebuild our energy production infrastructure to insure that it best serves the needs of both present and future generations. The level of understanding we need will need to extend across the atmosphere, oceans to the entire accessible crustal domain. To achieve this, we will need new, must cheaper ways of imaging and modelling the earth and its resource inventories, all with an unprecedented level of detail. The exceptional record of achievement of the Australian geoscience community  (see below), means Australia is admirably placed to lead, and benefit from, this emerging grand challenge in earth system services.

[1] This is adapted from a set of pieces written in 2009, exploring ideas that might help motivate the next generation of geoscientists.

Citation metrics from Thomson Reuters show the geosciences to be Australia's stellar science performer, producing almost 5% of global papers (blue) with the greatest relative international impact (green) of all discipline areas in Australia. Data from


Mike Sandiford

A geologist fascinated by the remarkable planet we inhabit. He works on landscapes, mountains and earth energetics, and is increasingly interested in the relationship between people and the planet.