The Sum of its Parts: Earth as a System

Earth as a System

Dig into the interconnected parts of the Earth to better understand our planet.

The Sum of its Parts: Earth as a System

Fitting puzzle pieces together is analogous to how we study the Earth. By considering Earth as an integrated system, with many interlocking parts, we are able to understand the larger picture of global change.

The Climate System

Our climate depends on the whole Earth system. The Sun, land (geosphere), ocean (hydrosphere), ice (cryosphere), and living organisms (biosphere) interact with the atmosphere in the climate system

What is the Atmosphere?

The atmosphere is a mixture of gases that surrounds the planet. On Earth, the atmosphere helps make life possible.

The Biosphere: An Integral Part of the Planet and its Climate

The biosphere is all life on our planet. Interdisciplinary research combining biochemistry, geochemistry, biology, hydrology, and atmospheric science helps us to better understand the biosphere’s role in the Earth system and, in particular, how biogeochemical cycles affect the Earth system.

The Geosphere

The geosphere includes the rocks and minerals on Earth – from the molten rock and heavy metals in the deep interior of the planet to the sand on beaches and peaks of mountains. Beyond these parts, the geosphere is about the processes responsible for the constant recycling of rocks on Earth.

Parts of the Cryosphere

There are many different types of frozen water on Earth. Collectively, they are known as the cryosphere and are tied to the other parts of the Earth system.

The Water Cycle

Water can be in the atmosphere, on the land, in the ocean, and underground. It moves from place to place through the water cycle.

Biogeochemical Cycles

All of the atoms that are building blocks of living things are a part of biogeochemical cycles. The most common of these are the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

Transfer and Storage of Heat in the Oceans

Why are seasonal temperature extremes milder near large bodies of water and more extreme further inland? It has to do with thermal inertia.

The Energy Budget

Accounting for all the energy that enters and leaves the Earth system helps us understand why the planet is warming. This accounting of energy is known as Earth’s radiation budget.


Conduction is one of the three main ways that heat energy moves from place to place.

Earth's Albedo and the Sun's Brightness Affect Climate

See how Earth's temperature would change if the Sun's brightness increased or dimmed or if Earth's albedo was different.