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Updated 11 June 2013

How stable is the Earth system?

Researchers have proposed an answer to the debate as to how stable the Earth system is.

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Researchers at the University of Southampton have proposed an answer to the long-running debate as to how stable the Earth system is.

The Earth, with its core-driven magnetic field, oceans of liquid water, dynamic climate and abundant life is arguably the most complex system in the known Universe. Life arose on Earth over three and a half billion years ago and it would appear that despite planetary scale calamities such as the impacts of massive meteorites, runaway climate change and increases in brightness of the Sun, it has continued to grow, reproduce and evolve ever since.

Has life on Earth simply been lucky in withstanding these events or are there any self-stabilising processes operating in the Earth system that would reduce the severity of such perturbations? If such planetary processes exist, to what extent are they the result of the actions of life?

Forty years ago, James Lovelock formulated his Gaia Hypothesis in which life controls aspects of the planet and in doing so maintains conditions that are suitable for widespread life despite shocks and perturbations. This hypothesis was and remains controversial in part because there is no understood mechanism by which such a planetary self-stabilising system could emerge.

A system that stabilises environmental conditions

In research published in PLOS Computational Biology, University of Southampton lecturer Dr James Dyke and PhD student Iain Weaver detail a mechanism that shows how when life is both affected by and alters environmental conditions, then what emerges is a control system that stabilises environmental conditions.

This control system was first described around the middle of the 20th Century during the development of the cybernetics movement and has until now been largely neglected. Their findings are in principle applicable to a wide range of real world systems - from microbial mats to aquatic ecosystems up to and including the entire biosphere.

Dr Dyke says: "As well as being a fascinating issue in its own right, we quite desperately need to understand what is currently happening to the Earth and in particular the impacts of our own behaviour.
"Pretty much whatever we do, life on Earth will carry on, just as it did for the previous 3.5 billion years or so. It is only by discovering the mechanisms by which our living planet has evolved in the past can we hope to continue to be part of its future."
 

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