Earth System Atlas

New Earth System Atlas being planned by IGBP/GAIM and the braoder global change community

The Earth’s climate, ecosystems and human activities are highly variable in both space and time. Past changes in climate, atmospheric composition and land use have affected the surface of the planet differently at each location, and all indications of future changes suggest that the pattern in every sphere will continue to be modified. Reconstructions of past environments and monitoring/mapping of the present have reached a major threshold, providing an understanding of the processes that drive the Earth System sufficiently to enable model simulations of future change to be made with unprecedented reliability.

Although great strides have been made in global change and Earth system science, research results have to date been disseminated in a piecemeal fashion, with no standardized format that would allow comparison and assessment of the relations between the various factors that define and control the Earth system. Toward the end of rectifying this information dissemination gap, an Earth System Atlas is being planned that will present and link together the myriad global change research results that have emerged in the last decade or so.

The Earth System Atlas represents an initiative of the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in conjunction with its Earth System Science Partners (ESSP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP), and the International Programme for Diversity Science (DIVERSITAS). As such, it will be a product of the entire research community rather than that of a single center or institute. In this way, not only can a broad scope of Earth system-related data be accessed, but the data can all be displayed or downloaded in a common format viewed in a common map projection. As an effort by the entire community, there will be much stronger quality controls than would be possible within a single research entity.

The purpose of the Atlas will be to provide a wide range of users with a series of Global Change related digital maps and time series, along with access to the underlying data from which they were constructed, and text explanation of data collection, analysis, and other pertinent information. The target audiences are:

The overarching goal of the Atlas will be to publicize as broadly as possible the results of recent global change research efforts.

Specific objectives include:

The Earth System Atlas will contain pertinent information regarding changes in climate, atmosphere, land surface and ocean, as well as socio-economic factors. Maps will be created from ground-based and satellite-derived data, conceptual and numerical models, census and additional relevant databases. The Earth System Atlas will include, in addition to maps at global scale, products at a broad regional scale of particular interest (e.g. the Amazon or the Arctic Basin). Users of the Atlas will be able to zoom in and out as needed. An important feature of the Earth System Atlas will be that maps will be developed in such a way that past conditions may be compared visually with the present, and also with future environmental conditions predicted on the basis of current models and forcing scenarios.

One of the primary unique features about the proposed Earth System Atlas is the fact that all data will be peer reviewed for quality. This will involve two phases. The first will be evaluation of any data set for appropriateness and relevance. If the data are not deemed adequate to apply to the desired display, other alternatives will be sought. Once a data set is selected for consider for the atlas, the second aspect of quality control will involve peer review to scrutinize each data set for completeness, functionality, isolated errors, mismatches, etc. In addition, all accompanying text will be reviewed for accuracy, writing style (for each intended audience), and appropriate context.

The Earth System Atlas will be produced in electronic form with on-line access in order to provide the broadest possible availability to the general public. Underlying data will be made available in electronic format. The free and open data exchange policy of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) will apply to all aspects of the Atlas.

The scientific scope of the Atlas will be organized in the following categories:

  • Background and Introduction
  • Physiography
  • Climate
  • Atmospheric Constituents
  • Physical/Chemical Ocean
  • Physical/Chemical Land
  • Hydrology
  • Biogeochemical Cycles
  • Ecosystems
  • Human Dimensions
  • Future Scenarios

Each data set included in the atlas will be accompanied by explanatory text describing the data a well as the meaning of the selected display within the Earth system. The text would have the form of extended "figure captions" and would be written specifically for each of three target audiences for the atlas- Earth System Scientists; Lay public and Policy Community; School Children. The text will be fully referenced including data source(s), published literature, and links to data-specific websites, as appropriate.

There are a number of excellent global change-related data compilations and directories already in existence. The Earth System Atlas will link and incorporate these data archives to create on-line maps and time series in an atlas format as described above. Available data can be categorized into two types, the first being "archived data" that exists in a variety of formats, but for which visualization tools have not been developed specifically, and the second being data from which maps and time series have already been made and are available on line. The atlas will be fundamentally different than any existing data visualization effort in that it will have a broad Earth system focus, global coverage, a standardized data format and set of visualization projections, and perhaps most importantly, the atlas will include a mechanism for reviewing and evaluating the relevance and quality of specific data sets. These attributed, and especially the latter will set it quite apart from any previous effort, and will lead to the development of a unique resource for the research, policy, and educational communities as well as the lay public at large.