We are living in a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, defined as that period of recent geological history during which humans not only became important players in the Earth’s ecosystem but the dominant species on the planet. Homo sapiens have risen to be a planet-shaping force, purposely and inadvertently modifying our planet’s environment. Too often with unexpected and unintended consequences. Earth is an incomprehensibly old planet and has seen change of this scale before, however, our current environmental degradation is a unique condition. It is the result of the decisions made by a conscious, sentient species that has a choice and (a first for an Earth species) is fully aware and can reflect on the impact of its own actions on other living things around it. Never before has a single species had such power and responsibility.
Solving the ever-growing challenges of pollution, land degradation, species loss, and resource exhaustion will require new ideas, creative thinking, and innovative technologies. Environmental scientists, engineers, and policy-makers are working hard to come up with such novel solutions. How to best apply these, however, will require us to develop a much better understanding of the Earth, its atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. Humans have done much damage, some irrevocable, to our planet simply by being ignorant about how planet Earth works as a system. Earth scientists such as geologists, oceanographers, climatologists, and hydrologists are seeking to remedy just that. In order to work with a system you first have to understand how its individual components interact; to fix it requires an understanding of what the system was like originally, and to modify it wisely requires detailed knowledge of how the system reacts on both short and long timescales.