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The Earth System By Trista Pollard

Earth is a system made up of smaller systems that are vital to our planets survival. The
earth system is comprised of the geosphere (solid earth), the biosphere (life), the
atmosphere (air), and the hydrosphere (water). Within these four spheres, there are
cycles or continuous processes that provide essential resources and nutrients for the
living and nonliving parts of the earth system. All of the systems that make up the earth
system are open systems because energy and matter constantly move between them. In
this article, we will explore how energy flows and matter cycles through all parts of the

Energy Flows and Matter Cycles
Scientists have found that the flow of energy on Earth is measurable and predictable. In
fact, there are scientific laws that explain the way energy is exchanged and transferred
on our planet. The Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy can be
transferred between systems, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Energy drives the
movement of matter from one sphere to another. Another way to say this is, Energy
Flows and Matter Cycles. Energy must be added or subtracted in order for matter to
move from one sphere to another. The nitrogen cycle, carbon cycle, phosphorus cycle,
and water cycle are four important cycles that allow matter to move through the
different parts of the earth system and in the process provide valuable nutrients for
living organisms on Earth.

The Nitrogen Cycle
Energy drives the movement of nitrogen through all four of Earths spheres. This cycle
provides the nutrient nitrogen that organisms need to build proteins. Proteins are
necessary for the building of cells. Even though nitrogen is extremely abundant (78% of
the Earths atmosphere is made up of nitrogen), not all organisms can use atmospheric
nitrogen. Nitrogen in the air can be absorbed directly by ocean water and then used by
ocean organisms, but organisms on land cannot use atmospheric nitrogen directly. In
order for land organisms to use nitrogen, it must be altered, or changed, into a usable
form. Nitrogen is removed from the air by nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in the soil
and on certain plant roots. These bacteria chemically alter the nitrogen from the air into
other nitrogen compounds that can be used by plants. The plants can then take in the
nitrogen that is necessary for their growth. When an animal eats the plant, the nitrogen
then becomes part of the animals body. Once an animal dies and decays or excretes
waste, nitrogen is returned to the soil. Once nitrogen reenters the soil, bacteria once
again break it down through chemical processes and convert it back into atmospheric
nitrogen to start the process again. When humans use fertilizers they can disrupt the
natural balance of nitrogen on earth.
The Carbon Cycle
Energy drives the movement of carbon through Earths four spheres. The part of the
carbon cycle you are familiar with occurs when plants take in carbon dioxide from the
air and convert it to carbohydrates. Animals take in carbon when they eat the plants.
The animals begin to break down the carbohydrates and release some of the carbon back
into the atmosphere through respiration or breathing. The remaining carbon is released
as carbon dioxide or methane from the decaying remains of animals and their organic
wastes. The long-term portion of the carbon cycle involves the movement of carbon
through all four spheres over a much longer period of time. Carbon can be stored
beneath Earths surface in the form of animal and plant remains that have been buried.
Over millions of years, those remains turn into fossil fuels like oil and coal. The carbon is
released back into the atmosphere when the fuels are burned. Carbon can also be found
in rocks called carbonates. A large amount of carbon on earth is stored in the oceans.
Carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, is directly exchanged between the oceans and the

The Phosphorus Cycle
Living things need phosphorus for many bodily functions. Energy drives the movement
of phosphorus through all of Earths spheres except the atmosphere because phosphorus
is usually not in gas form. Phosphorus enters soil and water when rocks break down and
the phosphorus in the rocks gets dissolved in the water. Plants then absorb the
phosphorus through their roots. When animals eat the plants, they absorb the
phosphorus into their bodies. Phosphorus is returned to the environment when animals
die and their remains decay. Phosphorus can also enter the soil through the
decomposition of animal waste.

The Water Cycle
Finally, energy drives the movement of water through the Earth System. The water cycle
is responsible for our planets drinking water. This cycle moves water through all four
spheres. Water changes from a liquid to a gas, or water vapor, through the processes of
evaporation and transpiration (the release of water vapor through plant leaves). The
water vapor moves from the surface of the Earth to the atmosphere. Once the water
vapor loses energy, it condenses back into a liquid and forms clouds. The water
eventually falls back to Earth in the form of precipitation like rain, snow, or hail and can
be stored as surface water and groundwater.

The nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and water cycles are essential for the survival of
organisms on Earth. All of the cycles are driven by energy and work together to make
sure the earth system functions the way it should.

Modified by Sarah Felsing. Based on Trista L. Pollard at