Key Idea In order to understand climate, we need to know a lot about how our planet works. While our planet is very complex, there are a few big ideas that can help us understand the most important things that we need to know about planet Earth. The biggest of these ideas is to think about our planet as a system. In fact, there is a whole area of science that is called Earth System Science.

In Earth System Science, we study planet Earth as a system. Whenever we study any kind of system, we learn that it is made of parts. We also learn that the parts of the system connect in specific ways to make the system work as a whole. We generally discover that the system as a whole has properties that are qualitatively different than the properties of its parts. For example, a car is a system made of parts such as brakes, an engine, wheels, doors, a fuel tank and a battery. The car has the property of being able to transport people rapidly from one place to another. It also has other system properties such as a fuel efficiency, being able to go 35 miles on a gallon of gasoline. No individual part of the car can transport people or get 35 miles per gallon of gasoline.

Similarly, planet Earth is a system. It is made of parts, such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the solid sphere that scientists call the geosphere. These parts are the physical stuff that make up our planet. Just like a car, our planet has properties that none of its parts have. Climate is one of the most important of these Earth system properties. Earth’s global climate is a feature of the planet as a whole. As we will be learning, the interactions of the parts of the Earth system play significant roles in determining the climate at specific locations as well as the climate for the planet as a whole.

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