Working at the limit: A review of thermodynamics and optimality of the Earth system
- Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry, Hans-Knoell-Str. 10, 07745 Jena, Germany
Abstract. Optimality concepts related to energy and entropy have long been proposed in Earth system science, yet they remain obscure, seem contradictory regarding their goal to either maximize or minimize, and have so far only played marginal roles. This review aims to clarify the role of thermodynamics and optimality in Earth system science by showing that it plays a pivotal role in how, and how much, work can be derived from the solar forcing, and that this imposes a major constraint to the dynamics of dissipative structures of the Earth system. This is, however, not as simple as it may sound. It requires a consistent formulation of Earth system processes in thermodynamic terms, including their linkages and interactions. Thermodynamics then constrains the ability of the Earth system to derive work and generate free energy from the solar radiative forcing, which limits the ability to maintain motion, mass transport, geochemical cycling, and biotic activity. It thus limits directly the generation of atmospheric motion and other processes indirectly through their need for transport, such as hydrologic cycling or biotic activity. I demonstrate the application of this thermodynamic Earth system view by deriving first-order estimates associated with atmospheric motion, hydrologic cycling, and terrestrial productivity that agree very well with observations. This supports the notion that the emergent simplicity and predictability inherent in observed climatological variations can be attributed to these processes working as hard as they can, reflecting thermodynamic limits directly or indirectly. I discuss how this thermodynamic interpretation is consistent with established theoretical concepts in the respective disciplines, interpret other optimality concepts in light of this thermodynamic Earth system view, and describe its utility for Earth system science.
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