Earth and Environmental Science

Rationale/Aims

Earth and Environmental Science is a multifaceted field of inquiry that focuses on interactions between the solid Earth, its water, its air and its living organisms, and on dynamic, interdependent relationships that have developed between these four components.

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Structure of Earth and Environmental Science

In Earth and Environmental Science, students develop their understanding of the ways in which interactions between Earth systems influence Earth processes, environments and resources.

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Links to Foundation to Year 10

The Earth and Environmental Science curriculum continues to develop student understanding and skills from across the three strands of the F-10 Australian Curriculum: Science.

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Representation of Cross-curriculum priorities

While the significance of the cross-curriculum priorities for Earth and Environmental Science varies, there are opportunities for teachers to select contexts that incorporate the key concepts from each priority.

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Achievement standards

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Unit 2: Earth processes – energy transfers and transformations

Unit 2: Earth processes – energy transfers and transformations Description

Earth system processes require energy. In this unit, students explore how the transfer and transformation of energy from the sun and Earth’s interior enable and control processes within and between the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Students examine how the transfer and transformation of heat and gravitational energy in Earth's interior drive movements of Earth’s tectonic plates. They analyse how the transfer of solar energy to Earth is influenced by the structure of the atmosphere; how air masses and ocean water move as a result of solar energy transfer and transformation to cause global weather patterns; and how changes in these atmospheric and oceanic processes can result in anomalous weather patterns.

Students use their knowledge of the photosynthetic process to understand the transformation of sunlight into other energy forms that are useful for living things. They study how energy transfer and transformation in ecosystems are modelled and they review how biogeochemical cycling of matter in environmental systems involves energy use and energy storage.

Through the investigation of appropriate contexts, students explore how international collaboration, evidence from multiple disciplines and individuals and the development of ICT and other technologies have contributed to developing understanding of the energy transfers and transformations within and between Earth systems. They investigate how scientific knowledge is used to offer valid explanations and reliable predictions, and the ways in which it interacts with social, economic and cultural factors, including the design of action for sustainability.

Students use inquiry skills to collect, analyse and interpret data relating to energy transfers and transformations and cycling of matter and make inferences about the factors causing changes to movements of energy and matter in Earth systems.


Unit 2: Earth processes – energy transfers and transformations Learning Outcomes

By the end of this unit, students:

  • understand how energy is transferred and transformed in Earth systems, the factors that influence these processes, and the dynamics of energy loss and gain
  • understand how energy transfers and transformations influence oceanic, atmospheric and biogeochemical cycling
  • understand how theories and models have developed based on evidence from multiple disciplines; and the uses and limitations of Earth and environmental science knowledge in a range of contexts
  • use science inquiry skills to collect, analyse and communicate primary and secondary data on energy transfers and transformations between and within Earth systems
  • evaluate, with reference to empirical evidence, claims about energy transfers and transformations between and within Earth systems
  • communicate Earth and environmental understanding using qualitative and quantitative representations in appropriate modes and genres.

Unit 2: Earth processes – energy transfers and transformations Content Descriptions

Science Inquiry Skills (Earth and Environmental Science Unit 2)

Identify, research and construct questions for investigation; propose hypotheses; and predict possible outcomes (ACSES030)

Design investigations including the procedure/s to be followed, the information required and the type and amount of primary and/or secondary data to be collected; conduct risk assessments; and consider research ethics (ACSES031)

Conduct investigations, including using map and field location techniques and environmental sampling procedures, safely, competently and methodically for the collection of valid and reliable data (ACSES032)

Represent data in meaningful and useful ways; organise and analyse data to identify trends, patterns and relationships; qualitatively describe sources of measurement error, and uncertainty and limitations in data; and select, synthesise and use evidence to make and justify conclusions (ACSES033)

Interpret a range of scientific and media texts and evaluate processes, claims and conclusions by considering the quality of available evidence; use reasoning to construct scientific arguments (ACSES034)

Select, construct and use appropriate representations, including maps and other spatial representations, diagrams and flow charts, to communicate conceptual understanding, solve problems and make predictions (ACSES035)

Communicate to specific audiences and for specific purposes using appropriate language, genres and modes, including compilations of field data and research reports (ACSES036)

Science as a Human Endeavour (Units 1 & 2)

Science is a global enterprise that relies on clear communication, international conventions, peer review and reproducibility (ACSES037)

Development of complex models and/or theories often requires a wide range of evidence from multiple individuals and across disciplines (ACSES038)

Advances in science understanding in one field can influence other areas of science, technology and engineering (ACSES039)

The use of scientific knowledge is influenced by social, economic, cultural and ethical considerations (ACSES040)

The use of scientific knowledge may have beneficial and/or harmful and/or unintended consequences (ACSES041)

Scientific knowledge can enable scientists to offer valid explanations and make reliable predictions (ACSES042)

Scientific knowledge can be used to develop and evaluate projected economic, social and environmental impacts and to design action for sustainability (ACSES043)

Science Understanding

Energy for Earth processes

Examples in context

Support materials only that illustrate some possible contexts for exploring Science as a Human Endeavour concepts in relation to Science Understanding content.

Development of plate tectonic theory

Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist, first proposed a theory of continental drift in 1912 and followed this with publication of an expanded theory in 1915. His theory provoked much debate in scientific circles, because although there was some evidence of continental movement, there was no clear mechanism to drive plate movement. It took more than 50 years and the collection of a large body of evidence for broad acceptance of what we now refer to as plate tectonics theory (ACSES037). Patterns in the distribution of rock types and fossil fragments occurring across various continents were provided as early evidence for the theory, and scientists working with palaeomagnetism found further evidence that the continents had different configurations in the past by comparing the magnetic fields recorded by rocks of similar age across different continents. Marine geology conducted in the late 1950s and early 1960s also provided evidence for sea floor spreading along plate boundaries (ACSES038). By the late 1960s the explanatory and predictive power of the theory of plate tectonics became more broadly accepted, with numerous scientists presenting papers elaborating the concepts involved (ACSES037).

Measuring plate movement

Heat energy stored and generated in Earth’s interior creates convection currents on a massive, continental scale that result in the movement of very large sections of Earth’s rigid crust and uppermost mantle. Development of satellite measurement techniques, particularly global positioning system (GPS) technologies, enables accurate measurement of plate movement (ACSES039). Plate movement is tracked directly by means of GPS data; repeated measurements of carefully selected points on Earth’s surface are taken and plate movement is inferred through determination of how the distance between them changes. Measurement of plate movements enables scientists to predict the direction and rate of plate movement and to develop better understandings of processes such as mountain building and mantle convection (ACSES042).

Geothermal energy

Geothermal heat from Earth’s interior provides a low carbon emission energy source, and can be accessed via hot rock, hot sedimentary aquifer and direct heat technologies. Geothermal systems involve a heat source, permeable rock and a fluid to transport heat to the surface; of these the permeable rock and fluid reservoirs can be artificially created. Proponents of geothermal power generation point to its high baseload capacity, low carbon dioxide emissions, low environmental impacts and potential to provide increased energy security (ACSES043). In areas of Europe, heat from geothermal sources has been brought to the surface using both simple conductive and convective processes to heat homes and large greenhouses for horticulture (ACSES041). However in countries that are less geologically active, such as Australia, sourcing geothermal energy requires significant infrastructure and investment and it remains a challenge to make geothermal energy production economically viable.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but can be transformed from one form to another (for example, kinetic, gravitational, thermal, light) and transferred between objects (ACSES044)

Processes within and between Earth systems require energy that originates either from the sun or the interior of Earth (ACSES045)

Thermal and light energy from the Sun drives important Earth processes including evaporation and photosynthesis (ACSES046)

Transfers and transformations of heat and gravitational energy in Earth's interior drives the movement of tectonic plates through processes including mantle convection, plume formation and slab sinking (ACSES047)

Energy for atmospheric and hydrologic processes

Examples in context

Support materials only that illustrate some possible contexts for exploring Science as a Human Endeavour concepts in relation to Science Understanding content.

Predicting the weather

Formal weather prediction has been practised since the nineteenth century. Accurate weather forecasting is vital to the public and private sectors, for example to provide severe weather warnings and to inform decision making in aviation and marine industries, agriculture and forestry. There is a huge demand from commercial and industrial sectors to increase the accuracy and reliability of weather forecasting over longer periods of time (ACSES040). Weather predictions are based on interpretation of changes in factors such as air and water temperature, the direction and speed of air and water currents, humidity and atmospheric pressure. Contemporary weather predictions are informed by computer models that take into account a range of atmospheric factors, but still rely on human input to determine the best forecast model and to interpret the model data into weather forecasts that are understandable to the end user (ACSES042).

Climate change and the global ocean conveyor

The global ocean conveyor is important in regulating global climate. Advances in remote sensing with satellites have enabled scientists to develop models of the complex pathways involved and measure their characteristics (ACSES039).The global ocean conveyor is partly driven by thermohaline circulation, the movement of water due to density changes resulting from temperature or salinity. The places where these deepwater currents are created are believed to compose less than 1% of the ocean’s surface area. Analysis of geological evidence indicates that when these vulnerable areas are disrupted, the global ocean conveyor can be “shut down” and the world’s climate can be drastically altered in just a few years. Some scientists predict that melting of the Greenland ice sheet could influence the global ocean conveyor, causing changes in global climate (ACSES043).

The net transfer of solar energy to Earth’s surface is influenced by its passage through the atmosphere, including impeded transfer of ultraviolet radiation to Earth’s surface due to its interaction with atmospheric ozone, and by the physical characteristics of Earth’s surface, including albedo (ACSES048)

Most of the thermal radiation emitted from Earth’s surface passes back out into space but some is reflected or scattered by greenhouse gases back toward Earth; this additional surface warming produces a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect (ACSES049)

The movement of atmospheric air masses due to heating and cooling, and Earth’s rotation and revolution, cause systematic atmospheric circulation; this is the dominant mechanism for the transfer of thermal energy around Earth’s surface (ACSES050)

The behaviour of the global oceans as a heat sink, and Earth’s rotation and revolution, cause systematic ocean currents; these are described by the global ocean conveyer model (ACSES051)

The interaction between Earth’s atmosphere and oceans changes over time and can result in anomalous global weather patterns, including El Nino and La Nina (ACSES052)

Energy for biogeochemical processes

Examples in context

Support materials only that illustrate some possible contexts for exploring Science as a Human Endeavour concepts in relation to Science Understanding content.

Biological soil crusts and nutrient cycling in Australian rangelands

Biological soil crusts are formed by living organisms such as cyanobacteria, lichen or algae and their byproducts, creating a crust of soil particles bound together by organic materials. Biological soil crusts are found globally in arid and semiarid environments, and are common in Australia. They play an important role in soil fertility and protect the soil surface from erosion and evaporation. The cyanobacteria in soil crusts are photosynthetic and research indicates that they are important for fixing and storing soil carbon; they also secrete compounds that increase the bio-availability of phosphorus and nitrogen (ACSES038). However crusts are easily disrupted by domestic livestock grazing, leading to nutrient leaching and a significant rundown in the productivity of the pasture, especially in Australian environments where hooved animals have been introduced relatively recently. Some ecologists believe that a switch to harvesting kangaroo rather than sheep or cattle would have a significant impact on rangeland productivity and ecosystem health, but kangaroo meat is not currently as highly valued by consumers (ACSES040).

Closed ecosystem models

Artificial ecosystems (closed to materials import and export) have been developed to aid research in ecosystem function and to assess their potential as life support systems in space stations or for space colonisation. One of the most significant experiments of this type was Biosphere 2, constructed in Arizona in the late 1980s. The Biosphere dome is a large terrarium in which water and nutrients are recycled, with solar radiation entering via the vast glass surfaces of the dome. The first ‘mission’ involved eight people being sealed inside the closed system for two years. The system was designed to enable biogeochemical cycling of matter and particularly provided insight into carbon and oxygen cycling in carbon dioxide rich environments (ACSES041). The $200 million experiment has been criticised for contamination of the system when an ill crew member was removed and reinstated, bringing in some new materials, but other members of the science community consider its contribution to closed system ecological studies to be invaluable (ACSES037).

Marine primary production

The majority of primary production in marine environments occurs via phytoplankton floating near the surface of the ocean. The zone in which sufficient sunlight is available for photosynthesis to occur is called the photic zone and almost 90% of marine organisms live in this zone. Water turbidity has a significant effect on the depth of the photic zone; pollution of marine ecosystems via erosion from mining, forestry, farming or coastal dredging can cause high turbidity that impedes photosynthesis (ACSES043). However recent studies have shown that phytoplankton populations appear to be rising in a number of locations across the globe as they absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some scientists predict an increase in the primary productivity of the oceans of between 0.7% and 8.1% as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, but this predicted increase is likely to vary significantly with location, and may be offset by large predicted losses in productivity around the polar regions due to ice cap contraction (ACSES042).

Photosynthesis is the principal mechanism for the transformation of energy from the sun into energy forms that are useful for living things; net primary production is a description of the rate at which new biomass is generated, mainly through photosynthesis (ACSES053)

The availability of energy and matter are one of the main determinants of ecosystem carrying capacity; that is, the number of organisms that can be supported in an ecosystem (ACSES054)

Biogeochemical cycling of matter, including nitrogen and phosphorus, involves the transfer and transformation of energy between the biosphere, geosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere (ACSES055)

Energy is stored, transferred and transformed in the carbon cycle; biological elements, including living and dead organisms, store energy over relatively short timescales, and geological elements (for example, hydrocarbons, coal and kerogens) store energy for extended periods (ACSES056)