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 3: Living on Earth - extracting, using and managing Earth resources

Unit 3: Living on Earth - extracting, using and managing Earth resources Description

Earth resources are required to sustain life and provide infrastructure for living (for example, food, shelter, medicines, transport, and communication), driving ongoing demand for biotic, mineral and energy resources. In this unit, students explore renewable and non-renewable resources and analyse the effects that resource extraction, use and consumption and associated waste removal have on Earth systems and human communities.

Students examine the occurrence of non-renewable mineral and energy resources and review how an understanding of Earth and environmental science processes guides resource exploration and extraction. They investigate how the rate of extraction and other environmental factors impact on the quality and availability of renewable resources, including water, energy resources and biota, and the importance of monitoring and modelling to manage these resources at local, regional and global scales. Students learn about ecosystem services and how natural and human-mediated changes of the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and geosphere, including the pedosphere, influence resource availability and sustainable management.

Through the investigation of appropriate contexts, students explore the ways in which models and theories related to resource extraction, use and management have developed over time and through interactions with social, economic, cultural and ethical considerations. They investigate the ways in which science contributes to contemporary debate regarding local, regional and international resource use, evaluation of risk and action for sustainability, and recognise the limitations of science in providing definitive answers in different contexts.

Students use science inquiry skills to collect, analyse and interpret data relating to the extraction, use, consumption and waste management of renewable and non-renewable resources. They critically analyse the range of factors that determine management of renewable and non-renewable resources.


Unit 3: Living on Earth - extracting, using and managing Earth resources Learning Outcomes

By the end of this unit, students:

  • understand the difference between renewable and non-renewable Earth resources and how their extraction, use, consumption and disposal impact Earth systems
  • understand how renewable resources can be sustainably extracted, used and consumed at local, regional and global scales
  • understand how models and theories have developed over time; and the ways in which Earth and environmental science knowledge interacts with social, economic, cultural and ethical considerations in a range of contexts
  • use science inquiry skills to collect, analyse and communicate primary and secondary data on resource extraction and related impacts on Earth systems
  • evaluate, with reference to empirical evidence, claims about resource extraction and related impacts on Earth systems and justify evaluations
  • communicate Earth and environmental understanding using qualitative and quantitative representations in appropriate modes and genres.

Unit 3: Living on Earth - extracting, using and managing Earth resources Content Descriptions

Science Inquiry Skills (Earth and Environmental Science Unit 3)

Identify, research and construct questions for investigation; propose hypotheses; and predict possible outcomes (ACSES057)

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 (ACSES058)

Conduct investigations, including using spatial analysis to complement map and field location techniques and environmental sampling procedures, safely, competently and methodically for the collection of valid and reliable data (ACSES059)

Represent data in meaningful and useful ways; organise and analyse data to identify trends, patterns and relationships; discuss the ways in which measurement error and instrumental accuracy and the nature of the procedure and sample size may influence uncertainty and limitations in data; and select, synthesise and use evidence to make and justify conclusions (ACSES060)

Interpret a range of scientific and media texts and evaluate processes, claims and conclusions by considering the quality of available evidence, including interpreting confidence intervals in secondary data; use reasoning to construct scientific arguments (ACSES061)

Select, construct and use appropriate representations, including maps and other spatial representations, to communicate conceptual understanding, solve problems and make predictions (ACSES062)

Communicate to specific audiences and for specific purposes using appropriate language, genres and modes, including compilations of field data and research reports (ACSES063)

Science as a Human Endeavour (Units 3 & 4)

ICT and other technologies have dramatically increased the size, accuracy and geographic and temporal scope of data sets with which scientists work (ACSES064)

Models and theories are contested and refined or replaced when new evidence challenges them, or when a new model or theory has greater explanatory power (ACSES065)

The acceptance of scientific knowledge can be influenced by the social, economic and cultural context in which it is considered (ACSES066)

People can use scientific knowledge to inform the monitoring, assessment and evaluation of risk (ACSES067)

Science can be limited in its ability to provide definitive answers to public debate; there may be insufficient reliable data available, or interpretation of the data may be open to question (ACSES068)

International collaboration is often required when investing in large-scale science projects or addressing issues for the Asia-Pacific region (ACSES069)

Scientific knowledge can be used to develop and evaluate projected economic, social and environmental impacts and to design action for sustainability (ACSES070)

Science Understanding

Use of non-renewable Earth resources

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.

Locating and assessing resources for extraction

The location and assessment of resources for extraction can be an expensive and time consuming process. However it is critical that it be done accurately if resources are to be extracted in a sustainable and profitable manner. Modern technologies have had a large impact on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of this process, including the use of aerial and satellite imagery to map resource location, use of software packages to model resource distribution, and validation of the model using technologies such as seismic surveys (ACSES064). A feasibility study is then conducted to determine whether the resource can be extracted effectively and profitably. This includes not only an estimate of the size and value of the resource, but also a detailed analysis of suitable extraction methods and any processing techniques needed to refine the commodity, the capital and operating costs of the operation, and its environmental impacts (ACSES070). Other key parameters such as availability of support facilities and infrastructure, site access and social impacts are also investigated and evaluated.

Coal seam gas extraction in Australia

Australia has relatively large coal seam gas reserves (CSG) and the CSG industry is rapidly expanding. Proponents of the CSG industry argue it will deliver economic benefits for regional towns and cities, and represents a cleaner energy source than coal. However there is also significant resistance to the rapid development of the industry, including competition issues with relation to agricultural and reserve land, and environmental impacts on landscapes and aquifers (ACSES066). A CSG plant, while causing much less physical damage to the land surface than conventional mining, fragments pasture or habitat with a large number of pipes, compressor stations and access roads. These are typically set up on a 200 to 750 metre grid pattern, depending on the nature of the coal seam. Environmental concerns include the emissions produced from extracting the gas and condensing it into a liquid form, and the extraction of water in order to access the CSG. Community concern over CSG industry development also reflects the limited information available on the long-term impacts of CSG industries (ACSES067).

Carbon pricing

One of the main concerns associated with resource extraction is greenhouse gas pollution in the form of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and perfluorocarbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol adopted by the United Nations in 1997 sets obligations for industrialised countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (ACSES069). One approach to reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions adopted by the European Union, some American states and Australia has been to introduce carbon pricing. Carbon pricing can provide funds for investment in cleaner energy, and aims to act as an incentive for businesses to reduce their pollution. There is debate about the effectiveness of carbon pricing in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, partly because there are a number of factors that contribute to a reduction in emissions, including a decrease in economic activity, and these make it difficult to attribute significance to a single factor (ACSES068).

Non-renewable mineral and energy resources are formed over geological time scales so are not readily replenished (ACSES071)

The location of non-renewable mineral and energy resources, including fossil fuels, iron ore and gold, is related to their geological setting (for example, sedimentary basins, igneous terrains) (ACSES072)

Mineral and energy resources are discovered using a variety of remote sensing techniques (for example, satellite images, aerial photographs and geophysical datasets) and direct sampling techniques (for example, drilling, core sampling, soil and rock sampling) to identify the spatial extent of the deposit and quality of the resource (ACSES073)

The type, volume and location of mineral and energy resources influences the methods of extraction (for example, underground, open pit, onshore and offshore drilling and completion) (ACSES074)

Extraction of mineral and energy resources influences interactions between the abiotic and biotic components of ecosystems, including hydrologic systems (ACSES075)

Use of renewable Earth resources

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.

Maximum sustainable yield models and fisheries

Overfishing has been a concern since the late nineteenth century, and government approaches to manage fish stocks have been in place since the early twentieth century. Maximum sustainable yield (MSY) has been one of the most influential concepts to inform fish stock management and has been applied since the 1950s. However, MSY models have been criticised as they ignore the size and age of the animal being harvested, its reproductive status and the effects of fishing on the ecosystem more broadly (ACSES065). For example, application of an MSY model to fishing for orange roughy in New Zealand almost resulted in depletion of natural stocks because this species has a slow maturation and low resilience to harvesting. However overfishing continues to be a problem that requires management policies; use of fishing quotas has been shown to be successful, but calculation of these quotas needs to take account of the population dynamics of the species, ecosystem dynamics and the effects of changes in the biotic and abiotic conditions of that ecosystem in order to enable sustainable harvesting of the resource (ACSES070).

Putting a dollar value on ecosystem services

A range of environmentalists and economists have proposed that an economic value be placed on ecosystem services in order to ensure that they are accounted for in business and policy decisions. Such a value could be determined from an analysis of the economic benefits that derive from ecosystems and biodiversity, and a comparison made between the costs of failing to protect these resources with the costs of conserving them (ACSES067). Payment and trading of services is emerging as one way to consider the value of ecosystem services; credits are acquired for activities such as sponsoring the protection of carbon sequestration sources or the restoration of ecosystem service providers. However reliable calculation of values is confounded by the complexity of ecosystem dynamics and the lack of data regarding how changes in one aspect of an ecosystem affects other aspects over time, creating challenges for the implementation of such environmental economics (ACSES068).

Food security and protecting agricultural biodiversity

Food security is increasingly viewed as one of the most significant global issues, and has implications for health, sustainable economic development, environmental protection and trade. Greater agricultural productivity is seen as essential to achieving food security, but this can often lead to a focus on farming high yield species, which may itself lead to a decrease in the genetic diversity of global food species. Decreased genetic diversity increases vulnerability of species to disease and changes in environmental conditions; a focus on high yield species can require additional inputs, such as fertiliser and water, in order to be successful in different environments (ACSES070). Global actions to maintain biodiversity of agricultural species include the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which provides a framework for national, regional and international efforts to conserve genetic resources and share the benefits of such conservation equally (ACSES069).

Renewable resources are those that are typically replenished at time scales of years to decades and include harvestable resources (for example, water, biota and some energy resources) and services (for example, ecosystem services) (ACSES076)

Ecosystems provide a range of renewable resources, including provisioning services (for example, food, water, pharmaceuticals), regulating services (for example, carbon sequestration, climate control), supporting services (for example, soil formation, nutrient and water cycling, air and water purification) and cultural services (for example, aesthetics, knowledge systems) (ACSES077)

The abundance of a renewable resource and how readily it can be replenished influence the rate at which it can be sustainably used at local, regional and global scales (ACSES078)

The cost-effective use of renewable energy resources is constrained by the efficiency of available technologies to collect, store and transfer the energy (ACSES079)

The availability and quality of fresh water can be influenced by human activities (for example, urbanisation, over-extraction, pollution) and natural processes (for example, siltation, drought, algal blooms) at local and regional scales (ACSES080)

Any human activities that affect ecosystems (for example, species removal, habitat destruction, pest introduction, dryland salinity) can directly or indirectly reduce populations to beneath the threshold of population viability at local, regional and global scales and impact ecosystem services (ACSES081)

Overharvesting can directly reduce populations of biota to beneath the threshold of population viability; the concept of maximum sustainable yield aims to enable sustainable harvesting (ACSES082)

Producing, harvesting, transporting and processing of resources for consumption, and assimilating the associated wastes, involves the use of resources; the concept of an ‘ecological footprint’ is used to measure the magnitude of this demand (ACSES083)