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 4: The changing Earth - the cause and impact of Earth hazards

Unit 4: The changing Earth - the cause and impact of Earth hazards Description

Earth hazards occur over a range of time scales and have significant impacts on Earth systems across a wide range of spatial scales. Investigation of naturally occurring and human-influenced Earth hazards enables prediction of their impacts, and the development of management and mitigation strategies. In this unit, students examine the cause and effects of naturally occurring Earth hazards including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunami. They examine ways in which human activities can contribute to the frequency, magnitude and intensity of Earth hazards such as fire and drought. This unit focuses on the timescales at which the effects of natural and human-induced change are apparent and the ways in which scientific data are used to provide strategic direction for the mitigation of Earth hazards and environmental management decisions.

Students review the scientific evidence for climate change models, including the examination of evidence from the geological record, and explore the tensions associated with differing interpretations of the same evidence. They consider the reliability of these models for predicting climate change, and the implications of future climate change events, including changing weather patterns, globally and in Australia (for example, changes in flooding patterns or aridity, and changes to vegetation distribution, river structure and groundwater recharge).

Through the investigation of appropriate contexts, students explore the ways in which models and theories related to monitoring and managing Earth hazards and climate change 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 management of Earth hazards, evaluation of risk and action for sustainability, and recognise the limitations of science in providing definitive answers in different contexts.

Students use inquiry skills to collect, analyse and interpret data relating to the cause and impact of Earth hazards. They critically analyse the range of factors that influence the magnitude, frequency, intensity and management of Earth hazards at local, regional and global levels.


Unit 4: The changing Earth - the cause and impact of Earth hazards Learning Outcomes

By the end of this unit, students:

  • understand the causes of Earth hazards and the ways in which they impact, and are impacted by, Earth systems
  • understand how environmental change is modelled, and how the reliability of these models influences predictions of future events and changes
  • 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 Earth hazards and related impacts on Earth systems
  • evaluate, with reference to empirical evidence, claims about Earth hazards 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 4: The changing Earth - the cause and impact of Earth hazards Content Descriptions

Science Inquiry Skills (Earth and Environmental Science Unit 4)

Identify, research and construct questions for investigation, propose hypotheses and predict possible outcomes (ACSES084)

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 (ACSES085)

Conduct investigations, including using spatial analysis to complement map and field location techniques, environmental sampling procedures and field metering equipment, safely, competently and methodically for the collection of valid and reliable data (ACSES086)

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, 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 (ACSES087)

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 (ACSES088)

Select, construct and use appropriate representations, including maps and other spatial representations, to communicate conceptual understanding, make predictions and solve problems (ACSES089)

Communicate to specific audiences and for specific purposes using appropriate language, genres and modes, including compilations of field data and research reports (ACSES090)

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 (ACSES091)

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 (ACSES092)

The acceptance of scientific knowledge can be influenced by the social, economic and cultural context in which it is considered (ACSES093)

People can use scientific knowledge to inform the monitoring, assessment and evaluation of risk (ACSES094)

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 (ACSES095)

International collaboration is often required when investing in large scale science projects or addressing issues for the Asia-Pacific region (ACSES096)

Scientific knowledge can be used to develop and evaluate projected economic, social and environmental impacts and to design action for sustainability (ACSES097)

Science Understanding

The cause and impact of Earth hazards

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.

Should scientists be held responsible for evaluation of earthquake risk?

In October 2012, six seismologists were convicted of manslaughter for their role in the preparation of a risk report on the seismic activity in L’Aquila, Italy. They were members of a government risk-assessment committee established to investigate the possibility of a large scale earthquake in the L’Aquila region following a series of many low magnitude earthquakes. Just one week prior to the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that devastated the city and killed more than 300 people, the committee had released a report stating that the high incidence of smaller earthquakes was not necessarily a precursor to a larger quake (ACSES094). The report also included advice that earthquakes were unpredictable, and that building codes in the area needed to be adjusted to improve seismic safety (ACSES094). Earthquake prediction is still considered by many as an immature science, as it is not able to predict from first principles the location, date or magnitude of an earthquake (ACSES095). Research focuses on the identification of reliable precursor phenomena or the use of statistical techniques to identify trends or patterns that might lead to an earthquake.

Urban development planning for severe weather events

Severe weather events in Australia have included significant storms, fire and floods, causing widespread damage to property, infrastructure, business, agriculture and compromising human health and safety. Historically, communities settled near food supplies and water sources, however these areas can also be particularly sensitive to the effects of severe weather. Some people argue that governments should create stricter restrictions on urban development in high risk areas such as flood plains and coastal land, given the significant costs accrued by the government in managing mitigation of and recovery from severe weather events. However others believe that such a risk/benefit analysis is the responsibility and right of individuals, as choices of where to live also reflect values of place, beauty and proximity to nature (ACSES093). The level of risk in these areas can also increase as populations increase, changing landscape dynamics and creating greater pressure on infrastructure designed to mitigate risk (ACSES094).

Salinity in Australia

Land clearing and farming practices have led to significant salinity issues for Australian land and water resources. Dryland salinity currently affects over 5 million hectares of land and the National Land and Water Resources Audit predicted that up to 17 million hectares may have high potential for development of dryland salinity by 2050. Historically, land clearing for agriculture was supported by governments as an important measure to increase national economic prosperity, but since the 1980s the rate of land clearing has declined as awareness increases and attitudes change (ACSES093). Salinity causes loss of agricultural land and remnant native vegetation and has a significant impact on public resources such as water supplies, roads, buildings and biodiversity. Mitigation activities include tree planting, planting of deep rooted crops such as lucerne, or salt-adapted species such as salt bush. Using remote sensing technologies to develop models of regional hydrogeology, scientists are increasingly able to predict sites most at risk from salinisation so that preventative measures such as tree planting can be taken (ACSES097).

Earth hazards result from the interactions of Earth systems and can threaten life, health, property, or the environment; their occurrence may not be prevented but their effect can be mitigated (ACSES098)

Plate tectonic processes generate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis; the occurrence of these events affects other Earth processes and interactions (for example, ash clouds influence global weather) (ACSES099)

Monitoring and analysis of data, including earthquake location and frequency data and ground motion monitoring, allows the mapping of potentially hazardous zones, and contributes to the future prediction of the location and probability of repeat occurrences of hazardous Earth events, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis (ACSES100)

Major weather systems generate cyclones, flood events and droughts; the occurrence of these events affects other Earth processes and interactions (for example, habitat destruction, ecosystem regeneration) (ACSES101)

Human activities, including land clearing, can contribute to the frequency, magnitude and intensity of some natural hazards (for example, drought, flood, bushfire, landslides) at local and regional scales (ACSES102)

The impact of natural hazards on organisms, including humans, and ecosystems depends on the location, magnitude and intensity of the hazard, and the configuration of Earth materials influencing the hazard (for example, biomass, substrate) (ACSES103)

The cause and impact of global climate change

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.

Anthropogenic climate change – what’s the evidence?

A range of evidence has been put forward by organisations such as the Australian Academy of Science and NASA in support of recent climate change occurring as a result of human activities (ACSES092). Remote sensing technologies and ice core analysis have provided data which is interpreted using climate models and computer simulations (ACSES091). Changes in near-surface air temperatures indicate that temperatures have increased in recent decades and are continuing to do so at an increasing rate. These data are corroborated by satellite observations of Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere temperatures, and measurements of the heat absorbed by the oceans. In addition, data indicate widespread melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps, retreat of ice sheets, sea level rise, increases in average water vapour content in the atmosphere and a shift in weather systems. Analysis of gas concentrations in the atmosphere and ice cores indicates that greenhouse gas levels have increased as a result of emissions from human activities over the twentieth century, and the majority of scientists believe that these atmospheric changes are linked to global temperature increases. Although there is disagreement about the magnitude of human-induced climate change, and some scientists contend that it has no significant role, most agree that these data indicate human activity is responsible for the majority of measured global warming (ACSES092).

Predicting future climate change and identifying action

Long range climate predictions are derived from computer models and geological analogues. Computer models incorporate a range of factors, and are tested by their ability to simulate present climate at global and continental scales (ACSES091). Analogues from geological time and recent centuries are used to study how the climate has responded to increased greenhouse gases in the past. Both approaches indicate that, in the absence of changes in any other factors, a continued increase in greenhouse gas concentrations should result in continued global warming and associated climatic changes. Predictions at a regional scale are less reliable than global predictions, owing to changes in atmospheric circulation and other regional factors, but it is likely that changes in surface and ocean temperature will lead to changes in the distribution of some species of plants and animals, with flow on effects for ecosystems (ACSES097). The United Nations Kyoto Protocol and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change aim to secure global commitment to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decades, with the aim of significantly reducing long-term global warming (ACSES096).

Uncertainty and climate change science

Climate change science involves a range of uncertainties, which mean that the scientific community cannot predict future warming precisely, or detail exactly how climate change will affect particular regions. Models improve as the scientific community collects, shares and analyses more data, but even though models can be improved, they will always struggle to make reliable predictions for systems in which small changes can have large effects (ACSES095). However, although scientific models cannot predict the exact trajectory of change, they do provide significant evidence that climate change is occurring and that future global warming is likely. Decisions about actions to mitigate this effect depend on the perception of risk by individuals, communities, governments and international agencies and reflect their social, economic and ethical values (ACSES093).

Natural processes (for example, oceanic circulation, orbitally-induced solar radiation fluctuations, the plate tectonic supercycle) and human activities contribute to global climate changes that are evident at a variety of time scales (ACSES104)

Human activities, particularly land-clearing and fossil fuel consumption, produce gases (including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons) and particulate materials that change the composition of the atmosphere and climatic conditions (for example, the enhanced greenhouse effect) (ACSES105)

Climate change affects the biosphere, atmosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere; climate change has been linked to changes in species distribution, crop productivity, sea level, rainfall patterns, surface temperature and extent of ice sheets (ACSES106)

Geological, prehistorical and historical records provide evidence (for example, fossils, pollen grains, ice core data, isotopic ratios, indigenous art sites) that climate change has affected different regions and species differently over time (ACSES107)

Climate change models (for example, general circulation models, models of El Nino and La Nina) describe the behaviour and interactions of the oceans and atmosphere; these models are developed through the analysis of past and current climate data, with the aim of predicting the response of global climate to changes in the contributing components (for example, changes in global ice cover and atmospheric composition) (ACSES108)