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Earth System Science

Interview with Mr. Alex Hymark, Ph.D,
Senior Scientist, Mission Control, e-Mission Headquarters - Retired

Interviewer: Tina Goodrich,
Lead science Reporter for the International Press Association

Background (from the notes of Ms. Goodrich): Dr. Hymark joined e-Mission Headquarters in the spring of 1998 and retired on July 3, 2003. His first mission was e-Mission: Yellowstone during which he served as the "lithosphere" expert for his Emergency Response Team. His first opportunity to serve at Mission Control came in 2001 on e-Mission: Mt. Pinatubo. He is currently writing a book about his experiences at e-Mission Headquarters.

Ms. Goodrich: Good morning, Dr. Hymark. Thank you for letting me interview you about your e-Mission experiences and career at e-Mission Headquarters.

Dr. Hymark: You're more than welcome, Tina. I enjoy discussing my experiences. As a geologist, e-Missions allowed me to continue to investigate geology while working closely with other scientists to help people who frequently were in great danger.

Ms. G: Dr. Hymark, I'd like to begin our interview by having you clear up some confusion. You are a specialist in geological sciences. But I thought e-Missions were about Earth system science. Are these sciences all related?

Dr. H: They are, Tina. I'll explain, if I might. Earth system science is a brand new science. As a science, it takes several different sciences and links them together to help us understand a "big picture."

Ms. G: What do you mean, Doctor, by a "big picture?"

Dr. H: Imagine this— you are a scientist from NASA and you are among the first to look at pictures of Earth taken from outer space. Seeing the whole Earth at once, from a distance, as it were, is "big picture" thinking. To you the Earth appears exposed in the blackness of space, almost frail-looking, a little planet that needs our care. Looking at it as an Earth scientist you see that there is far more water than land. Let's think about that "system" of water and land for a second. Almost 75% of our planet is water. Many weather phenomena are caused by the heating and cooling of all that water by the sun. The weather in turn, causes the land to erode and change shape. Looking at water and land in a global, or "big picture" way you will start to see the Earth as a system of related causes and effects. Heating and cooling causes weather phenomena, which changes landforms. Cause and effect.

Ms. G: Yes, I can see how taking a picture of the whole Earth might have changed the way we view the causes and effects.

Dr. H: Yes, and technology has continued to change our view of Earth's systems. As more and more satellites were launched, scientists designed the equipment to take incredibly accurate pictures and measurements of this world-view. We use computers to compare all this information from one day to the next. As a result we can now measure the global relationships between temperature, humidity, winds, storms, and ocean currents. Streams of data and images still flow into computers. We've created a truly big, but very complex, picture.

Ms. G: How old is Earth system science, Doctor?

Dr. H: Well it goes back in recorded history to the ancient Greeks. As a scientific discipline, however, I'd say it's very young— about fifteen or twenty years old. But at fifteen years old it's still a baby science. As more and more colleges are beginning to teach it, more and more countries and companies are beginning to think the Earth system science, or ESS way, to make decisions about the future.

Ms. G: When you say, "think the ESS way," what do you mean?

Dr. H: Okay, I'll give you a good example. You remember your science books in middle school? One was about physical science, one was about Earth science, and one was about life science. These textbooks all focused on different aspects of science. We start learning about science by looking at the individual pieces of the scientific world. Do you remember?

Ms. G: Yes, I sure do. I didn't enjoy science much, until I was in Ms. Angstrom's class. Her energy and curiosity made science come alive. It was amazing. And then I got into reading and writing and poetry and I fell in love with that.

Dr. H: Teachers are very important for lighting our learning fires, aren't they? Anyway, scientists were finding that it was difficult to understand complex events, such as the impact of a hurricane, by only looking at one part of the picture at a time. It is important for Earth system scientists to understand the parts as well as how they work together, or interact. This is the ESS way of thinking and it is important not only in Earth system science, but also for any system, such as the life support system that keep astronauts alive on the International Space Station.

Ms. G: In your opinion, what is the key to "systems thinking"?

Dr. H: The key to systems thinking is identifying the parts of a system and then understanding the way in which the parts interact.

Ms. G: So, what are the parts of the Earth system?

Dr. H: Typically, Earth system scientists view Earth as having four main spheres. We took to calling them "spheres," and you'll see why from their names. They are the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. The atmosphere is the thin layer of air that surrounds Earth. The lithosphere includes the rocky parts of Earth's surface, crust, and interior. That is my favorite sphere, my specialty, as a geologist. The hydrosphere includes all of the water and ice on or near the surface. The biosphere includes the dizzying diversity of all the living organisms on Earth.

Mr. G: How does Earth system science fit into e-Missions?

Dr. H: First of all, every member of an Emergency Response Team becomes a specialist or expert in one of the spheres. On my own Emergency Response Teams, I always served as the lithosphere expert. When we are called in to make predictions about a natural event or to write reports on the long-term impact of an event, we need all four sphere experts to work together. In order to do our job we have to look at how the spheres interact. The only way for us to be successful is to work together as a team. I cannot stress enough how important teamwork is for every e-Mission. In the rare instances where we had an investigator who did not contribute, we lacked important information and produced a report for the customer that wasn't complete. Needless to say, experts who do not contribute to the team through their investigations can cause many problems.

Ms. G: Why are Emergency Response Teams important?

Dr. H: ERTs, as we call them, are important because no one person, even a genius, can see the whole big picture, like how all the possible dangers might affect all of the different parts of the Earth's systems at one particular place in time. We worked hard at building teams. To acquire good listening skills was one of the toughest things any of us had to learn, since we all knew so much to begin with, you know. It's tough to share with someone who knows everything.

Ms. G: Why did you pick geology?

Dr. H: Good question. I see you are wearing a wristwatch. Did you know there is a very important type of rock inside your watch which helps you to be on time every time? It's called a quartz crystal. I study quartz crystals. When I was only a child, I was fascinated with them and remember asking a lot of questions about why quartz was inside my wristwatch. How did the crystals form? What were they made of? How do they help keep time? I first asked any adult I could find, then my teachers, then I looked in books, then I asked geologists, and now I study the crystals themselves in laboratories to find answers to my questions.

Ms. G: Thank you so much, Dr Hymark. I think you've given me enough information to help me explain to our readers what Earth system science and Emergency Response Teams do during e-Missions, how they untangle events and help predict potential dangers so they can help people. You have also helped emphasize the importance of teamwork during such events.

Dr. H: It's been my pleasure, Tina; you would have made a good member of our teams. You know how to ask the right questions. That's the mark of a leader, you know.

Footnote: The individuals and corporations in this interview are fictitious. Any relationship to organizations or persons, past or present, is strictly coincidental.

Review Questions

  1. What is Earth System Science?
  2. What are the 4 parts of the Earth system? Provide definitions of each.
  3. A(n) _____________________ is a group of scientists or experts who each have a specialty and who work together to see the “big picture” of a natural event.