IMPRS-gBGC course: Thermodynamics of Earth system processes 2018

Category: Skill course
Credit points: 0.4


1.  Time & place

March 1-2 and March 16, 2018
MPI for Biogeochemistry, seminar room B0.002
Start: 9:00 am, End: (approx.) 4:30 pm


2.  The lecturers

Axel Kleidon (MPI for Biogeochemistry) and Erwin Zehe (KIT)


3.  Objective of the course

Water flows downhill, mountains erode, and wood decomposes. In the absence of other processes, sooner or later, water would collect in the world’s oceans, mountains would be eroded down to the seafloor, and wood would decompose to its raw ingredients. The outcome would constitute a “dead” state of the Earth system, without atmospheric dynamics, biogeochemical cycling and unable to sustain life. The present Earth is nowhere near such a “dead” state, and thermodynamics provides the key answer to understand why the Earth is not in a “dead” state.
This course provides the basics to understand how dynamics are maintained in Earth systems from a perspective of non-equilibrium thermodynamics. It provides the basics for a comparatively non-technical description of the thermodynamic foundations, illustrate quantitatively how these apply to the various processes of the Earth system, describe how thermodynamics links with organization of flows in space and time (such as fractal networks), and how these shape the interactions within the system and the boundary conditions. These descriptions are illustrated using examples from atmospheric science, hydrology, and human activity to provide a general appreciation of the general nature of the Earth as a thermodynamic system and its implications.


4.  Audience

The course is aimed at graduate students with a background in geosciences or environmental sciences. Course contents will be accessible to students with a solid physics and math background (min. high-school level).


5.  Format

The course combines lectures with in-class examples and exercises to illustrate concepts.


6.  Contents

  • Introduction and motivation: How do current questions of Earth system science relate to thermodynamics?
  • Basic concepts of thermodynamics: What is entropy? Laws of thermodynamics; dissipative processes; entropy budget; thermodynamic limits; thermodynamic optimality principles; linkages between thermodynamics and organization
  • Application to the climate system: Atmospheric dynamics; Surface energy balance partitioning; Hydrologic cycling
  • Application to hydrology: Thermodynamics of hydrologic processes; rainfall partitioning into runoff and infiltration, soil moisture and storage dynamics; catchment dynamics and similarity
  • Application to the Earth system: Biotic activity; Geochemical cycles; Human activity; Planetary systems
  • Summary and conclusions

7.  Material

Slides, day 1
Slides, day 2, Erwin Zehe
Slides, day 2, Axel Kleidon
Slides, day 3
Video, day 3 (via owncloud)


8.  Information for external participants

Participants will have to cover their own expenses for travel and accommodation. Find the directions of the MPI for Biogeochemistry here. We can recommend the following accommodations (under 70 EUR/night) in Jena:


9.  Flyer & contact

Download the flyer here.
For more information please contact Axel Kleidon or Erwin Zehe.


10.  Feedback

Click here to see the feedback of the participants. Statistics and statements should not be taken as an exhaustive or exclusive list.

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