, Volume 96, Issue 6, pp 1-25,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 26 Feb 2009

Nonequilibrium thermodynamics and maximum entropy production in the Earth system

Abstract

The Earth system is maintained in a unique state far from thermodynamic equilibrium, as, for instance, reflected in the high concentration of reactive oxygen in the atmosphere. The myriad of processes that transform energy, that result in the motion of mass in the atmosphere, in oceans, and on land, processes that drive the global water, carbon, and other biogeochemical cycles, all have in common that they are irreversible in their nature. Entropy production is a general consequence of these processes and measures their degree of irreversibility. The proposed principle of maximum entropy production (MEP) states that systems are driven to steady states in which they produce entropy at the maximum possible rate given the prevailing constraints. In this review, the basics of nonequilibrium thermodynamics are described, as well as how these apply to Earth system processes. Applications of the MEP principle are discussed, ranging from the strength of the atmospheric circulation, the hydrological cycle, and biogeochemical cycles to the role that life plays in these processes. Nonequilibrium thermodynamics and the MEP principle have potentially wide-ranging implications for our understanding of Earth system functioning, how it has evolved in the past, and why it is habitable. Entropy production allows us to quantify an objective direction of Earth system change (closer to vs further away from thermodynamic equilibrium, or, equivalently, towards a state of MEP). When a maximum in entropy production is reached, MEP implies that the Earth system reacts to perturbations primarily with negative feedbacks. In conclusion, this nonequilibrium thermodynamic view of the Earth system shows great promise to establish a holistic description of the Earth as one system. This perspective is likely to allow us to better understand and predict its function as one entity, how it has evolved in the past, and how it is modified by human activities in the future.

An erratum to this article is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00114-010-0731-6.