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The astysphere and urban geochemistry—a new approach to integrate urban systems into the geoscientific concept of spheres and a challenging concept of modern geochemistry supporting the sustainable development of planet earth


Background, aim, and scope

In 1875, the geoscientist Walter Suess introduced several spheres, such as the lithosphere and the atmosphere to promote a comprehensive understanding of the system earth. Since then, this idea became the dominating concept for the understanding of the distribution of chemical elements in the system earth. Meanwhile, due to the importance of human beings on global element fluxes, the term anthroposphere was introduced. Nevertheless, in face of the ongoing urbanization of the earth, this concept is not any more adequate enough to develop a comprehensive understanding of global element fluxes in and between solid, liquid, and gaseous phases. This article discusses a new concept integrating urbanization into the geoscientific concept of spheres.

Main features

No geological exogenic force has altered the earth’s surface during the last centuries in such an extent as human activity. Humans have altered the morphology and element balances of the earth by establishing agrosystems first and urban systems later. Currently, urban systems happen to become the main regulators for fluxes of many elements on a global scale due to ongoing industrial and economic development and a growing number of inhabitants. Additionally, urban systems are constantly expanding and cover more and more former natural and agricultural areas. For nature, urban systems are new phenomena, which never existed in previous geological eras. The process of the globe’s urbanization concurrently is active with the global climate change. In fact, urban systems are a major emitter for climate active gases. Thus, beside the global changes in economy and society, urbanization is an important factor within the global change of nature as is already accepted for climate, ecosystems, and biodiversity.


Due to the fact that urbanization has become a global process shaping the earth and that the urban systems are globally cross-linked among each other, a new geoscientific sphere has to be introduced: the astysphere. This sphere comprises the parts of the earth influenced by urban systems. Accepting urbanization as global ongoing process forming the astysphere comprehensively copes with the growing importance of urbanization on the creation of present geologic formations.


Anthropogenic activities occur mainly in rural and urban environments. For long lasting periods of human history, human activities mainly were focused on hunting and agriculture, but since industrialization, urbanized areas became increasingly important for the material and energy fluxes of earth. Thus, it seems appropriate to classify the anthroposphere into an agriculturally and an urban-dominated sphere, which are the agrosphere (Krishna 2003) and the astysphere (introduced by Norra 2007).


We have to realize that urban systems are deposits, consumers, and transformers of resources interacting among each other and forming a network around the globe. Since the future of human mankind depends on the sustainable use of available resources, only a global and holistic view of the cross-linked urban systems forming together the astysphere provide the necessary geoscientific background understanding for global urban material and energy fluxes. If we want to ensure worth-living conditions for future generations of mankind, we have to develop global models of the future needs for resources by the global metasystem of urban systems, called astysphere.


The final vision for geoscientific research on the astysphere must be to design models describing the global process of urbanization of the earth and the development of the astysphere with respect to fluxes of materials, elements, and energy as well as with respect to the forming of the earth’s face. Besides that, just from the viewpoint of fundamental research, the geoscientific concept of spheres has to be complemented by the astysphere if this concept shall fully represent the system earth.

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    The author thanks Prof. Dr. G. Kloss, Department of Classical Studies, Universität Heidelberg, Germany for the discussion on the correct Greek expression for urban systems with respect to the geoscientific concept of spheres.


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Norra, S. The astysphere and urban geochemistry—a new approach to integrate urban systems into the geoscientific concept of spheres and a challenging concept of modern geochemistry supporting the sustainable development of planet earth. Environ Sci Pollut Res 16, 539–545 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-009-0183-8

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  • Anthroposphere
  • Astysphere
  • Geochemistry
  • Global substance fluxes
  • Goldschmidt
  • Urban systems