Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking

Instructions for assignment:

Systems thinking asks that we understand how structure determines behavior. It forces us to see outcomes/outputs as a result of a whole shaped by interdependent parts.  Based on this weeks’ readings and videos – answer the following questions.  If you wish to get more information from the web please cite the source with a link.  Feel free to insert images (optional) if you see fit!


  1. Everything is connected to everything else – Each aspect of any system is inherently connected to every other aspect of that system, directly or indirectly. An excellent example of using systems thinking is playing Civilization, a turn based strategy game. Players need food to feed their people, production to build anything, and gold to pay for it all. Players have a limited number of people who can “work” towards any of these three, but by putting your limited resources towards food only, you kill production even though you have more people that are able to work. If you focus on building too large of a military to defend your land and people, you will go bankrupt. If you focus on developing your land and growing your population, you risk being destroyed by an enemy army. This is the smallest McNuggets version, for a more detailed description visit Civ 5 Wiki
  2. A small change in one aspect can lead to a big change in the system – This can also be phrased as the Butterfly Effect, where in a single butterfly flaps its wings and causes a catastrophic hurricane across the globe. The butterfly isn’t what causes the hurricane directly, but through a series of coincidental event, that tiny burst of air causes a chain reaction that leads to the hurricane formation. Also, a small change in brain chemistry can lead to crippling effects for the individual. As one neurotransmitter falls, the others are out of balance and the entire system, a human individual, is thrown into chaos. This can be caused by being put on the wrong anti-depressant.
  3. An answer is a path to new questions. There is no final answer. – Any answer derived from systems thinking (see response 1) should never be seen as the end of the question, but the beginning of a new question.
  4. The following describes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, picture from Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking by Draper L. Kauffman, Jr.

            (Unless you count the number of steaks gained…)


Positive (Reinforcing) Feedback Loop:

  1. Define: a positive feedback loop occurs when the output of a process also feeds the process, causing it to cyclically magnify its effects.
  2. Give a few examples in real world: the greenhouse gas effect, a Ponzi scheme, the quest for knowledge
  3. Why is it important to understand the future of energy and the environment – connect to specific examples that you’ll see later in climate readings/videos:

The impact of the albedo feedback loop is incredibly important in understanding why and how the earth will warm. Humans are currently burning fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. These gases cause the air to increase in temperature which causes the oceans temperature to rise. Ice begins to melt, which decreases the amount of solar radiation that is reflected back into space, and the oceans absorb more solar radiation because they are darker than ice. This causes more heating which causes more ice to melt until there is no ice left. Humans are exacerbating the problem by releasing larger and larger amounts of gases, due to combustion, that trap heat in our atmosphere.

Negative (Balancing) Feedback Loops:

  1. Define: a system who’s output dampens or weakens the next cycle of that system’s output, causing the system to “weaken” itself
  2. Give a few examples in real world: metabolism, when I am hungry my metabolism slows down to conserve energy which allows me to live long enough until I find a steak. Flowing water through cracks in rocks will eventually deposit enough sediments to stop the flowing of water through the cracks in the rocks.
  3. Why is it important to understand to understand the future of energy and the environment- connect to specific examples that you’ll see later in climate readings/videos:

Scientists are using projected models of the future to determine the quantity of carbon that the ocean can hold in the year 2100 by studying unicellular organisms. They have concluded that, with the growing acidification of the ocean, the ocean’s carbon sink potential will significantly decrease as the pH levels of the water will drop. By the projected future of 2100, this causes the phytoplankton most responsible for absorbing carbon to become less efficient and effective.

Week Four  – Global Energy Systems – General Questions

The following are general purpose questions partially covered across a few of this weeks’ videos.   But to answer them fully – you might need to go into the web and find other insights.  What I’m looking for here – is evidence of your critical thinking and ability to research online in a way that reflects good ‘filters’ and ability to capture answers.  Remember to embed a link to the source / citation helps me figure out your approach to research.

1) Describe the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’

Simply put, weather is what is currently occurring at this point in time. The Climate refers to a long term (approximately 30 years) average of the weather. My source is my education, previously unknown knowledge that is now known to me.

2) Describe the difference between  Correlation vs Causal Effects  – and how it relates to natural ecosystems and/or climate change.

Correlation is an observation that, as one event occurs, another occurs. A causal effect is a proven relationship, which as one event occurs, another event must also always occur. Correlation in terms of climate: as carbon monoxide decreases, the amount of ozone increases because carbon monoxide is used to make ozone. (Data from Moody Towers by Dr. Robert Talbot, graph made by me)


A causal effect of the melting ice caps is that polar bears are becoming more endangered because it is harder for them to find food. NASA: Global Climate Change Facts

3) Describe role ocean-based microbes play in CO2 absorption.  What is happening?  How does it compare relative to land-based CO2 absorptions?


NOAA: Importance of Microbes Figure 7 The microbes, which account for “just under half of the  total primary productivity on Earth (Field et al 1998)”, absorb CO2 but eventually the ocean will become too acidic for them to function properly and the oceans will be able to hold less CO2 and they will become extinct.

Carbon Sinks

Climate & Oceans 

Scientists have studied and made connections between oceans, currents, temperatures, carbon dioxide absorption, sunlight absorption, cloud formations.  Some areas of study are more well understood than others.  Based on the short video links provided this week – answer the following questions. All answers should be found in this week’s videos but you may also explore the web for additional insights (just cite the source so I can see how you are connecting to outside resources):

Describe the general dynamics of ocean circulation and impact on moving air, temperature around the globe (especially from equator to arctic):

Water can absorb more energy than land which slows the increase in temperature of the atmosphere over the ocean. Ocean circulation is driven by temperature differentials and salinity differentials, which causes warm water from the equator to circulate north and south to the poles. This distributes the incoming solar radiation more evenly around the globe.

Describe different dynamics of shallow vs deep ocean and impact on heat/temperature transfer.  (Hint: relationship between PH Levels, Salinity, Carbonic Acid, Gulf Stream + air temperature, and link to CO2 Absorption )

Shallow ocean waters will typically be warm and have high salt content while deep oceans are colder with lower salinity levels. The fossil fuels that human’s burn release carbon dioxide which is then absorbed by diffusion as a result of a pressure differential. The water now contains carbon dioxide in its liquid form, causing an increase in carbonic acid. When the temperature of the water warms up at the equator, it moves north along the Gulf Stream and cools the eastern United States.

Describe the role of biology (life) within oceans – how it thrives or not , and its role in CO2 absorption.

Phytoplankton use photosynthesis to gain energy and are then eaten by larger microbes called zooplankton. This is the basis for the entire oceanic food web. If the phytoplankton can’t survive due to increased temperatures or ocean acidification, then the entire food chain is destroyed and a mass extinction event occurs. This would cause a major discontinuity for human life as well.

Water Encyclopedia


2 Point Bonus Question

What is the historical (geologically speaking) connection to oceans, microbes and fossil fuels of today?

Hundreds of millions of year ago microbes, who used photosynthesis for energy, died and then sank to the bottom of the ocean. They were then crushed by sediments or buried by tectonic plate movements and subjected to heat until they became fossil fuels. Now, humans are burning the microbe’s ancestors, which is causing the globe to warm, which in turn makes the earth potentially inhabitable for the tiny microbes of today.


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