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Discussing the impact of IGBP

A series of recent reports takes a new look at the history of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), a landmark research platform that fostered exploration into the workings of the planet — and the influence of humans on the globe. The new synthesis papers, published in the journal Anthropocene, follow the history of the IGBP and its research projects over  three decades. They detail how the IGBP’s approach to studying the “Earth system” evolved over this time, broadening to address how science could help to build a more sustainable world. The IGBP closed in 2015, and many of its projects have transitioned to Future Earth.

But the authors write that the organisation has had a lasting influence on international science through its focus on the connections between the components of the planet. In January, Sybil Seitzinger of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm and colleagues published a paper that traces how the IGBP tackled Earth system science. In it, they write that this interdisciplinary approach:

…came from a view that geophysical disciplines such as atmospheric physics and chemistry, ecology, geography, oceanography and marine biology, which had traditionally worked more independently, needed to conceptualize the Earth as an interactive system and frame their work in that context.

The IGBP was formed by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in 1986 and grew to encompass a network of influential research projects. These included the Global Land Project (GLP), Integrated Land Ecosystem-Atmosphere Processes Study (iLEAPS), Integrated Marine Biochemistry and Ecosystem Research (IMBER), Surface Ocean-Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS), International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC), Analysis, Integration and Modeling of the Earth System (AIMES) and the Land-Ocean Interactions in the Coastal Zone (LOICZ) project, which is now called Future Earth Coasts. Each of these projects is the subject of its own synthesis paper.

In their history, Seitzinger and her colleagues detail how the IGBP evolved from an organisation that examined individual parts of the Earth system to one that probed the effects of humans on those components. In its last decade, the IGBP also made a push to produce science that would inform policy decisions on the national and international levels. In 2000, the authors write, the IGBP made one of its most well-known contributions to international science by helping to spread the term “Anthropocene” among researchers. This concept, now widely accepted, suggests that people have changed the planet so much that it has now entered a new geologic epoch.

The papers focusing on IGBP’s research projects provide an even deeper look at the organisation’s legacy. They follow how scientists studied concepts like the connections between the oceans and atmosphere and how human land use affects global processes. In one paper, published in October, Megan Melamed of the University of Colorado and colleagues delve into the growth of IGAC, which was sponsored by IGBP along with the Commission on Atmospheric Chemistry and Global Pollution (iCACGP). This project, launched in 1990, originally worked to understand the chemistry of the atmosphere. Over 25 years, however, it expanded its efforts to better understand how humans are changing that chemistry.

The seven new papers also address the future of IGBP's projects and research agenda. Much of this legacy, Seitzinger and colleagues report, will be continued by Future Earth, which emerged from IGBP's growing focus on sustainability and developing research relevant to global communities. The authors end their paper by writing:

The new epoch’s challenges warrant even closer interaction among various disciplines as well as stake- holders, and even greater engagement of developing countries… [Future Earth’s] success will depend on the extent to which funders and existing, focused research communities such as IGBP’s core projects are able to buy into and adapt to the new model.

To read the synthesis papers included in this open access series, follow the links below: