ENERGY AND EARTH



Earth is a vast flow-through system for the input and output of energy. The overwhelming majority of the input to Earth's energy budget comes from the Sun in the form of solar radiation, with geothermal and tidal energy rounding out the picture. Each form of energy is converted into heat and re-radiated to space, but the radiation that leaves Earth travels in longer wavelengths than that which entered the planet. This is in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, which shows that energy output will always be smaller than energy input and that energy which flows through a system will return to the environment in a degraded form. Yet what the Earth system does in processing that energy, particularly the portion that passes through the biosphere, is amazing. Some biological matter decays and, over the course of several hundred million years, produces fossil fuels that have given Earth a slight energy surplus. Human use of fossil fuels is rapidly depleting those sources, however, while posing new environmental problems, and this has encouraged the search for alternative forms of energy. Many of those forms, most notably geothermal energy, come from Earth itself.

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