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How stable is planet Earth?

Global stability at the BA Festival of Science

Life has thrived on the Earth’s surface for nearly four billion years. This is despite a steadily brightening Sun, volcanic outbursts and occasional asteroid impacts.

How this is possible, and the chances for the future survival of humankind, will be discussed by Dr Tim Lenton of the University of East Anglia during his BA Charles Lyell Award Lecture at the BA Festival of Science on Tuesday 5 September.

The Festival is taking place in Norwich from 2-9 September and will bring together over 300 of the UK’s top scientists and engineers to discuss the latest scientific developments with the public.

In his lecture ‘How stable is planet Earth?’, Dr Lenton will speak about the Gaia theory, named after the Greek Earth goddess and first proposed by British scientist James Lovelock. “Earth history is characterised by long intervals of relative stability interspersed by short periods of rapid change,” explains Dr Lenton. “Major transitions include the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere over 2 billion years ago and extreme glaciations around 700 million years ago.”

“Life is actively involved in the self-regulation keeping the Earth in a habitable state, including the climate, and the composition of the atmosphere, oceans and land surface”. However, as Dr Lenton will disclose, life is not always a stabilising influence – major transitions in the state of the planet have in the past been driven by various species. Says Dr Lenton: “We appear to be an errant species that is disrupting the global environment and potentially threatening our own existence.”

Dr Lenton’s research has made recent discoveries regarding the nature and causes of some of the major transitions in Earth history, including the rise of oxygen and major climate changes. “Through our work we have been able to make long-term projections about the impact of human activities and are able to see current concerns about climate change from a new perspective” he reports. “Climate change is not new, and life should persist on Earth for another billion years. Whether human civilisation will survive, is another matter.”

The opportunity to present a popular and prestigious BA award lecture at the Festival of Science is offered to five outstanding communicators each year. The award lectures aim to promote open and informed discussion on issues involving science and actively encourage young scientists to explore the social aspects of their research, providing them with reward and recognition for doing so.

In addition to lectures and debates at the University of East Anglia, the Festival will also feature a host of events throughout Norwich as part of the Science in the City programme.

This year’s Festival is supported by the University of East Anglia, the East of England Development Agency and Microsoft Research. The Press Centre is sponsored by AstraZeneca.

For further information on the BA Festival of Science, visit

Lisa Hendry | alfa
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