A basic introduction to the thermodynamics of the Earth system far from equilibrium and maximum entropy production.
The Earth system is remarkably different from its planetary neighbours in that it shows pronounced, strong global cycling of matter. These global cycles result in the maintenance of a unique thermodynamic state of the Earth's atmosphere which is far from thermodynamic equilibrium (TE). Here, I provide a simple introduction of the thermodynamic basis to understand why Earth system processes operate so far away from TE. I use a simple toy model to illustrate the application of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and to classify applications of the proposed principle of maximum entropy production (MEP) to such processes into three different cases of contrasting flexibility in the boundary conditions. I then provide a brief overview of the different processes within the Earth system that produce entropy, review actual examples of MEP in environmental and ecological systems, and discuss the role of interactions among dissipative processes in making boundary conditions more flexible. I close with a brief summary and conclusion.