The Headquarters in Gaia

The view of Porto from the CHH Headquarters, at the Geophysical Institute of University of Porto, in Gaia

Gaia - A Universal Concept

In Greek mythology, Gaia is the second primordial deity, born after Chaos, and one of the first inhabitants of Olympus. Gaia originated Uranus, Heaven. Heaven and Earth, in other words, Uranus and Gaia, originated countless other deities as well as oceans, mountains, plants and life. Gaia thus becomes a universal concept which, just as the Earth System itself, crosses all borders. Much more than a collection of living beings and ecosystems, Gaia represents this living planet and its complex intertwined network, an interaction of beings and phenomena from which emerges a whole incomparably larger than the sum of its parts. For millennia, Gaia meant planet Earth for humanity. It still has symbolic value and power. It raises consciousness and awareness of human beings towards their cradle, their space ship, their home and their life-support system. That whole, the ancestral mother of all life, is Gaia.

This meaning was the basis for the choice of the name Gaia for the first scientific theory, developed by James Lovelock, that proposed planet Earth as a single functionally interdependent living organism. The hypothesis was presented in 1969[1] stating that the Earth’s biosphere generates, maintains and regulates the conditions for its own survival, unlike what traditional theories suggested. With the recent discovery of the climate change phenomenon and of “Planetary Boundaries”, the development and accomplishment of Lovelock’s initial hypothesis has been gaining credibility among scientists.

Gaia is also the name of a city by the mouth of the Douro River, on the other bank across from Porto, which, through a merger of words, originated the name of Portugal. Very appropriately, the port of Gaia has been chosen to host the projects linked to the Common Home of Humanity.

Aerial view of Geophysical Institute in Gaia, with the Douro River. The Headquarters of Common Home of Humanity

Linking the geographical dimension with the systemic approach

Given that it was from Portugal that many ships set sail on the ocean voyages of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which started the reconnoitring of the global geographical space of our Common Home, it is interesting that the integration of natural sciences and consequent decoding of Earth System functioning is also linked to Portugal, as the then Executive-Director of IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Program) and Editor-in-Chief of the “Global Change and the Earth System” of 2004 (still considered today the most encompassing study on the Earth System), Will Steffen, stated: “In fact, this rapidly emerging knowledge of the Earth as a single, integrated system also has some interesting connections to Portugal. One the first conceptualizations in the contemporary era of the Earth as a system was by James Lovelock, who used the name “Gaia” (name of the Greek Goddess of Earth) for the Earth System. This, of course, is the name of the city that sits across the Douro River from Porto, and the combination of the twin cities Porto and Gaia formed the basis for the name of the country as Portugal.

Arguably the most influential international scientific body in the development of the concept of the Earth System has been the IGBP. Interestingly, the most critical meeting of the IGBP Scientific Meeting was held in 1999 in Estoril, Portugal[2]. There the Committee determined the objective, scope and work plan for the production of the IGBP synthesis project, which resulted in the book “Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure”, still one of the best syntheses of Earth System science. The Estoril meeting also initiated the planning for the 2001 Amsterdam Conference, which was the world’s largest global change scientific conference up to that time.

The Estoril meeting also featured an explicit link to Ferdinand Magellan and the age of Portuguese exploration. The IGBP Scientific Committee visited the Portuguese Academy of Sciences in Lisbon, where the scientists had the fortune to see the original navigational maps of Ferdinand Magellan, where for the first time the islands of Japan appear on a map in the western world.

Inspired by this link to the great age of global exploration, the IGBP Chairman Berrien Moore III, as he looked out over the Atlantic Ocean from the conference room in Estoril, challenged the IGBP scientific community to go out on their own voyage of scientific exploration to understand our home planet as a single system – our own life support system. So, from the perspective of Earth System science, it would be truly fitting for the Common Home of Humanity to be located in Portugal, and in Porto and Gaia in particular”.

The Geophysical Institute of the University of Porto

Gaia, the city by the mouth of the Douro River, on the other bank across from Porto, and overlooking Porto, is where the Geophysical Observatory of Serra do Pilar of the Faculty of Sciences of University of Porto, devoted to the study of the planet we inhabit since 1885 is located. This is a very appropriate place to house the Common Home of Humanity.

The Meteorological Station and Magnetic House of the City of Porto, initially also called the Princess Amelia Observatory, was inaugurated in 1885 and is comprised of a two-storey central building, standing atop the hill upstream from the Monastery of Serra do Pilar in Vila Nova de Gaia, and of an outdoor space where part of the climate and seismic monitoring equipment is set up. Initially integrated into the Ministry of the Kingdom, it was created as a subsidiary station of the King Louis Meteorological Observatory, inaugurated in 1854 at the Polytechnic School of Lisbon. The initial objective of both was to conduct meteorological and climate studies, calculate the likelihood of good or bad weather, and issue warnings for navigators and fishermen.

It was then integrated into the Geophysical Institute of the University of Porto housed in the same premises, and later became connected to research and teaching in areas such as Seismology, Phenology and Geoelectricity. Despite having had a past role in the collection of nuclear testing surveillance data, the present and future of the seismic station of the University of Porto located in Gaia, are inevitably connected to the detection of natural seismic activity and the study of the planet we inhabit. One of its key projects is linked to the observation and understanding of the Earth as a system, thanks to the Earth System Observatory that would be part of the Headquarters of the CHH.

[1] Lovelock, J. (1996)  Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press



Instituto Geofísico da Universidade do Porto

R. de Rodrigues de Freitas

4430-211, V. N. de Gaia - Portugal


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