January 17th, 2015 by James Ayre
Human activity has pushed 4 out of 9 of the processes that the stability of life on the planet is dependent upon past the point-of-no-return, according to new research from an international consortium of scientists across a number of fields.
What the research means is that nearly-half of the processes that people depend on for life have been “dangerously compromised by human activity”. This new research provides strong new evidence of “significant changes” occurring in 4 of the 9 of the systems which regulate the resiliency of the planet.
Of particular note — according to the new research — are the significant changes that have occurred in the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle. It should be noted here that said cycle is one that all living things on this planet depend upon in one way or other — it’s of particular importance for agricultural-production and for the maintenance and provision of clean-water.
“People depend on food, and food production depends on clean water,” states Professor Elena Bennett from McGill’s School of the Environment, a contributer on the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle part of the study. “This new data shows that our ability both to produce sufficient food in the future and to have clean water to drink and to swim in are at risk.”
The study has made note of clear planetary boundaries — as regards thresholds/tipping-points beyond which there will be irreversible and abrupt environmental change — and suggests that human-related changes to the climate, biosphere integrity (loss of biodiversity + species extinction), and land-system (deforestation, desertification, and associated effects, etc) pose a significant risk to our civilization and to (potential) future ones. And, to the previously mentioned nitrogen-phosphorus cycle as well.
The new research provides more on that:
There are two issues relating to the state of the phosphorus-nitrogen cycle. Both elements are essential to plant and animal life. But one of the problems is that phosphorus, which is used as a fertilizer for fields and lawns is in limited supply, and that supply is geopolitically concentrated. Nearly 90% of all known phosphorus reserves are found in just three countries – the vast majority is in Morocco, with China, Algeria coming in next.
The second issue is that the excess of phosphorus-based fertilisers that drain from fields and lawns into neighbouring lakes can have disastrous effects on the surrounding water. It can lead to the sudden growth of algae that can cause the decline or death of other lake organisms and produce toxins that are dangerous to people or animals that swim in the lake or get drinking water from it.
“About half a million residents of the city of Toledo found out that their tap water had been contaminated with a toxin called microcystin last summer. And in 2007 the Quebec government declared that more than 75 lakes were affected by toxins produced by blue-green algae, says Professor Bennett. ”This kind of problem is likely to become much more common. We will see more lakes closed, will have to pay more to clean our water, and we will face temporary situations where our water is not cleanable or drinkable more and more frequently. That’s what it means to have crossed this planetary boundary. It’s not a good thing for any of us.”
As per the research, here’s an overview of the key points:
- The concept of planetary boundaries has been updated with new assessments and quantifications.
- Climate change and biosphere integrity identified as core planetary boundaries. Significantly altering either of these “core boundaries” would “drive the Earth System into a new state”.
- Four boundaries are assessed to have been crossed, placing humanity in a danger zone: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction), land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (fertiliser use – phosphorus and nitrogen).
- Crossing boundaries raises the risks to current and future societies of destabilising the Earth System – the complex interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere, ice sheets, life and people.
- Internationally agreed upper climate limit of 2 degrees lies beyond the climate change boundary: which makes 2 degrees a risky target for humanity, and therefore an absolute minimum target for the global climate negotiations.
As far as what exactly these 9 planetary boundaries are, here you go:
- Climate change (global warming and its accompanying effects; also known as “global weirding”)
- Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction, endangered primates, etc)
- Stratospheric ozone depletion
- Ocean acidification
- Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
- Land-system change (for example deforestation, desertification and accompanying effects, etc )
- Freshwater use
- Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
- Introduction of novel entities (eg organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).
Given the great changes that would be needed to address these issues — and the great momentum and unwieldiness of large human systems and populations — it’s certainly not a given that effective action will be taken on the scale needed to avert big-changes.
But then that’s what human history is isn’t it — one massive disaster after another, followed by some degree of hard-won insight, or other.
Many of the remaining megafauna-animals of the world seem unlikely to see much more than a few more decades of life — but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if people managed to muddle-on for a very, very long time after these issues finally culminate. Regardless of species extinctions, the next couple of centuries don’t look likely to be pleasant for humans.
The new research was just published in a paper in the journal Science.
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