Our world of today has radically changed from the earth it once use to be. The dinosaurs were living on a lush planet with all the abundance of resources at their disposal. Unfortunately, you know what happened to them — an asteroid wiped out their species in one of the mass extinction in Earth’s history.
Eons later, humans emerged as hunter-gatherers, eventually inventing some amazing stuff that changed the planet; and our ingenuity has pretty much done some damage to the planet. The agricultural revolution, rising civilizations, the Columbian Exchange, and since the industrial revolution, the planet has been drastically changed by the human species. The Columbian Exchange has caused the extinction of more species in a few centuries than the usual processes of evolution — and it’s making the future of our species uncertain.
A decade ago, an international group of scientists got together to determine just how bad the situation is. The answer? Things aren’t great, but if we stay within their nine guidelines, there might still be hope.
Related media: These Are The 9 Planetary Boundaries — Johan Rockström
Our Last Hope Awaits
The nine planetary boundaries propounded in 2009 by Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and 28 other scientists is more like a sort of health checklist for the planet. Just us we go to the doctor for medical reviews on our health issues like heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and so on, you can think of these planetary boundaries as Earth’s final medical checkup.
According to the scientists, if we stay within them, we can keep on thriving for generations to come. If we don’t, the effects on our planet could be disastrous. Even if one of these planetary boundaries is violated, it could disrupt the ecological balance of our planet — for instance, the way CO2 emission contributes to both global warming and the acidification of the oceans.
You might even wonder, what are these boundaries about? Good question.
Here’s a list of all nine boundaries below, followed by whether we’ve exceeded them by (“high risk”), we’ve approached them by (“increasing risk”), or we’ve not yet reached them by (“no risk”); and also whether we’re yet to determine by (“not quantified”).
#1. Climate Change — High Risk
Current status: Atmospheric CO2 at 398 parts per million, and 2.3-watt change in radiative forcing.
Boundary: Atmospheric CO2 at 350 parts per million, and 1-watt change in radiative forcing.
Today, we are very well aware of the problems climate change poses to our planet.
According to the researchers, surpassing this boundary they set — “will increase the risk of irreversible climate change, such as the loss of major ice sheets, accelerated sea-level rise and abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural systems.”
We witness this as: The ice sheets and glaciers retreating and the sea levels rising, today.
#2. Biodiversity Loss — High Risk
Current status: Annual loss of more than 100 species per million.
Boundary: Annual loss of 10 species per million.
No species can exist forever, (just ask the dinosaurs), but humans are not making the situation better. Over the course of our planet’s history, the extinction of species is at a rate of approximately 0.5 species per million. Today, it’s between 100 and 1,000 times the amount. The researchers blame humanity as the main culprit, our tendency to turn natural ecosystems into cities or farmland — i.e., “land use,” which is another boundary on this list.
#3. Biochemical Flows — High Risk / Increasing Risk
Current status: 150 million tonnes of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere, and 22 million tonnes of phosphorus flowing into the ocean annually.
Boundary: 35 million tonnes of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere, and 11 million tonnes of phosphorus flowing into the ocean annually.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are naturally generated minerals essential for plant growth. The turn of the 20th century saw the second agricultural revolution, farmers were able to rapidly increase their harvests — preventing millions from starvation — by adding extra nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil. That’s good news, the bad news, these minerals end up in the waterways they can deplete oxygen levels and harm aquamarine life. We’re far beyond the nitrogen boundary, and phosphorus isn’t doing too hot either.
#4. Ozone Depletion — No Risk
Current status: Safe; only transgressed over Antarctica seasonally.
Boundary: 5 percent reduction from pre-industrial levels.
Humanity got this right, the global ban of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in 1987 has helped with the recovery of the ozone layer. The scientists believe it could be recovered by 2060. Kudos!
#5. Ocean Acidification — Increasing Risk
Current status: 84 percent of pre-industrial aragonite saturation in surface seawater.
Boundary: At least 80 percent of pre-industrial aragonite saturation in surface seawater.
As mentioned earlier, this boundary is linked with climate change and CO2 levels. As the emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere rise, the ocean absorbs a huge portion of it and converts it into carbonic acid. This makes it hard for aquamarine — shellfish to build shells, dissolving coral reefs, and cuts down on the food supply for other aquamarine life. That’s why aragonite levels are used as a measure: aragonite is a form of calcium carbonate that corals use to build their calcium-based structures.
#6. Fresh Water Usage — Increasing Risk
Current status: 2,600 square kilometers of freshwater consumed annually.
Boundary: 4,000 square kilometers of freshwater consumed annually.
Obviously, all living organisms need water to survive. Our consumption of fresh water has an impact on nearly every other boundary on this list. Not having enough water will cause extinction of species, deforestation, and decrease precipitation — that affects climate change. For now, we’re doing quite good at this boundary.
#7. Land Usage — Increasing Risk
Current status: 62 percent of potential forest cover converted to other land.
Boundary: 75 percent of potential forest cover converted to other land.
This boundary has a huge impact on climate change. Energy and water exchanges between the surface and the atmosphere of the earth is dependent on what’s on that surface, since forests are absorbing moist energy from the atmosphere. That’s why you hear a lot about our rainforests, losing them will severely affect the climate. We’re looking good here, but our cities are killing the forests.
#8. Atmospheric Aerosol Loading — Not Quantified
Current status: To be determined.
Boundary: To be determined.
This boundary refers to super-fine particles in the atmosphere that are the result of pollution — substance like smoke, ozone, and the nitrous oxide added to soil. These substances are not good for human respiration, and they are also harmful to crops and the weather. For instance, it’s the reason why monsoons are terrible on Asian oceans. Aerosols could mean different things, and play a part in different elements, this is why it’s so hard to put a boundary on them.
#9. Chemical Pollution — Not Quantified
Current status: To be determined.
Boundary: To be determined.
“Primary types of chemical pollution include radioactive compounds, heavy metals, and a wide range of organic compounds of human origin,” the researchers wrote.
This harms both humans and other life forms on Earth, and harmful through its effects on the other boundaries. Since there are so many toxic chemicals, it places this boundary in a wider scope for any rules to be sanctioned, for now.
The Bottom Line
So there you have it, the doomsday is just right the corner. It feels so depressing to see the fate of the Earth in such a bad mood, all because we’re causing this eventual death of our planet. We might argue that the dinosaurs went extinct because they had no knowledge of what was going to happen; but we humans, with all our ingenuity, could spark the ignition to our own extinction, though we know how to avoid it, it will be our fault. Who says the dinosaurs were dumb?
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Tue, Jan 15, 2019.