A new study has reached a perilous conclusion. The study says that the human civilization on Earth has exceeded four of nine planetary boundaries that are necessary for maintaining a “safe operating space.” An 18 member research team published their findings in the journal Science on Thursday.
The four boundaries that have already been crossed include the loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles like the surplus of phosphorus and nitrogen, and climate change. According to the researchers, surpassing four of the nine safe operating space boundaries means that human civilization is 44 percent doomed.
And it’s all happened in the last century.
According to Steve Carpenter, director of the University of Wisconsin Madison Center of Limnology, the bypassing of the safe operating boundaries should be a wake up call to policymakers. Carpenter says that the Earth has been in a “remarkably stable state” for the last 11,700 years. However, about a 100 years ago, an era known as the Holocene epoch — an era when “everything important to civilization” — came to an end. Over the last century, some of the things that made the Holocene epoch so hospitable have been eliminated.
“…we’re running up to and beyond the bio-physical boundaries that enable human civilization as we know it to exist. It might be possible for human civilization to live outside Holocene conditions, but it’s never been tried before. We know civilization can make it in Holocene conditions, so it seems wise to try to maintain them.”
Carpenter focused on two key chemicals in the study as an example. The widespread use of phosphorous and nitrogen as fertilizers for crops has tripled the amount of these chemicals entering the Earth’s ecosystem, and greatly threatening the safe operating space of the planet.
“We’ve changed nitrogen and phosphorus cycles vastly more than any other element. [The increase] is on the order of 200 to 300 percent. In contrast, carbon has only been increased 10 to 20 percent.”
Runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen causes serious damage to water quality, according to scientists. Increased levels of phosphorus is the leading cause of harmful algal blooms and the oxygen-starved “Dead Zone” in Lake Erie. Additionally, nitrogen flowing down the Mississippi River is thought to be the main cause of another “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Another of the two core boundaries for safe operating space on the planet — climate change and biosphere integrity — have also been identified, and initially surpassed. The researchers say that each of them have “the potential on their own to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.”
It’s clear from the Safe Operating Space research study that human civilization on Earth is headed into a new, unknown era, an era that likely won’t be friendly to life as we know it
[Image via The Watchers]