Four of Nine Systems Crucial to Stability of Earth Compromised

Four of nine global processes crucial to maintaining the stability
of the planet have become dangerously compromised by human
activity. One of the systems which has been seriously affected is
the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle essential to all life, and is particularly
important to both food production and the maintenance of clean water.
Any writer on this continent has to be aware that we've had one unusual winter.  I have cousins living in the south-Midwest who have been dealing with snow storm after snow storm, at one point five storms in five weeks.

In Seattle, we've had day after day of clear skies and sun, though not necessarily heat.  It was freezing here last night.

What in the name of Rudyard Kipling is going on here?

I heard a meteorologist on the local NPR station comment that this winter may be the new normal.

Really?  The sunny weather has been nice, but we have only about 25% of the normal snowpack in the mountains that provide our drinking water.  Not exactly the drought the Southwest has been suffering through, but. . .

So what is going on?  In the words of the old saw, this winter is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here is a story from McGill University's School of the Environment that provides a brief synopsis on our current situation.  According to this assessment, four cycles critical to our life on Earth are out of balance -
  • The global climate,
  • Global biodiversity loss and species extinction,
  • land-system change (deforestation, urbanization, etc.,)
  • altered biogeochemical cycles due to fertilizer use -- specifically, phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers.
This story focuses on one of the four: the cycle that provides us with food and drinking water. 

An International team of 18 researchers conclude that almost half of the processes crucial to maintaining the stability of the planet have become dangerously compromised by human activity.

This is the view of an international team of 18 researchers who provide new evidence of significant changes in four of the nine systems which regulate the resilience of the Earth. One of the systems which has been seriously affected is the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle which is essential to all life, and is particularly important to food production.

"People depend on food, and food production depends on clean water," says Prof. Elena Bennett from McGill's School of the Environment who contributed the research on the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle to 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 research fixing new planetary boundaries (which represent thresholds or tipping points beyond which there will be irreversible and abrupt environmental change) was published today in the journal Science. It suggests that changes to the Earth's climate, biosphere integrity (a concept covering loss of biodiversity and species extinction), and land-system (through deforestation for example) represent a risk for current and future societies. The fourth process which has become significantly compromised is the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle, which affects both the water we drink and our ability to produce food.

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.

By Stewart Brand of the
The Whole Earth Catalog
Click on image to order
"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 Prof. 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."

Prof. Elena Bennett, of McGill University's School of the Environment, participated in developing the new assessments on the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles -- one of the four core planetary boundaries that scientists believe to have been crossed.
  • Four boundaries considered 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 centigrade lies beyond the climate change boundary: which makes 2 degrees centigrade a risky target for humanity, and therefore an absolute minimum target for the global climate negotiations.
The nine planetary boundaries
  1. Climate change
  2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
  3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
  4. Ocean acidification
  5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
  6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
  7. Freshwater use
  8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
  9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).
Related stories:
Story Source:  Materials provided by McGill University.  Will Steffen, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, Sarah E. Cornell, Ingo Fetzer, Elena M. Bennett, R. Biggs, Stephen R. Carpenter, Wim de Vries, Cynthia A. de Wit, Carl Folke, Dieter Gerten, Jens Heinke, Georgina M. Mace, Linn M. Persson, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, B. Reyers, and Sverker Sörlin. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 15 January 2015.


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