Earth has crossed 4 out of 9 planetary boundaries for hospitable life

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Some of us are more surprised than others about this news. How surprised you are is likely determined by how informed you are, so if you haven’t been keeping up with any of this: prepare to hold onto your seat. According to a new study from Johan Rockström et al at McGill University: 4 out of 9 planetary systems necessary for sustained life on this planet have been already been crossed.

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).

So, which have we crossed and where are we still doing ok? How do we determine our success, and where are the “boundaries” between maintaining a viable biosphere and falling into a global extinction vortex?

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The problem with environmental boundaries is they don’t work linearly, which is hard for people to really understand. Once they are crossed, getting back to the original state takes a much more energy than it took to first change states. One of my favorite diagrams for explaining this concept of “stable states” is this diagram from Staudinger et al’s 2013 multi-agency climate and environmental assessment.

Staudinger et al, 2012. Technical Input to the. 2013 National Climate Assessment.

Staudinger et al, 2012. Technical Input to the. 2013 National Climate Assessment.

As you can see, specific ecosystem states display a level of “resilience” towards change: allowing factors to shift around within a certain frame while the system remains relatively stable… until a point. Past a certain point, the system can shift states, and returning to the original state requires returning the system to a level deep within the initial state.

The fact is that we are facing intense ecological problems, with research indicating we are standing on the edge of a global biosphere shift, and meanwhile most people don’t understand enough of what is going on to understand how dire our situation is, or how much effort would be appropriate to invest in correcting our situation. The answer is that we should put everything we have behind preserving biodiversity and preventing a biosphere collapse: our survival likely depends on it.

About Author

Michael Thomas

I come from Boston, Massachusetts, but currently live in Germany, where I study biology. I am politically active and am working on creating my own political movement based on the idea of the government and politicians being almost totally transparent, and localized/decentralized decision making.

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