01 March 2010

From ocean to ozone: Earth's nine life-support systems

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UP TO now, the Earth has been very kind to us. Most of our achievements in the past 10,000 years - farming, culture, cities, industrialisation and the raising of our numbers from a million or so to almost 7 billion - happened during an unusually benign period when Earth's natural regulatory systems kept everything from the climate to the supply of fresh water inside narrow, comfortable boundaries.

This balmy springtime for humanity is known as the Holocene. But we are now in a new era, the Anthropocene, defined by human domination of the key systems that maintain the conditions of the planet. We have grabbed the controls of spaceship Earth, but in our reckless desire to "boldly go", we may have forgotten the importance of maintaining its life-support systems.

The demands of nearly 7 billion humans are stretching Earth to breaking point. We know about climate change, but what about other threats? To what extent do pollution, acidifying oceans, mass extinctions, dead zones in the sea and other environmental problems really matter? We can't keep stressing these systems indefinitely, but at what point will they bite back?

Last year, Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, sat down with a team of 28 luminaries from environmental and earth-systems science to answer those questions. The team included Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, NASA climate scientist James Hansen, Gaia researcher and "tipping point" specialist Tim Lenton, and the German chancellor's chief climate adviser Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

They identified nine "planetary life-support systems" that are vital for human survival. They then quantified how far we have pushed them already, and estimated how much further we can go without threatening our own survival. Beyond certain boundaries, they warned, we risk causing "irreversible and abrupt environmental change" that could make the Earth a much less hospitable place

(NewScientist)

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