We’re About to Cross the 4th Planetary Boundary – And the Effects Will be Irreversible.

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Well, we finally did it guys! But you might want to hold off on the celebrations because… well, what we did is irreversibly damage the environment.

Well, almost anyways, according to the high-profile study published Thursday by the journal Science.

According to the study, the Earth is slipping towards the “danger zone” as we – that is, humanity – have crossed 4 of 9 environmental boundaries.

The study states that it’s a combination of factors, including the shifting of agriculture patterns and climate change, that have gotten us closer to the “danger zone.”

Oh, and by the way, once we’re in this “danger zone,”  there’s no going back.

“We’re running up to and beyond the biophysical boundaries that enable human civilization as we know it to exist,” said co-author of the study Steve Carpenter, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology.

The study, aptly named ‘Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet,’ was conducted by 18 leading experts in their respective fields. It indicated that human activity, particularly over the last 100 years or so, is changing the way the planet functions through the destabilization of complicated and multifarious interactions between people, oceans, land and the atmosphere.

“For the first time in human history, we need to relate to the risk of destabilizing the entire earth,” one of the authors of the study, Professor John Rockstrom of Stockholm University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The idea of 9 planetary boundaries originated in 2009 as a culmination of work by 28 internationally renowned scientists.

But what are these boundaries?

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)

Photo via Felix Mueller

Each boundary is marked by an irreversible change to our environment. Once this is reached, we can either act to make a change, or give it up for lost.

Last September, the WWF reported that Earth had crossed 3 of out the 9 identified planetary boundaries which included biodiversity, carbon dioxide levels and nitrogen pollution from fertilizers.
And now we’re about to cross our fourth: Climate change – the boundary that many scientists believe to be the most critical.

“We are at a point where we may see abrupt and irreversible changes due to climate change,” Rockstrom stated, citing a particular danger resulting from melting Arctic ice sheets, which would release large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Next week the paper will be discussed at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, and is hoped to act as a wake-up call to policymakers.

  • Sarah Burke

    Sarah is a graduate of the University of College Dublin. After receiving her MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, she taught High-school English and History for three years before moving to Vancouver to pursue a career in writing. In her spare time, Sarah likes to write poetry, go to music festivals and drink wine. Her favorite food is the burrito. She is an avid reader of fantasy novels, an active participant in feminist circles, and will always have an adventure planned in the foreseeable future. Interesting fact: Sarah is fluent in Irish (Gaeilge).

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