Having established, to our own satisfaction, the natural boundaries of scientific analysis it is time to cast our attention to the earth systems which sustain us. Earths natural systems exist within the broader cosmological boundary of the exosphere. The Earth itself “…is a complex system of interacting physical, chemical and biological processes…The Earth system is often represented by interlinking and interacting “spheres” of processes and phenomena. The atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere form the simplest collection…The difficulty with any representation that divides the system is the danger of continuing a deconstructed perception of the holistic Earth system – in reality no part of the Earth system can be considered in isolation from any other part” (http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/earthsystem/nutshell/).
These spheres, outlined above, represent the core elements of Earth System Science (ESS). While it is not my intention to offer a detailed analysis of this framework it is important to note that, firstly these systems are systems of systems and secondly, that our existence is dependant on these systems operating within set parameters. In relation to the systems of systems, the hydrosphere, for example includes oceans, rivers, estuaries, snow, ice and rainfall amongst other things. As far as our continued existence is concerned, it may well be that what would be considered catastrophic climate change is little more than an evolutionary bottleneck in our continued development. However, it is reasonable to speculate that such bottlenecks take the form of crisis as opposed to a steady and smooth transition. With this in mind, the management of these systems in such a way as to minimise the risk of such massive change would seem a reasonable imperative.
There is a developing consensus that the functionality of certain critical systems, within certain parameters, is essential to the avoidance of the threatening bottleneck. The views, or lenses, reffered to as being indicative of the underlyng systems health, from a human perspective, have been identified as planetary boundaries. “Johan Rockstrom is a leader of a new approach to sustainability: planetary boundaries. Working with a team of 29 leading scientists across disciplines, Rockstrom and the Stockholm Resilience Centre identified nine key Earth processes or systems — and marked the upper limit beyond which each system could touch off a major system crash. Climate change is certainly in the mix — but so are other human-made threats such as ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, chemical pollution.
Rockstrom teaches natural resource management at Stockholm University, and is the Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He’s a leading voice on global water, studying strategies to build resilience in water-scarce regions of the world. Fokus magazine named him “Swede of the Year” in 2009 for his work on bridging the science of climate change to policy and society.” ( TED). The video may be viewed at http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/johan_rockstrom_let_the_environment_guide_our_development.html. See also: http://www.tallbergfoundation.org/T%C3%84LLBERGFORUM/T%C3%A4llbergForum2008/Exploringplanetaryboundaries/tabid/487/Default.aspx
While, as mentioned, there remains some dispute as to how to frame these critical systems the Stockholm Resilience Centre has developed a functional list of the nine planetary boundaries at http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/researchnews/tippingtowardstheunknown/thenineplanetaryboundaries.4.1fe8f33123572b59ab80007039.html:
They say that:”
Stratospheric ozone layer
The stratospheric ozone layer filters out ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation will reach ground level and can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems. The appearance of the Antarctic ozone hole was proof that increased concentrations of anthropogenic ozone depleting substances, combined with polar stratospheric clouds, had moved the Antarctic stratosphere into a new regime. Fortunately, because of the actions taken as a result of the Montreal Protocol, we appear to be on the path that will allow us to stay within this boundary.
In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, it was concluded that changes in biodiversity due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, and the drivers of change that cause biodiversity loss and lead to changes in ecosystem services are either steady, show no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. These large rates of extinction can be slowed by judicious projects to enhance habitat and build appropriate connectivity while maintaining high agricultural productivity. Further research is needed to determine whether a boundary based on extinction rates is sufficient, and whether there are reliable data to support it.
Emissions of persistent toxic compounds such as metals, various organic compounds and radionuclides, represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. There are a number of examples of additive and synergic effects from these compounds. These effects are potentially irreversible. Of most concern are the effects of reduced fertility and especially the potential of permanent genetic damage. As an example, organism uptake and accumulation to sub-lethal levels increasingly cause a dramatic reduction of marine mammal and bird populations. At present, we are unable to quantify this boundary; however, it is nonetheless considered sufficiently well defined to be on the list.
We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar ice is almost certainly irreversible. From the perspective of the Earth as a complex system, this is one example of the sharp threshold above which large feedback mechanisms could drive the Earth system into a much warmer, greenhouse gas-rich state with sea levels metres higher than present. The weakening or reversal of terrestrial carbon sinks, for example through the ongoing destruction of the world´s rainforests, is another such interdependent tipping point. Recent evidence suggests that the Earth System, now passing 387 ppmv CO2, has already transgressed this Planetary Boundary. A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.
Around a quarter of the CO2 humanity produces is dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. Increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential building block used for shell and skeleton formation in organisms such as corals, and some shellfish and plankton species. This will seriously change ocean ecology and potentially lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has increased by 30%.
The ocean acidification boundary is a clear example of a boundary which, if transgressed, will involve very large change in marine ecosystems, with ramifications for the whole planet. It is also a good example of how tightly connected the boundaries are, since atmospheric CO2 concentration is the underlying controlling variable for both the climate and the ocean acidification boundary.
Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
The freshwater cycle is both a major prerequisite for staying within the climate boundary, and is strongly affected by climate change. Human pressure is now the dominating driving force determining the function and distribution of global freshwater systems. The effects are dramatic, including both global-scale river flow change and shifts in vapour flows from land use change. Water is becoming increasingly scarce and by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to have moved into the water-stressed category. A water boundary related to consumptive freshwater use has been proposed to maintain the overall resilience of the Earth system and avoid crossing local and regional thresholds ‘downstream´.
Land system change
Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, wetlands and other vegetation types are converted primarily to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind reduced biodiversity and has impacts on water flows as well as carbon and other cycles. Land cover change occurs on local and regional scales but when aggregated appears to impact the Earth System on a global scale. A major challenge with setting a land use-related boundary is to reflect not only the needed quantity of unconverted and converted land but also its function, quality and spatial distribution.
Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
Human modification of the nitrogen cycle has been even greater than our modification of the carbon cycle. Human activities now convert more N2 from the atmosphere into reactive forms than all of the Earth´s terrestrial processes combined. Much of this new reactive nitrogen pollutes waterways and coastal zones, is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms, or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. A relatively small proportion of the fertilizers applied to food production systems is taken up by plants. A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across thresholds of their own. A concrete example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico due to hypoxia caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest.
Atmospheric aerosol loading
This is considered a planetary boundary for two main reasons: (i) the influence of aerosols on the climate system and (ii) their adverse effects on human health at a regional and global scale. Without aerosol particles in the atmosphere, we would not have clouds. Most clouds and aerosol particles act to cool the planet by reflecting incoming sunlight back to space. Some particles (such as soot) or thin high clouds act like greenhouse gases to warm the planet. In addition, aerosols have been shown to affect monsoon circulations and global-scale circulation systems. Particles also have adverse effects on human health, causing roughly 800,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. While all of these relationships have been well established, all the causal links (especially regarding health effects) are yet to be determined. It has not yet been possible specific threshold value at which global-scale effects will occur; but aerosol loading is so central to climate and human health that it is included among the boundaries.