Earth: 50 years challenge

The life of earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years with an error range of 50 million years. Life appeared on earth around 3.5 billion years ago. Around 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved and started the great civilizations on the planet. Study suggests that human population is only 0.01% of all the life forms on Earth. This shows how existence of humans is just a miniscule part if we compare it with the existence of our planet or of the presence of life on earth. But if we go through the events particularly in last 10,000 years (of recorded history of mankind), it becomes clear that the presence of humans on earth brought several changes in both the biological and non-biological components. Most of the striking changes have appeared in last 50 years or so. According to reports, humans have destroyed about 83% of wild mammals and half the species of plants till date. On the whole, humans have consumed 30% of the known resources resulting into scarcer ecosystem services for future generations. If these trends continue, the Earth will soon be experiencing mass extinctions and we will be left with an even more degraded planet.

Humans in last 50 years, because of ever-increasing population associated with pollution and destruction of natural ecosystems have completely changed the face of the Earth. The exponential increase in human population in last few decades brought about many drastic changes on Earth making it look much degraded and bruised. One such phenomenon is Earth’s present carbon dioxide (a potent green house gas) level in the atmosphere which has exceeded 411 parts per million (ppm), much higher as compared to about 323 ppm about 50 years ago, resulting in major environmental issues such as global warming and climate change. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, anthropogenic activities have been described as the main cause of increased green house gases level, of which 2/3rd come from burning of fossil fuels and 1/3rd is from land use changes. The increased clearing of forests and vegetated lands, due to overgrazing and industrial transformation, in the 1970s showed disturbed albedo and evapotranspiration leading to warming of earth, change in carbon cycle and global catastrophic events of biodiversity extinction. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) analyzed that the average global temperature of earth has increased by about 0.8 °C since 1880 and two-thirds of this warming has been reported since 1975. The nexus of responses and catastrophic events also point towards the accelerated rate of melting of glaciers with the loss of 226 gigatons/year of ice between 1971 and 2009. The highest impacted glacier loss was reported from Greenland Ice Sheet (about sixfold higher) and Antarctic ice (almost quadrupled) in merely 20 years. Correspondingly, the sea level rise has almost doubled in last 20 years, with increment being 3.1 mm/year since 1993. Chemical and pesticide pollution is another menace to the ecosystems. According to reports, more than 1,40,000 chemicals including pesticides, plastics, etc. have been synthesized till date since 1950 and each year 10 millions tons of toxic compounds are being dumped into the environment leading to land degradation, soil salinization and contamination of water resources. This has resulted in the problem of safe drinking water around the globe. As per reports of CNN, about 500 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludge and hazardous solvents were estimated to be released in global water supply in 2007 making it unsafe to consume. Plastic pollution is also a big nuisance caused by humans on Earth. The stats show that annual production of plastics during 1970s was about 50 million metric tons and it has increased to over 348 million metric tons at present. In terms of biodiversity losses, WWF’s Living Planet Report highlights that humans have eradicated 60% of the Earth’s wildlife in less than 50 years. About 20% of Amazon forests are lost in the last half century. A recent study revealed that of total global tree cover loss between 2001 and 2015, 27% depreciation came from commodity driven deforestation i.e. conversion of forests permanently in order to expand commodities such as meat, minerals, oils and gas. Other drivers are forestry i.e. loss within the managed forests or tree plantations (26%), shifting agricultural practices (24%), wildfires (23%), and urbanization (0.6%). Half of the shallow-water corals have also been leached out by anthropogenic activities polluting the oceans and seas in last 30 years. The recent analysis shows that the population of freshwater animals has plummeted by 75% since 1970s. Reports say that the damage done is so rapid that even if we end it now, it will take centuries to replenish the natural world.

The global human footprints over the past 50 years are so dominating that even the view of the planet from space shows the modification of various critical ecosystems and the demography. The complementing series of aerial pictures taken through satellites show that many hotspot ecosystems and areas have been tremendously degraded. Focusing on what all we have lost over the past half century, the red list is so long that it cannot be confined in few pages. The Great Barrier Reef visible even from space has shown 50% loss due to severe bleaching by increased temperature of the oceans in just 30 years and is predicted that up to 90% may die within next century. Shrinking of the Dead Sea has shown an alarming rate of around four feet a year and the sea has already lost one-third of its surface area. The increasing temperature has caused high rate of snow melting in the European mountain range The Alps, and the most unsettling event reported in 2017 was that the winter season was 38 days shorter in comparison to that in 1960. The human oriented massive irrigation project over past 50 years has shrunk the fourth largest lake Aral Sea, to only 10% and it will soon be a thing of the past. NASA’s monitoring of Arctic Sea ice since 1978 have detected a steep decline in overall ice content. The polar ice thawing stories over the past half centuries have been highly alarming and Antarctic alone has lost 40 billion tons of ice each year from 1979 to 1989 and this trend rose to 252 billion tons per year in 2009 and today Antarctic has already lost 6 times the ice it had 40 years ago. The ‘Third Pole’ i.e. The Himalayan- Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau in Central Asia is also impacted by the negative trends of global warming and in the past 50 years this remote region has lost 509 glaciers resulting in the local temperature rise by 1.5 °C. Recently in 2018, a huge chunk of ice in Helheim Glacier in Greenland, about the size of Manhattan, with 10 billion tons of ice, split out and tumbled into sea; this loss was indicated as the most disturbing irreversible loss. The record breaking heat waves in Australia and Europe are already the hard and fast evidences to how much humans have changed the face of Earth. Australia witnessed the hottest summer in the recorded history in the year 2018–2019. The high melting of glaciers and warming of the poles led to the extreme freezing of Chicago, which became colder than Mount Everest, Siberia and the poles. The summers in Iran shockingly changed the size and color of Lake Urmia from green to brown due to blooming of algae and bacteria. Similarly, there are numerous reports which show the decline of fertile lands, increased soil salinity, loss of forests and so on, clearly visible by the satellite images.

A team of researchers’ from several countries including Sweden, Australia, Denmark, USA, England, Canada, Germany and Holland declared climate change and biodiversity loss as the “core boundaries” which if breached can transform Earth to inhabitable state. Stephen Hawking in his recently published book “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” stated that the biggest threat to mankind on Earth is the human induced climate change. Although the technology has advanced at an unprecedented rate and this has improved the living standards a lot but the cost of this development in terms of damage to the planet as a whole is also extraordinary. We share the planet with millions of other species but have almost single handedly exploited it to the extent that every specie is affected one way or the other. The industrial, agricultural and the infrastructural revolution have resulted in over exploitation of resources and pollution of every nook and corner of the planet. The technologies which were developed to adorn and ease our routines has brought antonymic effect threatening the survival and has made it very clear that no human science can replace “nature’s perfect systems” which have been carving the environment and ecosystems of earth to balance it in the zone of habitability.

Fifty years is just a very miniscule fraction of the time if compared with existence of life on Earth, but the changes brought in by the anthropogenic activities in this period are very distinct and serious, endangering the sustainability of life on the planet. Year 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the celebrations of Earth Day, and it is high time that the unsustainable activities and technologies be replaced with viable measures. This could be achieved by employing green and biological methods, technologies and inputs such as the use of biofertilizers and biopesticides as substitutes to their chemical counterparts, biofuels in place of petroleum products, bioremediation instead of traditional remediation methods, bioplastics and biofilters to minimize pollution, biotechnological advances for food and energy security, study of metagenome for better knowledge of diversity and working of micro-ecosytems at the molecular and biochemical levels. The international policies are also backing up the idea of these holistic approaches for example United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goals” have set targets for sustainable development and environment to be achieved by 2030. Last 50 years have changed the demography of the planet Earth in a negative way resulting in its deterioration. Goals for next 50 years should be to carry out the green upliftment of the Earth so as to bring it back to normalcy and natural form as it was about a century ago. The aim of the journal “Environmental Sustainability” is exactly to promote the greener technologies and biotechnological interventions so as to heal the planet Earth back to normalcy and sustain it for the survival and flourishing of all the life forms.

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Correspondence to Naveen Kumar Arora.

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Arora, N. Earth: 50 years challenge. Environmental Sustainability 2, 1–3 (2019).

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