07 June 2012

Scientists Publish Study Predicting Earth's Susceptibility To An Environmental Epidemic Can Trigger Planetary Collapse

In 2010 the University of California Berkeley, 18 scientists held a trans-disciplinary brainstorming session. They went through and reviewed theoretical and conceptual bodies of work in various biological disciplines in search of new ways to cope with the historically unprecedented changes now occurring on Earth.

During the session, they discovered that Human-generated pressures, known as global-scale forcing mechanisms, are modifying Earth's atmosphere, oceans and climate so rapidly that they are likely forcing ecosystems and biodiversity to reach a critical threshold of existence in this lifetime.

Global-scale forcing mechanisms today "include unprecedented rates and magnitudes of human population growth with attendant resource consumption, habitat transformation and fragmentation, energy production and consumption, and climate change," says the study.

Study predicts imminent irreversible planetary collapse

Using scientific theories, toy ecosystem modeling and paleontological evidence as a crystal ball, 18 scientists, including one from Simon Fraser University, predict we're on a much worse collision course with Mother Nature than currently thought.

In approaching a state-shift in Earth's biosphere, a paper just published in Nature, the authors, whose expertise span a multitude of disciplines, suggest our planet's ecosystems are careening towards an imminent, irreversible collapse.

Earth's accelerating loss of biodiversity, its climates' increasingly extreme fluctuations, its ecosystems' growing connectedness and its radically changing total energy budget are precursors to reaching a planetary state threshold or tipping point.

Video: Biodiversity

Once that happens, which the authors predict could be reached this century, the planet's ecosystems, as we know them, could irreversibly collapse in the proverbial blink of an eye.

"The last tipping point in Earth's history occurred about 12,000 years ago when the planet went from being in the age of glaciers, which previously lasted 100,000 years, to being in its current interglacial state. Once that tipping point was reached, the most extreme biological changes leading to our current state occurred within only 1,000 years. That's like going from a baby to an adult state in less than a year," explains Arne Mooers. "Importantly, the planet is changing even faster now."

The SFU professor of biodiversity is one of this paper's authors. He stresses, "The odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations. Remember, we went from being hunter-gathers to being moon-walkers during one of the most stable and benign periods in all of Earth's history.

"Once a threshold-induced planetary state shift occurs, there's no going back. So, if a system switches to a new state because you've added lots of energy, even if you take out the new energy, it won't revert back to the old system. The planet doesn't have any memory of the old state."

These projections contradict the popularly held belief that the extent to which human-induced pressures, such as climate change, are destroying our planet is still debatable, and any collapse would be both gradual and centuries away.

This study concludes we better not exceed the 50 per cent mark of wholesale transformation of Earth's surface or we won't be able to delay, never mind avert, a planetary collapse.

We've already reached the 43 per cent mark through our conversion of landscapes into agricultural and urban areas, making Earth increasingly susceptible to an environmental epidemic.

"In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren't there," says Mooers. "My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the earth's history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified."


Human activity drives today's global-scale forcing mechanisms more than ever before. As a result, the current rate of climate change exceeds the rate that occurred during the extreme planetary state change that tipped Earth from being in a glacial to an interglacial state 12,000 years ago.

The exponentially increasing extinction of Earth's current species, dominance of previously rare life forms and occurrence of extreme climate fluctuations parallel critical transitions that coincided with the last major planetary transition.

When these sorts of perturbations are mirrored in toy ecosystem models, they tip these systems quickly and irreversibly.

The authors recommend governments undertake five actions immediately if we are to have any hope of delaying or minimizing a planetary-state-shift. Arne Mooers, an SFU biodiversity professor and a co-author of this study, summarizes them as follows.

"Society globally has to collectively decide that we need to drastically lower our population very quickly. More of us need to move to optimal areas at higher density and let parts of the planet recover. Folks like us have to be forced to be materially poorer, at least in the short term. We also need to invest a lot more in creating technologies to produce and distribute food without eating up more land and wild species. It's a very tall order."


Simon Fraser University
University of California Berkeley
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