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Tipping Point Crossed for “Planetary Boundaries”

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Twenty-eight scientists published the concept of a “safe operating space for humanity” in “Nature” two days ago. Here’s the description of what this operating space is, straight from their paper:

To meet the challenge of maintaining the Holocene state, we propose a framework based on ‘planetary boundaries’. These boundaries define the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system and are associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes. Although Earth’s complex systems sometimes respond smoothly to changing pressures, it seems that this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Many subsystems of Earth react in a nonlinear, often abrupt, way, and are particularly sensitive around threshold levels of certain key variables. If these thresholds are crossed, then important subsystems, such as a monsoon system, could shift into a new state, often with deleterious or potentially even disastrous consequences for humans.

The figure below is used to illustrate their concept:

Sketch of nine planetary boundaries. These boundaries define the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system and are associated with the planet's biophysical subsystems or processes.

The inner green shading represents the proposed safe operating space for nine planetary systems. The red wedges represent an estimate of the current position for each variable. The boundaries in three systems (rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and human interference with the nitrogen cycle), have already been exceeded.

It should be noted, that their analysis is based on data, even though I haven’t found a clear description how they calculated the distance away from the tipping point. Here is some more detailed description from their paper

Three of the Earth-system processes — climate change, rate of biodiversity loss and interference with the nitrogen cycle — have already transgressed their boundaries. [This transgression] cannot continue without significantly eroding the resilience of major components of Earth-system functioning. Here we describe these three processes.

Although the planetary boundaries are described in terms of individual quantities and separate processes, the boundaries are tightly coupled. We do not have the luxury of concentrating our efforts on any one of them in isolation from the others. If one boundary is transgressed, then other boundaries are also under serious risk. For instance, significant land-use changes in the Amazon could influence water resources as far away as Tibet. The climate-change boundary depends on staying on the safe side of the freshwater, land, aerosol, nitrogen–phosphorus, ocean and stratospheric boundaries. Transgressing the nitrogen–phosphorus boundary can erode the resilience of some marine ecosystems, potentially reducing their capacity to absorb CO2 and thus affecting the climate boundary.

It seems like a good idea to promote the idea that we have to take care of many tipping points at the same time. It seems even more important to stress non-linear behaviour and non-reversible behaviour. This is nothing new, but it is important to stress such important things once in a while. If a contaminant plume was reversible much of our subsurface remediation problems would be solved quite easily. However, there is dispersion, and hence a plume cannot be reversed. A similar example, related to the contamination of a lake, is given by Shahid Naeem, as quoted by Carl Zimmer:

A lake, for example, can absorb a fair amount of phosphorus from fertilizer runoff In five areas, the scientists found, the world has not yet reached the danger threshold. without any sign of change. ‘You add a little, not much happens. Add a little more, not much happens. Add a little… then, all of sudden, you add a little more and — boom! — phytoplankton bloom, oxygen depletion, fish die-off, smelliness. Remove the little phosphorus that caused the tipping of the system, and it does not reverse. In fact, you have to go back to much cleaner water than you would have imagined.

To conclude, it seems like a neat idea to establish such indicators that seem to tell us in what areas we are doing ok and in what other areas we exceeded the threshold. However such a compartmented visualization seems to contradict the intention of the authors when they write how they had coupling of the compartments in mind.

Where does this leave us on an operational level? Are those guys going to publish their indicator-levels every half year from now on, and then we can see the areas where we improved and where things got worse? Could we even narrow all human activities down to one indicator? If not, then why those seven? And how come we exceeded the outer limit of earth for “Biodiversity loss” while we’re only one step outside the green zone for climate change?

It remains to be noted, that both ” Atmospheric aerosol loading” as well as “Chemical Pollution” are not yet quantified and it is not clear as to why they are not yet quantified.

Further resources

A safe operating space for humanity Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, III, Eric F. Lambin, Timothy M. Lenton, Marten Scheffer, Carl Folke, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Björn Nykvist, Cynthia A. de Wit, Terry Hughes, Sander van der Leeuw, Henning Rodhe, Sverker Sörlin, Peter K. Snyder, Robert Costanza, Uno Svedin, Malin Falkenmark, Louise Karlberg, Robert W. Corell, Victoria J. Fabry, James Hansen, Brian Walker, Diana Liverman, Katherine Richardson, Paul Crutzen & Jonathan A. Foley Nature 461, 472-475(24 September 2009) doi:10.1038/461472a

Written by Claus

September 25th, 2009 at 4:32 pm

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Water in the News

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White House sits problems out (does not open email from EPA)

Six months ago, the EPA was told by the US Supreme Court to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment. The EPA answered that question in an email to the White House, stating that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled. The White House decided that this email officially has never been opened. Now, six months later, the EPA is writing a new watered down letter. Reported by the New York Times, via scientificactivist

NASA: “world’s only hope is drastic action”

NASA scientist James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute of Space Sciences, has warned the US Congress 20 years ago about the negative effects of Global Warming. He just did it again.

The year of Hansen’s original testimony was the world’s hottest year on record. Since then, 14 years have been hotter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

All Chinese Water is Funneled to Beijing

Wired is reporting on how much water is needed in Beijing, especially for the upcoming summer Olympic Games, that in the vicinity of Beijing more and more wells are running dry.

Changing Climate Can Trigger Wars

Weird has a piece on how changing climate can trigger wars

Written by Claus

June 25th, 2008 at 7:16 am

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Planetwater News

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Here are some more links to planetwater related issues I found in the last little while:

Water and Sky Pollution

Here’s an article written in quite alarming words on high PCB levels in the Rhone River

Years of unchecked pollution in France’s Rhone River have taken their toll with the recent discovery of PCB levels at 10-12 times the safe limit in the river’s fish.

PCB is a well known contaminant in the environment. There are a lot of contaminants transported by water both in the subsurface and in rivers that until very recently have not gotten much attention. That’s why they are sometimes called “emerging contaminants”. Examples for emerging contaminants are medical drugs. Weird has recently published an overview article on that topic. Update 2008-03-18, 3:31pm: Weird also reports that there is some drive to test water more often and more carefully for emerging contaminants.

Like water, the sky is not a sterile environment. Some research indicates that bacteria serve as “nucleators”, little particles that help water to freeze in higher regions of the atmosphere. The frozen water melts as it falls towards the earth’s surface where it then can appear as rain.

Climate Change

This Report, entitled

“Impacts of Climate Change and Variability on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure: Gulf Coast Study”, analyzes how Gulf Coast roads and highways, transit services, oil and gas pipelines, freight handling ports, transcontinental railroad networks, waterway systems, and airports are likely to be harmed by heat waves, extreme precipitation events, sea level rise, increased hurricane intensity, and storm surge damage associated with climate change. The report outlines why changes must be incorporated in transportation planning now in order to avoid serious future problems.

Other Ramblings

According to this post, the first pieces of evidence based on bugs adapting to genetically engineered plants are available demonstrating that genetic evolution faster than technology

It’s not only me that says that computer clusters are the future. More on the initiative of google and IBM is available at the NSF and at google

Written by Claus

March 16th, 2008 at 8:47 am

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Weired – Water Stories

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Convert Water

Wired has some pictures from Orange County’s (California) latest groundwater replenishment system. For $480M it converts 70M gallons of dirty water (sewage) into drinking water.

Western Water Crisis

Weird has another water story, also on the western parts of the US: Climate change is anticipated to severe the water crisis there.

Irrigation – but what crops

Another Weired story: not only how irrigation is done is important, also the crops play a role (who would have thought).

Written by Claus

February 13th, 2008 at 10:34 am

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Food, Streams, and Google

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Food Is the New Crisis

… says the National Post. And food doesn’t grow without water!

How Streams Really Flow

This is something for you Ben, and all the stream morphologists out there! The lesson is for all of us though: Don’t trust anything (obviously). Also, humans have been around for longer than we sometimes think. This one is not so obvious sometimes. There is a scene in “Elizabeth the Golden Age” that reminded me of that: The Spaniards needed lots of lumber for their seriously big fleet. Very similarly, the ancient Greeks needed lots of lumber for their Triremes. The effects of those needs are still quite visible in the landscape around Seville and on the Peloponnese.

Google to Outspend US Government on Environment

This headline from a blogpost by planetsave caught my eye. Well, that’s the purpose of a headline. Planetsave goes on to tell us how many startup-funding google does. How nice. At the bottom of that post they link to three other posts on environment-parts of the US budget (1, 2, 3).

Written by Claus

February 12th, 2008 at 2:00 am

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For me, Christmas Holidays are for the family. But sometimes you gotta take a little break and so I did some reading to catch up with my blog-subscriptions and some more reading in the vastness of the internet. Here are some things I found relevant for

Water, Global Warming

Here are a couple of interesting and not necessarily related links to things relevant to water and global warming:

This year, there is no ice on the old Wayne Gretzky backyard rink (found through this blog entry). What clearer sign could there be that things change?

Orange county makes drinking water out of sewage

An Earthquake might pose threat on LA water supply (german, Der Spiegel), and more California water issues (on bromide in reservoirs)

Wired: 2007 was a record year for US

High tritium levels found in landfill in Ontario

Funding for science, policies?

In this interview, the president of Harvard emits some interesting views on how to fund science. Ivy League complains about funding, also discussion on cosmic variance

US legislation

I don’t want to get much into a political debate, especially not before or during presidential elections in the US. I’m sure there are enough pages on the internet and elsewhere that cover that. However, when it comes to environmental legislation, this might be worth remembering: US legislation passed before christmas

Global maps

The goole earth blog has written about the influence of human beings on earth. There are two interesting maps:

Carl Sagan

Browsing through the web trying to find good scientific presenters, I came across Carl Sagan. He was instrumental in SETI, and he had a TV show called “cosmos”, which is available on DVD. I really like his seven-minute long talk on nuclear war:

Written by Claus

January 5th, 2008 at 11:11 am

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Here are a few links of international organizations related to drinking water:

  • The World Water Assessment Programme seeks to develop the tools and skills needed to achieve a better understanding of those basic processes, management practices and policies that will help improve the supply and quality of global freshwater resources.
  • The World Water Council is a NGO established in response to increasing concern from the global community about world water issues. Its mission is to promote awareness, build political commitment and trigger action on critical water issues at all levels, including the highest decision-making level, to facilitate the efficient management and use of water in all its dimensions and on an environmentally sustainable basis.
    Those guys put the World Water Forum together, one of which is beeing currently held, in Stockholm, during the World Water Week.
  • The European Water Partnership Blog, also called “Blue Gold”, has the mission to be an action-oriented forum for all stakeholders including local, national and European governmental agencies, knowledge institutes, business, non-governmental organizations, public and private financial institutions, end-users and civil society groups. It constitutes a platform for exchanging views, finding solutions for water challenges in wider Europe and stimulating cooperation and partnerships.
  • The Global Water System Project wants to answer this question:
    How are humans changing the global water cycle, the associated biogeochemical cycles, and the biological components of the global water system and what are the social feedbacks arising from these changes?
    It seems like GWSP is related to the [Water Systems Analysis Group][7] at the University of New Hampshire

Written by Claus

August 14th, 2007 at 3:21 am

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Water, Environment, Economy

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The Independent is reporting on water shortages in lakes in northern Italy. Water levels there are almost as much down as in the record summer 2003. On the bright side, the area for beaches is increasing… however, water shortages high up in the mountains can not be a good sign.

According to the International Networks Archive at Princeton, such signs are currently taking lightly… according to them, a global crisis of substantial proportions is looming.

Which might be an indicator of human market-focussed economies… such as China… the economy is still soaring… but China’s minister of the environment is expecting the environment to demand its toll soon. Chances are the environment will get what it demands.

Globally, two of the main drilling and reservoir engineering companies Haliburton and Schlumberger recently announced substantial economic growth. “Reservoir engineering” here is to be understood in a very broad sense, and covers also water related engineering tasks.

Written by Claus

August 6th, 2007 at 2:35 pm

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Recent Rantings on Bottled Water, Climate Change

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This article by Nigel Cox summarizes everything that is wrong with bottled water. On the one hand it turns into a branded status symbol – what kind of a society accepts it to FedEx a case of a certain brand of bottled water across a continent? On the other hand more and more people lack access to drinking water.

And in Fiji, a state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the U.S. market today, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water than it is for most people in Fiji.

At the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, where the rooms start at $500 a night and the guest next door might well be an Oscar winner, the minibar in all 196 rooms contains six bottles of Fiji Water. Before Fiji Water displaced Evian, Diet Coke was the number-one-selling minibar item. Now, says Christian Boyens, the Peninsula’s elegant director of food and beverage, “the 1 liter of Fiji Water is number one. Diet Coke is number two. And the 500-milliliter bottle of Fiji is number three.”

Some people still discuss if global warming is happening. Other people reckognize that something in fact is happening (this sometimes results in headlines as “2007 seen as second warmest year as climate shifts“) and maybe discuss how to minimize detrimental effects. Some look at the soil and how it is farmed, and come to at least interesting conclusions. Still other people think how this could be advantageous. It could be quite advantageous for professionals trained in water!

And still other people blame the gay.

On the topic of climate change, the protocol from the recent G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, is an interesting read, especially paragraphs 40 to 61.

Written by Claus

July 4th, 2007 at 1:13 pm

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More on Water

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I noticed recently that “water” is getting some attention in media.

  • The NY Times has a series (1, 2, and 3) of articles of water related pressure in india. These articles go with some multimedia content (movies 1 and 2)
  • The Globe and Mail has two articles. One points out that Ontario’s water related infrastructure, including groundwater wells, are not state of the art. The other one describes the case of a gravel pit next to a water supply well in Milton, Ontario. This article has a very friendly view towards the gravel pit operator (who recently died).
  • The german Telepolis has an Israel friendly article titled “thirsty world”
  • JWalk has found a new tip on the bottled water iceberg. Wow!

Written by Claus

October 22nd, 2006 at 9:17 pm

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