Planet in Metamorphosis

Museu do Amanhã

The natural processes of the planet are being deeply modified by the impact of human action. Climate change, interference in the water cycle and an accelerated species extinction rate are some of the signs that we have become a geological force. Considering how this impact affects our own species is one of the great challenges of our time.

Other light than the Sun’s attracted curious eyes from those being near the White Sands Missile Test Field in New Mexico (USA). The boom heard on that Monday, July 16, 1945 announced a change of path to humankind: the first test with the atomic bomb had been held there. Soon after, on August 9, the same plutonium used in White Sands would kill over 60 thousand people in the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

The effects of nuclear bombs are devastating even to objects at a long distance. Here, a test made in the state of Nevada, USA, in 1955 (Video: Federal Civil Defense Administration USA)

This same plutonium will take at least one hundred thousand years to decay until becoming lead. Paleo-biologist Jan Zalasiewicz and other scientists affirm that this human action footprint could be one of the indicators that we are entering a new geological age, the Anthropocene – or “the age of humans”. But this is not the only marker by far: traces of concrete, plastic and aluminum, nicknamed “techno-fossils” would also be signs of that. Extensive farming that uses fertilizers in large scale causing imbalance of nitrogen and phosphorous cycles of the soil would also be a trace of this new age – which would succeed the Holocene, a geological period started some 11.5 thousand years with the end of the effects of the last glacial period.
Another characteristic of this new era is the large-scale use of fossil fuels which marked the transition from a manufacture economy to an industrial one. As of the first half of the 19th century the need of energy for industrial production went sky-high and the emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased substantially. Such increase of emissions coincidentally came accompanied by growing increases of the average global temperature. Still in the 19th century with the development of modern meteorology and we started taking measurements of the climate, the first hottest year ever known was 1937; in recent times this ‘record’ has been broken almost annually - 2015 was the hottest year so far preceded by 2014.
The burning of fossil fuels pours carbon dioxide and other greenhouse effect gases in the planet. Their amount in the atmosphere is so high that we have already changed their composition: there are 400 molecules of carbon dioxide for each million molecules of air. It seems little, but the last time the Earth had the same concentration of gas in the atmosphere was between 15 and 20 million years ago – when the planet was quite different and human species had not yet existed. Scientists attest that 350 parts per million would be a safe limit of carbon dioxide concentration so that the average rise of global temperature would not exceed 2°C until the end of the century. By exceeding such limit we are contributing to increase the warming of the planet, since carbon dioxide is a gas that prevents sun rays from returning to space retaining heat in our atmosphere beyond our biological needs.
Our action exceeds the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and is also felt in the Earth stratosphere. Since the seventies, scientists suspected that the ozone layer could be in danger due to the use of chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Chemist Paul Crutzen, together with his colleagues Frank Rowland and Mario Molina, pointed out to the relation between the destruction of the ozone layer and CFCs. Such connection was proven in 1981 with the launching of a NASA satellite, the Solar Mesosphere Explorer (SME) that “saw” the three scientists’ predictions; with less ozone in the stratosphere, the planet was less protected against UV sun rays which could cause a higher number of skin cancers, cataracts and decrease of plankton populations in the oceans.
Used in refrigerators and aerosols CFCs hade their industrial use banned in 1987 with the Montreal Protocol – and the world managed to zero in the use of the substance in 1996. A recent study by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) showed that in the last years the depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic decreased and shows signs of recovery. However we would have to cope with other issues requiring complex actions: the emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for instance, continue increasing at an alarming speed.
By absorbing carbon dioxide the ocean waters become more acid; the gas, when reacting with seawater, causes the reduction of the marine environment pH. This is quite dangerous to species with calcium carbonate carapaces which may have difficulty in developing their skeletons and ‘shells’. The warming of oceans, in turn, besides causing the melting of ice in the polar caps compromises the aquatic oxygenation by asphyxiating fishes and other species.

Clique para navegar pelo recife de corais perto do aeroporto internacional de Pago Pago em Tafuna, a oeste da Samoa Americana -- é possível ver o recife antes e depois do branqueamento dos corais.

Water pollution is also a huge problem to the oceans: besides reducing the water quality it causes diseases and deeply affects the marine biome, damaging the biodiversity of all continents. Additionally pollution generates a series of imbalances in the natural cycles and on the animal behavior as well. A study from Uppsala University in Sweden showed that fish larvae when exposed to micro-plastics – minute pieces of the material with less than one millimeter of diameter – prefer to eat them instead of zooplankton. Consequently they die faster and have their growth deeply affected. Due to their small size, these plastics, present in exfoliants and other cosmetic products, are very hard to be filtered in the treatment of wastes and end up in lakes, rivers and oceans.
Aquatic life in fresh water rivers is also deeply affected by human actions; in large part of the course of rivers such as Tietê, in São Paulo en Paraíba do Sul in Rio de Janeiro, we can easily see clear signs of eutrophication. In this process the excessive pollution in rivers causes the increase of phosphorous and nitrogen concentrations resulting in the reproduction of certain algae and bacteria which remove the oxygen from the water to breathe provoke the death of animals and plants living in the rivers.
We are also impacting the operation of “flying rivers” especially through deforestation in the Amazonia. Flying rivers are air currents which, evaporated from the Atlantic Ocean, are attracted by the humidity of the Amazon Region – mainly by trees. Such humidity becomes rain and part of it is carried to the southernmost parts of Brazil also causing rain; the increase in deforestation generates an imbalance in this cycle.
The alteration of other biomes inland – mainly due to climate changes, increase of pollution and deforestation – have substantially increased the species extinction rate. Since the 20th century plants and other forms of life have disappeared from the face of the Earth one hundred times faster than the regular rate due to human action. Recent research alerts that the impact from our species on others is comparable to the asteroid that devastated the planet dinosaurs some 66 million years ago. The natural extinction rate would be the disappearance of two species each 10 thousand per century – what we have now is a much faster pace than that. Since 1900, for instance, we had the extinction of almost 500 vertebrates – a much higher number than the 9 expected extinguished species if we had the regular pace of disappearance.
Besides causing alterations in biodiversity and the planet biomes we also consume and extract resources much faster than the Earth is capable of replacing them. In 2009 researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) proposed nine planetary limits under which it would be safe for mankind to develop before causing irreversible damages to the planet. The list shows loss of biodiversity – species of plants and animals, acidification of oceans, changes in phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, destruction of ozone layer, changes in land uses, changes in water uses, charging of aerosols in the atmosphere, chemical pollution of ecosystems and climate changes.
We have already exceeded three of these limits: climate changes, loss of biodiversity and change of hydrogen cycle. Although we have improved a little in relation to the depletion of ozone layer, a study published in January 2015 in Science Magazine indicates that it wouldn’t take much longer to exceed a fourth limit: the land uses. In that aspect, we still have to do much more to make our existence on the planet more sustainable.
There are negotiations to address the passing of these limits within the global political scope. In December 2015, world leaders met in Paris, France to negotiate policies to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere and help more vulnerable countries to adapt to climate changes. Together with other gases such as methane, carbon dioxide contributes to the acceleration of the greenhouse effect – which is a natural process of the planet. With such accelerated process in a very short time we may reach an average increase of global warming that may be detrimental to life, including human life, on the Earth.
With the dialogue at the French capital, 195 governments notices that it's needed -- according to several scientists and activists, paramount -- to reconsider our standards of natural resources use and of the pollution we produce. From these talks, a document came about -- informally called the "Paris Agreement" -- in which each of the 195 countries at the spot could suggest the contributions to which they wish to commit. The objective is to make the Paris Agreement come into force by 2020, when the Kyoto Protocol, currently in force, expires. Analysts suggest that, if well suceeded, the Paris Agreement will be a great gift from our generation to future generations.
While the action to contain climate changes plods along its effects are felt by people all over the world – but not in the same way. Different social groups feel them in different ways: generally the most vulnerable groups are affected first – socially, economically or environmentally. These are the economically and socially less favored people who have to live in sites prone to environmental accidents or effects of pollution of rivers and creeks. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes – IPCC the poorest countries will be the most affected by climate changes; they will be the ones most suffering with hotter days and nights, rise of the sea level, more unpredicted rain and heat waves in higher quantity and duration.
Such change in the patterns of distribution of rain, heat and cold will be causing a gradual migration of biomes and species living therein. With such migration it is inevitable that human species would also migrate from certain sites to others – tropical regions tend to become warmer and global geography may be affected due to the rising of ocean level. Five of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean have already submerged as a result of the sea level increase; changes like this will be increasingly producing more displaced people from their homes for environmental reasons.
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