The Earth in the Balance

October 13, 2016
Climate change has only begun with droughts killing our crops, populations of numerous species crashing, and deep sea creatures washing up on our shores. My greatest fear is not for those displaced by severe droughts, extreme precipitation events, or the forecasted sea level rise due to our atmosphere having absorbed 365 billion tons of CO2 extracted from the earth's crust and 180 billion tons of CO2 from deforestation. My greatest fear is for society as we know it if we continue to add 9 billion tons of CO2 annually to our atmosphere, which by the 22nd Century will destabilize the earth with a 3 ½ to 7-degree Celsius temperature increase endangering the very diversity of our oceans, forests, and food supply.

A third of the atmosphere's CO2 is absorbed by our oceans which cover 70 percent of our planet, absorb 2 ½ billion tons of CO2 annually, and dissolve the CO2 to form an acid. Our oceans' pH levels have dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 making them 30 percent more acidic than they were in 1800, are expected to drop to 8.0 by mid-century, and to 7.8 by the end of the century making our oceans 150 percent more acidic than before the industrial revolution. Acidification dramatically alters our oceans' makeup by reducing the number of carbonate ions available to join with calcium ions which calcifying organisms like corals, crustaceans, and mollusks all require to form calcium carbonate to build their skeletons and shells. Some species would theoretically thrive under these conditions if calcifying organisms were not the basis of the marine food chain. Ironically, plankton, one of the most common sources of carbon in our fossil fuels, will not only fair better with acidification, their increased numbers will deny nutrients from other remaining sea life.

The populations of our beloved syrup producing maples, flower pollinating bees, and vector eating bats are starting to plummet as well, yet climate change will have the greatest impact at the lower latitudes where the greatest diversity of life exists due to a curved species to area relationship. More than half of the 50 million square miles of ice free land on earth is already farmland, suburbs, or cities, and only three fifths of the remaining 23 million square miles are forests which have greater diversity than the remaining mountains, tundra, or deserts. The earth is warming at least ten times faster than during the last Glaciation, and while various wild plants and animals can adjust by ascending mountains or migrating towards the poles, some that can become invasive species to their new environments, such as kudzu, which is already choking off native plants, trees, and habitats as it moves north. Life will not disappear right away, but as habitats deteriorate from climate change, an estimated 24 percent of species will be headed towards extinction by 2050.

Crop diversity has been agriculture's biological foundation since crops and humans began coevolving 12,000 years ago after the last ice age, yet today's food supply relies on just more than 350,000 species of plants with a narrower genetic base being used every year. Scientists anticipate pre-rice, pre-wheat, and pre-potato climates as these crops, already exacerbated by rapidly evolving pathogens and pests, must double yields by 2050 to meet population growth. Huge numbers of identifiable varieties of species have already gone extinct since the 1800′s and higher temperatures may cause germination to unsync with rainfall patterns, flowering to unsync with pollinators, and some pollen to even become sterile. A one-degree Celsius temperature shift during rice flowering lowers crop production by 10 percent and larger temperature fluctuations could cause market insecurity, government services breaking down, and civil strife. Not only has insecure food supplies from severe droughts and mismanagement allowed the Islamic State in Syria and the even deadlier Boko Haram in Nigeria to flourish, but the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas' seed bank which was established to preserve crop diversity during droughts, is besieged in Aleppo.

If civilization as we know it collapses due to the lack of biodiversity, heavy rains would first clog our sewers with leaves, plastic bags, and debris. Then the freezing and thawing of precipitation would cause our asphalt and cement streets to split allowing surviving weeds, plants, and eventually trees to take root and wreak havoc. Long before the return of forests however, the freezing and thawing cycle would cause our pipes to burst, concrete floors to buckle, and wall joints to expand and contract until they separate. In this dystopia, it could take only one unlucky lightning bolt to ignite our wooden structures, farmland could eventually revert back to wilderness, and surviving coyotes, bears, and eventually wolves could return to our neighborhoods where even the mortar between the bricks and stones of our oldest masonry would succumb to the freezing and thawing cycle. In the absolute worst case scenario, improperly decommissioned oil refineries, chemical plants, and nuclear power plants would cook off when their backup power was expended throwing enough particles into the atmosphere to cause a mini chemical nuclear winter eventually leaving just our radiation, refined glass, and plastic pellets as our only legacy.

Humankind's destructive shortsighted nature has already thrown the earth's equilibrium off balance and the planet's biodiversity is currently relying solely on the efforts of forward thinking scientists. The San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research houses the world's largest collection of animal cell lines representing nearly 1,000 species suspended above pools of liquid nitrogen, while the Cincinnati Zoo has a CryoBioBank, and England's University has a Frozen Ark. Meanwhile, a 130-meter-long tunnel chiseled into a solid stone mountain in the Norwegian Arctic leads to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that houses nearly half a billion seeds, the largest and most diverse collection in the world, as an insurance policy for plant breeders to maintain wheat, rice, and corn's genetic diversity. As the stewards of our planet, we can still confront climate change now and prevent the earth's biodiversity from crashing towards catastrophic levels.