Top Environmental Issues Affecting Our Planet

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A Brief History

The United Nations Population Fund designated October 12, 1999 as the approximate day on which the world’s human population reached 6 billion.  This day is celebrated as the “Day of 6 Billion.”  In the meantime, approximately 7 billion people inhabit the Earth.  With so many issues affecting the planet, it is hard to say which ones are more detrimental than others.  It is clear, however, that these issues are rapidly getting worse.  What is the cause of all this?  Simply put: humans.  The biggest issues facing the planet are interrelated, and the most recognizable common denominator is human consumption habits.  It is crucial that humans become aware of these issues and how mankind is contributing to them.  This list of 10 environmental issues only represents a small number, but these are the most pressing ones the planet currently faces.

Digging Deeper

10.  Overfishing.

Ocean overfishing is simply the taking of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for fished species to replace themselves.  Overfishing has been an issue since the early 1800s, but the issue has escalated in recent years.  By 1989, when about 90 million tons of catch were taken from the ocean, the industry had hit its high-water mark, and yields have declined or stagnated ever since.  Over the past 55 years, as fisheries have returned lower and lower yields, humans have begun to understand that the oceans once assumed to be unendingly vast and rich are actually highly vulnerable and sensitive.  In many regions, there is still hope; however, illegal fishing and unsustainable harvesting in some parts plague the industry.  Pollution, climate change, habitat destruction and acidification also contribute to the decline in the ocean wildlife population. 

9.  The nitrogen cycle.

Human activities are greatly increasing the amount of nitrogen in soil, water and the atmosphere.  The amount of nitrogen entering the land-based nitrogen cycle has already doubled, and that rate is continuing to climb.  This leads to: 1) increased global concentrations of nitrous oxide that drive the formation of photochemical smog; 2) the loss of soil nutrients such as calcium and potassium that are essential for long-term soil fertility and; 3) substantial acidification of soils and of the waters of streams and lakes in several regions.  Biological diversity has also been affected as a result.  

8.  Deforestation.

Deforestation is the clearing of forests on a massive scale, often resulting in damage to the land, as the ground is no longer held in place by the roots of the trees.  Forests are cut down for many reasons, but most of them are related to money.  The biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture.  Farmers cut forests to make more room for crops or grazing livestock.  Logging operations, which provide the world’s wood and paper products, also cut countless trees each year.  Some deforestation is caused by a combination of natural and human factors such as wildfires and subsequent overgrazing, which may prevent the growth of young trees.  Seventy percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests.  The most dramatic impact of deforestation is a loss of habitat for millions of animals and plants, contributing to the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of some species.  Though deforestation rates have slowed down a bit in recent years, the reality is that trees will continue to be cut down as long as it is vital to economies.

7.  Ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is the direct effect of excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) production.  The oceans absorb as much as 25% of all human carbon dioxide emissions.  The gas then combines with other elements to form compounds such as carbolic acid.  Over the past 250 years, surface acidity of the ocean has increased by an estimated 30%.  By 2100, the acidity is expected to have increased by 150%.  The effect of over-acidification of the oceans on sea creatures such as shellfish and plankton is similar to osteoporosis in humans; i.e. the acid dissolves the skeletons of the creatures.  This phenomenon may soon challenge marine life on a scale that the planet has not seen for millions of years.

6.  Ozone layer depletion.

The ozone layer is a belt of naturally occurring ozone gas that sits 9.3 to 18.6 miles above the Earth.  It also serves as a shield that protects the planet from the harmful ultraviolet B radiation emitted by the sun.  Pollution containing the chemicals chlorine and bromine is what is causing it to deteriorate.  Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals found mainly in spray aerosols heavily used by industrialized nations for much of the past 50 years, are the primary culprits in ozone layer breakdown.  When CFCs reach the upper atmosphere, they are exposed to ultraviolet rays, which cause them to break down into substances that include chlorine.  The chlorine then reacts with the oxygen atoms in ozone and rips apart the ozone molecule.  As a result, large doses of ultraviolet B rays are able to reach the ground, possibly leading to skin cancer and cataracts in humans and animals.  Atmospheric scientists estimate it will take another 50 years for chlorine levels to return to their natural levels.

5.  The loss of biodiversity.

Humans have changed the Earth’s ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the past 50 years than in any other period of human history; e.g. biodiversity has declined by more than a quarter in the last 35 years.  The Living Planet Index which tracks nearly 4,000 populations of wildlife shows an overall decline of 27% between 1970 and 2005.  Population growth and human consumption are the reasons for this enormous loss.  Specifically, habitat destruction such as deforestation is a major cause of population decline in species.  In 2009, humans used 40% more resources than nature can regenerate in a year.  This problem of using resources faster than they can regenerate and creating waste faster than it can be absorbed is called ecological overshoot. 

4.  Air pollution.

Smog hanging like a curtain over cities is the most familiar and obvious form of air pollution.  Generally, any substance that humans introduce into the atmosphere that has damaging effects on living things and the environment is considered air pollution.  Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is the main pollutant that is warming the Earth.  Though animals emit carbon dioxide when they exhale, carbon dioxide is widely considered to be a pollutant when associated with cars, planes, power plants and other human activities that involve the burning of fossil fuel products such as gasoline and natural gas.  In the past 150 years, such activities have pumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise its level higher than it has been for hundreds of thousands of years.

3.  Water scarcity.

Currently, one third of all humans have inadequate access to clean, fresh water.  The number is expected to increase to two thirds by 2050.  Irresponsible usage paired with increased evaporation due to climate change will continue to deplete the fresh water supplies in the coming years. Furthermore, millions of gallons of fresh water are used for fountains, pools, sprinkler systems and other luxuries that the planet can no longer sustain.  It is possible that in the near future water will become a commodity just like gold and oil because humans are not using this precious and finite resource more carefully.  There is potential that wars over the ownership of water supplies will be fought.

2.  Climate change (global warming).

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to humanity and nature.  It is the result of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Deforestation is making this problem worse; climatologists estimate that up to 20 percent of global carbon emissions come from deforestation – greater than the combined emissions of every car, truck and plane on the planet.  Climate change could have major and unpredictable effects on the world’s water systems and could possibly increase the number of floods and droughts as well as intensify other natural and man-made disasters.

1.  The overpopulation of humans.

Most major environmental issues are causes by human overpopulation which has tripled in the last 60 years.   It is expected that the population will reach over 9 billion by 2050, a situation that will place an even greater strain on the environment.  Poverty and shortages in food will also doubtlessly increase, and the lack of natural resources will further exacerbate the situation.  It could intensify a vicious cycle of increased demand for food and commodities, leading to the increased exploitation of natural resources and then to the destruction and loss of the flora and fauna in the environment, from which humans would not be immune.

For another interesting event that happened on October 12, please read the History and Headlines article: “1 + 9 Song Remakes (Covers) That Do Not Sound Like the Original.”

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Historical Evidence

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Cover Image Acquired From:  Jami Dwyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons;