Earth Headed Towards ‘Tipping Point’

on June 7, 2012 10:40 AM EDT

Earth
Population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change have Earth at a "tipping point" (Photo: Creative Commons)

Earth is heading towards a breakdown, according to a new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change have Earth at a "tipping point," and unless humans get their act together, the planet is headed towards a time period marked by extinctions and unpredictable changes on not seen since the ice age.

"There is a very high possibility that by the end of the century, the Earth is going to be a very different place, Anthony Barnosky, study coauthor and professor of integrative biology from the University of California, Berkeley, told LiveScience.

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Researchers said that at certain thresholds, the environment reaches a point of no return, causing the planet to respond in unpredictable ways.

"It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point," Barnosky said in a statement. "The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations."

The most recent example of this extreme shift occurred approximately 12,000 years ago, researchers said, when Earth transitioned from being 30 percent covered in ice to being almost ice free in only 3,000 years. During that time, major extinctions, such as that of the wooly mammoth, occurred.

"My view is that humanity is at a crossroads now, where we have to make an active choice," Barnosky said in a statement. "One choice is to acknowledge these issues and potential consequences and try to guide the future (in a way we want to). The other choice is just to throw up our hands and say, 'Let's just go on as usual and see what happens.' My guess is, if we take that latter choice, yes, humanity is going to survive, but we are going to see some effects that will seriously degrade the quality of life for our children and grandchildren."

Researchers said the world needs to take stock of how much resources we are using and try to cut back.

"Unless we take note of exactly how we're changing the world and what that means in a biological sense, we can't steer the ship," Barnosky told Businessweek.

He also said that governmental intervention is necessary to stall any catastrophic changes.  Without it, the planet's environment will suffer.

"When that happens you get a period of societal adjustment that usually includes economic problems, wars and famines."

The researchers said they have already seen big changes in some parts of the world.

"We may already be past these tipping points in particular regions of the world," Elizabeth Hadly, study coauthor and researcher at Stanford University said in a statement. "I just returned from a trip to the high Himalayas in Nepal, where I witnessed families fighting each other with machetes for wood - wood that they would burn to cook their food in one evening. In places where governments are lacking basic infrastructure, people fend for themselves, and biodiversity suffers."

The best way to prevent these changes is to work together, Barnosky told Businessweek.

"It's a global society, and these are global problems, and the only way we can solve them is through global cooperation," he said. "The big winners in the world 50 years from now will be the nations that have developed new forms of energy. Those nations and entrepreneurs are going to come out ahe 

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