Continued destruction of Earth’s plant life places humankind in jeopardy, say researchers

July 15, 2015

Earth-space battery. The planet is a positive charge of stored chemical energy (cathode) in the form of fossil and nuclear fuels and biomass. As this energy is dissipated by humans, it eventually radiates as heat toward the chemical equilibrium of deep space (anode). The battery is rapidly discharging without replenishment. (credit: John R. Schramski et al./PNAS)

Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable, according to a paper published recently by University of Georgia researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years,” said the study’s lead author, John Schramski, an associate professor in UGA’s College of Engineering. “The sun’s energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished.”

Number of years of phytomass food potentially available to feed the global human population (credit: John R. Schramski et al./PNAS)

Earth was once a barren landscape devoid of life, he explained, and it was only after billions of years that simple organisms evolved the ability to transform the sun’s light into energy. This eventually led to an explosion of plant and animal life that bathed the planet with lush forests and extraordinarily diverse ecosystems.

The study’s calculations are grounded in the fundamental principles of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with the relationship between heat and mechanical energy. Chemical energy is stored in plants, or biomass, which is used for food and fuel, but which is also destroyed to make room for agriculture and expanding cities.

Scientists estimate that the Earth contained approximately 1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass 2,000 years ago. Since that time, humans have reduced that amount by almost half. It is estimated that just over 10 percent of that biomass was destroyed in just the last century.

“If we don’t reverse this trend, we’ll eventually reach a point where the biomass battery discharges to a level at which Earth can no longer sustain us,” Schramski said.

Major causes: deforestation, large-scale farming, population growth

Working with James H. Brown from the University of New Mexico, Schramski and UGA’s David Gattie, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, the research shows that the vast majority of losses come from deforestation, hastened by the advent of large-scale mechanized farming and the need to feed a rapidly growing population. As more biomass is destroyed, the planet has less stored energy, which it needs to maintain Earth’s complex food webs and biogeochemical balances.

NASA Earth Observatory biomass map of the U.S. by Robert Simmon, generated from the National Biomass and Carbon Dataset (NBCD) assembled by scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center

“As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest,” Schramski said.

If human beings do not go extinct, and biomass drops below sustainable thresholds, the population will decline drastically, and people will be forced to return to life as hunter-gatherers or simple horticulturalists, according to the paper.

“I’m not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics,” Schramski said. “These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of biomass energy available on the planet, and once it’s exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it.”

Schramski and his collaborators are hopeful that recognition of the importance of biomass, elimination of its destruction and increased reliance on renewable energy will slow the steady march toward an uncertain future, but the measures required to stop that progression may have to be drastic.

The model does not take into account potential future breakthroughs in more efficient biomass use and alternate energy systems.

Abstract of Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind

Earth is a chemical battery where, over evolutionary time with a trickle-charge of photosynthesis using solar energy, billions of tons of living biomass were stored in forests and other ecosystems and in vast reserves of fossil fuels. In just the last few hundred years, humans extracted exploitable energy from these living and fossilized biomass fuels to build the modern industrial-technological-informational economy, to grow our population to more than 7 billion, and to transform the biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity of the earth. This rapid discharge of the earth’s store of organic energy fuels the human domination of the biosphere, including conversion of natural habitats to agricultural fields and the resulting loss of native species, emission of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate and sea level change, and use of supplemental nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar energy sources. The laws of thermodynamics governing the trickle-charge and rapid discharge of the earth’s battery are universal and absolute; the earth is only temporarily poised a quantifiable distance from the thermodynamic equilibrium of outer space. Although this distance from equilibrium is comprised of all energy types, most critical for humans is the store of living biomass. With the rapid depletion of this chemical energy, the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity. Because there is no substitute or replacement energy for living biomass, the remaining distance from equilibrium that will be required to support human life is unknown.