Taking a closer glance at the six precarious tipping points that possess the potential for catastrophic consequences to humankind
A pioneering document published by the United Nations University has ascertained that pressing transformations are critically imperative to safeguard socioecological systems from devastating perils. The document accentuates that the world is on the cusp of six perilous tipping points: hastening extinctions, depletion of ground water, thawing of mountain glaciers, accumulation of space debris, insufferable heat, and an uninsurable future.
The 2023 Interconnected Disaster Risks Report, established by the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), delineates a nascent tipping point as “the phase at which a bestowed socioecological system can no longer serve as a buffer against risks and fulfill its anticipated capacities, thereby exponentially escalating the likelihood of catastrophic ramifications to these systems.” The tipping points underscored in the report pinpoint the domains that demand immediate consideration and decisive action.
An illustration is the depletion of ground water, a pivotal source of fresh water stowed in underground reservoirs known as aquifers. These aquifers offer potable water to over 2 billion individuals worldwide, with roughly 70 percent of withdrawals utilized for agriculture. However, the report elucidates that currently, over half of the prominent aquifers on the planet are being depleted at a pace that surpasses replenishment rates. The water in these aquifers has amassed over millennia and would necessitate a corresponding span of time to restore to capacity.
Once the water table of an aquifer consistently plummets beyond the depth of wells, access to ground water will become problematic. This will impede, for instance, the ability of farmers to irrigate their crops, directly impacting food production.
“India ranks as the foremost consumer of ground water, surpassing the consumption in both the United States and China combined,” the report adds. According to the Press Trust of India, certain regions within the Indo-Gangetic basin in India have superseded the tipping point of ground water depletion, and the entire northwestern area is projected to be afflicted by critically low ground water availability by 2025.
An additional tipping point highlighted by the report manifests in the rapidly escalating rate of extinctions. While extinction is an inherent facet of the evolutionary process, the rate at which it is transpiring presently is uncharacteristic. Humans have hastened the process of extinction through overexploitation, climate change, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species. Within the past century, more than 400 species have perished, and approximately one million species of plants and animals confront the specter of extinction, with many teetering on the verge of annihilation in the upcoming decades, as outlined by the report.
The report apprises that the extinction of a species irrevocably entangled with an ecosystem can trigger subsequent extinctions of dependent species, catalyzing an irreversible collapse of the ecosystem.
The third tipping point of note is one that may be familiar to many: the thawing of glaciers. Meltwater derived from glaciers and snow provides a vital water source for drinking, irrigation, hydropower, and ecosystems in numerous regions. However, due to the repercussions of global warming, the planet’s glaciers are disproportionally melting at twice the velocity recorded during the previous two decades, according to the report.
Between 2000 and 2019, glaciers relinquished 267 gigatons of ice per year, which is roughly tantamount to the mass of 46,500 Great Pyramids of Giza. As per the report, it is projected that by 2100, the world shall forfeit around 50% of its glaciers (excluding Greenland and Antarctica), even if efforts to curtail global warming succeed in limiting the increase to 1.5°C. Consequently, nearly two billion individuals face the specter of adverse repercussions stemming from the retreat of glaciers, whereby the pace of ice melting exceeds that of replenishing snow.
As glaciers retreat, the long-term ice reservoir is depleted and gradually dispensed in the form of meltwater. The volume of water released amplifies until reaching a maximum threshold. After surpassing this tipping point, the volume of glacier meltwater progressively diminishes as the glacier continues to recede, elucidates the report. This detrimentally affects the availability of freshwater for humans and other species.
The fourth tipping point underscored in the report involves the escalating quantity of space debris, an issue of paramount importance that is regrettably not receiving due attention. More countries are launching satellites into space as technology advances rapidly and costs decrease. Although satellites play a crucial role in weather monitoring, early disaster warnings, and communication, their proliferation is accompanied by a corresponding increase in the debris they relinquish.
The report discloses that out of the 34,260 orbit-tracked objects, merely approximately 25% constitute operational satellites, while the remaining objects consist of debris, such as damaged satellites or discarded rocket stages. Additionally, there are an estimated 130 million undetectable debris fragments ranging in size from 1 mm to 1 cm. These fragments pose significant risks to existing satellites and the integrity of our orbital environment.
Once the number of objects in Earth’s orbit converges upon a critical juncture, wherein the collision between any two objects initiates a cascading sequence of collisions, the density of the orbit will reach an untenable level, rendering it nonviable.
The fifth tipping point pertains to an issue that India has been grappling with: soaring temperatures. As anthropogenic climate change engenders heightened temperatures, heatwaves of greater frequency and severity have emerged on a global scale. Over the past two decades, extreme heat has resulted in an average of 500,000 excess fatalities annually. Furthermore, it disparately impacts the most vulnerable demographics.
Presently, the maximum wet-bulb temperature that humans can endure stands at 35°C, designating the lowest temperature to which air can be cooled by evaporation under a constant pressure. The report postulates that by 2070, portions of south Asia and the Middle East will regularly surpass this threshold.
Moreover, the report elucidates that roughly 30% of the global population is subjected to deadly climate conditions for a minimum of 20 days per year, and this statistic may surge to over 70% by 2100.
Enduring above a 35°C wet-bulb temperature for periods exceeding six hours will lead to severe health consequences for healthy, young adults.
The final tipping point pertains to the financial toll inflicted by extreme environmental events. Since the 1970s, the global cost of disasters has witnessed a seven-fold increase. In 2022 alone, global economic losses stemming from such disasters amounted to $313 billion. The report cautions that the escalation in the severity of hazards can dramatically amplify insurance costs to the point where insurance becomes inaccessible or unaffordable. This will result in a lack of economic safety nets for individuals residing in high-risk areas, thereby fostering extreme socio-economic ramifications.
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