Amount of human-made items on Earth will soon outweigh all living biomass
Research suggests that for each person alive today, mass equal to more than their bodyweight is produced by humans every week.
A study suggests the mass embedded in human-made items – such as buildings, roads and machines – has doubled every 20 years for the past century years. The mass of these human-made objects could surpass the mass of all living things by the end of 2020.
These findings underscore the increasing impacts that humans have on Earth, researchers say.
According to the study, since the first agricultural revolution humans have halved plant biomass, from around 2 teratonnes (2,000,000,000,000 tonnes) to the current value of around 1 teratonne. This has been done through land-use changes such as agriculture and deforestation.
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The increasing production and accumulation of human-made objects – referred to as anthropogenic mass – has also contributed to a shift in the balance between living and human-made mass.
“We find that Earth is exactly at the crossover point," wrote the authors of the new study, published in Nature. “In the year 2020, the anthropogenic mass, which has recently doubled roughly every 20 years, will surpass all global living biomass.
“On average, for each person on the globe, anthropogenic mass equal to more than their own bodyweight is produced every week.”
Ron Milo, from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and colleagues estimated changes in global biomass and human-made mass from 1900 to the present day.
They found that at the beginning of the 20th Century, the mass of human-produced objects was equal to around 3 per cent of total biomass.
But today, human-made mass exceeds the overall global biomass, weighing in at around 1.1 teratonnes, according to the new study.
Over this period, overall biomass decreased slightly, whereas anthropogenic mass has increased rapidly and is now being produced at a rate of more than 30 gigatonnes (30,000,000,000 tonnes) per year, where a gigatonne is one-thousandth of a teratonne.
Buildings and roads make up the majority of human-made mass, with other examples including plastics and machines.
Changes in the composition of this mass correspond to specific construction trends, such as the shift from using bricks to concrete in buildings from the mid-1950s and the use of asphalt for road paving in the 1960s. The researchers also suggest that shifts in the total anthropogenic mass are linked to major events, such as continuous increases in construction after the Second World War.
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The authors note that the exact timing of crossover is sensitive to definitions, so there may be some variability in the estimates. They used dry-weight estimates – excluding water, but they suggest wet-mass estimates or different definitions of mass categories could still place the transition in mass balance within the past, present or future decade.
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If current trends continue, human-generated mass, including waste, is expected to exceed 3 teratonnes by 2040, the researchers suggest.
“This study joins recent efforts to quantify and evaluate the scale and impact of human activities on our planet," wrote the researchers.
“The impacts of these activities have been so abrupt and considerable that it has been proposed that the current geological epoch be renamed the Anthropocene.
“Our study rigorously and quantitatively substantiates this proposal.”
In what ways are humans making the Earth less habitable?
Humans have thrived on the Earth for more than 200,000 years, but we have caused significant environmental damage – threatening the basic resources needed for the survival of our species, including water, air, soil and food.
By burning fossil fuels, we’ve sparked a rapid increase in global temperatures, which is predicted to cause a raft of issues from rising sea levels to more intense droughts and heatwaves. Intensive agriculture, deforestation and overfishing have damaged ecosystems and threaten many plant and animal species that we – and other species – rely on. We’ve contaminated our air and water with harmful gases, heavy metals, plastics and other pollutants. A growing population could exacerbate the problem.
But all hope is not lost. Tangible solutions to slow or even halt these trends are within our reach. Clean energy sources promise to replace fossil fuels; more sustainable agricultural practices might ensure our planet continues to feed us; and less wasteful consumption could preserve precious resources such as water.
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.
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