The human impact on earth
by Bob Holmes
Humans are undoubtedly the most dominant species the Earth has ever known. In just a few thousand years we have swallowed up more than a third of the planet's land for our cities, farmland and pastures. By some estimates, we now commandeer 40 per cent of all its productivity. And we're leaving quite a mess behind: ploughed-up prairies, razed forests, drained aquifers, nuclear waste, chemical pollution, invasive species, mass extinctions and now the looming spectre of climate change. If they could, the other species we share Earth with would surely vote us off the planet.
15,589 Number of species threatened with extinction
Now just suppose they got their wish. Imagine that all the people on Earth - all 6.5 billion of us and counting - could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let's not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses). Left once more to its own devices, Nature would begin to reclaim the planet, as fields and pastures reverted to prairies and forest, the air and water cleansed themselves of pollutants, and roads and cities crumbled back to dust.
"The sad truth is, once the humans get out of the picture, the outlook starts to get a lot better," says John Orrock, a conservation biologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. But would the footprint of humanity ever fade away completely, or have we so altered the Earth that even a million years from now a visitor would know that an industrial society once ruled the planet?
9.7 Average eco-footprint of a US citizen, in hectares
tomorrow dawns without humans, even from orbit the change will be
evident almost immediately, as the blaze of artificial light that
brightens the night begins to wink out. Indeed, there are few better
ways to grasp just how utterly we dominate the surface of the Earth
than to look at the distribution of artificial illumination
By some estimates, 85 per cent of the night sky above the European Union is light-polluted; in the US it is 62 per cent and in Japan 98.5 per cent. In some countries, including Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, there is no longer any night sky untainted by light pollution.
18.7 Percentage of Earth's surface affected by light pollution
"Pretty quickly - 24, maybe 48 hours - you'd start to see blackouts because of the lack of fuel added to power stations," says Gordon Masterton, president of the UK's Institution of Civil Engineers in London. Renewable sources such as wind turbines and solar will keep a few automatic lights burning, but lack of maintenance of the distribution grid will scuttle these in weeks or months. The loss of electricity will also quickly silence water pumps, sewage treatment plants and all the other machinery of modern society.
The same lack of maintenance will spell an early demise for buildings, roads, bridges and other structures. Though modern buildings are typically engineered to last 60 years, bridges 120 years and dams 250, these lifespans assume someone will keep them clean, fix minor leaks and correct problems with foundations. Without people to do these seemingly minor chores, things go downhill quickly.
The best illustration of this is the city of Pripyat near Chernobyl in Ukraine, which was abandoned after the nuclear disaster 20 years ago and remains deserted. "From a distance, you would still believe that Pripyat is a living city, but the buildings are slowly decaying," says Ronald Chesser, an environmental biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock who has worked extensively in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. "The most pervasive thing you see are plants whose root systems get into the concrete and behind the bricks and into doorframes and so forth, and are rapidly breaking up the structure. You wouldn't think, as you walk around your house every day, that we have a big impact on keeping that from happening, but clearly we do. It's really sobering to see how the plant community invades every nook and cranny of a city."
The area around Chernobyl has revealed just how fast nature can bounce back. "I really expected to see a nuclear desert there," says Chesser. "I was quite surprised. When you enter into the exclusion zone, it's a very thriving ecosystem."
The first few years after people evacuated the zone, rats and house mice flourished, and packs of feral dogs roamed the area despite efforts to exterminate them. But the heyday of these vermin proved to be short-lived, and already the native fauna has begun to take over. Wild boar are 10 to 15 times as common within the Chernobyl exclusion zone as outside it, and big predators are making a spectacular comeback. "I've never seen a wolf in the Ukraine outside the exclusion zone. I've seen many of them inside," says Chesser.
In contrast, places where native forests have been replaced by plantations of a single tree species may take several generations of trees - several centuries - to work their way back to a natural state. The vast expanses of rice, wheat and maize that cover the world's grain belts may also take quite some time to revert to mostly native species.
At the extreme, some ecosystems may never return to the way they were before humans interfered, because they have become locked into a new "stable state" that resists returning to the original. In Hawaii, for example, introduced grasses now generate frequent wildfires that would prevent native forests from re-establishing themselves even if given free rein, says David Wilcove, a conservation biologist at Princeton University.
In the oceans, too, fish populations will gradually recover from drastic overfishing. The last time fishing more or less stopped - during the second world war, when few fishing vessels ventured far from port - cod populations in the North Sea skyrocketed. Today, however, populations of cod and other economically important fish have slumped much further than they did in the 1930s, and recovery may take significantly longer than five or so years.
The problem is that there are now so few cod and other large predatory fish that they can no longer keep populations of smaller fish such as gurnards in check. Instead, the smaller fish turn the tables and outcompete or eat tiny juvenile cod, thus keeping their erstwhile predators in check. The problem will only get worse in the first few years after fishing ceases, as populations of smaller, faster-breeding fish flourish like weeds in an abandoned field. Eventually, though, in the absence of fishing, enough large predators will reach maturity to restore the normal balance. Such a transition might take anywhere from a few years to a few decades, says Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
With trawlers no longer churning up nutrients from the ocean floor, near-shore ecosystems will return to a relatively nutrient-poor state. This will be most apparent as a drop in the frequency of harmful algal blooms such as the red tides that often plague coastal areas today. Meanwhile, the tall, graceful corals and other bottom-dwelling organisms on deep-water reefs will gradually begin to regrow, restoring complex three-dimensional structure to ocean-floor habitats that are now largely flattened, featureless wastelands.
Long before any of this, however - in fact, the instant humans vanish from the Earth - pollutants will cease spewing from automobile tailpipes and the smokestacks and waste outlets of our factories. What happens next will depend on the chemistry of each particular pollutant. A few, such as oxides of nitrogen and sulphur and ozone (the ground-level pollutant, not the protective layer high in the stratosphere), will wash out of the atmosphere in a matter of a few weeks. Others, such as chlorofluorocarbons, dioxins and the pesticide DDT, take longer to break down. Some will last a few decades.
The excess nitrates and phosphates that can turn lakes and rivers into algae-choked soups will also clear away within a few decades, at least for surface waters. A little excess nitrate may persist for much longer within groundwater, where it is less subject to microbial conversion into atmospheric nitrogen. "Groundwater is the long-term memory in the system," says Kenneth Potter, a hydrologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
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