Seven Biggest Environmental Threats

Vijayalaxmi Kinhal
Environmental Pollution Concept

The seven biggest environmental threats to the Earth are issues every person should understand. Once understood, you may choose to take action to see that these threats are eventually eliminated.

Earth's Seven Biggest Environmental Threats

Examination of the various threats to the Earth's environment includes human impact on the planet. Catch phrases such as carbon footprint, global warming, deforestation, and other commonly used terms have become the everyday jargon for those concerned about the environment.

1. Climate Change

According to the Global Risks Report 2018 from the World Economic Forum, environmental concerns have been gaining on concerns over economic issues as the prominent risks people face. Climate change, and extreme weather events which are increasing due to climate change, are cited as the top concerns clarifies The Guardian.

  • Rain and storm winds blowing trees
    Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural events like droughts, wildfires, heat waves, rainstorms, tropical cyclone, and hurricanes, explains the Scientific American.
  • The Global Risks Report 2018 notes that extreme events could disrupt food production and cause famines.

NASA confirms that the amount of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased "from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years", due to burning fossil fuels, intensive agriculture, and other human activities. This has resulted in an increase of global temperatures by one degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Besides increasing extreme weather, this rise in temperature also has raised sea levels by 1-4 feet since 2010, caused Arctic ice caps to shrink, and increased growing season adds NASA.

2. Species Extinction and Biodiversity Loss

Global Risks Report 2018 notes that biodiversity loss due to species extinction is considered a risk not just for the environment but also the global economy. An alarming rate of species extinction is happening worldwide. The human induced rate of species loss is estimated to be around 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate, reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Greater preservation tactics and strategies are needed with laws put into place to protect species.

  • Rhino and zebra in grasslands
    Intensive agriculture, unsustainable fishing, wildlife poaching, habitat degradation and destruction, acid rain, and climate change are threatening thousands of species according to The Guardian and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
  • All causes are created by consumer demands as people branch out into areas that were once home to various species.

However, there is hope. An example of successful endangered species preservation is the American national symbol, the bald eagle. In the 1960s, there were only 487 nesting pairs left. As of 2015, there were over 69,000 eagles in the United States. This increase in the bald eagle population demonstrates how threatened species can be brought back from the brink of extinction. More and more animals and other forms of wildlife are being added to the endangered species list each year. It makes sense to become better land stewards, instead of encroaching on forests and wetlands.

3. Air and Water Pollution

Air, water, and land pollution has been named as one of the prominent risks in the Global Risks Report 2018. Pollution has been the unwelcome byproduct of industrial development in the past century. While there are nine kinds of pollution, air and water pollution have the most alarming consequences.

  • Factory and waste water discharge
    Air pollution: Ninety-two percent of the world population lives in areas with polluted air which causes 11.6% of global recorded deaths, points out World Health Organization. Air quality is particularly bad in cities, and this situation is going to get worse as more people move to cities.
  • Water pollution: The Global Risks Report 2018 points out that plastic pollution is so great that micro-plastics is found in 83% of tap-water in the world. Chemical pollution from agriculture and industries is another problem where plants and animals are killed or affected by toxins. In addition nutrient pollution from fertilizers, households, and other sources end up in lakes, ponds, and the oceans to cause eutrophication. In the oceans nutrient pollution together with global warming has caused 500 dead zones where there is no oxygen reports Mongabay.

Consumers are also responsible via industry for hundreds of hazardous chemicals used in the production of various products. Heavy metals continue to contaminate land, water, and air. The power of a consumer can be mighty when each person in the world realizes that action can be taken and changes made by carefully choosing how each consumer dollar is spent.

4. Water Crisis

The WWF lists water scarcity as one of the major environmental threats. All the continents are affected by a water shortage. Though the earth's surface is covered 70% by water, only 2.5% is fresh water that people, plants and animals can use to survive points out the news organization Deutsche Welle (DW).

Water shortage occurs due to physical lack of water, but in most cases it is due to careless overuse. People are extracting water from groundwater-reservoirs and rivers, and demand is growing. Expanding agriculture alone uses 70% of this resource. Water is also lost through lost through leakages to the tune of 50% in the U.S. and 80% in developing and emerging countries.

  • Climate change drought land
    Physical shortage occurs due to prolonged drought and rising temperatures combined with increasing populations explains the United Nations (UN). About two billion people in the world, most of whom live in developing nations suffer from water shortage, and climate change can make this trend worse. Large lakes are drying up which impacts not just people but also vegetation and wildlife.
  • Economic shortage: "Central Asia, the Arab world, parts of China, India, and the western United States" suffer from water shortage according to DW. This can have devastating social and economic consequences, affecting the 75% of livelihoods which are dependent on water and even lead to conflicts and displacement of people.

The UN points out that in most places that suffer from water shortage, the problem is more that of mismanagement than a real lack of water; this is a problem that can be fixed and is also avoidable.

5. Natural Resources Drain

A growing world population might seem like an obvious threat to the environment. This is, however, also connected to the bigger threat of consumption that is far more complex and directly linked to the unique system of supply and demand. Consumption can vary on depending on income level, age, and gender points out the Australian Academy.

Consumers place more demands on the earth's natural resources as the population increases year after year. Compound this with each world government doing its own brand of commerce, many without environmental consciences, and you get the formula for environmental chaos and disaster. WWF rates natural resource use as a prominent threat, saying:

  • Aerial view tractor driving over dirt
    Just the use of land, which is finite, to produce renewable resources from farming, grazing, fishing, and forests goods is massive.
  • Humans requirement of renewable goods in one year needs one and half years to produce.

A prime example of higher consumption demands can be found in the fishery industry where 63% the world's marine life is over-fished with few to no renewable methods in place warns Greenpeace.

6. Deforestation

WWF considers deforestation a major environmental problem. The Global Risks Report 2018 notes that in 2016, 29.7 million hectares of forests were cut down. The remaining forests which cover 30% of the land are not safe either. National Geographic reports that forests are cleared mainly for agriculture and logged for timber. The Global Risks Report 2018 points out that 80% of the Amazon, the top terrestrial biodiversity hotspot, has been cleared to make way for pastures to meet international demand for meat.

Consequences can be far reaching.

  • scenery view of deforestation
    This leads to loss not just of biomass and plant species, but also of habitats of animals, as forests are home to 80% of animals.
  • Deforestation is also a driver of climate change as trees that normally absorb carbon dioxide are no longer there. When a region loses its biodiversity, it becomes more vulnerable to other environmental elements.
  • Deforestation disrupts the natural balance of ecological systems in the area where the trees have been harvested and far beyond. Food production can be impacted due to drought and erosion is directly linked to the loss of forests.

7. Soil Degradation

WWF includes soil degradation as an environmental threat. It results due to soil erosion, soil compaction and application of agricultural chemicals. Erosion of soil can happen due to wind or water, when the protective cover of forests and other vegetation is removed, and the topsoil is lost. Soil compaction occurs due to over-grazing and destruction of the soil structure due to heavy tillage that is a characteristic part of industrial agriculture explains Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Results of soil degradation include the following.

  • wide view of dirt area
    Soil loses its fertility and porosity, when the topsoil rich in minerals necessary to nourish plants, trees, and crops for their growth and survival, is lost and soils become compacted.
  • Soils are also less capable of supporting the beneficial microflora necessary for mineral cycling.
  • Compaction and loss of soil decreases the ability of the land to absorb and hold rainfall, which can cause soil drought and a decrease in recharge of groundwater reservoirs and rivers, affecting the hydrology of an area.
  • The soil removed is deposited as sediments downstream, excessive quantities of which can be polluting and harmful to fish and other aquatic life, reports FAO.

The Guardian reports that a third of the global soil is degraded. This includes "20% of the world's cropland, 16% of forest land, 19% of grassland, and 27% of rangeland". American Scientist points out that as it takes 1000 years to form 3 cm of topsoil, the current rates of degradation are unsustainable.

Significant Environmental Threats

While there are many other threats to the environment that have a significant impact, these are certainly the seven biggest environmental threats facing the world today. Learning what they are can make you conscious of things you can do to protect the Earth.

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Seven Biggest Environmental Threats