Seven Biggest Environmental Threats

Sally Painter
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.

1. Climate Change

According to the Global Risks Report 2019 from the World Economic Forum, environmental concerns have been gaining on concerns over economic issues as the prominent risks people face. Increasing incidents of extreme weather events are blamed on climate change cited as a top concern.

  • 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 warned how extreme events could disrupt food production and cause famines.

NASA Confirms Increase in Carbon Dioxide Levels

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. Causes cited were the burning of fossil fuels, intensive agriculture and other human activities.

Increase in Global Temperatures

The increase of carbon dioxide levels are blamed for 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 the length of growing seasons, adds NASA.

2. Species Extinction and Biodiversity Loss

Global Risks Report 2018 further states 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, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Greater preservation tactics and strategies are advised with more 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.
  • Many causes are attributed to consumer demands as people branch out into areas that were once home to various species.

Hope for Endangered 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 of bald eagle left. As of 2015, there were over 69,000 eagles in the United States!

Bald Eagle Population Increase

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.

World Air Pollution

Factory and waste water discharge

92% 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.

Air Pollution Significant Decline in United States

The 2019 EPA annual report, Our Nation's Air reveals the air pollution for the United States had been on a steady decline since 1990. Significant drops in air pollutants contrast sharply with an increase in human activity and energy use.

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 are affected by toxins.

Nutrient Pollution

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.

Consumer Pollution

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 Loss

Water shortage occurs due to physical lack of water. In most cases it is due to careless overuse. People extract 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.
  • 80% water loss is reported in developing and emerging countries.
Climate change drought land

Drought and High Temperatures Deplete Water Supplies

Physical water shortage occurs during prolonged droughts and rising temperatures. The United Nations (UN) states an increase in population further strains the water reserves.

Developing Nations Suffer From Water Shortages.

About two billion people in the world, most of whom live in developing nations suffer from water shortage. It's believed that climate change can make this trend worse. Large lakes are drying up which impact not just people but also vegetation and wildlife.

Economic Shortages

"Central Asia, the Arab world, parts of China, India, and the western United States" suffer from water shortage according to DW (Deutsche Welle). This can have devastating social and economic consequences, affecting livelihoods dependent on water, and even lead to conflicts and displacement of people.

Mismanagement Blamed for Water Shortages

The UN points out that in most places suffering from water shortage are the result of mismanagement. This type of problem 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.

Consumer Demands vs Natural Resources

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.
  • Human requirement of renewable goods in one year needs 1.5 years to produce.
  • In the fishery industry, 63% the world's marine life is over-fished with few to no renewable methods in place warns Greenpeace.

6. Deforestation Impact

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.

Wildfire in Brazil's Amazon Rainforest

Reuters reports that the deforestation of Brazil's Amazon rainforest in August 2019 contributed to a 5% increase in the deforestation. In October 2019, the total year-to-date deforestation for that region was up a total of 83%.

World's Forests

The remaining word's forests which cover 30% of the land are threatened by deforestation. National Geographic reports that forests are cleared mainly for agriculture and logged for timber.

Far-Reaching Consequences of Deforestation

scenery view of deforestation

Deforestation leads to loss not just of biomass and plant species, but also of habitats of animals. Deforestation is also said to be a driver of climate change as trees that normally absorb carbon dioxide are no longer there. A region that loses its biodiversity, becomes more vulnerable to other environmental elements.

Natural Ecological Balance Disrupted

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. The soil degradation causes are soil erosion, soil compaction and the application of agricultural chemicals.

  • Soil erosion 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 in areas where the land is over-grazed.
  • Soil destruction is caused by heavy tillage characteristic of industrial agriculture, explains Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Results of Soil Degradation

The various results of soil degradation can have devastating impacts on all life. The land must recover, sometimes that is almost impossible.

  • 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.

One-Third Global Soil Degraded

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 1,000 years to form 3 cm of topsoil, the current rates of degradation are unsustainable.

Earth's Seven Biggest 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.

Seven Biggest Environmental Threats