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40 years. That is the estimated time window we have left to turn the boat around and solve the great global challenges like climate change, loss of biodiversity and ocean acidification according to researchers from Helsinki University. If we keep doing business as usual, Earth as we know it will dramatically change. There will be floods and other extreme weather phenomena, conflicts due to massive amounts of climate refugees and mass extinctions of plants and animals. All of this during our lifetime! It is fair to say that the Earth is now at a tipping point.
The greatest concerns of scientist can be summarised into four categories:
1) The melting of the Arctic summer ice and Greenland, causing more land to be exposed and thereby reinforcing the warming due to more absorbed sunlight. This would destroy the arctic ecosystems, have severe geopolitical consequences (=conflicts) as well as cause a rise in the sea level. It is estimated that the melting of Greenland alone could cause a sea level rise of up to 7 meters.
2) Extreme weather events become more frequent. Since the world oceans absorb 90 % of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases, the ocean dynamics that control El Niño events are altered. This in turn would lead to even more frequent extreme droughts, flooding and hurricanes than today.
3) The Amazon rain forests turn into savannah grasslands. This is something that can happen rapidly once initiated and researchers estimate that the transformation can take place with just a 10 percent decrease in the forest cover. The reason is that water is lost from the system when trees disappear, and the system then enters a "bad loop". The Amazon hosts at least 10 % of the world´s biodiversity.
4) The destruction of boreal forests. The altered climate in the northern hemisphere is likely to take its toll on our forests. Boreal forests store large amounts of carbon in the soil which could be set free if the permafrost melts, resulting in feedback loops between climate and forest. Climate change will also affect fire frequency and severity in the boreal areas.
The good news is we can still do something about this. Here are some things:
1. Cut the methane emissions. Methane is a short lived, more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This problem could be solved almost immediately by switching to a plant based diet since livestock production (cattle) accounts for about 35 percent of the total anthropogenic methane emissions.
2. Cut the carbon footprint. This is especially true for the biggest emitters China, USA and Europe (not looking to good for the US with Trump retreating from the Paris agreement though). Fly less, switch to non-fossil energy and have less children.
3. Stop cutting down forests. Rainforest nations should be awarded for preserving their forest. It is certainly in the interest of everyone that forest have a higher value alive than dead since global deforestation accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
40 years people, 40 years. If you can do something, I suggest you do it starting from today.
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The contributors to this blog are the marine biologists Maria Koivisto (left) and Anu Riihimäki (right).