International Year of Planet Earth
12-13 February 2008
Earth resources: Threat or Treat?
Science, Society, and the Future of Earth’s Resources
Mark Myers, Director, U.S. Geological Survey
Event protocols, greetings. Calnan to advise on scene.
>> Title slide
Good morning. I’m honored and very pleased to speak to you today.
From the dawn of time, humans have regarded earth’s resources as a boundless treat that, if exhausted in one area, could be found again elsewhere.
The threat to earth’s resources today - from climate change and from the
demands of a rapidly growing global population - has no historical parallel.
>> Slide 2 Humans become Agents of environmental change
. The impact of humans on the planet has expanded to the extent that we live in what could be called the “Anthropocene” – a new geologic epoch in
which humankind has emerged as a globally important force capable of reshaping the earth, capable of depleting or threatening many of the earth’s
>> Slide 3 Night light produced largely from fossil fuels
. We are now in a situation of relatively rapid climate change in which we know with certainty that we will be crossing thresholds beyond which ecosystems, and the services they provide, will be irreversibly changed. Climate change will directly and indirectly threaten the stability of natural resources and human well-being.
>> Slide 4 So far in the Antropocene…
. If we do not focus on sustainable management of our earth’s resources, the
resource treats that we have enjoyed in the past undoubtedly will become a more and more of a threat for people in many nations.
. To better understand the threat posed to earth resources by climate change and a rapidly growing global population, let’s begin by looking at three familiar categories of resources – energy and minerals; water; and biological resources.
Anthropocene concept: Paul Crutzen, in Nature, Jan. 02. Geology of mankind.
Drawing from the works of hundreds of researchers, the “Global Change”
study (Steffen et al. 2004; Chapter 3) concluded that perhaps 50% of the world’s
ice-free land surface has been transformed by human action; the land under cropping has doubled during the past century at the expense of forests, which declined by 20% over the same period. More than half of all accessible freshwater resources have come to be used by humankind. Fisheries remove more than 25% of the primary production of the oceans in the upwelling regions and 35% in the temperate continental shelf regions (Pauly and Christensen 1995).
Steffen,W. et al., eds. 2004. Global Change and the Earth System. Heidelberg: Springer.
Humans as geologic agents: A deep-time perspective
Bruce H. Wilkinson
Department of Geological Sciences, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA
Humans move increasingly large amounts of rock and sediment during various construction activities, and mean rates of cropland soil loss may exceed rates of formation by up to an order of magnitude, but appreciating the actual importance of humans as agents of global erosion necessitates knowledge of prehistoric denudation rates imposed on land surfaces solely by natural processes.
Geology; March 2005; v. 33; no. 3; p. 161–164; doi: 10.1130/G21108.1
>> Slide 5 Energy and Mineral Resources
. Modern society is increasingly dependent on non-renewable mineral and fossil energy resources.
. Economic and population growth of less developed countries functions as a relatively recent but quickly growing push factor on global demand.
. Still, no global shortages of non-fuel mineral resources expected in near future.
. Despite predictions during last 40 years that at some future time the world will run out of oil, such dire observations may be irrelevant as the production of fossil fuels from unconventional sources - such as natural gas hydrates, tar sands, coal bed methane – become economically viable.
. Responsible extraction of any of the earth’s natural resources – from coal
to gold to gas hydrates – requires a rigorous commitment to sustainable
development from economic, environmental, and socio-cultural perspectives.
. As the USGS Director, I’m proud to point out that our organization continues to conduct two of the world’s most respected sources of
authoritative, unbiased about minerals and energy resources:
+ USGS Global Mineral Resource Project
+ USGS World Petroleum Assessment
>> Slide 6 Water Quality and Availability
. The combination of climate change, population growth, and greater use of irrigated agriculture has resulted in increased stress on water resources around the world. Water has emerged as a global issue that requires international multi-disciplinary cooperation on assessment, research, and management. The problem is exacerbated with the expansion of population centers in water-scarce regions, such as in central Mexico, southern India, and southeast Australia.
. In order to avoid situations where water becomes an increased threat rather than remaining a treat, an interdisciplinary and transboundary focus is required.
. The UNESCO International Hydrological Programme (IHP) focuses activities on water research, water resources management, education, and capacity-building with a recent shift to improving the management of water within the context of environmental sustainability. The U.S. government and the USGS strongly support these UNESCO initiatives.
The US strongly supports the IHP VII themes of Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change on River Basins and Aquifer Systems; Strengthening Water Governance for Sustainability; Ecohydrology for Environmental Sustainability; Water in Support of Live Systems; and Water Education for Sustainable Development. On June 1, 2006, the Department of State submitted to Congress its initial report on water issues in developing countries under the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act 2005, marking the beginning of a long-term process to develop and implement a strategy to strengthen U.S. efforts on international water issues. This Act, signed into law by President Bush on December 1, 2005, makes access to safe water and sanitation for developing countries a specific policy objective of U.S. foreign assistance programs. The US also recently has taken the initiative to propose the creation of at least one US based UNESCO Category II Center.
The responsibility of the U.S. Geological Survey is to support U.S. foreign policy through the implementation of its national and international programs. Current US program priorities focus on advocacy, research, and capacity-building based on the thematic areas of safe drinking water, global climate change, and water hazards. In order to aid in the implementation of US foreign policy the USGS provides technical assistance and promotes scientific and technical exchange globally focusing on aspects of resource assessments, droughts, floods, land use change, climate change, desertification taking a multi-disciplinary approach and encourages sustainable management of the earth’s resources. The USGS also has taken the initiative to lead the US National Committee of the International Hydrologic Program and is participating in other UN programs such as ISARM, IFI, and GRAPHIC and UNESCO Category II Centers.
>> Slide 7 Biological Resources
. Climate change coupled with global population growth present unprecedented threats to the world’s biological resources. Here are a few
. Increased Desertification. Overgrazing by herd animals, wild and domestic, coupled with the overuse of soil for crops results in the removal of soil nutrients which can damage to soil surface structure.
. Increased Floods. Floods resulting from changed rainfall patterns will impact fisheries and aquatic systems, their productivity and diversity.
. Increased Storm Intensity. An increased trend in sea-surface temperature during the 20th century has been more pronounced in the past 35 years. Increased sea-surface temperatures have implications for producing hurricanes with greater intensity and increased coastal vulnerability in the future.
. Loss of Biodiversity. Changes in climate influence the size of plant and animal populations, which in turn affects the distribution and abundance of species, and ultimately ecosystem structure and function.
. Loss of Reef Building Corals. The destruction of coral reef ecosystems would expose coastal populations to flooding, coastal erosion, and the loss of food and income from reef-based fisheries and tourism.
Biological soil crusts play an important role in desert ecosystem stability, including their influence on soil fertility and stability. Effects of overgrazing and climate change (increased temperatures, altered precipitation regimes) on the structure and function of these soil crusts reduce their ability to anchor the soil and provide nutrients.
Many ecosystems are highly vulnerable to the projected rate and magnitude of climate change. Furthermore, many attributes of individual animal species, their size, shape and color, and their feeding and reproductive behaviors, are adapted to the climatic conditions in which they live.
Coral reefs are fundamental to the healthy ecosystems that support important biodiversity and fisheries. Yet seventeen authors of a recent publication in Science conclude that the corals could begin to disappear in
50 to 75 years due to steadily warming temperatures and increasing ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide emissions.
>> Slide 8 Understanding Earth Systems
. [Optional segue. Speaker’s discretion] At this point you may be thinking
ahead to what further categories of threatened earth resources I might present before I come to a welcome conclusion. We’re not quite there yet.
. “Ecosystem” is the term for an integrated system of organisms interacting
with their physical environment. Resilient, functioning ecosystems ….
+ build fertile soil
+ enhance pollination of crops
+ purify water
+ regulate the atmosphere
+ detoxify waste
. These types of earth resources are not so easily categorized into conventional categories or analyzed by traditional science disciplines.
. The essential point that I want to make today, a perspective that I support very strongly, is that all of earth’s resources are interrelated.
. In this first decade of the 21st Century, we face many threats to earth resources that have sustained us in the past: threats on a global scale such as climate change, drought, natural disasters, deforestation, competition for energy and mineral resources. Additionally, there are important human health impacts that are tied to the quality of our air and our water.
. These problems cannot be solved by individuals – or groups of nations.
We are all at risk. And we must act together to mitigate and adapt to that risk.
. At USGS, we’ve developed a science strategy that we believe will help our
organization – and our country – address complex environmental problems.
. Our strategy is based on a systems approach to evaluate broad causes and consequences of the use and management of natural resources and earth processes.
>> Slide 9 [GEO diagram]
. In this slide supplied by GEO (Group on Earth Observation), we see a rough illustration that hints at the complexity and the interrelated quality of Earth’s natural systems coupled with interactions of human activity.
>> Slide 10 USGS Science Strategy Directions
in our science . There are six interrelated thematic components - directions –
strategy that you see listed in this slide.
. The interaction, correlation, and interplay of these directions both reflect and reveal the complexity of the Earth’s natural, physical, and life systems.
. They describe the breadth of our systems approach that calls upon the full range of USGS science capabilities.
. This comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach pays dividends in making our science more relevant to environmental issues in public policy.
. Because climate affects all life on earth, the expanded USGS climate studies are closely linked to ecosystem, health, water, hazards, and energy issues.
. The USGS energy and minerals strategy will be enhanced and broadened to deal not only with resource availability, but also with a broad spectrum of related land, water, and environmental concerns.