Courtesy Worldmapper.org / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(There are a lot of challenges to supporting seven billion people. Want to know more about that? Check out the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, where folks are working to find solutions to some of those problems.)
That's all fascinating and all, but...what about me? Luckily, the BBC has come to the rescue with a lovely little interactive that's, well, all about me. Or you. Whatever.
For example, according to the BBC calculator,
Not too shabby!
To give you a sense of just how fast our population is growing, here's a crazy little fact: by mid-century, the world's urban population will equal the size of the world's global population in 2004. Wow. Cities are efficient, and concentrate us so that we can use land for other purposes, but they're also ecological hotspots. Curious about how your household measures up? Try the household flux calculator, or check out the Q&A with Scientist on the Spot Daniel Nidzgorski.
Oh, and let us know: #whatsyournumber ?
You've probably heard that we (the Earth's 7 billion humans) are headed towards a global population of 9,000,000,000 (billion!) people. And because you're smart, you've probably wondered how we're going to feed the extra 2 billion future folk.
When we're not great at feeding the current population...
... it's hard to imagine throwing another 2 billion human beings in the mix is going to make the whole situation much better.
Thankfully, a bunch of smart peeps are looking into a solution to the world's food problem, including this guy Jon Foley and his team. They argue that there isn't one silver bullet solution. Instead, they're looking for the "silver buckshot" solutionS. Neat idea, right?
Check out this TEDxTC video of Jon sharing his thoughts on the matter:
Courtesy NASAThe signs were all there. Exploding melons. Numerological nonsense. It all added up to the obvious conclusion that the apocalypse was happening on Saturday, May 21. And so I spent the day standing on my roof, naked except for a cat-filled backpack, to make the rapture go more smoothly.
And yet ... at the end of the day, there I remained, sunburned, wet, and with a very angry cat on my back. What went wrong?! It was all there! It all made sense! But where were the crashed cars? Where were the half-eaten Kraft dinners? Where were the out of bounds shuttlecocks, and the badminton racquets dropped in mid-swing? How could math have betrayed us so. Math, the universe's most boring and reliable tool. Math, the rubber mallet of the cosmos. Math, why have you forsaken us? Where was the two hundred million-person elevator into the sky?
But wait! With a little thought, and the easiest of math, I came to a realization! The End of the World™ happened after all, we just didn't notice it!
You probably don't think about it that much, but there are, like, a ton of people on the planet. Like a billion. No, like seven billion (6.92 billion, to be precise). That is a huge number! Humans are a big deal precisely because there are so many of us! It's like Growing Pains says: we got the world spinning right in our hands!
Let me show you something:
Now let me show you something else:
Notice the difference? No? That's because the second group of i's has only 3% fewer i's. 200,000,000 raptured people are only 3% of the world's massive population! Slightly less, even! No wonder why we didn't notice them missing. I mean, of the 5,303,925 people in Minnesota alone, only 159,117 are gone now. That's like the St. Cloud metro area. No offense if you're still there, St. Cloud, but would we even notice it missing? Has anyone checked on St. Cloud in the last couple days?
So, what I'm getting at is that everything went just as planned. Even though we're at a paltry world population of 6.72 billion people right now, with our current growth rate of about +80 million a year, we should be back up to last Friday levels in just two and a half years! Nothing to worry about! (Except the energy, food, water, and waste issues that come up on a planet with seven billion or more people. But still. Hooray!)
Courtesy SchuminWebBuckle up, because this is a long post. But it’s about your second favorite thing: food. If you’re the impatient type, skip to the end for the bullet points.
(The number one thing is Hollywood gossip, duh. Go on and act like it’s not.)
So … imagine you and six of your friends standing in a room together. I know some of you don’t have six friends (Facebook doesn’t count), but for the sake of science pretend that you do. And I don’t know why you all are just standing around in a room. Trying to prove a point, I guess.
Imagine you and six of your friends are standing in a room together. Now, imagine one hundred times that number of people. Now imagine one hundred times that number. And one hundred times that number. And a thousand times that number.
That’s seven billion people, all just sort of standing around a room, and that’s about the number of people we have on the planet today.
And the thing is, all seven billion of y’all eat like Garfield. (Garfield, for all of you foreign Buzzketeers, was the 20th president of the United States, and he loved lasagna.) Seven billion people, eating, eating, eating. That’s you.
Obviously y’all have to eat, so we put a lot of effort into producing food. Right now, humans have used up about 40% of the planet’s land surface, and the vast majority of that is dedicated to agriculture (i.e., food production). In fact, if you were to take all the crop-growing land in the world and lump it together, it would be the size of South America. And if you were to take all of the pastureland (land for raising animals) in the world and lump it together, it would be the size Africa!
That is obviously a lot of land. The transformation of that land from its natural state into agricultural land may be responsible for about a third of all the carbon dioxide mankind has released into the atmosphere. And each year agriculture is responsible for more than 20% of all the new greenhouse gas emissions. And the whole process takes 3,500 cubic kilometers of water, and hundreds of millions of tons of non-renewable fertilizers, and lots of people don’t have enough food …
But we’re pretty much doing it. It’s not pretty, but we’re feeding the planet.
Here’s the punch: there’s a lot more people coming soon, and not much more food. By 2050, there will very probably be about 9 billion people on the planet. How are we going to feed 2 billion more people than are alive today? While there is a lot unused land out there, very little of it is arable. That means that we’ve already used up almost all of the land that’s good for growing food.
What we need to do is produce more food with just the land we’re already using. Fortunately, scientists are working on ways to do this.
I’m going to get the first one out of the way right now, because you aren’t going to like it …
Eat less meat. Eat a lot less meat.
Don’t get me wrong—I agree with you that meat is delicious and manly (or womanly), but we eat a lot of meat, and raising meat animals is a really inefficient way to get food. To get lots of meat, and to get the animals to grow quickly, we feed them grains that we farm. But to get just one pound of beef (not one pound of cow; one pound of beef) we have to feed a cow about 30 pounds of grain. Say what you will about meat being calorically more dense, it doesn’t have 30 times the nutritional value of grain.
If you look at the maps that compare the volume of crops we grow to the volume of crops we actually eat, you find that places like North America and Europe actually use most of their crops for something besides directly eating—mostly because we’re feeding them to animals (and using them for biofuel feedstock).
Leaving alone the amount of water animals need, and the pollution they can cause, eating meat doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So there you go. I told you that you wouldn’t like it. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one causing the problem—the rest of the world, as it gets wealthier, wants to eat as much meat as you, and so unsustainable meat production is on the rise for just about anyone who can afford it.
Ok, here’s the next idea:
Cut it all down, and turn the planet into one big ol’ farm.
Courtesy Jami Dwyer
We aren’t going to be growing crops in the arctic any time soon, but there are areas we could take advantage of still. Like the tropical forests. We could bulldoze those suckers down, and use the land for crops.
This, of course, is a horrible solution, and I snuck it in here just to bother you. Even if you don’t prioritize the biodiversity of the world’s tropical forests, or the ways of life of the people who live in them, tropical forests play a huge role in keeping the planet a livable place. So we should table that one for a while, unless you really, really want to bulldoze the rainforests.
And then there’s this idea:
Grow more food on the land we’re already using.
Of course! Why didn’t we think of this before?!
Well, we did think of this before, about 60 years ago. Back in the middle of the 20th century, populations in developing countries were exploding, much faster than food production was increasing. Trouble was on the horizon.
And then … Norman Borlaug came along. Of course, lots and lots of people helped deal with the food crisis, but Borlaug was at the center of what became known as the Green Revolution. He worked to build up irrigation infrastructure (to water crops), distribute synthetic fertilizers (mostly nitrogen chemically extracted from the atmosphere), and develop high-yield crop varieties that would produce much more food than traditional crops, when given enough fertilizer and water.
Courtesy University of Minnesota
Now, some folks point out that the Green Revolution had plenty of environmental and social drawbacks, but the fact remains that it also kept millions upon millions of people from starving. And Borlaug himself said that while it was “a change in the right direction, it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”
The change in the right direction part is what scientists are working on now.
Researchers at organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) are figuring out implement the sorts of things Borlaug worked on more fully, and more efficiently.
By combining satellite data with what can be observed on the ground, IonE is determining exactly where crops are growing, how much each place is growing.
They can then compare this information with estimates of how much each place could grow, given the right conditions. The difference is called a “yield gap.” What it will take to close the yield gap, and get area place growing as much as possible, differs from place to place. But IonE is trying to figure that out too—some places need more water, and some need more nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium fertilizers.
Knowing how much of a particular resource a place needs, and what the food payoff will be when it receives those resources is a big step in working up to feeding nine billion people. It’s not the last step, not by a long shot, but it provides an excellent map of where future efforts would be best invested.
Aaaaannnnd … the bullet point version for you osos perezosos out there:
Courtesy Andreas Trepte
Climate change. Rising seas. GMOs. Humans have such an incredible impact on Earth's environment that it's clear we're now the dominant force of change on Earth. This situation has even led some scientists to rename this geologic epoch the Anthropocene, or the human epoch. But as we alter, tweak, and pollute more each year, what will it mean for the survival of other species into the future?
According to Dr. Stephen Kress, they can look forward to human stalkers and creepy mechanical scarecrows. Kress began his career in the islands along Maine's coast during the late 60s and early 70s. In response to the loss of bird species diversity on many islands, he decided to start a human-led migration program that would move puffins to some of the islands. Puffins had once been abundant in the area, but their population dwindled due to overhunting and egg harvesting.
Still others accused Kress of trying to play God. “We’d been playing the Devil for about 500 years,” says Tony Diamond, a Canadian seabird researcher who has collaborated with Kress for decades. “It was time to join the other side.”
(same article as above)
Amid the skepticism of fellow scientists and the stubbornness of birds, Kress persevered and now boasts growing puffin populations on a few islands. But after several attempts to set natural protections and population controls in place, including a mechanical scarecrow to ward off predators, Kress and assistants continue to monitor and protect the puffins themselves. It's the only way they can maintain the new populations. After all, in a human-dominated environment, we get all the benefits and all the responsibilities--a job some might conclude is for the birds.
We are as gods and have to get good at it.
Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline
Courtesy Alaina B. (Flickr)
Cheeseburgers. Watermelon. Grilled corn-on-the-cob. As the promise of warmer weather inches increasingly closer, I’m already dreaming of my favorite summer foods. (I mean, really, aren’t you?? Bet you are now…)
The world’s population is reaching 9 BILLION people, and we all have to eat! (I know, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”) In the United States, almost everyone eats incredibly well by world standards. Globally, many families are lucky to share a bowl of rice for dinner. Meanwhile, crop yields aren’t keep up with increasing demand, so world food prices are rising everyday. The developing world already experiences a food shortage, but even in the developed West, we are not completely insulated against the effects of an escalating population on global food supply. Science confirms what our guts and pocket books are already telling us – we can’t keep biggering our population without seriously thinking about how we grow and eat our food.
So what are we going to do?? Don’t despair. Thankfully, great minds are thinking about the global food crisis and considering how to ensure food security throughout the world. Many of these ideas are published in Science magazine’s recent food security issue. Scientists play an important role in boosting crop yields by researching crops and farming methods that: 1) use little water, 2) don’t deplete the soil of nutrients, and 3) increase how much food is grown per seed. Engineers and technicians are also aiding the process: plant breeders are now using robots to streamline breeding programs, which allows researchers to introduce cool new traits that allow crops to fight fungi, weeds, and viruses that threaten to wipe out entire crops (in honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2010, remember the Irish Potato Famine?).
Caution! Myth-busting ahead: Fertilizer is the often-suggested solution to the global food crisis, but scientists say we only need to look as far as China to see why that’s not a solution, but rather part of the problem. China consumes 36% of the world’s manmade fertilizer, making it the world’s largest user. Nitrogen is a major component of fertilizer. Nitrogen is what scientists call a “limiting nutrient” meaning “the nutrient is rare, but plants need a minimum amount to live.” Research in China has shown that sometimes there is too much of a good thing; too much fertilizer actually causes healthy soil to get sick from a nitrogen overdose.
Ensuring the world’s food security poses cultural, economic, and psychological challenges as well as scientific ones. Solutions discussed in Science’s special issue include promoting traditional mixed crop-livestock systems, local development of relevant technologies, and eating less meat. One alternative suggested that’s going to (literally) be hard to swallow: substituting African caterpillars instead of steak and other meaty favorites. (I think that’s going to be a tough sell…)
You don’t have to go too far to find people tackling the problem of food security. Right here in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscape Initiative (GLI) program has a focus on agriculture and food systems. By studying how people use land for farming and other practices, GLI is seeking to understand how we might make better use of land to create a brighter future for humankind and the environment. Recently they made a sweet YouTube video to pose the BIG Question: Feast or Famine? I highly recommend you check it out:
Many bird populations across North America have declined in recent years and researchers have been busy trying to determine why populations of birds are declining.
Courtesy West Coast Birding
My research focuses on factors that could affect survival of birds during the breeding season. The breeding season is an important time for birds because this is the time when individuals have an opportunity to raise young and the ability to successfully raise young can have a big effect on the bird population. However, producing young can be quite difficult for birds. In fact, the number one factor that affects the ability of birds to raise young is nest predation. Nest predation occurs when a predator, such as a chipmunk or squirrel eats the eggs or young in a bird’s nest. But do all birds have an equal chance of survival during the breeding season? Research suggests that the chance of survival for a bird’s nest is not equal and chances for survival change during the breeding season. Why might survival change during the breeding season? I have some ideas or hypotheses that might explain why survival changes during the breeding season. I am investigating whether plant cover, food resources for predators, temperature, or number of predators affects the ability of songbirds to raise their young.
When birds build their nests, they often hide them in plants to reduce the chance that a predator will find their nest. But many birds begin building their nests early in the spring and in early spring we often notice that plants and flowers in the forest are just starting to grow. So birds building their nests during this time have fewer plants to hide their nests in which could make their nests more visible to predators, such as chipmunks and squirrels. Because plant cover may be a key factor preventing predators from eating the eggs or young in a bird’s nest, I experimented with plant cover to test the importance of plant cover. I removed plant cover around Wilson’s Warbler nests and compared the fate (i.e., were the parents able to raise their young) of these nests to nests that did not have plant cover removed. I also measured plant cover at nests of Wilson's Warblers and Dusky Flycatchers and compared the amount of plant cover to the fate of each nest.
In addition to seasonal changes that we see in plants, the amount of food available in the forest for critters to eat also changes as we move from spring to summer to fall. Early in the summer, there may be less food available for the predators because pine cones and seeds from other plants are not yet available. If predators such as chipmunks, mice, or jays have less to eat they spend more time looking for food to eat in the forest. The increase in time spent searching for food could also increase the chance that one of these predators will find a bird nest and eat the eggs or young in the nest. Because the amount of food available might affect survival of a bird’s nest I conducted another experiment to find out if this was the case. I provided food (sunflower seeds and corn) to predators to see if providing extra food to predators will increase the ability of birds to raise their young.
Determining how both vegetation and food affect survival of bird’s nests during the breeding season is challenging but fun because I am able to experiment with nature and find out what happens. As a scientist I am like a detective trying to figure out why bird populations are declining. Finding the answer is challenging and exciting, but hopefully we will find an answer that will prevent further losses of our bird populations.
So, you know those images of polar bears standing on the edge of ice sheets, looking sad because the ice is shrinking, and they need that ice to, you know, stay alive? You know what I’m talking about.
Well… it turns out that shrinking ice may be the least of their worries.
Oh, this is bleak. Two genital-based posts in a row? I don’t like it any more than you do, and I know you don’t like it. But we’re being beaten down and overwhelmed by genitals in the news, and we can’t ignore the news.
So, yes, after millennia of fearlessly swimming in an ocean of ice water, the mighty polar bear is finally suffering from shrinkage. But this isn’t one of the many problems that global warming can solve—this little situation is being caused by pollution, not cold water.
Y’all know about bioaccumulation and biomagnification? Toxic compounds can be found at very low concentrations in the environment, but still end up at dangerously high levels in certain plants and animals. This is caused by organisms taking in toxins faster than they can get rid of them, and by animals eating lots of other animals or plants that already have toxins in them. That’s what’s happening in the arctic. Tiny organisms are absorbing certain organic pollutants from the environment, and those organisms are getting eaten by tiny fish, and those tiny fish are getting eaten by bigger fish, and so on until big fish, with lots of the pollutants stored up in their bodies get eaten by an animal that doesn’t often get eaten by anything else, animals like killer whales, arctic foxes, or polar bears.
Biologists studied preserved polar bear genitals (penises, testicles, and ovaries) collected between 1999 and 2002, and found that individual bears with higher concentrations of these organic pollutants (called “organohalogens”) consistently had smaller bits and pieces. The organohalogens act like hormones in the bears, and we all know the amazing things hormones can do.
Now we must ask ourselves that age old question: “What does this mean for the bears?” Well, it seems that bears can’t rely on personality alone for successful mating. Polar bears don’t reproduce that often in the first place, and shrinking reproductive organs (in both boy-bears and lady-bears) is only going to make things trickier. And then there’s that whole ice-shrinking thing, which has probably taken a back seat in the minds of young bears everywhere.
In related news, a couple of polar bears at a Japanese zoo were having trouble conceiving until their handlers finally realized that they were both female. (I imagine that they would still have trouble conceiving, but I think the pressure is off now.) Apparently telling male and female bears apart is difficult as it is.
Courtesy BluedharmaWay-hey-haaaiit one second there! Why did I write that headline? That seems a little incendiary for a reasonable proposal from a national hero, JGordon. We had better think things out a little more before we write them down.
So, Buzz Aldrin is in the news. The science news, anyway. The 78-year-old former astronaut—the second man to set foot on the moon—is suggesting that the first manned mission to Mars should leave its astronauts on the planet for good. With all of the expense and effort that a Mars mission would take, he believes that even spending a year or a year and a half on the red planet wouldn’t be worth it. The astronauts, he says, should go with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, like pioneers.
Eventually the first men and women on Mars could be joined by others, forming a colony of perhaps 30 scientists. After a few decades, when they reach 65 or so, they could retire on Mars, or perhaps get picked up by a ship and returned to earth.
What about that, Buzzketeers? Think about spending the rest of your life on Mars, with just a few people to keep you company (except for, you know, radio communication). Kind of a crazy idea, but kind of awesome, I think. Think about what that’d be like—the isolation, low gravity, greater exposure to cosmic rays (that’s bad)… but a whole new planet!
Would any of you guys be willing to go to Mars, if it meant you’d be leaving the earth forever?
As I entered college in the fall of 1967, the population of the United States reached 200 million. Now, 40 years later, it will hit 300 million (about Oct. 15).
Our population is effected by deaths, births, and migration. Here are the current rates for each:
The U.S. Bureau of the Census has a website projecting the current resident population of the United States (click link for today's number). At 300 million, the United States is the world's third most populous nation, though it remains far behind the growing economic superpowers of China (1.31 billion) and India (1.09 billion).
Now, according to the Population Reference Bureau, almost half of all children under age 5 are members of a racial or ethnic minority.