The numbers don’t lie: Humans are destroying this planet. Atmospheric carbon levels and ocean temperatures are rising. Arctic sea ice and biodiversity levels are falling – and no, it’s skyrocketing number of chickens does not count towards biodiversity.
To understand and tackle these problems, scientists and policymakers need data—precise numbers that show how Homo sapiens has transformed almost all of Earth in one way or another. To that end, a team of researchers has launched Human Impact Databaseor HuID, a collection of over 300 (so far) critical numbers, from sea level rise to the number of calories we as a species get from animal products.
“Getting the numbers straight is the first step in trying to understand these systems, and we can learn a lot just by looking at the numbers,” says Rachel Banks, a biophysicist at Caltech and the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub, and one of the leading authors of a paper describes the HuID, which is published today in the journal Patterns. “And certainly we will keep these numbers updated and continue to expand the database, but we will also try to understand the Earth’s systems better.”
It is worth spending time on go to the database and rummage around. Banks and her colleagues combed through all kinds of sources of information, from scientific articles to government reports, to find figures ranging from the measurement of atmospheric processes to energy consumption to mining. But if you spend enough time with HuID, you will find patterns. After all, Earth’s systems are closely interconnected. “It seemed to us that a couple of key narratives emerged and kind of tied the story together,” says study co-author Rob Phillips, a physicist at Caltech and the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub. “One of them is: What do we eat? And another is: Where do we get our water from? And then the last thing is about power. If you follow the three threads, it’s a big, huge part of the story.”
I got lost for hours in HuID. I’ve picked out 14 particularly powerful, important, or just plain fascinating indicators—along with the graphs from the report showing their growth over time—that I think help illuminate these three threads.
First of all: Global Warming
Thanks to humans burdening the atmosphere with excess carbon, the global surface temperature has risen steadily since 1850, as shown in the graph above. They are now about 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times. It is creeping up on the Paris Agreement’s optimistic goal of keeping the temperature below 1.5 degrees C and an absolute threshold of 2 degrees. But it’s important to note that we’re talking global averages – so some places are warming much faster than others. The Arctic, for example, is warming 4.5 times faster than the global average because as it loses more sea ice, the darker underlying water absorbs more of the sun’s energy.
Rising sea levels, from two angles
As temperatures rise, the melting of glaciers accelerates, driving sea levels up (shown in the graph above, expressed in millimeters above mean sea level since 1900.)