Humans are massively accelerating climate change

Humans are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces, according to researchers from the Australian National University. Elsewhere, scientists have recently discovered high concentrations of pollutants in the most remote parts of Earth. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

While climate change has natural causes, humans are massively accelerating it. (Image credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman)

The impact that humans are having on climate change has now been given a formula after scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra succeeded in describing the impact of human activity on the Earth with a mathematical equation.

Known as the Anthropocene equation, the researchers calculated that humans are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces.

“More like a meteorite strike”

“Over the past 7,000 years the primary forces driving change have been astronomical – changes in solar intensity and subtle changes in orbital parameters, along with a few volcanoes,” said Will Steffen from the Climate Change Institute at ANU. “They have driven a rate of change of 0.01 degrees Celsius per century.”

But over the past 45 years, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have increased the rate of temperature rise to 1.7 degrees per century – 170 times faster than natural forces.

The natural forces have of course not disappeared, “but in terms of their impact in such a short period of time they are now negligible compared with our own influence,” Steffen said.

The magnitude of human-induced climate change looks more like a meteor strike than a gradual change.

Mathematical equation gives clarity

The Australian scientists, whose work was published in the journal The Anthropocene Review, hope that the relatively simple equation “gives the current situation a clarity that the wealth of data often dilutes.”

These figures should also act as a wake-up call for humanity because while there is still a chance to prevent catastrophic climate change, time is rapidly running out.

“The global economy can function equally well with zero emissions. Research shows we can feed nine billion people – the projected world population by 2050 – and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time,” said Steffen.

Even the deepest reaches of the ocean are polluted

The extent and severity of human-induced pollution is also revealed in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Not only have scientists discovered extremely high concentrations of industrial pollutants in deep-sea crustaceans, but the pollution was detected in the most remote parts of our planet: the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana and Kermadec trenches – which are over 10 kilometres deep and 7,000 kilometres apart.

According to the scientists, the small crustaceans from the two trenches contain ten times the level of industrial pollution than the average earthworm.

Not a great legacy

“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth,” said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University, who led the research.

Two of the toxins discovered in the crustaceans were banned in the 1970s, demonstrating that these pollutants can travel over long distances as well as long periods of time.

“It’s not a great legacy that we’re leaving behind,” Jamieson said.

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