If there’s anything humanity is becoming increasingly aware of this century, it’s our impact on the environment. But while many of the frightening environmental reports we’ve received are visceral and easy to understand, some are far more subtle. A new study out of Israel, for example, says that—likely during this year—the mass of material made by humans will exceed all the biomass on Earth.
The Guardian reported on the new study, undertaken by a team of scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in the city of Rehovot. Professor Ron Milo at the University’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department led the study published in Nature, and gives an overview in the video above.
As Milo says, he and his team calculated the amount of “anthropogenic” mass on Earth, and the planet’s biomass. The scientists define the anthropogenic mass as any belonging to anything produced by people. For example, phones, cars, or buildings.
3/ We demonstrate that the combined mass of all buildings and infrastructure outweighs that of all trees and shrubs pic.twitter.com/O3wMMlI0eF— Milo Lab @WIS (@MiloLabWIS) December 9, 2020
The biomass, on the other hand, is the total mass of all the organic matter on Earth; e.g. plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. Milo and his colleagues only included dry biomass, however, subtracting out water content. (The scientists likely used dry biomass as the metric because moisture content of biomass varies greatly depending on its environment.)
In essence, the team wanted to find out when exactly anthropogenic mass would outweigh biomass. This was an inevitability, Milo says, as we humans are cranking out “artifacts” at an accelerating rate. Meanwhile, the overall amount of biomass, conversely, remains fairly constant. In fact, for each person, on average, two times their weight in anthropogenic mass is created per week.
Weizmann Institute of Science
Lo and behold, the scientists found Earth’s anthropogenic mass would outweigh its biomass in the Year of Terrors 2020. (Give or take six years, which, on a geological timescale, is nothing.) Regarding actual weight, humanity has produced (or is about to have produced) 1.2 teratonnes of mass, versus nature’s one teratonne of biomass. For reference, a teratonne is one trillion metric tons.
As for the effect the scientists hope the study will have, you guessed it: they want humanity to be more cognizant of its impact on the environment.
“The study provides a sort of ‘big picture’ snapshot of the planet in 2020,” Milo said in a press release from the University. “This overview can provide a crucial understanding of our major role in shaping the face of the Earth in the current age of the Anthropocene,” he added.
To help people understand just how big humanity’s “footprint” is on Earth, the scientists have also launched a website, Anthropomass.org. The site is a delightful guilt trip, which will show you how quickly we humans are turning nature into stuff.
Feature image: Weizmann Institute of Science