Earth has failed 6 out of 9 vital signs, and humans are no longer in 'safe operating space'

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulSep 15, 2023 | 14:25

Earth has failed 6 out of 9 vital signs, and humans are no longer in 'safe operating space'

Earth is teetering on the brink of a perilous precipice, as a recent study reveals that six out of nine crucial measurements assessing the planet's health are exceeding what scientists have deemed the "safe operating space for humanity".

To put it bluntly, our planet's vital signs are showing severe distress, with only three of these critical metrics remaining within acceptable limits.



Earth isn't exactly in the best shape and its high time there was a planetary check-up. This stark warning comes from a group of international scientists who have published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

The significance of these nine factors was established in 2009 by Professor Johan Rockstrom and other researchers.

  • They represent the key determinants of Earth's fate, and as the recent study reveals, the planet is failing to manage them effectively.
  • The interconnectedness of these factors is striking; when one deteriorates, it can exacerbate other environmental issues.

Let's break down those nine parameters...


Earth's climate is one of the most well-known areas of concern.

  • Rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to drive global temperatures upward.
  • The Paris Climate Agreement set a target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
  • However, as of the study's publication, CO2 levels in the atmosphere had surged to 424 parts per million, far above the safer threshold of 350 parts per million.


Biodiversity, which refers to the variety of life forms on Earth, is another critical area where our planet is faltering.

  • The loss of species and ecosystems is occurring at an alarming rate due to factors like habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change.
  • Despite its significance, biodiversity often receives less attention than other pressing environmental issues, such as climate change.


Land degradation is another pressing concern.

  • Unsustainable land use practices, deforestation, and soil erosion are robbing the planet of its capacity to support life.
  • This degradation of land affects food security, water resources, and contributes to the loss of biodiversity.


Access to clean freshwater is essential for human survival and biodiversity.

  • However, freshwater systems are under duress due to pollution, over-extraction, and the impacts of climate change.
  • Many regions around the world are grappling with water scarcity, which can lead to conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Nutrient pollution

  • Excessive nutrient pollution, primarily from agricultural runoff and wastewater, is contaminating water bodies.
  • This pollution fuels harmful algal blooms, disrupts aquatic ecosystems, and poses health risks to humans.

'Novel' chemicals

  • The proliferation of human-made compounds like microplastics and nuclear waste poses significant threats to the environment.
  • These substances can persist in ecosystems for extended periods, impacting both wildlife and human health.

Okay, but here's a ray of hope amid all the doom and gloom...

Ocean acidity

One relatively bright spot is the acidity of the oceans, which remains within safe boundaries.

  • However, this metric is not immune to negative trends.
  • Ocean acidification can harm marine life, particularly organisms like corals and shellfish, which rely on calcium carbonate to build their shells and skeletons.

Air quality

  • The quality of the air we breathe is another area where we are staying within acceptable limits.
  • Nevertheless, air pollution remains a concern in many parts of the world, affecting human health and ecosystems.

Ozone layer

  • The ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation, is also currently in a relatively safe state.
  • However, it is vital to maintain the restrictions on ozone-depleting substances to prevent any deterioration in this critical shield.

So, in a nutshell, Earth's in a bit of a pickle. And to make matters worse, these nine factors are interconnected. Mess up one, and it's like a domino effect on the others.

But, there's hope

The study does highlight a potential glimmer of optimism.

Computer simulations demonstrated that one of the most potent ways humanity can combat climate change is by restoring forests to levels observed in the late 20th century.

  • Forests act as natural carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby mitigating its warming effects. This underscores the importance of conservation efforts and reforestation initiatives.
  • Biodiversity, despite its critical role in maintaining ecosystem health and resilience, often remains overshadowed by more prominent environmental issues like climate change.
  • Professor Rockstrom emphasises that the state of biodiversity should command greater attention and concerted efforts, as it plays a pivotal role in the overall health of our planet.

The study's findings present a sobering reality check. Earth is straining against the boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity. Urgent and coordinated action on a global scale is required to address these interconnected challenges and ensure a sustainable future for both the planet and its inhabitants. We've got to step up our game and take care of this beautiful blue marble we call home. 

Last updated: September 15, 2023 | 14:25
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