Human Disruption to Earth’s Freshwater Cycle Has Exceeded Safe Limit

A rice field sits dry and damaged while it should be submerged in water. Extreme heat and the lack of rainfall in Italy are creating increasing difficulties for farmers and ranchers, with one estimate saying 50% of the harvest could be written off at a loss. (Photo by Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via AP, June 23, 2022)

As human activity continues to disrupt the planet’s ecosystems, researchers are working to keep pace with changes that can threaten the preconditions for modern civilization in the Earth system. One of these areas of change is green water, the rainwater available to plants—a fundamental resource, as plant life is necessary for human life, and plants contain about 80 percent of all carbon stored in living creatures. But in a new study, we authors found that widespread pressure on green water has crossed a critical limit.

The planetary boundaries framework—a concept that scientists first discussed in 2009—identified nine processes that have remained remarkably steady in the Earth system over the last 11,700 years. These include a relatively stable global climate and an intact biosphere that have allowed civilizations based on agriculture to thrive. Researchers proposed that each of these processes has a boundary that, once crossed, puts the Earth system, or substantial components of it, at risk of upset.

A comprehensive scientific assessment in 2015 found that human activity has already breached four of the planetary boundaries, something that is unprecedented in human history and a grave threat to life on Earth. Greenhouse gas emissions are brewing a hotter climate, the sixth mass extinction of species is unpicking the web of life that makes up the global biosphere, intensive farming is polluting the environment, and natural habitats are being destroyed on a significant scale. Earlier in 2022, researchers announced that a fifth planetary boundary had been crossed with the emission and accumulation of chemical pollution and plastics in nature.

So far, it has been suggested that human use of “freshwater” is still within safe limits globally. But earlier assessments only considered the extraction of what is called blue water—that which flows in rivers and resides in underground aquifers. Even then, regional boundaries have already been crossed in many river basins due to a sixfold increase in the extraction of blue water over the past century. Besides irrigating crops to sate growing demand from people and livestock, population growth and higher standards of living have raised global domestic and industrial water consumption, disrupting aquatic ecosystems and decimating the life within them.

By including green water in our assessment, we found that freshwater’s ability to sustain a stable Earth system is even more threatened than first reported. As such, green water must be explicitly included in the planetary boundary of the freshwater cycle, which reframed from “Freshwater use” to “Freshwater change”, allows us to understand the full extent of human-driven disruption to the water cycle.

The crossing of planetary boundaries could destabilize humanity’s safe operating space in the Earth system. (Figure designed by Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Wang-Erlandsson et al., 2022, Persson et al 2022, and Steffen et al 2015.)

Red alert for green water

Radiation from the sun evaporates green water in the soil, cooling the environment and returning moisture to the atmosphere where it forms clouds and rain. Moisture transportation of green water from the land accounts for 40 percent of precipitation on land. This cycle sustains some of Earth’s most important ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest, which makes up roughly 40 percent of global tropical forest, stores roughly 112 billion tonnes of carbon, harbors 25 percent of land-based life, and encompasses many areas essential for biodiversity.

Research shows that clearing forests reduces the flow of moisture to the atmosphere, dampening how efficiently the Earth system can circulate water and ultimately putting ecosystems like the Amazon at risk of collapse. Global heating and changes to how the land is used, especially deforestation, are among the biggest factors responsible for humanity’s transgression of this planetary boundary. (At 3-4 degrees warming or 40 percent deforestation, the Amazon forest risks being pushed beyond a tipping point toward large-scale degradation to a savannah-like state.) Their combined influence indicates that the planetary boundaries interact and need to be treated as one networked system.

Food production also depends on green water. Around 60 percent of staple food production globally and 80 percent of cultivated land is rain-fed. In these areas, the only water reaching the crop is what rain provides. Even irrigated crops rely on rain to some extent.

We found that since the industrial revolution, and especially since the 1950s, larger parts of the world are subject to significantly drier or wetter soil. This shift towards extreme conditions is an alarming development due to the indispensable role of water in maintaining resilient societies and ecosystems

More frequent and severe dry spells mean prolonged and more intense droughts in many regions, like those currently affecting Chile and the western United States. This limits photosynthesis in plants, which absorb less of the CO₂ heating Earth’s atmosphere. The land carbon sink, which currently soaks up about 30 percent of annual CO₂ emissions, is weakened as a result, and could even become a net source of carbon in the future.

Too much soil water is no good either. Water-saturated soils make floods more likely and suffocate plant growth. Abnormally large quantities of water evaporating from wet soils can delay the onset of monsoons in places like India, where the dry season has extended and disrupted farming. High humidity combined with high temperatures can also cause deadly heatwaves, as the human body quickly overheats when sweating becomes impossible in very moist air. Several regions, like South Asia, the coastal Middle East, and the Gulf of California and Mexico, are experiencing this lethal combination much earlier than expected.

What can be done?

Growing scientific evidence suggests that the planet is both drier and wetter than at any point within the last 11,700 years. This threatens the ecological and climatic conditions that support life. Changes to the green water cycle, in particular, present acute and immediate threats to food security, among other impacts.

Our analysis shows that the sixth planetary boundary has been crossed. But ambitious efforts to slow climate change and halt deforestation could still prevent dangerous changes to the cycling of Earth’s green water. Along with other measures, switching farming practices to sustainable alternatives would prevent more soil being degraded and losing its moisture. Research has shown that farming is a major cause of multiple planetary limits being breached. Shifting diets towards sustainable plant-based food is a simple yet highly effective option for keeping humanity within these boundaries.

More broadly, explicitly governing green water is a necessary step. A green water planetary boundary can help to advance Earth system governance through policy, regulation, and programmatic interventions. Green water considerations can be mainstreamed into international sustainability policies and treaties, and efforts should be made to include them in the next iterations of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Paris Agreement.

Operationalizing it requires articulating concrete policy targets and management approaches at a sectoral, national, regional, city, or business level. Concrete opportunities for green water management include rainwater harvesting, soil erosion prevention, peatland water management, and other sustainable land management practices.

A green water planetary boundary would not only propose a more accurate limit for human disruption to the freshwater cycle, it would also help to advance governance actors’ understandings of the interconnected nature of planetary boundaries. A green water planetary boundary does not replace, but usefully complements, other green water management metrics by accounting for green water’s role in supporting the Earth system to remain in conditions that have supported human life for the last 11,700 years.

Our analyses suggest that humanity is no longer in the safe zone with regard to green water. Immediate action is needed to restore and maintain a resilient and nourishing freshwater cycle.

A version of this article was first published by The Conversation.

Arne Tobian is PhD Candidate in Planetary Boundaries, Stockholm University. Dieter Gerten is Working Group Leader, Terrestrial Safe Operating Space, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Lan Wang Erlandsson is Researcher and Theme leader, Anthropocene Dynamics, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.