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This article is from the In-Depth Report Earth Day at 40: New Perspectives on the Planet's Health

State of the Planet: A Snapshot [Audio Slide Show]

What is the state of our planet, its health and the impact humans have had upon it? Based on maps from the Atlas of Global Conservation, Scientific American brings you the global perspective on our planet in this multimedia presentation.

 

Transcript:

This is the Earth. We share this planet with nearly two million species of plants and animals. At least, that's how many have been identified so far. Scientists still routinely discover new species.

As the following maps from the Atlas of Global Conservation reveal, humans are responsible for some 140,000 species disappearing each year. That's why some scientists call the present era the Anthropocene, or the era of humanity. We are the dominant force on the planet—for good and for ill.

One of the primary reasons for this is numbers. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were only one and half billion people on the planet. Today, there are nearly seven billion. Population growth rates have slowed, but we can expect nine billion people by 2050.

It's not just sheer numbers, of course. It's also consumption. The richer denizens of the world consume more of everything—from water to precious metals. As a result, much of the world bears the imprint of human activity, whether that be plastic pollution in the middle of the ocean or cleared forests for farmland.

It's that need for agriculture that is the primary driver of habitat fragmentation, which is, in turn, the primary reason that so many of our fellow species are dwindling. Their homes have either disappeared or shrunk as agriculture spreads.

But we're also having outsize impacts on planet-size systems, like the climate. That's thanks to us burning fossil fuels—adding one extra molecule of CO2 for every 10,000 molecules of air over the last 300 years.

That seemingly small addition means big change for potentially every living thing on the planet. And there's less biodiversity around to help animals and plants adapt to this changing world, again due to our impact on the planet's lands and waters. But there are still places here with a rich tapestry of unique flora and fauna.

And there are more and more areas of land permanently protected, in an attempt to allow natural spaces to be themselves, whether that's parts of the Amazon rainforest or the Tibetan Plateau. Some 15 million square kilometers are now protected, meaning we've left a little space for our planet-mates. After all, this is the only planet we've all got.

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