The new database quantifies the human impact on the environment

If you’re in a major city in the world, it’s probably quite easy to grab a cheap burger from a nearby fast-food restaurant. But what you may not realize is that the meat in that cheap burger can actually illustrate a great narrative about how humans shaped the planet. From the land used to raise cattle for meat consumption, to the water used to feed that cattle, to the fuel used to transport beef around the world, human progress that allows us to easily buy a hamburger and, for that matter. ,, getting on a plane, charging our phones and taking part in the multitude of activities that make up our daily experiences: it has changed the biosphere.

Now, Caltech researchers have developed a database containing global data on how humans have affected the planet. The human impact database is designed to be accessible to scientists, policy makers and ordinary citizens and provides information ranging from global plastic production (4 x 1011 kilograms per year), to the number of cattle on Earth (approximately 1.6 billion ), to the average annual rise in sea level (about 3.4 millimeters per year). The data is divided into five main categories: water, energy, flora and fauna, atmospheric and biogeochemical cycles, and earth. These also include 20 sub-categories. Where available, the database includes time series to help illustrate how these numbers have changed over the years.

The project was conducted in the laboratory of Rob Phillips, Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics, Biology and Physics; and led by former graduate students Griffin Chure (PhD ’20) and Rachel Banks (PhD ’22). An article describing the research appears in the journal Models on August 3.

The team hopes that by having access to simple numbers on human impact, citizens and scientists can develop a data-driven insight into how the world works and make more informed decisions.

“For example, a friend texted me asking me how to compare the impact of dairy cattle with beef cattle,” says Chure. “We can use our database to understand that, in terms of soil needs, greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption, beef cattle have an impact greater than a factor of five or more per calorie. We really hope this database is useful. both for ordinary citizens trying to make decisions and for people thinking about politics. I consider literacy with numbers as a prerequisite for being informed, whether you are a citizen or a scientist. “

The project takes into consideration the impact of man on the entire planet rather than sorting by country or region.

“For the most part, we deliver global values,” explains Banks. “We also collect data from all sorts of different sources: scientific articles, government and intergovernmental reports, and in some cases industry reports. We have made an effort to see how well these reports align. If we have multiple sources, we report more than one. value for a number to give us a better sense of certainty about the value. “

There is a long tradition in the sciences of creating databases that contain key quantities in physics and chemistry. Inspired by this work, in 2009 Phillips and collaborator Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel developed the BioNumbers website, a publicly available site where researchers can find quantitative data on various aspects of biology from the scientific literature, such as the number of proteins involved in a particular biochemical process. The human impact database brings those same motivations to the study of the many ways humans interact with the earth, oceans and atmosphere.

During his doctoral work, Chure made frequent references to BioNumbers, but realized that it would be useful to have a database focused specifically on quantifying the impact of human activity on planetary-scale processes. He began developing the human impact database during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the project has had a greater impact on him than he bargained for.

“From a personal point of view, this project completely changed my life. It changed the direction of my science,” says Chure. “I am confident that I will spend the rest of my scientific career focusing on how humans are changing biology. This can range from considering the huge amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus we dump into coastal watersheds and how this changes the microbial composition of these ecosystems. , to how we artificially evolve chickens to grow their meat faster than their bones can handle, for example. From a personal standpoint, this has really refocused what I care about and what I think I can do. to make an impact. “

The team points out that the database is not complete or exhaustive; they plan to continually update the numbers as new data comes out.

“In my opinion, the root of understanding is mathematics: Once you have the numbers, it becomes clear which problems are, which things are significant and which are less significant, “says Phillips.” Charles Darwin once remarked that mathematics gives a ‘sixth sense’. The human impact database is a first step in providing a coherent invitation to that sixth sense in the context of the great human experiment. “

The project was funded in part by Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute. “Projects such as the Human Impact Database are a unique resource that can help experts and the general public to put a clearer perspective on the various ways people are impacting the planet,” says Neil Fromer, executive director of programs. at the RSI. “Supporting the development of this tool, along with the other incredible research that the Resnick Sustainability Institute supports on campus, is critical to realizing our mission of educating and informing people about their impact on the world, as well as providing solutions to the problems these impacts. they are causing “.

The article is titled “Anthroponumbers.org: A Quantitative Database Of Human Impacts on Planet Earth”. Chure and Banks are the lead authors of the study. In addition to Phillips, other Caltech co-authors are postdoctoral scholar Avi Flamholz and graduate students Nicholas Sarai and Ignacio Lopez-Gomez. Other co-authors are Mason Kamb of the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub and Yinon Bar-On and Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Funding was provided by the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech and the Schwartz-Reisman Collaborative Science Program at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

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