As part of the Climate Desk partnership, this article was originally published by the Guardian and is being reprinted here.
Scientists have warned that phosphogeddon is coming to our globe. Scientists worry that our misuse of phosphorus may result in deadly fertilizer shortages that would impair the supply of food around the world.
At the same time, phosphate fertilizer from fields poured into rivers, lakes, and oceans together with sewage inputs, causing massive algal blooms and aquatic dead zones that endanger fish stocks.
Researchers have also warned that overuse of the element is boosting methane emissions globally, contributing to the climate problem and global warming caused by carbon emissions.
According to Lancaster University professor Phil Haygarth, we have reached a crucial turning point. We might be able to go backward, but we really need to get our act together and use phosphorous much more wisely. If we don’t, we’ll experience what we’ve dubbed “phosphogeddon” as a catastrophe.
The German scientist Hennig Brandt found phosphorus in urine in 1669, and it has since been established that phosphorus is vital to life. The mineral calcium phosphate and a molecule produced from it make up the majority of bones and teeth, and the element also gives DNA its sugar-phosphate backbone. Prof. Penny Johnes of Bristol University stated that phosphorus is essential for life on Earth.
The utilization of the element to promote crop development is what gives it global significance. The 8 billion people on the planet are fed in large part by the 50 million metric tonnes of phosphate fertilizer that are sold annually throughout the world.
However, only a few nations have major phosphorus resources; the highest amounts are in Morocco and Western Sahara, with China having the second-largest deposit and Algeria having the third-largest. While Britain has always been forced to rely on imports, American reserves are down to 1% of prior levels. According to Johnes, conventional rock phosphate sources are scarce and have been exhausted as a result of their extraction for fertilizer manufacturing.
This increased strain on inventories has fuelled fears the globe would approach peak phosphorous in a few years. When supplies start to run low, many countries will struggle to find enough to feed their citizens.
The likelihood that a few cartels will eventually control the majority of the world’s supplies and leave the west extremely vulnerable to rising costs worries many observers. The result would be the phosphate equivalent of the oil crisis of the 1970s.
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov very succinctly described the situation: Life can proliferate until all the phosphorous is gone, and then there is an inexorable standstill that nothing can stop.
The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance, written by environmentalist Dan Egan, was released in the US last week, further bringing attention to these risks. Although the book has not yet been released in the UK, it reflects recent worries expressed by British scientists.
They say we have become profligate in the usage of phosphates we put on our fields. When fertilizer washed off of them and phosphorus-rich effluent was released, it contaminated large areas of water and led to toxic algal blooms. The largest freshwater bodies in the globe, such as Lake Erie in North America, Lake Victoria in Africa, and Lake Baikal in Russia, are currently affected. Recent years have seen the local drinking water become contaminated due to blooms at Erie.
Phosphates encourage aquatic plants in growing just like they do on land, according to Haygarth, a co-author of Phosphorus: Past and Future. And the effects of that are now catastrophic in rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Several of these bodies of water have been choked by blooms, turning into dead zones where few organisms remain and are growing. For instance, the Gulf of Mexico currently experiences one dead zone each summer.
These crises also result in further environmental issues. According to Prof. Bryan Spears of the UK Institute for Ecology & Hydrology in Midlothian, warming circumstances will result in more algal blooms per unit of phosphate pollution.
The issue is that when that alga perishes, it could decompose and release methane. Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere, therefore an increase in blooms will result in more methane being pumped into the atmosphere. It warrants serious worry.
In a recent paper titled Our Phosphorus Future, which was written by a team that includes Haygarth and Johnes, Spears outlined the steps that would be required to prevent our approaching calamity. They include enhancing phosphorus recycling techniques and ensuring a global shift to nutritious diets with small phosphorus footprints.
According to Johnes, the element’s global distribution shows how significantly humans are currently changing the composition of our planet. One scenario involves the excavation and burning of prehistoric coal, oil, and gas resources, which releases billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.
With regard to phosphorus, we too mine mineral deposits, but this time we convert them into fertilizer that is then washed into rivers and seas, where it causes algae blooms. In both instances, these massive translocations are wreaking devastation on the earth.