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World Phosphorus Use Exceeds Planetary Boundaries

Published On: 2/16/2011

A new paper in Environmental Research Letters reports that the upper tolerable limit for P input to freshwaters have been exceeded.

 
Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Elena Bennett of McGill University calculated the planetary boundary (upper tolerable limit) for the input of P to freshwaters using two water quality targets, 24 mg P/m3, a typical target for lakes and reservoirs, and 160 mg/m3, the approximate pre-industrial P concentration in the world’s rivers. Planetary boundaries were also computed using published estimates of current P flow to the sea. The authors report (Environmental Resource Letters 6 (2011) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014009) that the "planetary boundary for freshwater eutrophication has been crossed while potential boundaries for ocean anoxic events and depletion of phosphate rock reserves loom in the future."

The minable global stocks of phosphorous are concentrated in just a few countries and are in decline, posing the risk of global shortages within the next 20 years. Excess phosphorous in the environment is a problem primarily in the industrialized world, mainly Europe, North America and parts of Asia. In other parts of the world, notably Africa and Australia, soils are phosphorous poor, creating a stark imbalance. Ironically, soils in places like North America, where fertilizers with phosphorous are most commonly applied, are already loaded with the element.

Carpenter and Bennett argue that agricultural practices to better conserve phosphate within agricultural ecosystems are necessary to avert the widespread pollution of surface waters. Phosphorous from parts of the world where the element is abundant, they say, can be moved to phosphorous deficient regions of the world, which could mitigate eutrophication in some regions, increase agricultural yield in others, and delay or avoid global P shortage.





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