Powered by

Home Environment Stories

From space debris to melting glaciers: six interconnected risks threatening our world

UNU's new report warns of interconnected risks including losing home insurance, depleting groundwater, melting glaciers and space debris.

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
From space debris to melting glaciers: six interconnected risks threatening our world

The University of National Units (UNU) has issued a new report warning that humanity is nearing dangerous breaking points; these are specific and interconnected thresholds that, if crossed, could initiate unstoppable changes with irreversible and catastrophic repercussions for people and the planet.

United Nations researchers warn that there are certain risks such as the withdrawal of home insurance from flood-affected areas, and the depletion of groundwater, which is vital for the supply of communities and agriculture.

In addition to this, the report also issues warnings about the essential glaciers for the world's water supplies that are melting and getting lost. It also warns about space debris that could trigger a chain collapse of the increasingly structural satellite network in daily activities each time.

The report generally warns about multiple risks, including the acceleration of accelerated extinctions, depletion of groundwater, melting of mountain glaciers, space pollution, unbearable heat and an uninsured future.

"Jack O'Connor, a researcher at UNU and the author of the study, describes, “We are not taking actions to avoid reaching these critical points. Despite the warning signs, it seems as if we are rushing towards them. Scenarios currently present in reality include issues with groundwater supply, which 40% of global agriculture relies on and is depleting without natural replenishment. Communities in countries like Saudi Arabia, the United States, and India are already implementing more aggressive measures to access water, or they are importing food from other sectors.

Multiple fronts

The Interconnected Disaster Risks report identifies six major threats to the planet and humanity:

  • The high rate of species extinction
  • The over-extraction of groundwater
    The melting of glaciers
  • The extreme heat
  • Extreme weather events that make insurance unaffordable
  • Space junk orbiting the Earth

“The agency said, ‘We are moving dangerously close to the brink of multiple risk tipping points because we indiscriminately extract our water resources, damage nature, and pollute both Earth and space. These tipping points could destroy the very systems on which our lives depend."

Dr. Zita Sebesvari from the UNU Institute of Environment and Human Security said, ‘We are changing the entire risk landscape and losing our tools to manage it.’”

The authors have published the third edition of the Interconnected Disaster Risk report, which this year focuses on human and natural systems that could be on the brink of collapse. The authors describe in the report how humanity is pushing various systems it depends on to their limit and removing parts of them, like blocks of a tower, that could potentially lead to their collapse.

In some areas of California the ground has subsided by several meters due to aquifer depletion (USGS)

Species extinction risks ecosystem collapse

"O'Connor says, "We do not isolate these risks. Take the case of special debris for example, we put satellites into orbit without managing the debris left behind, risking active satellites. Specifically, the collision of this debris could trigger a chain reaction that could completely destroy the entire system, that would, for example, inhibit our ability to monitor water from space."

The report outlines risk tipping points, proposing a framework to lessen their impact. Solutions involve either avoiding root causes or adapting to risks if unavoidable.

Intense human activities—including land use change, over-exploitation, climate change, pollution and introduction of invasive alien species—have created a rate of species extinction at least 10 to 100 times Earth's natural rate.

Ecosystems are built on intricate connections between species. If one species goes extinct, it can have knock-on effects on many others. The risk tipping point in this context is when an ecosystem loses key species that are strongly connected, triggering cascading extinctions of dependent species, which can eventually lead to the collapse of an entire ecosystem.

The gopher tortoise, crucial for over 350 species such as the endangered dusky gopher frog for habitation, feeding and protection, is anticipated to go extinct. This could set off a domino effect, endangering the frog, which plays a vital role in controlling insect populations in longleaf pine forest ponds, possibly causing irreversible damage.

Groundwater depletion

The risk tipping point in this context is the loss of access to freshwater resources in underground reservoirs known as aquifers.

Over 2 billion people receive their drinking water from aquifers, and they use around 70% of the withdrawals for agriculture. Over half of the world's major aquifers are depleting faster than natural replenishment. The tipping point occurs when the water table falls below a level that the existing wells can access, risking failure of entire food production systems.

Groundwater depletion in India revealed by GRACE. Photo Credit: NASA/Flickr

Already, some countries have experienced the effects. In the mid-1990s, Saudi Arabia ranked as the world's 6th-largest wheat exporter because of a large-scale groundwater extraction process for irrigation. However, the wells ran dry, forcing the nation to import wheat.

Currently, India and other countries are nearing the risk tipping point. Expectations predict that these actions will cause a ripple effect on the world's food systems, economy and environment. These actions are affecting the structure of society, the well-being of future generations, and our ability to manage future agricultural losses due to climate change-driven drought.

Mountain glaciers melting

When the ice mass, formed many years ago, melts faster than snow replaces it, glaciers retreat. Global warming is causing the world's glaciers to melt twice as fast as they did in the past two decades. From 2000 to 2019, glaciers lost 267 gigatons of ice each year, an amount roughly equivalent to the mass of 46,500 Great Pyramids of Giza.

Glaciers hold large amounts of freshwater. Drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, and ecosystems in entire regions receive supply from the meltwater from glaciers and snow. "Peak water" represents the risk tipping point in this context—the moment a glacier creates the highest volume of water run-off because of melting. Freshwater availability will decline steadily after this point.

Melting glaciers above 5000 m altitude. Photo Credit: Imaggeo

Many small glaciers in Central Europe, Western Canada and South America have reached peak water, or experts expect them to reach it within the next 10 years. In the Andes, many glaciers have already passed their peak water, leading to communities grapping with unreliable water sources for drinking and irrigation. For instance, the Quelccaya glacier in Peru, once the world's largest tropical ice cap, has reduced by 31% in the last 30 years, contributing to periodic dry season water scarcity and widespread impacts.

Currently, an estimated 90,000+ glaciers of the Himalayas, Karakorum, and Hindu Kush mountains are reaching the tipping point of risk, threatening nearly 870 million people who rely on them.

Space debris

A garbage problem exists in space. This problem arises when satellites become defunct and remain in the Earth's orbit as space debris. Currently, tracking systems monitor 34,260 objects in orbit, and only about 25% of them are functioning satellites. The rest constitute of junk, including broken satellites or discarded rocket stages. Also, there are presumably around 130 million debris pieces too small to track, with the size ranging between 1mm and 1cm.

Space debris is travelling at over 25,000 km per hour, and even the smallest debris can cause significant damage if it collides with something, which creates even more debris. That's why other objects, like the International Space Station or satellites, have to regularly perform maneuvers to avoid it. As more and more objects launch into space, the problem of accumulating debris worsens.

In this context, the risk tipping point is the point at which the Earth's orbit becomes so full of debris that one collision triggers a chain reaction of collisions. Should this occur, it could render the orbit unusable, posing a threat to our ability to operate satellites used for monitoring the weather and environmental changes, as well as to receive early disaster warnings.

More than 100,000 new spacecraft could be launched into orbit by 2030, greatly increasing the risk of this tipping point.

Unbearable heat

Human activities are inducing climate change, which is causing global temperatures to rise and leading to more frequent and intense heat waves. Experts expect this will only become more severe. On average, extreme heat has caused 500,000 excess deaths annually in the last two decades, affecting those who are particularly vulnerable due to their age, health conditions or profession disproportionately.

Weather stations around the world have already recorded temperatures beyond the tipping point for what a human body can survive in. If a young and healthy body crosses this threshold for more than six hours, it will suffer extreme consequences.

Interconnected risks and space debris. Photo credit: James Wheeler/Unsplash

In this context, we call the tipping point a "wet-bulb temperature" above 35°C. Wet-bulb temperature combines temperature and humidity in its measurement. It is relevant because it exacerbates heat effects due to high humidity. High humidity hinders sweat evaporation necessary to keep a stable core body temperature and prevent organ failure and brain damage.

At least two weather stations, one in the Persian Gulf and one in the Indus River Basin, have documented wet-bulb temperatures crossing this critical threshold. Research suggests that parts of South Asia and the Middle East will start to surpass this threshold regularly by 2070. It's possible that by 2100, deadly climate conditions may expose more than 70% of the global population for at least 20 days per year.

Uninsurable future

Since the 1970s, weather-related disasters have caused a seven-fold increase in damages, with $313 billion in global economic losses occurring in 2022 alone. Forecasters predict that severe disasters will double globally by 2040. Moreover, as climate change shifts the range of hazards like wildfires and storms into new areas, climate experts predict an expansion in both the number and size of at-risk areas.

These changes also affect the insurance industry. Where extreme weather events increasingly wreak havoc, insurance premiums have climbed as much as 57% since 2015, and some insurance companies in at-risk areas have decided to limit the amount or type of damages they can cover, cancel policies or leave the market altogether. For instance, it is predicted that more than half a million Australian homes will be uninsurable by 2030, primarily due to increasing flood risk.

The risk tipping point in this context is reached when insurance becomes unavailable or unaffordable, leaving people without an economic safety net when disasters strike, which opens the door to increasing socioeconomic consequences, particularly when it is the most vulnerable parts of the population that cannot afford to move to safer areas.


Follow Ground Report for Climate Change and Under-Reported issues in India. Connect with us on FacebookTwitterKoo AppInstagramWhatsapp and YouTube. Write us on [email protected]