5 Big Issues Impacting the Future of Planet Earth

A look at the most pressing issues of the new year

By Kat Long

Kat is a reporter and editor based in New York, NY

Above: It’s getting hot in here … the Quest Through the Pole team chills out on an ice floe during their attempt to sail across the North Pole last summer, an objective only imaginable due to climate change. More on their story coming up soon.

We know the planet is in trouble—but what are the most pressing issues of the new year? Recently, a group of environmental scientists, university researchers and other experts got together to analyze some emerging ideas in conservation. They narrowed their list down to a handful of issues that could have a big impact on the future of Earth. Here are five trends to keep an eye on in 2019.

A Closer Look at the Plastic Problem

Inventors and activists have put forth tons of ideas for reducing the amount of plastic in our environment, from creating plant-based bioplastics to giant ocean vacuums. But according to the report, “A Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation in 2019,” not enough attention has been paid to what happens when these environmentally-friendly approaches are rolled out. Researchers will need to look into the effects on waterways, food production and more.

Making It Rain in Tibet

Climate change is shrinking Tibetan glaciers—one of the main sources of water for people in the region. China is planning to seed rain clouds with chemicals and generate precipitation for a 600,000-square-mile area, creating a new water source and potentially making the land more fertile. But the added water could actually cause the alpine climate and biodiversity to deteriorate further, something scientists are watching closely.

Something for Safer Sunscreens

Many commercial sunscreens contain ingredients that can harm coral reefs, and companies are looking for new materials that are safe for the environment but still prevent sunburns. A compound called shinorine—which is harvested from red algae—is showing some promise, but more research is needed to see if it’s OK for regular use on people and for the oceans.

Melting Permafrost, More Mercury

Arctic permafrost holds around 1.8 million tons of mercury, about twice as much as the entire rest of the world. Unfortunately, that permafrost is thawing. That could allow tons of mercury to enter waterways and travel far and wide, poisoning plants and animals as it goes. Scientists will need to closely monitor the situation in the future.

Big Changes in Antarctica

Speaking of melting, big changes could happen in Antarctica, where freshwater glaciers streaming into the sea could make the coastal waters less salty. Sand and sediments flowing from land could smother life on the seafloor, which could upset the balance of other animal populations, and even the carbon cycle itself. The full effects are yet to be seen.

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