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Seminar 9

“Future of Planet Earth” Participant Statement

Paris, France | June 3–5, 2008

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Eduardo F.J. de Mulder

What are the three most critical challenges facing Planet Earth going forward?

Planet Earth exists for more than 4.5 billion years and will last another 5 billion years with the natural termination of the Sun as its main power supply. Modifications in and on the Earth are controlled by a complex system of physical, chemical, biological, and geological processes and by its relation to the Sun. Long-term processes as the movement of tectonic plates, basin development, and mountain building will barely affect the condition of our planet during the next millennium, but short-term processes as changing river courses, climate conditions, volcanism, and earthquakes do. As humankind has become a geological agent by moving volumes of Earth materials comparable as those by geological processes, humankind might impact the face of the Earth from now until AD 3000 in an increasingly more significant extent as well. Planet Earth and its human society will face some important challenges in the next millennium. From a human centric point of view Planet Earth offers both threats and treats.

With growing populations, geohazards (earthquakes, landslides, droughts, volcanic eruptions, radiation, coastal erosion, et cetera) will affect our societies in an increasingly serious manner. Simultaneously, science and technology help us more and more to predict such hazards and to develop methods to reduce their impacts on society. Our challenge is to expand this prediction capacity, to improve monitoring systems, and to design ways to reduce such risks for human societies and ecology.

Another challenge is to benefit more from the wealth of Earth’s resources but in a more sustainable way. More demanding and environmentally concerned humans will need larger quantities and other Earth materials than today. The challenge is to produce these economically in the quantities needed and to avoid further environmental damage. Significant progress has been made already but science and technology should and will provide us tools to produce such materials much safer, smarter, and cleaner.

Apart from minerals and metals the Earth’s subsurface hosts a broad spectrum of processes that may support human societies and ecology. These are hidden powers and treasures in our planet, practically unused by human societies yet. These will be uncovered and widely applied in the centuries to come. They include the geothermal gradient, the potentials of the living biota hidden in the Earth, the bearing capacity of rocks, the underground (potential) space, the groundwater flows, the geochemical processes, perhaps magnetic fields, et cetera. Many inventions were made in this respect already but these have not yet been widely applied as conventional, cheaper but more unsustainable methods were available. But that will change as higher demands and lesser supplies will urge societies to closer examine the 6370 kilometers below their feet and make much better use of the largely untapped powers in the Earth.