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To save ourselves, half of Earth needs to be given to animals

We're more dependent on them than we realize.

To save ourselves, half of Earth needs to be given to animals
(Photo Lily on Unsplash)
  • Scientists says our survival depends on biodiversity.
  • A natural climate strategy we often forget.
  • Seeing our place among Earth's living creatures.

When we talk about the loss of habitat for animals, it's usually discussed in altruistic terms. Those who love animals are eager to fix it, while others feel it's our planet to do with what we will. It turns out that there may be a 100 percent selfish reason to protect massive swaths of earth for non-humans: It could be the only way to save ourselves. That's the thought-provoking conclusion drawn in a recent article, Space for Nature in Science. It was written by National Geographic's chief scientist, Jonathan Baillie, and zoologist Ya-Ping Zhang, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They say we should set aside a third of the oceans and land by 2030, and half of the planet by 2050.

Why we should save so much room for animals

Even putting aside compassion for non-human lives, Baillie points out, "We have to drastically increase our ambition if we want to avoid an extinction crisis and if we want to maintain the ecosystem services that we currently benefit from." Though he doesn't explicitly say so, we can interpret what he's talking about as including human extinction.

Our population is currently 7.6 billion people and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. How will we be able to put food in so many mouths? The 50 percent proposal, argues Baillie, is our only hope: "That's why we need an intact planet. If we want to feed the world's population, we have to be thinking about maintaining the ecological systems that allow us to provide that."

And it's not just about our food supply. "We are learning more and more that the large areas that remain are important for providing services for all life," says Baillie. "The forests, for example, are critical for absorbing and storing carbon."

A desert bighorn ewe and her lamb walk across Mojave Trails National Monument.

Photo credit: David McNew / Getty Images

Really? Half the earth for animals?

The article written by Baillie and Zhang explains the 50 percent target: "Most scientific estimates of the amount of space needed to safeguard biodiversity and preserve ecosystem benefits suggest that 25 to 75 percent of regions or major ecosystems must be protected." There's a significant degree of guesswork in those numbers, "because of limited knowledge of the number of species on this planet, poor understanding of how ecosystems function or the benefits they provide, and growing threats such as climate change." Still, it's better to play it safe according to the article, since "targets set too low could have major negative implications for future generations and all life. Any estimate must therefore err on the side of caution."

We need to include ecosystems we barely know about.

Photo credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images

Aren't large areas already protected?

With less than half of the earth's regions free of human impact, about 20 percent of vertebrate animals and plants are currently considered threatened. Yet only 3.6 percent of the oceans and 14.7 percent of the land, according to the authors, are under formal protection.

That's not only just a drop in the bucket, but those figures don't even tell the whole story. Many of these areas are "paper parks," legally set aside but unmanaged—about a third of even these areas are being "quietly ruined" as a result of "intense human pressure."

David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University tells New Scientist, "These protected areas must be well managed. The basis for conservation will need to change so that it becomes a key part of economies and livelihoods."

The Niassa Preserve in Africa is supposedly a "protected" area.

Photo: James Allen

Which half of the earth should we give up?

According to Jose Montoya of France's Station for Theoretical and Experimental Ecology, "The key thing is to protect the right areas." His concern is that nations will allocate their least-valuable areas. "If we merely protect a proportion of the territory, governments will likely protect what's easy, and that's usually areas of low biodiversity and ecosystem service provision."Baillie and Zhang don't consider this possibility to be a deal-breaker so long as we hit the proposed targets.

The authors' focus now is on a meeting of world governments at 2020's Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing. They don't underestimate the difficulty in gaining global support for their goals, but they also see us as having little choice. As they write, "This will be extremely challenging, but it is possible, and anything less will likely result in a major extinction crisis and jeopardize the health and wellbeing of future generations."

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

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Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
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  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

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Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
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