Novel entities are materials introduced by human activity, including chemical pollution, organisms, microplastics, and many others.
Researchers are working on how best to quantify such a broad process, but there is not yet a scientific consensus on what a single control variable should be. One important aspect of this working to find criteria we can use to identify novel entities that are likely to cause global problems, before we release them into the environment.
Humans have recently developed many powerful and useful new substances, most of which eventually end up in our environment on a large scale. This can be harmless, and even when pollution causes serious damage it may be in a particular place. Sometimes the novel entities we release have serious effects on global systems, which can risk destabilizing the Earth system as a whole.
Some examples of connections to other Earth-system processes:
A well-known example of this process is the release of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), used primarily in aerosol sprays and refrigeration systems; these were at first thought to be harmless, but caused serious damage to the stratospheric ozone layer, leading in particular to the "hole" over the Antarctic.
Acid rain, caused by sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides produced by cars and industrial facilities, has damaged ecosystems on a large scale, impacting the biosphere integrity.
Both of these examples are to a large extent recovery success stories as well. By changing the way we use and handle CFCs, and finding alternative substances, we've stopped the growth of the "ozone hole" and there are signs that it's starting to recover (Merzdorf 2020).
Policies in a number of countries have been largely effective at nearly eliminating acid rain in many places, though it's still a serious problem in some countries (Ogden 2019). Government programs to neutralize acidified lakes and rebuild the ecosystems are starting to show success, helped by the biosphere itself: microbes in lake sediments are actively neutralizing the lakes (Rudd et al. 1986).
Microplastics are a major threat to biosphere integrity. Microplastics can accumulate in aquatic environments where they can be ingested by organisms. These microplastics can then disrupt the organism’s digestion tract and release chemical pollutants into the organism’s tissues (Baird et al., 2012). These plastics and chemical pollutants accumulate up the food chain through biomagnification (Baird et al., 2012).
Curriculum topic examples
Pollution; Waste Management; Bioaccumulation; Persistent Pollutants; Toxicology; Invasive Species; Genetically Engineered Organisms, Microplastics, Photochemical Smog