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Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass

Abstract

Humanity has become a dominant force in shaping the face of Earth1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. An emerging question is how the overall material output of human activities compares to the overall natural biomass. Here we quantify the human-made mass, referred to as ‘anthropogenic mass’, and compare it to the overall living biomass on Earth, which currently equals approximately 1.1 teratonnes10,11. We find that Earth is exactly at the crossover point; in the year 2020 (± 6), the anthropogenic mass, which has recently doubled roughly every 20 years, will surpass all global living biomass. On average, for each person on the globe, anthropogenic mass equal to more than his or her bodyweight is produced every week. This quantification of the human enterprise gives a mass-based quantitative and symbolic characterization of the human-induced epoch of the Anthropocene.

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Fig. 1: Biomass and anthropogenic mass estimates since the beginning of the twentieth century on a dry-mass basis.
Fig. 2: Biomass (dry and wet), anthropogenic mass and anthropogenic mass waste estimates since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Fig. 3: Contrasting key components of global biomass and anthropogenic mass in the year 2020 (dry-weight basis).

Data availability

All data used in this study are available on GitHub, at https://github.com/milo-lab/anthropogenic_mass. Anthropogenic mass data are available from ref. 22 and at https://boku.ac.at/wiso/sec/data-download. TRENDY Dynamic Global Vegetation Models outputs are available at https://sites.exeter.ac.uk/trendy. Leaves dry matter content measurements were obtained via TryDB, at https://www.try-db.org/. Other datasets used in this study are available from the published literature, as detailed in the Methods and Supplementary Information.

Code availability

All code used in this study is available on GitHub, at https://github.com/milo-lab/anthropogenic_mass.

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Acknowledgements

We thank U. Alon, S. Dan, G. Eshel, T. Fishman, E. Gelbrieth, T. Kaufmann, T. Klein, A. Knoll, E. Noor, N. Page, R. Phillips, J. Pongratz, M. Shamir, M. Shtein, B. Smith, C. Waters, T. Wiesel, M. Williams and members of our laboratory for help and discussions, and S. Sitch and the TRENDY DGVM community for access to their simulation outputs. This research was supported by the European Research Council (Project NOVCARBFIX 646827); Beck-Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research; Dana and Yossie Hollander; Ullmann Family Foundation; Helmsley Charitable Foundation; Larson Charitable Foundation; Wolfson Family Charitable Trust; Charles Rothschild; and Selmo Nussenbaum. R.M. is the Charles and Louise Gartner professional chair. Y.M.B.-O is an Azrieli Fellow.

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Contributions

E.E., L.B.-U. and R.M. wrote the manuscript. E.E. performed the bulk of the research and data analysis. L.B.-U. contributed to the anthropogenic mass analysis and biomass estimation. Y.M.B.-O. contributed to the biomass estimation and carbon content calculation. J.G. contributed to the water content calculation. E.E., J.G. and Y.M.B.-O. performed the uncertainty analysis. E.E., L.B.-U. and R.M. conceived the study. R.M. supervised the study. All authors discussed the results, and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ron Milo.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks Fridolin Krausmann, Dominik Wiedenhofer and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Sensitivity analysis of the anthropogenic mass definition.

af, The effect of adding the following to the anthropogenic mass (dark purple): a, mass of the human population, b, mass of livestock, c, mass of crops and agroforestry, d, mass of earthworks, dredging and waste/overburden from mineral and metal production, and f, mass of anthropogenic atmospheric CO2 stocks, as well as e, the exclusion of the mass of industrial roundwood. The total biomass weight is depicted by the green line. Black dot indicates the year of intersection based on the alternative anthropogenic mass definition. Violet area and light green-dashed line indicate extrapolated anthropogenic mass and biomass estimates, respectively. Full description of the sensitivity analysis is provided in Supplementary Information section 1.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Anthropogenic mass composition since the year 1900, divided into material groups.

Dataset is based on ref. 22.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Anthropogenic mass relative annual change, with highlights of notable global events.

Relative annual change is calculated as the difference between two consecutive years divided by the earlier year anthropogenic mass value.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Anthropogenic mass metal estimates since the beginning of the twentieth century, divided into material sub-groups.

Data are taken from the comprehensive work of the Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna. We used a recent study71, which has some minor updates compared to the study used to achieve the main results22.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Anthropogenic mass estimates for (industrial round) wood, glass and plastic since the beginning of the twentieth century, divided into material sub-groups.

Data are taken from the comprehensive work of the Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna. We used a recent study71, which has some minor updates compared to the study used to achieve the main results22.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Calculation steps in plant biomass estimation for 1990–2017.

As further detailed in the Methods section ‘Biomass change over the years 1900–2017’.

Extended Data Table 1 The different anthropogenic mass groups and their mass estimates in selected years

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussions: This file contains Supplementary Section 1 & 2. It includes the sensitivity analysis of the anthropogenic mass definition, as well as an additional discussion on the biomass trend in recent years.

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Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature 588, 442–444 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5

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