Living in the Midst of Climate Change

I am currently expecting the arrival of my first child. When people ask, “Are you excited? Are you nervous?,” my answer confirms both. I mean, what expecting parent isn’t nervous? I’m not necessarily worried about the birthing process or caring for a new baby. Currently, what makes me the most nervous is raising my child in a drastically changing climate. 

When you read or listen to the news these days you’ll hear reports of record high and record low temperatures in areas of the US that aren’t prepared for this type of weather. Reports of wildfires in the western US and Australia never cease. Recently, Germany experienced major flooding events in places where the streams are usually a trickle. This reminds me of the extreme flooding that occurred in my home state of West Virginia in 2016. The increased severity of weather events around the world is alarming, to say the least. 

At this point, you may be under the impression that my hormones and nerves have overwhelmed my worries about a changing climate. It’s not that bad, right? Things aren’t changing that quickly, right?

When we consider the geologic time scale, humans have not been on this Earth for more than a split second. We’ve been in the Holocene epoch for 11,700 years, which marked the end of the last Ice Age, a time when global temperatures became steady enough for humans to focus on agriculture and create a more settled lifestyle.

However, there’s a new belief that, due to human-induced impacts on our planet, we have entered into the Anthropocene epoch. The Anthropocene epoch marks the point where humans have made irreversible and detrimental impacts to this planet. Some believe this new epoch started back in the 1800s during the Industrial Revolution while others believe it started closer to the 1940s-1950s when atomic bomb testing and mass production of chemicals and plastic use became mainstream in our world. During this time, our world population and use of non-renewable resources was surging while the long-lasting impacts of our human footprint became increasingly widespread. 

In fact, it is widely accepted that the warming of global temperatures is a direct result of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. Since 1950, our fossil fuel consumption has increased by 550% while carbon dioxide emissions increased by 500%. Since the late 1800s, global temperatures have increased by about 2 degrees fahrenheit. According to the NASA website on Global Climate Change, nineteen of the warmest years have occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. The years 2016 and 2020 are tied for the warmest year on record since we started keeping track back in 1880. I imagine most everyone reading this blog post was born before 1998, meaning we have all experienced this rapid change in our climate within our lifetime. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a small portion of the makeup of Earth’s atmosphere but the fluctuations in CO2 play a huge role in climate change. CO2 is a common, naturally occurring gas. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. It’s part of the most natural cycle on Earth. However, human activities have exacerbated this natural cycle and have offset the amount of carbon dioxide our atmosphere can handle. Burning fossil fuels and stripping the land of trees and plants has increased the amount of CO2 while decreasing the natural world’s ability to offset the emissions. Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by 48% since the Industrial Revolution began, a greater leap than what had happened naturally over a 20,000 year period up to 1850. 

So, now that we have a general understanding of how humans have impacted the global climate in such a short period of time, I want to introduce you to a recently-introduced theory that explores nine planetary boundaries that are keeping our planet hospitable. 

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The planetary boundaries concept was introduced in 2009 by Johan Rockström and his latest scientific paper on the topic, co-authored by 17 colleagues, was published in 2015. The framework of this concept has defined nine environmental limits humans can safely operate within. 

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Let’s dive a little deeper into these planetary boundaries. For brevity’s sake, I will elaborate only on the four boundaries we are currently exceeding.

Climate Change

Scientists agree the level of CO2 in the atmosphere needs to stay below 350 parts per million (ppm) to address the catastrophic impacts of climate change. In 2019, CO2 concentrations surpassed 415ppm in the atmosphere, the first time this has occurred in at least 2.5 million years. The last measurement recorded on NASA’s website was 416ppm in May 2021. 

Image Source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The impacts of increased CO2 in our atmosphere have already been observed on Earth. From intense heat waves, heavy rainfall events, increased drought durations, melting ice caps, and warming sea levels. Just in the data I have included in this section, we can see CO2 increased from 383ppm in 2007 to 400ppm in 2015 to 416ppm this year. The current range of uncertainty lies between 350ppm and 450ppm, a threshold we are rapidly approaching. Exceeding 450ppm will land us in the high-risk zone, a point where we’ll see irreversible tipping points. Keep in mind, this is a conservative estimate. We are already seeing irreversible impacts at current CO2 levels. 


In this boundary, we are talking about the living organisms, animals, plants, and fungi, and their habitats. Human-driven deforestation has contributed largely to the decline of biodiversity. Our growing demands for agricultural lands, urban sprawl, and wood products keep chipping away at our in-tact forests around the world. Current thresholds show the zone of comfort, before catastrophic tipping points are reached, is within less than 25% loss of the planet’s forest cover. We have already cleared nearly 40% of forests worldwide. Not only do trees and plants store carbon and release oxygen, they also help regulate temperatures, retain soil and water, and provide habitat for many of Earth’s living organisms. The threshold set for biodiversity is maintaining 90% of species. Currently, estimates say we have maintained 84% of species worldwide. 

Biogeochemical Flow

That’s a mouth full. Essentially, this refers to elements like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur and how these elements move through our environment. Think agriculture. If you’ve ever done soil testing for your garden, you have noticed the proportions of these elements in your soil matters for optimum soil health and plant growth. When your soil is lacking nitrogen and phosphorus, it is common to add fertilizers. The problem we’re running into with this planetary boundary is that large-scale use of fertilizers in commercial agriculture are severely impacting our waterways. The combination of nitrogen-rich fertilizers mixing with our waterways and warming temperatures lead to deadly algae blooms. This is called eutrophication. 

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Florida is currently experiencing severe environmental impacts due to blue-green algal blooms off the coast. It has been reported by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that 749 manatee deaths have been reported since the beginning of 2021. Last year’s total was 637. Manatees’ primary food source, seagrass, is dying in large swaths due to the algal blooms blocking light from penetrating the water. This leads to starvation among manatee populations. A majority of the 80,000 acres of seagrass within the Indian River lagoon are now gone. 

For both nitrogen and phosphorus, we have exceeded the safe boundary and soared into the zone of uncertainty. Eutrophication has created oxygen-depleted zones in many waterways around the world. The Baltic Sea’s dead zones have increased from 5,000 square kilometers to 60,000 square kilometers since 1950. This is the largest dead zone in the world. The second largest dead zone is the Gulf of Mexico. 

Scientists recommend worldwide use of phosphorus not exceed 11 teragrams and nitrogen not exceed 62 teragrams. Currently, worldwide use of phosphorus exceeds 22 teragrams and nitrogen exceeds 150 teragrams. This is one of the least known but largest climate impacts humans have created on this planet.

Land Use Change

This planetary boundary focuses on the biogeophysical processes (the exchange of energy and water between land surface and the atmosphere) that directly regulate our climate. The three major forest biomes – tropical, temperate, and boreal – are strong influencers on our climate.

If you’re a hiker, you’ve probably opted for hikes in wooded areas versus hikes through open areas in the summertime. The temperature difference can be significant. A hike through the Indian Creek Gorge on a hot, summer day can be the cool-down you need. Meanwhile, a hike around the Melcroft treatment system loop could get you panting more than my pyrenees/husky mix on a hot day. Forests play a huge role in regulating surface temperatures.

Humans have done a great job of converting forests to cropland for large-scale agriculture. By doing so, we have seen substantial impacts on biodiversity, water retention/flow, and carbon sequestration. An estimated 12% of land on Earth is currently used as cropland.

Tropical forests have a significant influence on the climate systems, more so than temperate forests. However, the biome-level boundary for these two types of forest have been set at 85% forest cover sustained. This means a boundary of 15% cropland has been set. At 15%, the most productive agriculture land will be in use, making additional forest clearing a necessity.

In the 2015 publication on planetary boundaries, the scientists proposed the land use change boundary should reflect the percentage of original forest cover remaining from pre-industrial levels. They proposed we should maintain 54-75% of original forest cover. Currently, we are hovering around 60% of pre-industrial forest cover left on earth.

You may have seen articles boasting that tree cover on Earth is actually increasing, which is great. However, an increase in forest cover in temperate forests does not offset the carbon sequestration capacity of tropical forests. In short, regrowing a swath of forest in Pennsylvania does not negate the impact of cutting the same size swath of forest in the Amazon.

Take a look at this ArcGIS Story Map to learn more about land use throughout the world.

Now that we’ve covered the planetary boundaries we are currently exceeding, I’m sure I’ve put you in a great mood. Thanks for taking this doom and gloom road trip throughout climate change with me. Now do you see why I’m stressed about raising a child in this changing climate? What changes will she see in the first 20 years of her life?

We need to stay positive and proactive. Although we ordinary citizens don’t have much say over sending billionaires into space for kicks and giggles, dumping roughly 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with each flight, we can still make a difference on a local level.

I’m not talking about “reduce, reuse, recycle”, riding your bike to work, buying food in bulk instead of single use packaging, and opting out of a straw for your drink at a restaurant. Although these are good practices, we can have a greater impact in our local communities, regions, and watersheds.

Mountain Watershed Association focuses on environmental advocacy initiatives within the greater Youghiogheny River watershed. Currently, we are monitoring the expansion of a coal refuse site, a proposal for a new coal mine, impacts from shale gas pipelines, radioactivity and potential health impacts associated with toxic landfills, and the impact of small, plastic particles infiltrating our rivers from the petrochemical industry. Becoming involved in these issues has a greater impact, considering these fossil fuel industries are dumping carbon emissions and toxic waste into our environment every day.

Just as I am wrapping up this blog post, our Yough Riverkeeper forwarded this new document released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published on August 7, 2021. If you would like to dig deeper into climate change science and impacts, check out this nearly 4,000-page document.

In closing, I want to say that even though there is a constant, lingering worry in my mind about raising my child during our drastically changing climate, I feel comforted by the fact that I will continue to advocate for the health of our environment. I am making a promise to her.

Dear Nettie,

Welcome to the world! It’s a strange and beautiful place. The world is changing and there are aspects of our environment that will shift or disappear during your lifetime. This doesn’t make much sense to you now, obviously. As your mom, I wanted to make some promises to you.

I promise to show you the forest. We will explore the decaying logs, looking for tiny mushrooms and slithering salamanders. We’ll jump in puddles on rainy days, watching the Earth come alive on a wet day after a dry spell. I’ll take you to a natural spring where we’ll drink the cool, flowing water straight from the hillside. On hot days we’ll take a dip in the creek, pretending to be fish and flipping over rocks to search for stream insects. In the springtime we will listen for bird songs to let us know our feathered friends have completed their journey from South America to Appalachia. We will plant patches of milkweed and watch the monarch caterpillars grow, just like you, then transform into butterflies and start their journey to Mexico. I’ll show you the best spots to pick wild black raspberries. We’ll even bake a pie!

We’ll do all of these things, my dear girl, because this is the foundation you’ll need to appreciate what we have here on Earth. You’ll look back at all of these fun times with our natural world and you won’t have a glimpse of doubt about why we’re fighting for clean air, clean water, the forests, the animals, and our neighbors.

During your youthful, precious moments as a kid growing up in Appalachia, I promise to nurture your sense of wonder and love for the Earth. I promise to advocate for the protection of our water, our forests, and our wild counterparts. And when the time comes that you want to use your voice and your power to protect our Earth, I’ll be by your side every step of the way. Never doubt that you hold the strength to make a difference.

You’ll do incredible things, sweet Nettie. The Earth will thank you for being its friend.

Love and Solidarity, Mom

If you would like to learn how you can become an advocate for the greater Youghiogheny River watershed, please reach out to MWA’s community organizers Stacey Magda ( and James Cato ( You, too, can make a difference.

Want to write a letter to your kids about your commitment to protect our environment? I would love to read it. Perhaps we could even share a collection of letters in a future blog post. If you feel inclined to share, email me at