Phosphorus is a chemical element that is vital to all life on Earth. It is critical in the formation of genetic instructions, in the production of cells, in providing internal energy to power cellular function, and in the formation of seeds and fruit.
Before human interference, the phosphorous cycle was in balance. Phosphorus consumed by plants and animals was returned to the soil. Waterways transported phosphorus as needed for aquatic life. A slow weathering of phosphate rocks was matched by the slow formation of new rocks in phosphorus-rich ocean sediments.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have altered the phosphorous cycle. Humans are extracting millions of tonnes of mineral phosphate from rocks every year. This is applied to land as fertilizer to grow food, and then much of it is released as waste to waterways. There is some concern as to the level of remaining reserves of phosphate rock and whether we are likely to run out of this critical resource in the near term. However, the reason for the inclusion of phosphorus in the Planetary Boundaries is not the potential supply shortfall but rather the potential environmental impacts. The excessive release of phosphorus to water can lead to algal blooms and thus anoxic events, wiping out the entire ecosystems. This process is believed to have happened on a global scale in the past—creating anoxic oceans and driving a global mass extinction of marine life.
The Planetary Quota for phosphorus is 11 Gt/year released to the environment. This is based on the Planetary Boundary for maximum flow of phosphorus to the sea. The limit can be compared to phosphorus released during any scale of human activity.
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